WICHITA, Kan. (WOMENSENEWS)–This mid-American prairie city breathed a sigh of relief as hundreds of protesters ended their picketing, packed up their signs and stopped their chanting, concluding a week-long anti-abortion campaign.
For one week, the eyes of the nation turned to Wichita, a city of 300,000, where the national struggle over abortion rights was being played out–it was tense and often ugly, but there was little overt violence.
Ten years ago, the city was paralyzed by an anti-abortion protest called “Summer of Mercy.” For 46 days, clinics were blockaded, jails were filled with as many as 2,700 demonstrators, and the city faced costs of more than $800,000.
This time, on the 10th anniversary of the violence, Operation Save America, linked to Operation Rescue, descended upon Wichita for a reprise billed as “Summer of Mercy Renewal.”
This time not more than 1,000 protesters came to town; this time it lasted just a week. Only four people were arrested–two of them pro-choice, two anti-abortion.
Many Changes in the Past 10 Years Contributed to Relative Calm
A lot has happened since that summer 10 years ago. While the abortion debate remains fierce, several factors contributed to the relative calm in Wichita:
- The anti-abortion movement has lost its charismatic leader, Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, who led numerous protests nationwide. “I was the tip of the spear,” he recently told The New York Times, while the Wichita protests were underway. But he has been censured by his Pentecostal Protestant church because, it said, he abandoned his wife, married a much younger woman, used foul language and drank alcohol in the presence of children.
- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, although avowedly anti-abortion, has vowed to uphold the law and made Wichita a showcase of his good intentions and actions to prevent abortion clinic violence. He ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to protect Dr. George Tiller, a rare physician willing to be known as being available to perform late-term abortions. His clinic was at the center of demonstrations last week. Marshals also were ordered to assist law enforcement.
- Federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived before the protests, using two bomb-sniffing dogs to check the area as a precaution. Delivery truck drivers were questioned extensively by city police and packages arriving at the clinic were examined closely.
- Kansas passed a law protecting the entrances to abortion clinics. The United States has a similar law, a Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act.
- Wichita authorities, determined to prevent a replay of the violence 10 years ago, set higher minimum bails for the week for everyone from out of the city.
- Anti-abortion protesters took a pledge of nonviolence.
- Abortion rights supporters formed coalitions, organized and trained in clinic defense tactics in order to counter anti-abortion demonstrators.
Protesters Focus on One Clinic for Late-Term Abortions
Most of the action took place outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic. In 1993, Tiller was shot and wounded in both arms by Shelley Shannon, an Oregon woman who is serving time for attempted murder.
In an uncommon public statement released before the protests began, Dr. Tiller said: “We have found that unplanned pregnancy does not overlook any religious affiliations or denominations, and anti-abortion positions do not immunize anyone against unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. We recall that it is not unplanned pregnancy, it is unwanted motherhood that shipwrecks people’s lives.
“Make no mistake, this battle is about self-determination by women of the direction and course of their lives and their families’ lives. Abortion is about women’s hopes and dreams. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.”
Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Services, remained open throughout the week. At a second abortion clinic, Wichita Family Planning, a visiting doctor performs early-term abortions one day a week. It also was picketed but remained open.
Each day hundreds of protesters crowded near the entrance to Tiller’s clinic and lined the street leading into the one-story gray stucco building, waving large photos of aborted fetuses at the six-lane traffic rushing past. They preached over loudspeakers, read their Bibles out loud and kneeled in prayer with their foreheads touching the ground.
“Young lady! Please do not do this! We love you!” protesters yelled to patients entering the clinic in vans and taxis during last week’s demonstrations.
Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters guarded the entrance into the clinic parking lot, cheering the patients on and chanting their own messages.
“The people have spoken! The clinic remains open!” they yelled.
“It could be a football game,” the Rev. George Gardner, head of Kansas Religious Leaders for Choice, told The Wichita Eagle. “That’s the sad part of it. This is a serious issue.”
