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Can new abortion clinic survive in Wichita?

First Published      Last Updated Sep 28 2013 10:22 am

Wichita, Kan. • When she arrives at her job every morning, Julie Burkhart enters a bunker-like building where a pipe bomb once ripped through the walls. She passes a metal detector, an armed guard and a photo of her former boss, who was murdered for the work he did there.

Burkhart has reopened the abortion clinic that closed four years earlier after its owner, Dr. George Tiller, was killed by a man claiming he'd acted to save the lives of the unborn. That stunning act of violence left even some abortion rights supporters wondering if it would be just too dangerous to start over.

This was, after all, the place where Tiller, vilified by critics for his late-term abortions, sometimes felt compelled to wear a bulletproof vest and drive an armored car to work. This is a city that had become weary of long years of pitched battles over abortion.

Burkhart, a Tiller disciple, understood that, but after weighing the arguments with others, she forged ahead, believing that women's rights and health were at stake.

"I don't feel it was courageous or brave," she says. "It was just the right thing to do."

There were obstacles along the way. Anti-abortion activists pushed for zoning changes to stop the clinic; they've not given up. Doctors had to be recruited from outside Kansas; some local ones shied away, worried about possible intimidation. Even routine steps — hiring an architect who didn't fear a boycott — became an ordeal.

Burkhart faced her own travails. She watched protesters distribute fliers in her neighborhood, calling her a ''homicide promoter" and encouraging her to repent for "mass murder." She heard Tiller's killer say in a prison phone call that opening the clinic was "almost like putting a target" on her back.

Now, six months after the South Wind Women's Center opened — even as abortion clinics closed around the nation — there's a sense of accomplishment for Burkhart and her supporters. But there's a wariness, too.

"Part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop, whatever that shoe is," Burkhart says.

How this clinic reopened in this staunchly red state is a story that reveals the changing dynamics of the abortion debate around the country: Determined supporters are navigating around — and challenging — new laws. Anti-abortion forces are buoyed by new political clout in statehouses. And both sides are entrenched as ever, fighting the same war they did decades ago.

"There definitely is a deep divide," says Diane Wahto, a clinic volunteer. "I don't think that's ever going to end."


Weeks after the South Wind clinic opened, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered his own abortion message: He signed a sweeping law declaring that life begins at fertilization.

Kansas is among several states this year where lawmakers have enacted new limits on abortion rights. At times, they've met fierce resistance, most memorably in Texas this summer when Wendy Davis, a state senator, became a national celebrity for her 11-hour filibuster. Her bid to stop tough new limits on abortion ultimately failed.

In the first eight months alone, nearly 70 restrictions were adopted across the country, bringing to about 200 the total passed since 2011. Some of these measures have regulated certain abortion clinics out of existence in Arizona, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

The new Kansas law bans sex-selection abortions, prohibits tax breaks for providers and prevents them from furnishing materials for public schools. There's a push to go further with legislation that would prevent abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which usually happens around six weeks.

"Kansas is a state that in a few years has adopted nearly every abortion restriction there is," says Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher's state issues manager. "It makes it incredibly hard to keep a clinic open and maintain it. You have to be tough and have a thick skin. You're going to have to put up with a lot of harassment and a legislature that is determined to close your doors. It is an extremely hostile climate there. It's going to take a lot of work and energy to surmount all that, but Julie can do it."

Burkhart, a tall, red-haired Oklahoma native, has a determined but deliberate manner, a style honed as a lobbyist and spokeswoman for Tiller. She understands the conservative nature of Kansas and it shaped debate about whether to proceed.

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