The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once a center of antiabortion extremism, Kansas’s protections are now stronger than ever

In 2009, Dea Deujsch participates in a vigil in Wichita for physician George Tiller, who was murdered by an antiabortion extremist. (Kelly Glasscock/Getty Images)

Julie Burkhart was in her early 20s when she responded to the person yelling at her as she walked into work. How could she ever take a job at a place like that? the woman wanted to know. Burkhart didn’t realize it then, but she’d have that same argument for decades.

It was 1991, and Burkhart had returned from college to discover that her hometown of Wichita had become the front line of the religious right’s battle against abortion. She went straight into the trenches.

At a local clinic, she took calls from women who wanted abortions and scheduled their appointments. That’s where she met the protesters, and there were a lot of them that year.

Those sweltering months would come to be known as the Summer of Mercy, when members of the bellicose antiabortion group Operation Rescue traveled to the Midwestern city in droves and swarmed abortion clinics. The next month and a half radically changed the politics of abortion in Kansas.

Burkhart, meanwhile, honed her ideology and strengthened her resolve.

“It further ingrained in me that people have to decide for themselves whether they’re going to have a baby or not,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It became my life’s work.”

Nearly three decades later, Burkhart sat down at her desk in a women’s clinic not far from the place where she first encountered the antiabortion activists. On Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution fundamentally protects abortion rights.

The news flashed across her screen, and her staff rushed in to read it with her.

Kansans have “the ability to control one’s own body, to assert bodily integrity, and to exercise self-determination. This right allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life — decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.”

Antiabortion groups called it “horrendous and more extreme than even we expected.” Burkhart had to read it twice.

“I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet,” she said Friday evening. “It means, for me … this has been worth the fight."

And there were times, over the past 20-some years, when she wondered whether it would be worth it — like in 2009, when an antiabortion extremist murdered her mentor, physician George Tiller, who also ran a clinic in Wichita. She said she wishes he could have lived to read the court’s announcement.

Kansas Supreme Court rules state constitution protects abortion rights, a decision that could lead to challenges in other states

The historic ruling, in many ways, can be traced back to the Summer of Mercy.

“The protests are pretty much what got people out of the pews, into the streets and then into the political arena,” said Judy Thomas, a reporter who covered the story and now works at the Kansas City Star, in an interview with the podcast My Fellow Kansans.

They picked up where the caustic 1974 Senate race between incumbent and future presidential nominee Bob Dole (R) and his Democratic challenger Bill Roy left off. It was the year after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, and antiabortion groups were galvanized. Abortion became a wedge issue.

Groups that opposed abortion rights dubbed Roy “an abortioner,” while praising Dole as “pro-life,” recounted My Fellow Kansans. Years later, Roy would say this campaign tactic swung the election in Dole’s favor.

But it wasn’t until 1991 that it began to swing Kansas — and, with it, the Republican Party.

In their wake, Operation Rescue leaders left a network of right-wing activists across the state, energized and ready to become politically engaged. Some argue that politicians elected in the years after that summer paved the way for the hyper-conservative Gov. Sam Brownback’s “real-live experiment” in red-state governance.

Burkhart would later describe that defining time as 46 days of “nothing less than chaos and mayhem.”

By late August, police had arrested more than 2,500 protesters, many of whom had perpetrated a steady string of aggressive blockades. President George H.W. Bush criticized their tactics.

Burkhart recalled wading through the crowds on her way into the clinic. They threw themselves beneath cars, chained themselves to doors and shouted scripture at patients and doctors. When she was inside, the danger didn’t stop. Protesters threw rocks at the building, shattered its windows and called in bomb threats.

When the clinic was scheduled to perform abortions on the same day as a large Operation Rescue rally, Burkhart and her colleagues would sometimes arrive at work before sunrise to beat the protesters. Sometimes, the staff would have to sleep in the clinic.

But Burkhart said she doesn’t remember being afraid — just mad.

“It made me angry that somebody would stand on a sidewalk and would pretend to understand who I was as a person, and my situation, or anyone else’s situation in life,” she said. “Patients who wanted an abortion at that time really had to have spines of steel.”

One protester, who traveled to Wichita from Ohio that summer, replayed his arrest in a chilling interview with a reporter from The Post.

“I opened my Bible and began preaching from Psalm 37, about how God will cut down the evildoers,” said Phil Vollman, who was taken into custody while delivering an extemporaneous sermon outside Tiller’s clinic. “I said at one point, ‘George Tiller, your days are numbered. George Tiller, your family is in danger. God is going to deal with George Tiller and anyone else that is with him.’ ”

Vollman was charged with threatening Tiller’s life, but, when he appeared in court, a judge dismissed the charges, saying the diatribe was “an expression of one’s First Amendment rights personified.”

Tiller was one of the only doctors in the country who performed abortions late in pregnancy. His work made him a constant target of violent threats. His clinic was bombed. In 1993, he was shot in the arm. Antiabortion groups mounted vigorous legal challenges, attempting to shutter his practice.

In 2009, when Tiller was working as an usher in his church, the antiabortion extremist Scott Roeder shot and killed him, the first murder of an abortion provider in a decade.

Tiller’s death left a hole in the community and in the region’s health-care landscape, Burkhart said. It was “one of the darkest times of my life.” There was now an empty clinic and one fewer place for women to get an abortion. That’s why Burkhart said she decided to help found the organization Trust Women, which, four years after Tiller’s death, opened a clinic in his old building.

It was, when it opened, the only abortion provider in a 200-mile radius.

Trust Women has since opened two more locations, in Seattle and Oklahoma City. After the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, Burkhart said she’s newly optimistic about the abortion rights movement and said she hopes justices in the high courts of other states look to Kansas as a guide.

At least 20 abortion cases are in the pipeline to the Supreme Court. Any one could gut Roe v. Wade.

The ruling struck down a 2015 law that sought to ban the most common second-trimester abortion procedure. It was one of many measures to restrict abortion in the state that Brownback signed into law during his tenure.

Now, antiabortion activists fear the ruling could chip away at some of those legislative restrictions, including measures that require women to undergo an ultrasound and receive counseling before an abortion and that require parental consent before a minor can have an abortion.

“This decision opens the door for new challenges to other harmful abortion restrictions in the state of Kansas,” Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, said in a statement.

After a moment of celebration, that’s what Burkhart said she plans to work on next.

“It’s been,” she said, considering all the laws, appeals and rulings, “definitely a wild ride.”

And it’s definitely not over.

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