Despite Protests, Clinics Remained Open
Despite feeling overwhelmed by the numbers, those who support a woman’s right to choose abortion said their efforts to keep the clinic open were successful.
“Our mission was accomplished,” Wichita Choice Alliance spokeswoman Julie Burkhart said. “All of the women who were scheduled for treatment made it into and out of the clinic safely.”
Record 100-plus-degree heat exacerbated the tension that permeated the scene most of the week. The high temperatures resulted in at least one march being cancelled. Wichita police patrolled the area in polo shirts and shorts, often standing between opponents caught up in verbal sparring.
By Saturday, day seven, just four people had been arrested–two pro-choice demonstrators who shoved two opponents aside as they planted themselves closer to the entrance, and two local pastors who kneeled in prayer in restricted areas barricading the clinic from demonstrators.
The pro-choice activists, identified as Joshua Klein from Columbus, Ohio, and Karen Rose of Chicago, were released after posting $3,000 bonds. The two pastors, Daniel Thompson and Chris Standfield of nearby El Dorado, were booked on charges of obstructing legal process. They were released on their own recognizance.
Over 1,500 supporters of Operation Save America had gathered early in the week for a kick-off rally at Word of Life Church. Participants were asked to sign a pledge of nonviolence before they entered the church. Local director Donna Lippoldt of Operation Save America had promised city officials that the protests would remain peaceful and that no laws would be broken.
Anti-Abortion Leader Calls Tiller ‘Hired Assassin’
At the opening Jesus Is the Standard rally eight nights ago, the Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Save America, likened the movement’s followers to St. Paul in the New Testament, an apostle often persecuted for his Christian testimony.
“The righteous are on God’s side of the fight,” he told the crowd. “We choose to obey a law other than Caesar’s.”
Local anti-abortion leader Lippoldt joined in and prayed for the salvation of Tiller, whom she described as a “hired assassin.” Participating pastors referred to the challenge as a “spiritual battle.” Despite one pastor’s prayer that the battle be one of reconciliation and not destruction, horns sounded from each corner of the church sanctuary as if in battle cry.
Last Monday, the first full day of protest, protesters took to the streets in a “March for Life” through Wichita’s downtown business district. Pro-choice advocates confronted them, chanting “Right to Life, that’s a lie! You don’t care if women die!” Other proponents of abortion rights stood by in silence, holding signs that read “Pro-faith, Pro-family, Pro-choice.”
The march concluded with a group of pastors signing an “Emancipation Proclamation” declaring the rights of the unborn, a document that will be sent to President George W. Bush in hopes that he will add his signature.
Despite the anti-abortion movement’s promise of peaceful demonstrations, pro-choice advocates and city leaders remained on alert.
The Wichita Choice Alliance, a coalition that includes Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, Women’s Health Care Services and Wichita Family Planning, united early on to prevent the city from experiencing what it did in 1991.
Abortion Rights Forces Hold Training Sessions on Defending Clinics
“We do not want this city to be bullied around the way it was 10 years ago,” Burkhart told The Wichita Eagle. The coalition held a rally earlier in the month and training sessions on how to defend clinics against anti-abortion protesters.
The Kansas Religious Leaders for Choice, initiated by Rev. George Gardner of College Hill United Methodist Church, sponsored a half-page advertisement in The Wichita Eagle on Monday, stating that they oppose Operation Save America. “We affirm their right to protest, but we disagree with their anti-choice and anti-woman position,” the ad read.
Last Sunday and yesterday, picketers took to the city churches where pastors are pro-choice. At Reformation Lutheran Church, where Tiller is a member, protesters lined the entrance, displaying large photos of aborted fetuses, yelling to parishioners as they entered the building for morning worship.
One protester interrupted the service by marching out of the sanctuary yelling, “Hypocrites! Hyprocrites! You go to church with a baby killer!” A pregnant woman, one of the worshippers, was distraught and wept at the intrusion and shouting. Demonstrators also picketed the church during a wedding.
Ann Minter Fetters teaches English and journalism at Hesston College in Hesston, Kan. She is also a correspondent for The Wichita Eagle.