As Trump Fans the Flames of Anti-Abortion Rhetoric, Kansas Offers a Cautionary Tale

Threats against abortion providers have often been condoned by the state. Perhaps nowhere does history more clearly illustrate this point than in Wichita.

About a dozen abortion opponents gather in front of Dr. George Tiller's clinic in Wichita, Kan., Thursday, May 17, 2007, to launch a 77-hour prayer vigil. (AP Photo/Larry W. Smith)
Anti-abortion demonstrators gather in front of Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kan., on May 17, 2007. Photo: Larry W. Smith/AP

A sheriff’s deputy was waiting in his car along Interstate 35 just outside Kansas City, Kansas, on the afternoon of May 31, 2009, when the powder-blue Ford Taurus rolled by.

The deputy pulled out behind the car and followed it. He took up two lanes and put on his hazards so no one would try to pass as he called for backup. Minutes later, a four-car posse pulled the Taurus over. Inside was 51-year-old Scott Roeder. He got out of the car with his hands raised. There was blood on his pants and one of his shoes.

Just after 10 a.m. that morning, Roeder had entered the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, walked up to Dr. George Tiller, who was serving as an usher for the Sunday service, pulled out a .22-caliber handgun, and fired a single bullet into Tiller’s forehead, killing him. The murder was justified, Roeder would later say at trial, because Tiller was an abortion provider. “If I didn’t do it, babies were going to die the next day.”

Tiller had been providing abortions at his clinic in Wichita, a city of roughly 400,000 in south-central Kansas, for more than two decades. One of just a handful of doctors in the country who performed later-term abortions, Tiller was both vilified and revered. Protesters came from around the country to harass him and picket his clinic; women came from around the world to avail themselves of his services.

Dr. George Tiller addresses invited members of the Kansas legislature, at his abortion clinic, Monday, Oct. 6, 1997, in Wichita, Kan. Tiller, who was shot in both arms by a protestor in 1993, and whose clinic was bombed in 1986, as well as the site of massive demonstrations in 1991, led clinic tours for the lawmakers and the press Monday, in an effort to enable the them to understand his practice. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Rich Sugg)
A memorial is seen outside Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, Kan., Tuesday, June 2, 2009. The clinic was owned by Dr. George Tiller who was gunned down during church services Sunday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Left/Top: Dr. George Tiller addresses members of the Kansas legislature at his abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan., on Oct. 6, 1997. Right/Bottom: A memorial for Dr. Tiller outside the Women's Health Care Services office in Wichita, Kan., on June 2, 2009. Photos: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star via AP; Charlie Riedel/AP

“He wasn’t killed; he didn’t die, he didn’t pass away,” says Dr. Warren Hern, a colleague and friend of Tiller’s who performs abortions in Colorado. “He was assassinated. Got it?”

Tiller’s murder at the church 10 years ago was the result of anti-abortion rhetoric that ratcheted up in the decades following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade — rhetoric that was aggressively embraced by Christian evangelicals and conservative politicians and led to waves of violence across the country.

Fundamentalists like Randall Terry, who founded the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in 1985, repeatedly implied that violence against abortion providers was righteous — “If you believe abortion is murder, then you must act like it is murder” became OR’s motto — but then tried to distance themselves from the violence that ensued. “Obviously, the pro-life movement … is a movement of nonviolence,” Terry said on NPR’s Fresh Air in July 1993, just four months after the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Florida, whose image OR had put on a “Wanted” poster.

Kansas politicians, including former senator and governor Sam Brownback, played a similar game. Rabidly anti-abortion, they were nonetheless quick to backpedal their rhetoric in the wake of Tiller’s murder. “We are all shocked and saddened by what happened in Wichita,” Brownback said in a 2009 statement. “I condemn this murder as well as the use of violence and the culprit should be brought to justice.”

Video taken from a Johnson County Sheriff patrol car camera aired during the trial on January 26, 2010 in Wichita, Kansas, shows Scott Roeder being arrested on May 31, 2009 along Interstate 35.  (Photo by Mike Hutmacher/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)

Video taken from a Johnson County sheriff patrol car camera, aired during the trial of Scott Roeder on Jan. 26, 2010, shows Roeder being arrested along Interstate 35 on May 31, 2009.

