Health Policy

June 1, 2019: Fighting for Reproductive Justice with Perseverance

Posted on June 01, 2019 at 12:00 AM

On Tuesday, April 16, 2019, the WNDC hosted Julie Burkhart, who shared her frightening and courageous story of fighting for women’s rights for safe abortions and effective birth control after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller on May 31, 2009, by reopening his clinic in his honor.

Dr. George Tiller was a respected gynecologist, as was his father before him for several decades, in Wichita, Kansas. He was targeted specifically by anti-abortion zealots because he provided first trimester and second trimester abortions. (We avoid using the medically inaccurate and inflammatory label “late term abortion.”) Dr. Tiller was targeted twice. He recovered from the multiple gunshot wounds of his first assassination attempt in August 19, 1993. But on May 31, 2009, a different anti-abortion terrorist succeeded in assassinating Dr. Tiller while he was worshipping at his family church.

After the horrific murder of Dr. Tiller, friends, colleagues and the community encouraged Ms. Burkhart to reopen the clinic that had served women for decades. “It’s never too late to do the next Right Thing” had been Dr. Tiller’s motto, and so Trust Women was founded with the mission: “All people should have access to the health care they need regardless of where they live or their ability to pay.”

But it took four years of “eating dirt” to reopen the clinic. After purchasing the site from Mrs. Tiller, an enormous renovation had to be undertaken. Two years passed before a physician was found who was willing to put his life at risk by performing abortions.  Trust Women had difficulty securing bank loans; the antiabortion zealots protested at the homes of clinic staff and videotaped them. Antiabortion militants harassed construction workers and yelled at vendors delivering supplies and medical equipment to the clinic. And there was an attempt by anti-abortion zealots to change the zoning in order to disallow a medical office on the site.

The Wichita clinic in which Dr. Tiller and his father had served women did reopen and continues to serve women and their families. However, protests and harassment continue to be part of everyday life for clinic workers and patients.

Trust Women has also expanded. In 2014, Oklahoma City was the largest city without an abortion provider. So in 2016 the first abortions in 40 years were again available to women there by Trust Women. Similar threats and constant harassment occurred prior to the clinic opening and continue to the present day.

With the election of Donald Trump and the sweep of Republicans into the House and Senate and the plethora of state level TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations against Abortion Providers), Trust Women expanded into Seattle, Washington, in June 2017.  The clinic in Seattle will serve as a fallback for patients in Oklahoma and Kansas who might again be prevented from having safe abortions because of the current spate of new anti-abortion laws being enacted at many state levels.

We cannot underestimate the current level of danger for women who want abortions and for the physicians and other clinic staff who go to work every day to provide abortions and contraception. The past 35 years reveal a history of shootings, murders, bombings and arson at women’s reproductive health centers all over America.

President Ronald Reagan was the first president to invite the religious right anti-abortion and anti-birth control activists into his presidency and encouraged congress to do the same for the political purpose of awakening a complacent electorate to vote Republican. He and his successor, President George HW Bush, enabled the Republican Party to “weaponize” anti-abortion fervor into voter turnout. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the resulting militancy has been accompanied by terrible murders, bombings, and arson in many states.

In all, since, 1993, 11 abortion clinic workers have been murdered. In addition, there have been 17 other attempted murders, plus 42
clinic bombings and 186 clinic arsons. 

  • Dr. David Gunn, of Pensacola, Florida, was the first physician to be murdered on March 10, 1993.
  • Dr. John Bayard Britton and a clinic volunteer, James H. Barrett, were murdered in Pensacola on July 29, 1994.
  • On December 30, 1994, two Planned Parenthoods in Boston were attacked by gunmen who murdered two receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols.
  • Dr. Barnett Sleppian, of Buffalo, New York, was murdered in his home October 23, 1998
  • Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church in Wichita, Kansas, May 31, 2009.
  • On November 27, 2015, the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was overtaken by gunmen who murdered a police officer and two nurses. Nine other people were wounded.
  • A nail bomb was planted at a Planned Parenthood facility in Birmingham, Alabama, January 20, 2018. Robert Sanderson, a police officer working as a security guard, was killed when the bomb exploded.

During Ms. Burkhart’s presentation, attendees discussed the current very dangerous political climate. The encouragement of violence in general and the known history of murders of abortion providers plus the enthusiasm of the anti-abortion movement to enact creative anti-abortion laws such as “fetal personhood” and “heartbeat bills” call for even more courage from all who believe in social justice. There are now 300 bills in 37 states that place restrictions on abortions, and one state threatens to enact the death penalty for women who have abortions.

We must hold our politicians to the standard of NO restrictions on abortion and full availability of contraception for all women.  We must improve access to abortions everywhere, especially in “abortion deserts” by: 1) encouraging new physicians to learn how to provide abortions 2) expanding telemedicine to facilitate better access to medical abortions, 3) working at state levels to expand the practice standards for nurse practitioners, midwives and physician assistants to provide medical abortions. 4) encouraging women to share their abortion and birth control stories in small gatherings to destigmatize women’s choices, and 5) getting out the vote and
raising money for candidates in all states who support abortion and birth control.

Trust Women and Dr. Tiller’s legacy are approaching their 10th anniversary. Over 18,000 patients have been served, and more than $300,000 has been raised to pay for abortion services in Kansas and Oklahoma. The Woman’s National Democratic Club thanks and salutes Julie Burkhart and Trust Women for their unmatched courage and perseverance.

— Karen Pataky, Chair, Health Policy Task Force

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