Target Wichita



Troy Newman, founder of Operation
Rescue West (ORW), calls Wichita, Kansas “the frontline of
the abortion war…the American Auschwitz” and dubs Dr.
George Tiller, owner of the Wichita-based Women’s Health Care
Services (WHCS), “America’s abortionist.” 



“Tiller specializes in taking the lives of handicapped babies,”
he said in a recent telephone interview. “Oftentimes the ob-gyn
or geneticist does not find out that the baby is impaired until
late in the pregnancy. Tiller does the majority of abortions on
Down Syndrome babies performed in the U.S. He is one of the few
abortionists who will do something so heinous. Other abortionists
may do more abortions numerically, but no one does them later than
Tiller.” 



Newman’s group has, since early 2004, targeted Women’s
Health Care Services and has employed a host of tactics against
the facility. “Tiller lives in a gated, highly insular community
and you almost never see him,” Newman says. “He is very
rich and very insulated, but he does not operate in a vacuum. He
can show up at the clinic all he wants, but he needs air conditioning
repairpeople, nurses, accountants, bankers, and people to pick up
his trash. In a small conservative town like Wichita, in a red state,
it is very easy to stigmatize anyone involved in the abortion industry
whether they’re individuals or business entities.” 



Julie Burkhart, executive director of a pro-choice political action
committee called ProKanDo, works closely with Tiller and clinic
staff. “Operation Rescue West hopes to intimidate people into
leaving their jobs; they also want to intimidate the businesses
the clinic relies on. They believe this will force WHCS to close,”
she says. “They’ve gone to the neighborhoods of at least
six employees—nurses, front office staff, intake workers—and
picketed their homes. At one point they sent postcards to people
all over the country with the same last name as a particular worker.
The cards had pictures of aborted fetuses on them and said, ‘God
said you should not commit murder…. Your neighbor, Sara Phares,
participates in the murder of babies like these’.” The
cards listed Phares’s home address and telephone number and
asked recipients to “let her know you oppose abortion.”
Follow-up cards exhorted recipients to “tell Sara Phares to
get a life…. Beg her to quit, pretty please.” 









To
hear Newman tell it, the campaign has had multiple successes. “It
is getting increasingly difficult for Tiller to operate in Wichita,”
he says. “He is losing staff. In fact, 11 people have quit
in the last 18 months.” 




JoAn Armentrout, the clinic’s administrative director, laughs
at this assertion. “We have 13 people on staff, total,”
she says. “Three people have quit, but it is simply untrue
that they left because of Troy. They left because they wanted to
relocate or because a family member got a job transfer. Yes, ORW
has gone to people’s houses and sent neighbors mailings with
ugly photos on them, but nothing negative has come out of that.
To a person, every staff member has gotten good calls from neighbors
and the clinic has received supportive calls and letters from community
residents. No one has been harassed by anyone outside of ORW. Furthermore,
nothing has changed in terms of our relationship with suppliers.
Despite pressure on them, none have stopped working with us.” 



Both Armentrout and Burkhart believe that Newman’s inability
to persuade staff and suppliers to abandon WHCS has led ORW to shift
gears. While a small number of protesters continue to harass patients
and staff as they enter and leave the clinic, the mailings and neighborhood
pickets have diminished and area businesses report fewer anti-abortion
calls and faxes. Instead, ORW has stepped up demonstrations outside
Tiller’s Reformation Lutheran church and has increased pressure
on the Evangelical Lutheran denomination. 



“For people who profess to be loving Christians, ORW is full
of hate and intolerance,” says Burkhart. “One man, Keith
Mason, recently moved to Wichita from Colorado; he had been a leader
of Survivors Colorado, a group made up of people born after Roe
was decided in 1973. Over the summer, Mason sat in a pew behind
Tiller a few times and whispered anti- choice rhetoric during the
service. He also took a photo of Tiller and his wife taking communion
and posted it on ORW’s website. We find that pretty creepy.” 



“We have switched gears slightly,” Troy Newman admits.
“We are calling for Tiller’s excommunication. He is an
unrepentant sinner and should be thrown out of his church since
what he does for a living flies in the face of Christian doctrine.
We are bringing pressure to bear from the Christian community at
large. It is very disturbing to us that so many denominations—
Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians—have embraced
the abortion culture and refuse to call abortion a sin.” 



Despite this emphasis, ORW is doing far more than pressuring Reformation
Lutherans. Members are at the clinic every day that it is open and
take their 20-foot “truth vans”—trucks bearing photos
of mangled fetuses with captions like, “Mommy, why did you
kill me?”— to places where large numbers of people gather.
In recent months they have parked within viewing distance of the
Roberts hearings, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA championship,
the NAACP Convention, NASCAR races, and abortion clinics. “No
one likes to see pictures of aborted children,” says Newman.
“But the photos strip the ambiguity from abortion. It’s
not abstract anymore.” 









For
their part, clinic staff say that they will continue their work
regardless of ORW. “Irritating as it is, we’re able to
talk about the antis and laugh about them. We always share the letters
of support we receive and tell each other the supportive comments
we hear,” says WHCS administrator Armentrout. “And knowing
how much we help our patients, well, the fact that we do what we
do keeps us going.” 




Nonetheless, Julie Burkhart believes that patients and clinicians,
no matter how resolute, need the affirmation of a visible pro-choice
community. “Silence has never gotten anybody anywhere,”
she says. “Kansans who support reproductive choice tend to
do it quietly. There is a lot of fear. The ORW people are bullies.
It’s their way or the highway. They don’t respect women.
Although this state has a pro-choice community—we raised $260,000
for pro-choice candidates in 2004—people have been beaten into
submission. We need to remember that the squeaky wheel gets the
grease. Right now the antis are the squeaky wheel. It’s unfortunate
that people in Wichita are not more vocal about their outrage.”




Eleanor
Bader is a freelance writer and co-author of
Targets
of Hatred