Despite Everything, Choice Survives in Kansas

As prochoice activists gear up to acknowledge the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision on January 22, there seems to be precious little to celebrate. Then again, good news sometimes comes when we least expect it – and from unexpected places.

Take Kansas, a state few would expect to be a prochoice beacon. But it is. That's right, I'm referring to the state where beloved abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009, the very same state that became home to Troy Newman's Operation Save America – one of the country's most aggressively vitriolic anti-choice organizations – in 2002. Kansas is also the state that saw the number of abortion clinics drop by a staggering 43 percent between 2005 and 2008, and is the state that put ultraconservative Sam Brownback – a man given a 100 percent rating by the National Right to Life Committee – in the governor's mansion in 2010.

Yes, incredible as it seems, Kansas will soon welcome a new reproductive health clinic – tentatively called The Family Health Services Center: A Trust Woman Facility – in Wichita, the city Dr. Tiller worked in for more than 35 years. Julie Burkhart is the founder and director of the Trust Women PAC and is spearheading the campaign to raise the $500,000 needed to open the facility. An intrepid optimist, Burkhart worked alongside Dr. Tiller for eight years, from 2001 until his death, and has witnessed the anti-choice movement not only in Kansas, but also in nearby Oklahoma and Nebraska. Deeply knowledgeable about the anti-abortion tactics – from picket lines, to arson and stalking – Burkhart knows that she and her colleagues are up against formidable foes, people who are willing to do just about anything to end what they call the “abortion holocaust.”

That Burkhart and the PAC are up for the challenge goes without saying. In fact, while group members continue to mourn Dr. Tiller's assassination, Burkhart quickly makes clear that Trust Women activists see starting a clinic as the most meaningful tribute the prochoice community can offer. Her own commitment to reproductive justice goes back to 1988, when she got her first job at the now-closed Wichita Women's Center. Shortly thereafter, she witnessed 1991's Summer of Mercy [SoM], a seven-week siege led by Randall Terry's Operation Rescue that targeted the three clinics then open in the city. The nonstop blockades that took place during the SoM resulted in more than 1,700 arrests, and Burkhart vividly recalls the creative ways that clinicians scrambled to accommodate their patients – often using subterfuge to transport them into operating rooms in the dead of night.

Creativity is still required, Burkhart notes, but the concerns of patients coming into clinics have shifted over the past 20 years – something Trust Women activists need to address as they make plans for the new center. Although patients today rarely have to worry about getting inside a blockaded building thanks to the 1994 passage of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, Burkhart concedes that many now worry about the after-effects of abortion surgery. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s women did not feel the shame and guilt about abortion that they do now,” she begins. “The antis of decades past did not claim that you'd have a nervous breakdown or get breast cancer if you have the procedure. During the last 15 years the antis have succeeded in pushing the false idea of negative mental and physical health consequences – that is, that abortion is damaging to women – into public consciousness.”

In addition, Burkhart notes that Kansas has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, making the provision of care particularly difficult: Both parents must consent to a minor's abortion, abortions after 21 weeks are prohibited and insurance companies are barred from offering abortion coverage unless the surgery is needed to save the pregnant women's life. Medicaid coverage is unavailable for the abortions of low-income women, and restrictions known as TRAP Laws – Targeted Restriction of Abortion Providers – have passed the state house and aim to regulate everything from hallway width to placement of garbage disposals. That these laws apply to one and only one type of ambulatory surgery center – abortion clinics – is presently being challenged in court. Unsurprisingly, Kansas also has a mandatory 24-hour waiting period between pre-surgery counseling and having the procedure.

But back to the proposed health center.

Burkhart reports that approximately $150,00 has been raised to date, from more than 100 donors. “We're hoping to purchase a building,” she says, “and we've looked at a few structures in Wichita. When we finalize a sale, I'd love to be able to put up a ‘Future Home Of …' sign. We should be able to do that, like all other businesses do, but unfortunately we know we can't. We know that the antis are out there looking for any possible way to make us back off. We fear that if we go public too soon, the building will be flooded, set on fire, or bombed, so we won't be able to advertise in advance or announce ourselves until we're ready to open.”

At the same time, Burkhart says that since the fundraising effort launched, many people have contacted her about staffing the clinic and an ob/gyn doctor has already been hired. “He's preparing to begin work near the end of the year, once his current contractual obligations at another health center are fulfilled. We're planning to open in the summer of 2012, with short-term doctors filling in on a temporary basis until our doctor can move to the Wichita area,” Burkhart continues, her excitement audible. That said, Burkhart is a realist: “Things always take a lot longer than you want them to,” she says. “We need to take our time to be sure we offer the best, widest ranging reproductive healthcare possible.” As envisioned, the facility will go beyond abortion and will offer services including contraception, tubal ligations, vasectomies, general ob/gyn care and counseling on all reproductive health matters. In addition, a secular adoption service, as an alternative to religious adoption agencies, will work on site.

“You know, when we first started talking about reestablishing a clinic in Wichita back in 2010, people were still shell-shocked by Dr. Tiller's murder,” Burkhart admits. “There was almost a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the idea of once again offering abortions in this city. Then, once we started to talk about the idea, people came around and became eager to do it. The fact of the matter is this – we're pissed off that so many women in this part of the country have to drive 200 miles to get an abortion. We're going to do something about it and hope people around the country will help us make it happen.”