Hard Road Ahead Before New Wichita Abortion Clinic Becomes a Reality

While the recent headline, “Kansas Abortion Clinic is Back” may invite women across the nation to break into their pro-choice happy dances, the women of Wichita would be wise to leave their dancing shoes on the closet floor for a little while longer. Trust Women’s purchase of the building that housed Dr. George Tiller’s former health care facility is welcome news, but it must be viewed within the context of the on-the-ground reality that is Kansas abortion policy, politics, and history.

Bringing abortion care back to Wichita is a valiant endeavor, but it is also an enormous undertaking. There are ramifications both told and untold. The fetus fanatics of America’s heartland have a lustful craving and a creative capacity for generating abortion drama, controversy, and tragedy. Their work over the years culminated with Dr. Tiller’s murder and they have since whiled away their time searching for the next “big thing.” The terrorist wing of this movement has seemed somewhat lost, floundering for their next target, and the Trust Women clinic and the physicians it could bring might well provide them with the spark that’s been missing from a movement that declared triumph with Dr. Tiller’s murder and then didn’t quite know what to do with itself, post “victory.”

Local physician Dr. Mila Means was a short-term distraction.  She was “outed” as an abortion doctor in training and as such, once again provided the displaced Wichita fanatics with a local target for their woman-hating energy. Their fetus signs were dusted off, comfortable picketing shoes donned, miniature white crosses found a new lawn to adorn, and threatening intimidation commenced. Their harassment succeeded in putting an end to Dr. Means plans of expanding her primary care practice into a place where abortion care was also accessible. The journey of Dr. Means shows what a successful campaign of terror looks like in Wichita, Kansas.

The leader of one infamous and terroristic, anti-choice group lays out his organization’s intentions regarding a new Wichita clinic pretty succinctly in the following quote…

“The abortion group may have bought Tiller’s old building, but that is still a far cry from resuming abortions in Wichita. If Trust Women wants to provide abortions then Operation Rescue will make sure the business is neither profitable nor sustainable,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue.

If that language sounds like a threat, that’s because it is… Newman’s use of the words “profitable nor sustainable” is telling. His word choice indicates that Operation Rescue plans on bringing more of what the group has been known for… frivolous lawsuits as a means to harass physicians in an effort to “make them pay” by tarnishing their reputations and forcing them to spend money on defense attorneys.

Laura Shaneyfelt was part of a team who represented Dr. Tiller in two grand jury proceedings, a criminal jury trial, and state mandamus proceedings.  Ms. Shaneyfelt struck a cautious tone when asked about her perceptions of a new abortion clinic in Wichita.

“As a long-time supporter of reproductive rights, I would be thrilled if abortion services were again available in Wichita. It is unbelievable that women must travel so far to obtain the medical services to which they are constitutionally entitled.  My enthusiasm, though, is tempered by the knowledge that while purchasing a building is a good start, it’s just that: a start. The heart and soul of the services Dr. Tiller provided were the profound commitment, compassion and experience that he and his staff showed their patients. Dr. Tiller was also absolutely dedicated to fighting the constant political and legal challenges lodged by far-right activists, including going to extraordinary legal lengths to protect the the safety and privacy interests of his patients. The news of the clinic purchase is exciting and encouraging; I hope it is soon followed by news of committed physicians, staff and supporters who are realistically prepared for the certain challenges that will go along with providing abortion services in Wichita.”

Dr. Tiller wasn’t the only abortion provider who was pulled into court in defense against baseless charges. Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri was just recently vindicated, when charges against them were dropped in a case that they have been entrenched since 2007.

Legal actions aren’t just the tool of the anti-choice crowd. Kansas abortion providers have also been forced into the position of bringing suit themselves in order to keep their services available and their doors open to the women who need them. The lawsuit abortion tango in Kansas can seem virtually never ending, a dance-a-thon of epic proportions with nary an end in sight. Trust Women’s clinic is going to require a sizable litigation fund to keep its doors open.

Meanwhile, the anti-choice group, Kansans for Life hints at continued use of the anti-choice Kansas legislature to make things difficult, perhaps impossible, for forward motion toward increased Kansas abortion access. Kansans for Life blogger, Ms. Ostrowski focuses in on the residency of the rumored physicians:

If in fact Burkhart does open a business with itinerant abortionists, women will be in much jeopardy. Out-of-state physicians do not have

  • a stake in the community with family ties,
  • a medical reputation to maintain,
  • a permanent real estate investment.

She continues along this vein with the following quote:

“It is tragic Burkhart appears poised to re-engage in destroying unborn children and exploiting women for money, again using out-of-state abortionists who can escape discipline from the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, and not yet subject to our new licensure law due to litigation.”

Ostrowski seems eager to continue the use of the anti-choice Kansas Board of Healing Arts to continue their harassment of abortion practitioners. Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhaus continues her fight to regain her medical license.

The Kansas political landscape should also be considered when factoring the success of a new Wichita abortion clinic. The political road ahead will likely be even more formidable than what Dr. Tiller faced, as he did not practice under Governor Sam Brownback, an anti-choice radical. Brownback successfully worked with the Koch Brothers and others to exact near complete annihilation of moderates within the state. The Kansas Democratic Party is not strong enough to put up much of a political fight, all but guaranteeing that perhaps some of the most extreme anti-choice legislation will sail through and become law in Kansas’ foreseeable future.

In spite of this doom and gloom, in spite of the inhospitable landscape for abortion access in Wichita, the reality does not make this clinic a futile pursuit. Should this clinic successfully proceed, it would have a huge impact on Wichita women who have felt beat down by reality and an even larger impact upon women who seek abortions in Kansas.  Abortions are needed. Abortions are legal. Abortions should not be allowed to be terrorized out of existence, anywhere… even in the reddest of red states.

