Exclusive: Doctors Resign in Protest From Kansas Abortion Clinic

After Trust Women’s entire leadership team was let go, the clinic—a critical regional hub for abortion access—has been shut down for a week.

line of doctors standing in a row
Abortion is legal in Kansas until 22 weeks’ gestation, which means clinics in the state are a critical access point for people from nearby states where abortion is banned entirely. Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group illustration

UPDATE, May 24: This story has been updated to include more information and an interview with Trust Women’s board president.

Abortion services have been halted for at least a week at the Trust Women clinic in Wichita, Kansas, after doctors began withholding their labor over an unexpected leadership shakeup and the appointment of a new medical director they believe is unqualified. Ten out of 16 physicians working at the clinic have resigned, a source said.

“The clinic has been operating without medical oversight for the last month,” one source said.

Rewire News Group confirmed the details of the situation with multiple sources inside the clinic, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted and therefore unable to obtain employment at other clinics.

Trust Women is a critical regional hub for abortion access. It is one of six brick-and-mortar abortion clinics in Kansas, and one of just four providing procedural abortion care. In Kansas, abortion is legal until 22 weeks’ gestation, making its clinics important access points for people from nearby states where abortion is banned entirely, including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and others. Telemedicine abortion is also legal in Kansas.

Several abortion funders, providers, and advocates in the region said they were still trying to get a handle on what is happening at Trust Women.

A Trust Women spokesperson told Mission Local in 2023 that the clinic typically sees between 650 and 750 patients per month.

When reached by RNG on Thursday evening, shortly after the initial publication of this article, Trust Women’s board president, Sapphire Garcia, said she was unable to confirm or deny that abortion services had been halted due to “patient privacy laws,” but later said “this is a temporary pause.” RNG was not able to find evidence of any law that would prevent a clinic from disclosing whether it is providing a particular service. Similarly, Garcia declined to estimate how many patients the clinic would normally see in a week.

Later in the conversation, when asked when or if Trust Women would reopen for abortion care, Garcia said the following:

I’m excited to respond to that. Abortion care at Trust Women will resume once a new medical director has been put in place and key components of physician and patient safety are in place so that we can offer the safe, competent care that we always have. Right now, they’re just currently paused. This is a temporary pause, and we’re mindful of the impact that this has on abortion access in our region.

Trouble at the clinic allegedly began in mid-April, when Trust Women’s board unexpectedly fired the organization’s co-executive directors, Rebecca Tong and Schaunta James-Boyd, and installed the board secretary, Shukeyla Harrison, as interim CEO. One source said the only justification they heard for this decision was “compliance issues.” Another source said they never received any formal communication about the leadership changes.

Sources also alleged that several more senior staff members were either fired or forced out in recent months. According to LinkedIn, Trust Women’s former director of advocacy left the organization in April, and the former communications director departed in May.

Sources said that after she took over, Harrison fired the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Christina Bourne. According to multiple sources from within the clinic, no reason was given for Bourne’s firing. They added that in recent weeks, many staff members have been asked to sign new nondisclosure agreements or were told that their existing contracts prohibit them from speaking about the situation.

According to sources, a new medical director was announced on Monday: Dr. Ekwensi Griffith, the founder of New Health Kansas, a wellness clinic that offers erectile dysfunction treatment, “medical weight loss,” and other med spa services such as Botox injections, CoolSculpting, and facial fillers. According to the clinic website, Griffith’s training is in emergency medicine, but he has no apparent prior experience in abortion or other reproductive health care.

Garcia declined to comment on personnel changes, citing a need to maintain the privacy of the individuals involved. She said Griffith had served in only an advisory capacity and never oversaw or participated in patient care. She declined to say whether he is currently or was ever the medical director, despite the fact that multiple sources told RNG he was announced as such.

