Shortly after the family of slain physician George Tiller announced Tuesday that his abortion clinic would be shuttered forever, the police cruiser that had been a fixture in the clinic’s driveway was gone.
The gate was open, the parking lot empty and someone had hung a large red-and-white banner inside the clinic’s perimeter fence: “Wichita Stands with Dr. Tiller. 35 Years of Saving Women’s Lives.”
Here, on a freeway frontage road, ground zero of the abortion wars for nearly three decades, there was, it seemed, nothing left to fight over.
Now the national conversation over legalized abortion has shifted away from Women’s Health Care Services, the beige one-story building where Tiller practiced -- as one of only a handful of physicians in the country who performed late-term abortions.
Many Wichitans -- even those who have dedicated their lives to the issue -- say they have wearied of the abortion wars that had been fought continuously on their doorstep until Tiller was gunned down in his church lobby May 31.
“It’s called ‘abortion fatigue,’ ” said Troy Newman, president of the Wichita-based antiabortion group Operation Rescue. After Tiller was killed, Newman said, “I couldn’t sleep for the first two days, then for the next three I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
The head of a political action committee founded by Tiller has seen the emotional fatigue as well. “There is that level of people wanting to tune it all out and not having to deal with it,” said Julie Burkhart, director of the group, ProKanDo. Burkhart, who said she was devastated by Tiller’s death, added, “I can’t blame them.”
Still, the fight continues.
Abortion foes, energized by a Gallup poll last month that found a slim majority of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life” for the first time since 1995, and worried that the Obama administration will make abortion access part of healthcare reform, are on the defensive.
They should not be blamed for Tiller’s slaying, they say, despite years of heated rhetoric that branded Tiller a “baby-killer.” They will not be silenced, they say.
Nor will they allow increased federal law enforcement attention to the issue of violence against abortion providers result in what Newman called “a witch hunt” against abortion opponents.
Those committed to providing abortion services, many of whom are disappointed but understanding about the Tiller family’s decision to close, vow that the killing will not deter them. And they hope that Tiller’s death will inspire young doctors to replenish the shrinking (and graying) ranks of abortion providers.
“I am currently exploring every option to be able to continue to make second- and early, medically indicated third-term abortions available,” said Tiller associate LeRoy Carhart in a statement. Carhart, a Nebraska physician, performed abortions at Tiller’s clinic on a rotating basis with two California doctors.
Warren Hern, one of the few remaining doctors in the U.S. who perform late-term abortions, said that the closing was understandable and was “the hideous consequence of 30 years of harassment.” This week, he said, he has begun to see some of Tiller’s patients at his clinic in Boulder, Colo.
Among the many things that may come out of the tragedy is “the recognition that more physicians need to step up and provide abortion care,” said Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas & Mid-Missouri.
Brownlie said that with the closure of Tiller’s clinic, Wichita joins the ranks of cities that have no abortion providers at all.
“There is no place between Kansas City and Denver,” he said. That’s a distance of more than 550 miles.
Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation, said she expected that more doctors would resolve to provide abortion services.
The closing of Tiller’s clinic, she added, “was what the extremist wing of the antiabortion movement wanted. But this is not a victory for them.”
And some of those foes have found themselves in a difficult position.
After Scott Roeder, 51, was arrested on suspicion of murdering Tiller, a news crew photographed a piece of paper with the name and phone number of Operation Rescue’s senior policy advisor, Cheryl Sullenger, on the front seat of his car. In 1988, Sullenger and her husband were convicted of conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic. She spent two years in prison. Her past had led to questions, particularly on outlets such as Daily Kos and MSNBC: Was she connected to Roeder?
On Monday, Sullenger said that Roeder was one of many people who called her for information about the scheduling and location of Tiller’s recent criminal trial.
When Sullenger learned that her name and number had been found in Roeder’s car, she said: “I felt like somebody kicked me in the gut. My husband and I were actually pretty devastated because we know it would start a witch hunt against us.
“I did make some bad choices, and I paid the full price. I have worked hard to build a reputation in the pro-life movement working within the law and peacefully. I haven’t done anything wrong this time, and yet I am still being treated as if I had.”
“They only have themselves to blame,” said Tiller’s attorney, Dan Monnat, who in March won Tiller acquittal on charges that he had broken Kansas abortion laws.
“I have the utmost respect for freedom of speech,” Monnat said, “but when you consider the hate language heaped upon Dr. Tiller by commentators and anti-choice zealots -- calling him a murderer and an operator of death camps responsible for the massacre of thousands of babies -- then I think you have to ask whether that constitutes . . . liability.”
Meanwhile, some in Wichita are looking for closure.
“We want to get along with the business of healing our community,” said Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. “We’re interested in putting resources together to solve the crime and bring the appropriate people to justice.”
Kate Linthicum and DeeDee Correll contributed to this report.