Wichita A woman who once ran the political action committee for high-profile abortion provider George Tiller is raising funds to open a clinic in Wichita, where he was murdered more than two years ago.
Julie Burkhart, now executive director of the St. Louis-based lobbying group Trust Women, said Tuesday she hopes to open a clinic that offers first-trimester abortions and other women's health services in Wichita in about a year. The group is trying to recruit a qualified doctor.
"Wichita is a spot that has been targeted by the anti-choice movement relentlessly for the past 20 years and we have to be able to stand our ground and say enough is enough," Burkhart said.
Although much-touted plans by others to open abortion clinics in Wichita after Tiller's death have yet to come to fruition, Burkhart's efforts are being taken more seriously by some longtime abortion opponents who call her "Tiller's right arm and his fundraiser." They saw Burkhart turn Tiller's political organization in 2002 into the state's top- spending PAC.
"We take it a little more seriously when Julie Burkhart says she is going to do it," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life.
Since Tiller's death and the trial of the anti-abortion activist convicted of killing him, Kansas has more recently drawn national attention for a new law requiring abortion providers to obtain a special annual license and accompanying health department regulations. Those are part of a wave of restrictions enacted across the country as abortion opponents capitalized on the election of Republican governors or GOP legislative majorities.
Tiller, one of the few doctors in the nation to provide late-term abortions, had been a target of both peaceful and violent protests long before his murder. He was shot and wounded in both arms in 1993 by an abortion opponent and his clinic was bombed in 1996. He was shot to death in May 2009 by another anti-abortion activist while he was serving as an usher in church.
No abortions have been openly performed in Wichita since Tiller's clinic was closed following his death. The three clinics in the state that provide abortions are all in the Kansas City area, about 200 miles from Wichita.
Burkhart said Trust Women has already raised in pledges about 25 percent of the half a million dollars needed to open the clinic. She declined to name her backers but said they included individual donors and a few foundations. She also said that security issues were the top priority to assure the safety of the medical staff.
Culp said Burkhart has the financial contacts and the backing of national abortion-rights supporters.
Others have made similar efforts in Wichita. Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who once performed abortions in Tiller's clinic, vowed shortly after the Kansas doctor's death to open a clinic in the city but instead decided to expand his Nebraska clinic to other states. More recently, Dr. Mila Means has said she wants to offer abortion services at her Wichita practice and is forming a nonprofit group to buy a building for the clinic.
"Everybody wants to raise money — but nobody is doing anything," said Troy Newman, president of the Wichita-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.
Newman dismissed Burkhart as "pretty much irrelevant."
"There are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the abortionists and then there are the talkers, they are just the proponents ... Julie Burkhart is just a low-level talker, that's all she is."
Newman said the clinic regulation measure is going to be the biggest deterrent for anyone opening an abortion clinic in Kansas.
The new health department regulations for abortion providers specify what drugs and equipment clinics must stock, require them to give the agency access to their medical records and set requirements for room sizes and temperatures. Two of the state's three abortion providers sued after they were unable to meet the new standards, and a federal judge has blocked the rules until their lawsuit is resolved.
But Burkhart said her history and her knowledge of Kansas will help her in Wichita.
"We know the lay of the land and in these times it is important to know the lay of the land," Burkhart said.
She noted that Kansas law now allows abortions after 22 weeks only on a very limited basis, and said her group has no plans to offer later terminations of pregnancies.
In a separate lawsuit, a federal judge on Tuesday set a hearing for Aug. 1 on a request by Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri for a temporary injunction blocking the state from cutting off its federal funding.
The Planned Parenthood chapter went to court over a state budget provision preventing it from receiving $331,000 in federal money for family planning. The money can't be used to finance abortion services, but abortion opponents have sought to cut off all funds because a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park performs abortions.