“Our relationship with any physician consultants arises out of any marketing that they might do for services that they offer,” Garcia said when asked how the clinic’s relationship with Griffith began. She acknowledged that Trust Women’s relationship with Griffith began “approximately within the past week.” Garcia did not respond to a question about whether Griffith has a personal relationship with anyone on Trust Women’s board.

photo of Vote No sign canvass sign
Rebekah Zemansky/Shutterstock

As to who provided medical oversight for the clinic between Bourne’s firing and the present, Garcia said, “We have a highly qualified team of the best and brightest abortion physicians in the nation. I’m proud of the way that they’ve stepped up and helped guide our response to the loss of our previous medical director. We’re relying on their passion and their expertise to guide our search for a new medical director at this moment.” Again, this conflicts with what sources told RNG, which is that ten out of the clinic’s 16 physicians resigned in recent days.

Garcia, who is also the executive director of Kansas Birth Justice Society, became board president on May 13, after serving on the board for just under a year. Interim CEO Shukeyla Harrison had also served on the board for less than a year before assuming her current role.

“We’re extremely grateful to Shukeyla Harrison for her willingness to step into this role as the temporary interim as we prepare to conduct a nationwide search for Trust Women’s next CEO,” Garcia said.

In a press release provided to RNG prior to Garcia’s interview on Thursday, Trust Women’s board said, “The organization’s board at a meeting last night codified medical protocols for our clinic that will require two physicians and a medical director with abortion experience be present when abortions are performed. The new protocols begin immediately.”

Garcia confirmed that the policy does not require three physicians to be present—just two, one of whom is the medical director. According to sources, a two-physician policy was already in place, instituted by Bourne prior to her firing to help the clinic handle a higher patient volume.

Job listings for the medical director position remain active on Glassdoor and Indeed as of Friday morning. “Experience in women’s health and/or abortion care preferred,” the listing reads. It also notes that the medical director will need to “ensure compliance with regulatory standards and guidelines.” Kansas has several onerous regulations abortion providers must follow, including licensing and reporting requirements that do not apply to other types of health facilities.

Garcia added that, in its meeting on Wednesday, the board voted to expand itself and include physicians with experience providing abortion care.

There is no indication as to when or if Trust Women will reopen for abortion care.

Trust Women poster
Tim Pierce/flickr

Several abortion funders, providers, and advocates in the region said they were still trying to get a handle on what is happening at Trust Women. In a statement Thursday, the Missouri Abortion Fund said its last communication with Trust Women was last fall.

Melissa Stiehler, advocacy director for Loud Light and Loud Light Civic Action, a Kansas-based nonprofit that focuses on youth engagement and protecting civil rights, said the “unexplainable upheaval” at Trust Women “has sent shockwaves through the reproductive justice movement in our state.”

“For organizations like mine, who worked with and relied on the partnership with Trust Women in opposing anti-abortion legislation, we don’t know what that relationship will look like in the future,” Stiehler said. “We’ve been told by lower-level staffers that nothing will change, but any outreach or questions to their new executive director have gone unanswered.”

“I understand that often the board of directors doesn’t fully grasp the day-to-day impact of the organization they serve, but in this case I can’t fathom why they would make the choice to expel their entire leadership team, all of which are well respected throughout our community, and believe that is in the best interest of their mission to protect and provide reproductive health care now and in the future,” Stiehler added.

Trust Women was founded in honor of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who was murdered in 2009. (The anniversary of his death is coming up next week). After a major fundraising campaign, Trust Women reopened in Tiller’s former clinic space in 2013. The organization also operates a clinic in Oklahoma, which remains open but no longer provides abortion care due to the state’s total ban.

Founder Julie Burkhart, who worked for Tiller, left Trust Women in 2021 and is now the president of Wellspring Health Access, which opened an abortion clinic in Casper, Wyoming, and a co-owner of Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois. Tong and James-Boyd took on leadership of Trust Women after Burkhart’s departure.

Multiple sources said that, in their experience, Tong, James-Boyd, and Bourne were all excellent at their jobs. All said they were shocked by the firings.

This is a developing story. Check back for more updates.

This story was corrected with the proper spelling of Ekwensi Griffith.