The Wichita, Kansas abortion clinic George Tiller ran before he was fatally shot by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder will soon be back in business. Julie Burkhart, its new leader (and one of Tiller's former employers and mentees) faces both old and new challenges as she and her team prepare to provide for the women who lack local services and will come from hundreds of miles away — and for the anti-abortion activists who want nothing more than to shut the clinic down.
The Daily Beast's Allison Yarrow visited Burkhart, Tiller's 46-year-old former legislative director, as she and her three young female staffers consider both painting swatches and the best way to fend off death threats before the South Wind Women's Center is open for business. Burkhart helped found the non-profit Trust Women Foundation, which spent almost three years raising money to open the clinic. She didn't initially plan on moving into Tiller's old territory, but the place made perfect sense: it was built for their needs ("He [George Tiller] really put a lot of thought into the way he constructed this building," she said), and also plugs the hole Tiller left when he was assassinated. All of the closest remaining providers (in Kansas City, Norman, and Tulsa, Oklahoma) are about 200 miles away.
Southern Kansas women are already calling and wandering into the clinic to see if it's open. Unfortunately, there's still work to do. Anti-abortion activists in the area are some of the most militant in the entire country — Operation Rescue's leader, Troy Newman, moved the organization's headquarters to Wichita in 2002 specifically to shut Tiller down, and when a family practitioner bought Tiller's office equipment last year and said she would provide abortions up to 15 weeks, she received death threats from anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard (buddies with Tiller's murderer, Scott Roeder) who wrote: "They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car everyday-because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."
But now local anti-abortion groups are toning down the aggressively intimidating and murderous missives (death threats aren't the best PR for a group that calls itself "pro-life") and attacking clinics with a less sensational tactic: building and zoning ordinances.
The National Right to Life affiliate based in Wichita aims to rezone the clinic's neighborhood-located just of U.S. 54 in Wichita's business district-as a residential space, which would oust medical services. Operation Rescue has filed a cease-and-desist order, claiming hammers are flying illegally and that the construction crew lacks proper permits, a charge Burkhart denies.
Already, the clinic will incur extra cost to gain an ambulatory surgery facility license. This means enlarging hallways, doors and janitorial closets, unnecessary for their work Burkhart says, but to comply with the enjoined law being challenged by a Kansas City provider, and to try and predict other "punitive" measures which might be legislated in the future "meant for one thing, to drive providers out of business," Burkhart says.
This means Burkhart had to hire an architect who was not only willing to work on the facility but familiar with Kansas codes and law so he or she could testify in court if necessary.
Other restrictions Burkhart's up against as a Kansas provider include:
...mandatory counseling intended to "discourage abortion," a 24-hour waiting period, mandatory ultrasound, telemedicine prohibition when administering the abortion pill, parental consent for minors and a ban on insurance coverage for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or life-endangerment. Looming threats-in the form of an already-passed omnibus house bill-could include a sex-selection ban, a loss of insurance deductions and omitting abortion instruction from state university medical students' curriculum.
But if she and her employees don't try to beat the odds, women who seek abortions will have to drive hundreds of miles away for help — or end up at the crisis pregnancy center right next door. One of the South Wind Women's Center new abortion providers (who asked to remain anonymous because local protestors are dying to find out her identity so they can harass her outside of work hours) summed the situation up well when she explained how she connected with Burkhart after volunteering to become a traveling doctor with a group working to curb the national abortion provider shortage. "The question they posed was: ‘If not you, then who?' I didn't have a good answer."