Kansas' Abortion Past Could Foretell Its Future
The incident Julie Burkhart remembers most clearly about the 1991 Summer of Mercy is the man who attached himself to the front gate of a Wichita abortion clinic using a U-lock.
Burkhart was a college student working at one of the three abortion clinics open in Wichita at the time. Today, she runs the one of two clinics left in the city.
That incident sticks out, she said, because the man was balancing on his feet, legs bent under his buttocks in a precarious position.
“I kept thinking, 'Oh, my goodness, if his feet were to come out from underneath him, he would strangle himself,’” she said.
Throughout the summer of 1991, anti-abortion protesters went to all kinds of lengths to stop abortions at Wichita’s three clinics — blocking doors, standing and lying in front of cars, bringing out their children, filling parking lots and sidewalks outside Wichita clinics.
An anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue, which gained prominence after the1988 Democratic NationalConvention, chose Wichita as its target for the summer of 1991 mostly because it was the home of George Tiller, one of a few physicians in the country performing abortions terminating third-trimester pregnancies.
Buses brought protesters in by the hundreds. Police made thousands of arrests. National and international news outlets came to cover the spectacle.
Those protests, and the political changes they brought, transformed Kansas from a state where late-term abortions happened to one of the most abortion-restrictive states in the country.
That legacy continues to shape Kansas, even as coming changes at the state and federal level could reshape how the country, and the state, handle one of America’s most contentious and stubborn debates.
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement in June, it lit up the national conversation on abortion seemingly overnight.
President Donald Trump has said he plans to appoint justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion. And if Roe is overturned, that kicks decisions on abortion laws down to the state level. With Kennedy on the court, Roe appeared safe. With a Trump appointee in his place, that precedent could fall.
Since 1991, Kansas has passed a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Minors need their parents’ permission for abortions. Ultrasounds are mandated. Insurance companies, both private and state-funded plans, are barred from covering abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger.
Back in the summer of 1991, protesters gathered at the Wichita Plaza Hotel in the evenings. Protest leaders would recap the day’s events, lead prayers and sing songs.
But in the back of the room, other anti-abortion activists had long tables set up to sign up Wichitans to run for party precinct committee positions.
Mark Gietzen manned one of those tables in the evenings. During the day, he was out at the protests with his three-ring binder, signing up protesters to get involved at the most local level.
“They were ready to come out with the pitchforks,” he said. “But you don't have a revolution when you have a constitution.”
Turning protest into political action worked for Gietzen and other organizers. The next year, moderate Republicans started losing their seats in the Kansas Legislature to more conservative, anti-abortion challengers.
The laws didn’t change overnight. Mary Kay Culp, head of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, said the group has played a long game to elect like-minded politicians determined to change laws.
“An election is kind of like a photograph,” she said. “ You take the best photograph you can at the time, and then your job between then and the next two years when you get another one of those photographs is aiming to make it a better photograph.”
But lawmakers could only push restrictions so far. The Roe decision ruled that the U.S. Constitution holds a right to privacy protecting abortion, limiting what states can do to restrict it.
So the future of abortion rests largely with the courts.
The Kansas Supreme Court heard a case last year on whether the state constitution guarantees a right to abortion.
That’s critical. Because if the U.S. Supreme court tilts right and overrules the decision made in Roe, abortion regulations will be decided at the state level.
That means Kansas’ current laws would stand, and the state could pass restrictions on common second-term procedure abortions, “heartbeat legislation” that outlaws an abortion after a fetus' heartbeat can be detected, or other regulations that have previously been swatted down by state and federal courts.
If the state’s high court finds Kansans have a right to abortion, the Legislature won’t be able to impose more restrictions and existing rules would crumble away.
“If they find that there is this, quote, ‘right to abortion’ in our state constitution,” Culp said, “we could lose every single one of the laws we've passed that have cut abortions in half here.”
If Roe falls, and the Kansas Supreme Court upholds a right to abortion, activists like Culp will turn to a state constitutional amendment.
For that, they’re hoping they can fall back on decades of work in local and state politics to make Kansas one of the most abortion-restrictive states in the country.
“Abortion is not good for women, it's not good for babies — obviously,” Culp said. “So we just keep trying.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of clinics in Wichita where women can obtain abortions. Both Trust Women and Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains operate clinics in Wichita.
Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service contributed to this report.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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