Image: Mike Hutmacher/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images

Since 1990, four abortion doctors in the U.S. have been murdered, providers have received nearly 600 death threats, and there have been 141 clinic bombings and incidents of arson — among other acts of violence. While the threats faced by clinics and providers have persisted over the years, the National Abortion Federation, which closely tracks threats and violence, has noted a troubling uptick in aggression since the 2016 election. “Demonizing health care providers and women who rely on them for abortion care has become one of the go-to tactics for anti-choice politicians,” said Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, the federation’s interim president and CEO. “Those lies have consequences, and it is not the anti-choice politicians who are facing those consequences; it is those who are denied abortion care and the providers targeted by threats, harassment, and violence.”

Put simply, anti-abortion violence in the U.S. has often been condoned, if not led, by the government.

Many, including Ragsdale, have drawn a direct line between the increasing hostility and the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who infamously said during his presidential campaign that there should be “some form of punishment” for women who seek abortions. He has kept the fire stoked with inflammatory and factually inaccurate claims about doctors “executing” babies that survive late-term abortion attempts. The shameful rhetoric has emboldened far-right state lawmakers who, cheered by Trump’s promise to appoint anti-abortion judges, have filed a host of punitive measures, including bills that would imprison doctors or make women eligible for the death penalty. In the first six months of 2019, 58 new abortion restrictions were enacted across the country; 26 of them seek to ban abortion in part or outright.

As the anniversary of Tiller’s murder neared, I found myself increasingly disconcerted by the connections between the past and the present. The history of anti-abortion violence certainly isn’t a hidden one, but it is worth revisiting given the current climate of hostility toward reproductive rights. Put simply, anti-abortion violence in the U.S. has often been condoned, if not led, by the government. Perhaps nowhere does history more clearly illustrate this point than in Wichita.

“Since Trump was elected, we have seen a rise in violence at clinics — vandalism, trespassing, fires,” Julie Burkhart told me recently. She’s a protege of Tiller’s who runs several abortion clinics across the country, including one of two that remain in Wichita. “Fortunately, no one’s been murdered,” she added. “But … it concerns me greatly, because it’s only a matter of time.”

In this photo taken Thursday, May 19, 2016, South Wind Women's Center executive director Julie Burkhart stands in the entryway of the Wichita, Kan. clinic which was once owned by slain Dr. George Tiller, pictured at left. Burkhart has vowed to keep the clinic open through planned protests this summer marking the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Summer of Mercy protests that led to nearly 2,700 arrests at this and other clinics in Wichita. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Julie Burkhart stands in the entryway of the clinic in Wichita, Kan., that was once run by Dr. George Tiller, pictured at left, on May 19, 2016.

Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP

Summer of Mercy

Burkhart’s Trust Women clinic in Wichita is in the same building that housed Tiller’s clinic until his murder in 2009. It is a low-slung, unassuming building off the access road to U.S. Highway 54, just east of downtown. Like so many abortion clinics across the country, it has controlled-access entry, a security guard, and a metal detector. On the wall in front of the guard’s desk are photos of individuals to look out for — including Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, who shot Tiller in both arms as he left for the night on August 19, 1993. (His arms in bandages, Tiller famously went back to work the next day.) Shannon was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the shooting and another 20 in connection with multiple firebombing and acid attacks on clinics in Oregon, California, and Nevada. She served 25 years and was released from custody in November 2018. Among Shannon’s admirers was Tiller’s assassin, Roeder, who reportedly visited her a number of times in prison.

The clinic wasn’t providing abortion services the day that I went to meet Burkhart, but that hadn’t stopped a couple of protesters from setting up camp near the parking lot. Flanking either side of the driveway, an elderly white couple had a folding table with an array of anti-abortion literature and an A-frame baby swing with a black baby doll inside, automatically swaying back and forth. Parked across the street — impossible to miss when leaving the clinic — was a yellow moving truck with the Kansas Coalition for Life logo on the door. The side was plastered with images of aborted fetuses below the text, “EVERY Abortion is an Act of Violence.” On the rear of the truck was a comparison between abortion and ISIS beheadings, which noted something about beheadings being less common.

The windows were shot out; bricks were thrown through them.

The setup was pretty typical, I was told; protesters often gather at the Trust Women clinic even when it is closed. Still, the day I was there was decidedly mild — certainly compared to 1991, when Operation Rescue and Randall Terry came to town for the “Summer of Mercy” campaign. Thousands of people descended from all over the country with the stated goal of ending abortion in Wichita. The spectacle ended with more than 2,600 arrests as demonstrators tried to shut down operations at the city’s three clinics. Protesters chained themselves to the clinics. Many (including children) lay in the roadway or underneath cars in an effort to frustrate clinic employees and patients.

