How Kansans went from bombing clinics to protecting abortion rights

The struggle over abortions rights has played out in Kansas as nowhere else. Once a focal point of antiabortion activism and violence, the state overwhelmingly voted this month to protect abortion rights — for now.

Here’s a look at how we got here:

1974 — Bob Dole campaign uses ‘abortion issue’

Freshman Republican Sen. Bob Dole runs for reelection; polls indicate Dole is losing to his Democratic opponent, Rep. Bill Roy. At a September county fair debate, during which the only subject is supposed to be agriculture, Dole asks Roy, an OB/GYN, how many abortions he has performed. Only a year after Roe v. Wade, the confrontation is one of the first times the so-called abortion issue is invoked during a campaign. Weeks later, Dole wins reelection by the narrowest margin of his career.

1986 — Wichita abortion clinic bombed

Kansas native George Tiller began providing abortions when he took over his father’s medical practice in the 1970s. He became one of only a handful doctors nationally who provided abortions later in pregnancy to patients who did not have viable fetuses or whose lives were endangered by pregnancy. In 1986, a bomb explodes outside the clinic, blowing a six-foot-wide hole in the building.

1991 — ‘Summer of Mercy’

In 1991, the antiabortion group Operation Rescue declares a “summer of mercy” and descends on Wichita. Protesters surround three abortion clinics, including Tiller’s, for six weeks, blocking access and sometimes becoming violent; more than 2,600 are arrested. Wichita police are commended for their professionalism and for keeping confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters relatively peaceful.

The protests help trigger Kansas’s political shift to the right. “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 Wichita Eagle journalist who covered the protests, in 2018.

1993 — Tiller shot but survives

Antiabortion activist Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shoots Tiller in both arms as he leaves his clinic. He is back at work the next day. Shannon argues at trial there is nothing morally wrong with trying to kill him; she is convicted of attempted murder plus federal charges related to other clinic attacks and spends the next 25 years in prison.

1997 — Woman’s Right to Know Act

Kansas becomes one of a handful of states to institute a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion can be performed. Eventually, waiting periods will become mandatory in 27 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

2001 — Another ‘Summer of Mercy’

Antiabortion activists attempt another “Summer of Mercy.” But this time, crowds are smaller and abortion rights activists better prepared. Protesters are also more limited in their ability to disrupt clinics after President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994.

2005 — Christin Gilbert dies

Christin Gilbert, a 19-year-old Texas woman with Down syndrome, dies of an infection three days after getting an abortion at Tiller’s Kansas clinic. She was 28 weeks pregnant and had become pregnant as a result of sexual assault. The clinic is cleared of wrongdoing by the state’s medical board, but antiabortion activists use a petition law to force a grand jury investigation. In August 2006, the grand jury is released without returning an indictment.

2009 — Tiller trial

In 2007, Tiller is charged with 19 misdemeanors for allegedly having financial ties to a doctor who signed off on later-pregnancy abortions, which Kansas law prohibits. The long court process and trial receive national attention from abortion rights supporters as well as opponents. He is acquitted on all charges in March 2009.

2009 — Tiller shot and killed

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, Tiller is shot and killed during services at his church, where he served as an usher. The shooter, Scott Roeder, visited Shannon, the woman who had previously shot Tiller, in prison several times.

2013-2016 — More laws, more court challenges

Under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a staunch opponent of abortion, Kansas lawmakers attempt to pass a host of abortion restrictions. In 2013, a so-called heartbeat bill fails, but a law declaring life begins at fertilization passes. In 2015, Brownback signs a ban on the dilation and evacuation procedure used in many second-trimester abortions; the law is struck down by a state court of appeals the next year.

2019 — Kansas court rules for abortion rights

In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court affirms the lower court decision striking down the dilation and evacuation ban. The court also rules the Kansas constitution guarantees a right to abortion, regardless of the status of Roe. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had supported abortion rights earlier in his career, protests the decision.

2022 — Roe falls

The Supreme Court of the United States overturns Roe in a 6-3 decision. Confusion reigns as states figure out which statutes now apply, and as lower courts bar some state laws from taking effect. In Kansas, antiabortion activists have been working since 2019 to amend the state constitution to remove protection of abortion rights. The last step is a referendum slated to coincide with the Aug. 2 primaries, coincidentally six weeks after Roe falls.

2022 — ‘Value Them Both’ bill fails

The “Value Them Both” amendment, which would have removed protections for abortion rights from the Kansas state constitution, fails overwhelmingly, 41 to 59 percent. Voter turnout is huge, particularly among independents, who are not allowed to vote in party primaries and so showed up just to vote on the amendment, and who largely supported abortion rights.

The next day, President Biden says, “This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions.”

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