Despite Legal and Physical Harassment, Group Plans to Re-Open Former Tiller Clinic in Kansas

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News Abortion

Despite Legal and Physical Harassment, Group Plans to Re-Open Former Tiller Clinic in Kansas

Robin Marty

Complaints, pickets, frivolous lawsuits, none of those can stop Trust Women from reopening the clinic closed since Dr. George Tiller's murder.

Some of the tactics would seem more likely to be performed by a 5th grader than by the head of a nationally known political organization. Others are tried and true tactics that have harassed providers since the beginning of legal abortion. Together, they mark the desperation of an anti-choice movement terrified of losing what was once their greatest victory—the closing of the Wichita, Kansas abortion clinic where Dr. George Tiller performed both early and later term abortions before he was murdered by Scott Roeder.

Since the closing of the Wichita clinic, Operation Rescue, which relocated to Wichita in 2002 for the sole purpose of harassing the providers in the city, had gleefully used its past as rabble-rouser and instigator of violence to deter other doctors from considering providing pregnancy terminations. When Dr. Mila Means considered taking up the mantle left behind by Tiller, she became the subject of daily “vigils” at her office, suspicious packages, and constant harassment. A judge allowed the owner of her building to block her from offering abortions, saying it would be too disruptive for the building’s other tenants. That was later followed up by threats by Kansas for Life activist and Scott Roeder admirer Angel Dillard, who sent Means a letter telling her that ” thousands of people” were looking into her background and that “They will know your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live…You will be checking under your car everyday — because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”

The threats and intimidation ended once Means chose to give up her plans to offer pregnancy terminations. Now, in the wake of news that Tiller’s old clinic has been purchased by Trust Women and their director and former Tiller colleague Julie Burkhart, the harassment—some of it juvenile, some of it serious—is beginning again.

Operation Rescue and its anti-choice local cohorts are using every tactic in the book when it comes to coercing Trust Women and preventing them from re-opening the clinic. Some, like President Troy Newman’s registration of the name Trust Women Foundation with the secretary of state so the supporters of the clinic can’t use it, are just juvenile. Others, such as a petition asking the city council to rezone the clinic out of existence, show a return to their previous attempts to use not actual violence, but their history and the threat of returning to their own violent ways, as a method of strong-arming the city into action. Kansas for Life especially has vowed that the only way to avoid their wrath, and the harassment that comes with it, is to keep the clinic from reopening.

Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.

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David Gittrich, Development Director for Kansans for Life, said the presence of the Tiller clinic had caused disruption for the neighborhood and that rezoning the new clinic out would protect the quiet atmosphere that has developed since the clinic closed.

After the news conference, he acknowledged that much of the disturbance had been a result of the actions of anti-abortion groups, including his.

But he said it was justifiable and inevitable that reopening the clinic would bring back the protests.

“There’s been people on both sides who have gotten out of line,” he said. “The main point is the abortion industry attracts a huge crowd of people opposed to it. It would be the same thing as if people were opposed to slavery and showed up at a slave market to say they were opposed to it.”

He said Kansans for Life will continue to protest if the clinic opens.

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Proving that they mean what they say, picketing has already begun both at the clinic itself and at Burkhart’s home. According to the Associated Press, fliers with Burkhart’s picture and home address have already been found placed around her neighborhood, a chilling reminder of “Wanted” posters that preceded Tiller’s death.

Home harassment has been a long time tactic of anti-choice activists, and is even listed as item 37 in Joseph Scheidler’s “Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortions.” Scheidler offers a variety of ways of obtaining home addresses, including getting license plate numbers from clinics and running matches, asking a mutual acquaintance, even calling the office and pretending you are a colleague intending to meet him or her or send a package. Of course calling the office or getting it from someone else are far less likely to occur these days than when Scheidler wrote up his handbook for harassment, but the reasons behind the home presence and leafleting remain the same. Scheidler writes:

While the immediate effect of picketing the abortionist’s home is to dissuade him from engaging in abortion, the long-rage effects is to alert other abortionists to what is in store for them if they remain in the business. It is also intended to dissuade other medical professionals from getting into the lucrative abortion business. After all, who wants to get into a business that will bring with it embarrassing demonstrations at their homes on a Sunday afternoon?

Despite the intimidation, Trust Women continues in their plans to reopen the clinic, which will be known as South Wind Women’s Clinic. They have announced that doctors have been contracted, staff mostly hired, and the clinic is being remodeled to bring it into compliance after the 2012 TRAP legislation forced Kansas clinics to rebuild as ambulatory surgical centers. As for the threat of being zoned out of business, the clinic’s lawyer warned the city council of the precedent that would set. “If you start using the zoning process to do social engineering such as this, that is a very slippery slope and I hope that the zoning and land use process is sufficiently disciplined in Sedgwick County that it wouldn’t be essentially misused by those who are opposed to the operation of a women’s health clinic,” lawyer Robert Eye told the Associated Press in an interview.

The refusal to back down has Operation Rescue and their cohorts looking for even more accusations to throw at them. The newest? That updates to the building are being performed without permits, and that the city needs to shut them down. Cheryl Sullenger, Senior Policy Advisor for Operation Rescue, said in a press release:

“The abortion clinic hasn’t even opened and already it is showing a disregard for the law and for the lives and health of women. If they can’t do a simple thing like pull the appropriate building permits, then they can’t be expected to obey the state’s abortion or standard of care laws, either… If this clinic is allowed to reopen, it is only a matter of time before their gross disregard for the law lands more women in the hospital emergency rooms just as Tiller’s abortion operation did. It’s as sure as the sun rising in the east.”

Eye called the complaints meritless. He told the Kansas City Star:

“The anti-choice clique is certainly entitled to make their complaints. All I would ask is that they would use a little bit of good sense and discretion and make complaints that have merit if they are going to do so,” said Robert Eye, the attorney for Trust Women.

As an example, he cited the complaint’s “evidence of violations” such as completion of architectural plans for clinic redesign and meeting with construction contractors.

“We can speak with our contractors and work with our architect and not have the government’s permission or Operation Rescue’s permission to do that,” Eye said.

Eye said he considered the complaint “in the category of mischief.”

“The people we are working with are experienced and knowledgeable in that regard,” he said. “I am confident if a permit is required they have taken the steps to acquire a permit, and if no permit is required they have proceeded without a permit.”

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Even with this latest assault on the clinic, Burkhart remains undaunted. “These tactics are nothing but an attempt to distract us,” she told Rewire by email. “Nothing will take us away from our core mission which is to bring comprehensive reproductive services back to Wichita for women and families.”