Burkhart was in college and working that summer at a clinic downtown. They’d had protesters before, but nothing like this. The clinic was on the top floor of a building with floor-to-ceiling windows. The windows were shot out; bricks were thrown through them. There was no controlled entry in those days, so protesters would come right up to the clinic and chain themselves to the doors, Burkhart recalled. “It would take us literally hours to remove them, because the cops would have to come out, they’d have to assess the situation, they’d have to move the protesters out,” she said. “You might be outside waiting two, three, four hours to even get inside to go to work.”

Pro-life activists practice techniques of civil disobedience during protests outside a clinic that provided abortions in Wichita, Kansas, in August 1991. The clinic became the focus of massive demonstrations known as "The Summer of Mercy."

Police arrest anti-abortion demonstrators outside a clinic that provided abortions in Wichita, Kan., in August 1991.

Photo: Ron Haviv/VII via Redux
Pro-life activists hold up signs during protests outside a clinic that provided abortions in Wichita, Kansas, in August 1991. The clinic became the focus of massive demonstrations known as "The Summer of Mercy."
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1991 file photo, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry kneels in prayer outside the Woman's Health Care Services abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan. with over 1,000 other protesters. (AP Photo/Steve Rasmussen)

Left/Top: Anti-abortion protesters hold up signs outside a clinic that provided abortions in Wichita, Kan., in August 1991. Right/Bottom: Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry kneels in prayer outside the Woman's Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Kan., with over 1,000 other protesters on Aug. 6, 1991. Photos: Ron Haviv/VII via Redux; Steve Rasmussen/AP

Judy Thomas covered the Summer of Mercy as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle in 1991. As Thomas recalls, what she understood at the time was that the protests would last a week. “I mean, Operation Rescue, they weren’t a household name or anything,” she said. What Thomas and others thought would be a week turned into a month and a half of demonstrations. It was a circus. “And when people were seeing it on national TV, some families would come,” says Thomas. “They’d use that as their summer vacation.”

Thomas followed the protesters for 45 of the 46 days they were in town. “I missed one day because I just had to finally sleep,” she says. The schedule was punishing: The protesters were out on the streets at sunrise and would go into the night with Terry and other leaders holding revival-style rallies inside Wichita’s old Plaza Hotel. By the end, there were competing rallies staged across the city, culminating with televangelist Pat Robertson speaking at Cessna Stadium. “I think it was 15,000 that showed up,” Thomas recalls.

Opposition to abortion wasn’t always a priority for evangelicals, but it took center stage after the election of Ronald Reagan, who had benefited from the evangelical vote and ushered in a new era of culture wars. “Reagan made performing an abortion a political act,” says Tiller’s former colleague Hern. “He wanted to make it a crime against the state.”

People like Terry stepped into the fray, and eventually more mainstream evangelical figures, like Rev. Rob Schenck, joined in. Among other things, Operation Rescue was known for using preserved aborted fetuses procured from friendly pathologists as a prop during rallies and demonstrations. Schenck did not respond to interview requests. But at the time, he writes in his recent book “Costly Grace,” he felt their actions were righteous. Now he mostly laments his turn as a militant anti-abortion crusader. “We would use stark language — ‘baby killers,’ ‘mass murderers,’ ‘pro-aborts’ — and outline battle plans where we referred to abortion providers as ‘the enemy,’” he writes. “But none of us considered the vulnerability of those who, for one reason or another, could not discriminate between literal and figurative concepts.”

In this photo taken Thursday, May 19, 2016, crosses placed by anti-abortion protesters stand in the lawn outside the South Wind Women's Center in Wichita, Kan. Julie Burkhart, the executive director at the clinic, has vowed to keep the facility open through planned protests this summer marking the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Summer of Mercy protests that led to nearly 2,700 arrests at this and other clinics in Wichita. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Crosses placed by anti-abortion protesters in the lawn outside South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kan., on May 19, 2016.

Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP

A Deadly Turn

Among the consequential developments that followed on the heels of the Summer of Mercy campaign was a chilling increase in anti-abortion violence.

