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Wichita Abortion Clinic Continues the Fight for Reproductive Justice

Four years after Dr. George Tiller’s death, the newly reopened and renamed South Wind Woman’s Center continues the fight for reproductive justice in the conservative state of Kansas.

(Photo: South Wind Women's Center, LLC)

Four years after the assassination of reproductive health care provider Dr. George Tiller, the building that once housed his clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, is again open. Now called South Wind Women’s Center – named in honor of the Kanza tribe, AKA the People of the South Wind – the facility offers well-woman gynecological exams, miscarriage management, contraception, pregnancy-options counseling, and abortion care to the region’s women, many of them low-income and from underserved communities. This spares them from having to travel nearly three hours to Norman or Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Kansas City, Kansas, for services.

That the facility has made it safely through its first quarter – it opened in April – is cause for both celebration and vigilance.

South Wind is owned by the Trust Women Foundation, a group spearheaded by Julie Burkhart. Burkhart is also the center’s executive director and spent seven years working with Tiller to advocate for reproductive justice, not only in Kansas but throughout the country.

Like Tiller, Burkhart has many enemies. Anti-choicers call her Julie Darkheart, and even before the clinic opened, the Wichita Eagle ran numerous condemnatory letters: “The putrid smoke from the chimney ALA Auschwitz begins again,” wrote one. “The slaughter returns,” wrote another. “The smell of burning flesh is almost here.”

Despite the apparent hatred, Burkhart notes that South Wind has also garnered a great deal of support and praise. She told Truthout that, “I’ve had people at the grocery store, the post office, and at a workout class stop me and say how happy they are that we’ve re-opened. We even had a few random people stop in front of our house when we were doing yard work to express their gratitude.” Nonetheless, she acknowledges that it has not been easy to contend with the many high-profile anti-choice figures who live and work in Wichita and who operate with the explicit support of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. It’s a cohort, she says, intent on placing every possible roadblock in South Wind’s way, legislatively and in the court of public opinion.

And what adversaries they are. Among them are Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-choice organization; Troy Newman, head of Operation Rescue; convicted arsonist Cheryl Sullinger; and Rev. Mark Holick of Operation Save America, a man known for handing out New Testaments at mosques in an attempt to bring Muslims to Christ. Holick also captured headlines back in 2008 when the marquis of his church, The Spirit One Christian Center, bore the following message: “America we have a Muslim President. This is a sin against the Lord. Ex. 20:3.” More recently, Holick picketed Burkhart’s home with a sign that asked, “Where is your church?” a thinly veiled reference to the fact that Dr. Tiller was gunned down in the lobby of the Reformation Lutheran Church.

Holick’s in-your-face antics make groups like Kansans for Life and even Operation Rescue seem moderate, since much of their current work takes place behind the scenes. “We are trying to get clinic licensing bills put into effect in Kansas,” Newman said in a telephone interview. “Right now, if you go to a nail salon or bring the pooch to a vet, you’re entering a place that is more regulated than an abortion clinic. We have informants who are watching and we will make sure that when Burkhart violates the law, she is prosecuted to the fullest extent.”

“She is making mistakes,” he says, “and we’ll get her.”

Already, Kansas law makes obtaining an abortion a feat of resolve for the state’s women. According to Burkhart, contrary to Newman’s claim, not only are reproductive health centers highly regulated, but also, a host of restrictions are imposed on those wishing to end unwanted pregnancies. Medicaid does not cover the cost of an abortion unless the recipient can prove that she was raped, violated by incest, or would die as a result of carrying the pregnancy to term, and private insurers are barred from covering terminations unless the policyholder had the foresight to purchase a separate rider to pay for it. Telemedicine – used by other states to counsel women so that they don’t have to travel to the clinic twice, once for counseling and once for the abortion – is prohibited, and costly ultrasounds are mandatory, although the patient does not have to look at the films if she does not want to. In addition, Burkhart adds, the patient must listen to a state-directed lecture meant to discourage her from ending her pregnancy and must wait 24 hours between hearing this message and having the surgery.

It’s even worse for minors. Molly Rattler, South Wind’s director of operations, reports that the state requires dual parental consent if the abortion seeker is under the age of 18. “If the teen lives with only one parent, she has to prove that that parent has primary or sole custody. If the parents are separated or divorced, or if the other parent is unreachable or has never been around, the custodial parent has to swear to that before a notary public. In addition, the clinic is required to photocopy the custodial parent’s tax return and put the forms in the patient’s chart. In essence, it means that the family of a minor having an abortion has no privacy whatsoever.”

