The first abortion clinic to operate in Wichita since the 2009 murder of physician George Tiller plans to open its doors this week despite continuing efforts by abortion foes to block it.
Nearly four years after a Kansas City abortion opponent gunned down Tiller in the physician’s church, the new clinic will begin seeing patients in the same building that housed Tiller’s practice for decades.
But this clinic will be different, its operators say.
Formerly called Women’s Health Care Services, the clinic has been renamed South Wind Women’s Center. Although Tiller was one of a handful of American doctors who performed late-term abortions, the new clinic will perform the procedures through 14 weeks of pregnancy. And though the overwhelming majority of Tiller’s practice was abortions, South Wind plans to offer everything from routine physical exams to fertility counseling.
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“Opening this clinic is huge,” said Vicki Saporta, the president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, an abortion-rights group. “It sends a message to anti-abortion extremists that violence doesn’t work, and it fills a need in the community for women who need to access quality abortion care so those women won’t have to be traveling to Kansas City or other places.”
Abortion foes couldn’t disagree more.
“They can try to pretend it’s a full-service women’s center, but it’s just an abortion clinic,” said Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, a national anti-abortion group based in Wichita. “And they’re going to go out of business, because we’re going to make sure that it’s not economically feasible to run it.”
The new clinic is owned by Trust Women Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 by Julie Burkhart, who worked with Tiller for seven years. The foundation bought the property from Tiller’s wife in August. Burkhart said it has cost about $700,000 to purchase the clinic and get it up and running.
“We’re still raising the remaining portion of what we need,” said Burkhart, the clinic’s director.
Burkhart said the clinic has secured three physicians — one local and two from out of state — who will work on a rotating basis. She is recruiting more.
Although Kansas law allows abortions up to 22 weeks in a pregnancy, Burkhart said clinic officials chose not to perform them beyond 14 weeks. A typical pregnancy is about 40 weeks.
Burkhart said the clinic plans to provide much more than abortion services.
“We’re going to provide Pap smears, pelvic exams, well-woman care, contraceptive care, pregnancy confirmation and consultation, and STI (sexually transmitted infection) treatment,” she said.
The staff will include a social worker who will offer lactation consultation, post-abortion counseling and miscarriage counseling, Burkhart said.
“We want to work with women who are having trouble getting pregnant and women who have been pregnant — the full range of services,” including adoption, she said.
Burkhart acknowledged that protests might make some potential patients reluctant to come for services that aren’t abortion-related.
“The $10 million question for us is whether women, if they see protesters out there, will come in for their Pap smear,” she said.
Tiller and his clinic, at Kellogg and Bleckley streets, were the subjects of violence and controversy for decades.
In 1986, a pipe bomb blew a hole in an outside wall and caused major damage inside. In 1991, protests by Operation Rescue prompted a federal judge to order deputies from the U.S. Marshals Service to keep the gates open. Two years later, an Oregon woman shot Tiller in both arms as he pulled his car out of the clinic parking lot. And on May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder — who had been to protests at the clinic — approached the doctor inside Reformation Lutheran Church and shot him in the head.
The clinic has been shuttered ever since. And anti-abortion activists have worked hard to try to keep it that way.
When plans were announced for the new clinic, they lodged complaints with the city, saying it didn’t have proper building permits. They led a petition drive asking that the city rezone the area as residential to shut the clinic out.
Newman even commandeered the Trust Women Foundation name, incorporating it himself with the Kansas secretary of state.
“She didn’t actually file the name of the corporation before she bought the building,” Newman said of Burkhart. “So I did. I am Trust Women Foundation.”
That forced Burkhart to add to the name when she filed for incorporation.
Newman was unapologetic for the tactics, saying that they were legal and that they would continue. But Burkhart and other abortion-rights supporters say they go too far. Burkhart said that she had been stalked and that demeaning fliers containing her picture and address had been distributed in her neighborhood.
Protesters have demonstrated outside Burkhart’s house, and a pastor recently put a sign in her yard depicting an aborted fetus and the words, “Where’s your church?”
“I took it as meaning, ‘We’re going to get a gunman and track you down at your church,’ ” similar to what Roeder did to Tiller, she said.
Despite the incidents, Burkhart said the clinic will be safe. “We have heightened security,” she said. “We have really tightened it up.”
Kathy Spillar, the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said abortion-rights groups would be closely monitoring the Wichita situation.
“This is a health-care facility providing legal services that are vitally needed in the city of Wichita,” Spillar said. “The public officials must see to it that their law enforcement authorities are adequately responding.”