Terry and Operation Rescue weren’t the only ones who fomented violence. The Army of God, which reportedly coalesced while a number of anti-abortion protesters were jailed together after a demonstration at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, has a written manual that advocates violence against abortion providers. Though the Army of God had claimed responsibility for a number of extremist acts in the 1980s — including a death threat sent to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the Roe v. Wade opinion — in the years following the Summer of Mercy, the brand of anti-abortion violence they advocated became alarmingly frequent.

In March 1993, Michael Griffin shot Dr. David Gunn three times outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida — the first murder of a doctor attributed to an anti-abortion extremist. (Griffin was sentenced to life in prison and was denied parole in 2017.) Months later, Shannon shot at Tiller as he left his Wichita clinic; law enforcement later found a copy of the Army of God manual buried in her backyard. In July 1994, Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard were gunned down outside the Pensacola clinic. Britton’s wife, a retired nurse, was also injured. Paul Hill was sentenced to death for the murders and executed in 2003. In 1998, James Kopp — nicknamed Atomic Dog within the Army of God — killed New York doctor Barnett Slepian, sniper style, through Slepian’s kitchen window. (Kopp was also suspected in the shootings of three Canadian abortion doctors and at least one other New York doctor, all of whom were shot in their homes.)

And then there was the murder of Tiller inside his church in May 2009.

Roeder, who had apparently been radicalized following the Summer of Mercy, testified that he’d actually been stalking Tiller for years.

It had warmed into the mid-90s on the Sunday afternoon that I drove to Reformation Lutheran Church on Wichita’s east side. The streets were mostly sleepy, save for a couple of kids on a corner hoping to gin up support from passing motorists for a local youth football team. The parking lot was empty when I arrived at the imposing structure, surrounded by a wide, vibrant green lawn.

The Sunday that Tiller was murdered, his wife, Jeanne, was singing in the choir. Roeder came in through the east doors of the church, approached the doctor, and fired a single round. A 20-year-old parishioner named Adam Watkins told the Associated Press that he’d heard a pop as the service began. An usher asked that congregants remain seated and then escorted Jeanne out. “When she got to the back doors, we heard her scream,” Watkins said.

Tiller had long been a target of anti-abortion fanatics. In addition to the previous assassination attempt, his clinic had been bombed back in 1986. He was regularly stalked at home by picketers. Bill O’Reilly had repeatedly called him “Tiller the baby killer” on TV.

In this 1986 file photo, abortion doctor George Tiller hugs Charlotte Taft after the clinic was bombed in Wichita, Kansas. Tiller was fatally shot on Sunday, May 31, 2009, during church services at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita.  (Photo by Gregory Drezdzon/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)

Dr. George Tiller hugs Charlotte Taft after the clinic in Wichita, Kan., was bombed in 1986.

Photo: Gregory Drezdzon/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images

Tiller was certainly aware of the threats but, outwardly at least, appeared to take them in stride. He was exacting and unapologetic about his work, which he knew saved lives, said Burkhart, who worked for Tiller from 2001 until his murder. As we sat in Tiller’s former office inside the Trust Women clinic, Burkhart gestured to her left where Tiller used to have a couch. He drove an armored vehicle and wore a bulletproof vest that Burkhart would see lying on the couch when Tiller was in the office. He often wore a pin that read “Attitude is Everything,” perhaps his most enduring motto.

Roeder’s trial began on January 22, 2010, the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — an accelerated timeline made possible because he did not deny killing Tiller. In fact, not long before the trial began, he’d confessed to Thomas, who by then was working at the Kansas City Star. Roeder sought to justify his actions by demonizing abortion, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. Moreover, Roeder, who had apparently been radicalized following the Summer of Mercy, testified that he had actually been stalking Tiller for years; he’d been thinking about killing him since 1993 and had traveled to the church in Wichita several times before with the intent of murdering Tiller, but the doctor wasn’t there. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

At the time of Tiller’s murder, abortion providers across the country were again put on high alert. Although no U.S. abortion doctors have since been murdered, that level of violence has not disappeared; most recently, in November 2015, a gunman at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs killed three people and wounded nine. (To date, shooter Robert Dear has been deemed incompetent to stand trial.)

According to reports from the National Abortion Federation, which has members in the U.S., Canada, and Colombia, in 2017 the number of death threats made against providers nearly doubled over the previous year, as did the number of clinic blockades. Hate mail and harassing phone calls increased 272 percent between 2016 and 2018. Incidents of trespassing and other acts meant to obstruct clinic access skyrocketed from 242 incidents in 2015 to more than 3,000 in 2018.