The state also bans abortions after 22 weeks gestation, a direct slap at Tiller, who was one of the country’s only providers of third-trimester abortions. South Wind presently performs surgical procedures up to 14 weeks, but this has not appeased the anti-choice contingent. In fact, they’ve made it clear that they’ll stop at nothing until abortion in wholly illegal in Kansas and the remaining 49 states.

Toward that end, they’ve gotten their legislative allies in the Kansas statehouse to introduce a raft of bills to limit access. SB 141 declares that life begins at conception and bans terminations for the purpose of sex selection. Burkhart notes that the hodgepodge bill “further requires Kansas taxpayers who paid for an abortion to itemize and subtract these costs from the expenses he or she reported to the IRS. This means that the state would then have your name, the fact that you had an abortion, and your full tax return,” something she sees as a gross invasion of privacy.

Also pending is HB2253, a bill that takes a different tack by prohibiting abortion clinics from “offering, sponsoring, or furnishing any course materials or instruction related to human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases” to the state’s cash-strapped public schools.

Burkhart notes that several additional bills are meant to further stigmatize abortion and segregate it from other health services. One would exempt drugs from sales taxes “unless those drugs are used for an abortion.” Similarly, another bill would allow nonprofit clinics to forego taxation when they purchase medication, unless – you guessed it – the clinic performs abortions.

South Wind is presently considering legal challenges to stop these provisions from taking effect should they become law.

In the midst of these battles, South Wind’s staff is also focused on meeting the needs of its patients – 60 percent of whom already have between one and three children, and 22 percent of whom need financial assistance, available in the form of grants from The Peggy Bowman Abortion Fund to offset the $550 cost of the procedure.

In addition, complaints about the clinic need to be answered. For example, Burkhart continues, anti-choice advocates continually file objections with the Board of Healing Arts (BOHA), the state agency that licenses and regulates medical provision in Kansas. Among the allegations: the facility lacks the proper licenses, is unsanitary and can’t properly care for patients in medical emergencies because their physicians do not live in Wichita. Indeed, four days after the clinic opened, it received a subpoena from BOHA demanding to see their management and lease agreements. Each complaint, Burkhart says, however bogus, has to be taken seriously and requires the center to expend money for legal fees, funds she believes would be better spent on patient care and improvements to the facility.

What’s more, although she notes that the Trust Women Foundation raised $750,000 from 2,500 individual donors to get South Wind up and running, it still needs to come up with an additional $60,000 to pay outstanding debts. “The building was in pretty good shape,” she says, “but we needed to put down new flooring in the ambulatory surgery area, paint and install a new bathroom.” The center is presently working on its ambulatory surgery center license- it opened as a doctor’s office – and also hopes to earn National Abortion Federation accreditation.

For a minute, as she recites the many tasks on her to-do list, Burkhart sounds exhausted, but she quickly recovers. Mountains of paperwork, roadblocks and setbacks notwithstanding, she is adamant that there is a lot to be upbeat, even optimistic, about. “The community is not as tolerant of the antis as it was before Dr. Tiller’s death,” she says, “and law enforcement, by and large, has been cooperative, receptive and responsive to our needs,” as opposed to in 1993, when Operation Rescue brought the anti-choice marathon event Summer of Mercy to Wichita for a seven-week siege.

Still, she admits that anti-choicers have scored a few recent victories. “We were kicked out of the United Way,” she says. “We had signed up to go to their warehouse once a month to get free items that had been contributed. When they found out we were going to do abortions, they reneged. Also, our CPA and mail house fired us due to our work. These things were upsetting but they make me value the relationships that we do have with vendors, those who will work with us, stick with us, no matter what.”

According to Beth Oaks, vice president of community planning at United Way of the Plains, the decision was based on a policy that prohibits the organization from supporting either side in the abortion issue. “After an article about the group appeared in a local paper,” she says, “we realized that they were not neutral and thereby ineligible to participate in our program.”

The working relationships they do maintain mean everything to Burkhart and her colleagues – two doctors, a physician’s assistant, counselors and administrators – all of whom intend to hunker down for the long haul. They understand that without providers, freedom of choice is meaningless. What’s more, they feel that the best way to honor Tiller is by providing high-quality, compassionate reproductive health care to every woman who wants and needs it.

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