Stephen Singular, author of the Wichita Divide, a book about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, sums it up well:

Wichita has always been on the front lines in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights and it’s important for the city to play that role again and be a symbol for pro-choice.  I think Dr. Tiller would be very proud of the women he worked with and trained for the mission they are now undertaking. The anti-choice movement will no doubt fight back against re-opening the clinic, but Dr. Tiller never quit and I don’t think his followers will either. The disturbing thing is that those who so strongly oppose women’s rights don’t realize that they can inspire a Scott Roeder to violence. Maybe they should think about it before opposing abortion services in Wichita again.

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Follow Kari Ann Rinker on twitter: @karivelvet

  • mrspeasoup

    No, really? What is the point? The authors words sound similar to Troy Newmans. You sure you really want acccess to be restored? 

  • elise-higgins

    No one who knows Kari Ann could claim that she doesn’t want abortion access to be restored in Wichita or any other part of Kansas. She has been one of Kansas’ hardest working advocates for reproductive rights in years, and will continue to be a leading light for the movement in the future.

    I don’t blame folks who work in or follow the reproductive rights movement for wanting to see a story that arcs beautifully into success and justice. It’s easy to assume the conclusions we want to be true; I certainly do it. But Kari Ann’s piece reminds us that no fight over abortion in Kansas is easily won. It asks activists to deeply engage in the challening, multilayered, long-term work of establishing access in Wichita; it asks that we not simply celebrate and walk away. 

    I believe that abortion access in Wichita is possible, and I’m thrilled that Trust Women has taken important first steps toward that goal. But as a lifelong Kansan, I’m also committed to practicality, long-range planning and asking the right questions. Kari Ann, thank you for giving us needed information that helps us to dig in for the long haul!

  • mrspeasoup

    I’m sure she does want access restored but this whole article seems a little off. Has she reached out to this organization? Given that you and Kari Ann are both involved with NOW, wouldn’t support be the proper/decent thing to do at this time? If this piece really asks that we ‘not simply celebrate and walk away’ then why didn’t the article state how they could support these people? Pretty sure people know that opening a clinic in Wichita, KS isn’t going to be easy which is why, once again, support is needed. If you keep saying it cannot be done (which really is the tone of the article) then you let anti abortion terrorists win. You bring a big smile to the faces of Troy Newman and his cronies.  It seems like we should be on the same side here, maybe there’s something I’m not understanding about abortion politics in Kansas. 

  • jenok4rj

    I completely understand that working to provide access to abortion services in Wichita will be difficult.

    What I don’t understand is why so many articles like this are written that paint a totally hopeless and inaccurate picture of the work being done and the capabilities of the people doing such work. Trust Women is an incredible organization led and staffed by people who DEFINITELY know what to expect and prepare for in the years ahead. Wondering out loud if they are “prepared” or that the people involved are wrapped up in egotistical celebration rather than laying the groundwork for this clinic and its success is patronizing. It’s hurtful. And it reflects a dominant narrative about abortion politics in red states that I’d like to challenge.

    The implication is that people in red states are “new” to abortion politics and since we don’t have the money or infrastructure or fame found in blue states and big coastal cities, we must need a lot of help and direction to get anything done. We’re asked how we could possibly live in what a lot of people think is hell on earth (after a popular “Top 10 Worst States for Women” article on Jezebel made rounds, we had to watch people say they’d rather kill themselves than live where we do. Unhelpful!). I can’t tell you how many times people said they were “surprised” that someone with my politics could “come from a place like Oklahoma” as if the region where I was born and raised makes me stupid or incapable of anything but right-of-center thought. This rhetoric does damage to our coalition building, it does damage to activists making links across the country, and it instills self-doubt and self-loathing in the hardworking, creative activists here that is incredibly dangerous and contributes to our specific brand of activist burnout. If you are constantly told, even subtly, that you’re probably losing an impossible battle because your home is hell on earth, how can anyone feel effective and motivated to do this hard work?

    I think more could have been done in this article to elevate the voices of people working in red states instead of constantly giving a stage to their detractors. Trust Women could have talked about their solutions and strategies and get a chance to link readers to their fundraising sites if people wanted to contribute. These are suggestions that could balance talking about the challenges of abortion work in places like Kansas while focusing on the people who actually have to suffer, and rise above in fantastic ways, such realities.


  • kari-rinker

    If the tone of the piece is heavy…chalk it up to the weight of reality.  I believe that the readers of RH Reality Check are capable of reading a truthful article that urges cautious optimism.  I’m fully aware of the capabilities of activists in red states, I’ve been one for many years in my work with Kansas NOW.  I’ve worked alongside my comrades at ACLU and Planned Parenthood…established, dedicated organizations that have had taken their licks and keep fighting this fight.   All I wished to convey is that sustaining abortion access and keeping our physicians alive is already challenge in Kansas, undertaking a brand new clinic in a vicious political climate…even more so.  As Elise stated in her comment above…”no abortion fight in Kansas is ever easily won”…and no amount of vigorous cheerleading will change that fact.  The purpose of my piece is to remind the activists of Kansas that there is much work yet to be done.  We must support those providers that need our help in the here and now and lend support to those that may come to fruition in the future. 

  • mrspeasoup

    There’s still no point here. I mean, nice resume and all but nobody is asking for a cheerleader. If the readers of RH Reality Check are capable of reading a truthful article then they are probably educated enough to know about the battle ahead. Activists in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri KNOW there is much work to be done, we don’t need you to remind us.  We need to support those who are working to restore access, not just those who we like. 

  • mrspeasoup

    When other people in the community are asking you to back down, you might want to pay attention. Maybe the editor of RH Reality Check doesn’t know your motives behind this piece but it seems that others in Kansas do.