Burkhart has received her share of death threats. Anti-abortion protesters affiliated with a local ministry have sent “Wanted”-style flyers to her neighbors. They’ve picketed outside her house, holding signs that read, “Prepare to Meet Thy God” and “Where’s Your Church?”

View of anti-abortion demonstrators, many with signs, in front of the US Supreme Court building during the annual March for Life, Washington DC, January 22, 1992. Among the signs are ones that read 'Collegiate Life Network, Kansas' and 'Stop Abortion.' (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Anti-abortion demonstrators in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22, 1992.

Photo: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

At the Highest Levels

Of course, intimidating providers and curtailing reproductive rights are both easier to achieve within a political environment that condones, if not outright encourages, such actions.

That certainly happened during the Summer of Mercy. As Burkhart recalls, Wichita’s mayor welcomed the protests. The state’s governor did too. Even President George H.W. Bush signaled his approval, Schenck wrote, when the administration dispatched then-Department of Justice lawyer and now Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to Wichita to argue against a federal judge’s order restraining the protesters’ actions. It was a clear sign that “those at the highest levels of power were now advocating on our behalf.”

The weeks of protests also precipitated a radical change in Kansas politics: Thomas recalls that in addition to blocking clinic access, protest leaders made a concerted effort to sign people up to run for Republican precinct positions — and in 1992, they won those elections, beginning the methodical takeover of the state’s GOP machinery. As a result, Kansas, which once had some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, took a sharp right turn toward intolerance. In the intervening years, the state has passed a host of abortion restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period, a mandatory ultrasound requirement, constraints on insurance coverage, a 20-week gestational ban, and a parental consent requirement — the same kinds of restrictions that have proliferated across the country since the early ’90s.

(Ironically, in a case challenging the state’s ban on the most common method of later-term abortion, the Kansas Supreme Court this spring found that the state’s constitution includes a right to abortion. The ruling sets the stage for litigation challenging other abortion restrictions and ensures women will be able to access abortion care in Kansas even if Roe were to fall. Predictably, Republican lawmakers have vowed to find a way to overturn the court’s decision.)

Burkhart says that the rhetoric and actions of anti-abortion politicians are really no different from, and may even inspire, the violence-filled rhetoric or actions of people like Randall Terry or members of the Army of God. Take Phill Kline, who, throughout the 2000s, used his position as Kansas attorney general (and later, as a local district attorney) to pursue dubious investigations of abortion providers, including Tiller, with the idea that their operations were violating Kansas’s myriad restrictions. As part of a strategy to justify Tiller’s murder, Roeder sought to subpoena Kline to testify for the defense.

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline holds a news conference at his office in Topeka, Kan., Friday, Dec. 22, 2006. A Sedgwick County judge dismissed 30 misdemeanor criminal charges against Wichita physician and abortion provider George Tiller, less than a day after recently-defeated Kline filed them. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Then-Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline holds a news conference at his office in Topeka, Kan., on Dec. 22, 2006.

Photo: Orlin Wagner/AP

Kline “wanted to throw [Tiller] in jail,” says Burkhart; he demonized Tiller’s work and painted him a criminal. She holds Kline partly responsible for Tiller’s murder. He “used language that lit the fire that led to his assassination.”

Kline is hardly an isolated example. Current Texas state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, who proposed the ban that would allow women to receive the death penalty for having an abortion, has said there should be no “exceptions to murder, no matter what.” In signing into law a clearly unconstitutional six-week ban on abortion, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant lamented that we seem to merely “shrug our shoulders” and accept abortion. “We should all take to the streets and protest every time an innocent life is taken in this nation.” After a successful vote in February on a trigger law in Arkansas, state Sen. Jason Rapert said it was time to “redress and correct” legal abortion, which he called a “grave injustice and a crime against humanity.”

And then there’s Trump, whose gaslighting Burkhart finds both dangerous and indefensible.

“You can’t go and say somebody’s a murderer, day in and day out. You can’t use that type of inflammatory language and then say, ‘Oh, gosh! Somebody got a gun and murdered him? Wow! How did that happen?’” she said. “Words are very important. And the way we talk about things. And they know exactly what they’re doing.”

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