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Archive for Monday, June 18, 2001

Summer of Mercy’ to return to Wichita

City, police brace for abortion protests

June 18, 2001

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— A national group is inviting people back to Wichita this summer for a second "Summer of Mercy" to fight abortion.

"It is time to go back. This time we finish it," says a message on the Web site of Operation Save America, which is organizing the "Summer of Mercy Renewal."

The event started with prayer meetings last week and will culminate the week of July 15-21 with rallies at churches and outside the only clinic where abortions are performed in Wichita.

During the original Summer of Mercy in 1991, protesters blocked entrances to abortion clinics and forced their way inside one of the clinics. Police and federal marshals made thousands of arrests in just more than six weeks.

Some Wichitans who plan to participate in this year's effort say they will withdraw their support if it again involves civil disobedience and conflicts with police.

"We're encouraging our people to participate in prayer, peaceful demonstration and other scheduled activities, but we are not going to participate in rescues or any type of civil disobedience," said Larry Wren, an associate pastor at Westlink Christian Church. "Should those things take place, we will withdraw our participation and our support."

Staff members of Central Christian Church, where many of the evening rallies are scheduled to be held, said that the congregation also will support only peaceful protests.

Leaders of Operation Save America say the event is necessary because abortions are rising in Wichita and Kansas.

Abortions performed in Kansas have increased 22 percent in the past 10 years, from 10,141 in 1991 to 12,323 last year. At the same time, abortions nationwide have fallen to their lowest point in 20 years.

Nearly half the patients who obtained abortions in Kansas last year came from out of state, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Most came from Missouri.

"We have to continue to expose what's going on here. We can't cover up the fact that we have the best-known third-trimester abortionist in the nation," said Donna Lippoldt, Wichita director of Operation Save America, in reference to George Tiller.

Tiller is one of the few physicians in the country who performs late-term abortions, and he draws patients from across the country. Tiller's clinic was bombed in 1985 and he was shot by an abortion protester in 1993.

Pro-choice response

Members of the Wichita Choice Alliance say they are organizing to keep Tiller's clinic open during the protests.

"We're going to let these bullies know that they're not going to come into our city and take it over like they did in 1991," said Julie Burkhart, co-chair of the group and community affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

Clergy who support abortion rights, who formed a group called Religious Leaders for Choice in 1991, are concerned that the protests will again polarize the city and possibly become violent.

"There's not a Christian side to this," said the Rev. Gary Cox, pastor of University Congregational Church and an abortion rights supporter. "There are people of faith on both sides."

Tiller is featured prominently on the Web sites of Operation Save America and its Wichita group.

On the national Web site, operationsaveamerica.org, Tiller is pictured with an article that begins: "Take a good look at the man in the photograph. You are looking at the face of death."

Burkhart said that kind of language is "an invitation for extremists to come into our community and do our community harm."

Dick Kelsey, executive director of the Wichita Alliance of Evangelical Churches, said he doesn't think the Web site advocates violence or civil disobedience.

"They're advocating intense prayer, intense spiritual commitment," he said. "These folks are intently committed to saving babies, but I don't hear them saying, 'Let's go bomb a clinic to do it."'

Police learned lessons

Wichita Deputy Police Chief Stephen Cole said the department is better prepared to handle this type of protest than it was 10 years ago.

"I think we've gotten better at dealing with these types of things," Cole said. "And I think the protesters have gotten a little more sophisticated in the way they protest, the way they get their message across."

Police are staying in close contact with the protest's organizers to try and get an idea of how many people will be involved.

"We want to protect the rights of the protesters so they're allowed to be heard without interfering with people trying to enter the clinic," Cole said. "We've got to balance the rights of both sides and, at the same, protect the security of our officers."

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