Julie Burkhart: The Woman Who Won't Back Down

When Dr. George Tiller was killed by an assassin’s bullet, women in Wichita were left without a safe place to get an abortion. One year ago this April, his friend and former employee reopened the clinic. Now she herself is under attack, though not exactly in the way you might think

by Amanda Robb
julie burkhart more magazine march 2014 story
Photograph: Dan Winters

“Aren’t you scared?”

That’s everyone’s favorite question, Julie Burkhart tells me. It’s April 2013, and we have just entered the secure perimeter of her workplace, a parking lot protected on three sides by an eight-foot-high fence. At one end of the lot squats a bunker-like structure that’s windowless, in case of bombs. Inside, an armed ex-Marine buzzes us through two sets of auto-lock doors and a metal detector. Burkhart ambles past his at-attention body. “Hey,” she says with a wave.

“The last person who had your job was shot in the head,” I continue as we enter the lobby. “At church. Where he died.”

“Yeah, I’m terrified,” Burkhart responds. But for someone who has just run this intense security gauntlet simply to enter her own place of business in its first week of operation, Burkhart, 48, has an almost defiantly casual air. Her jeans are slightly sagging, her cowboy boots are beat-up, and her flat affect makes it difficult to tell if her “I’m terrified” is sarcastic or serious or some sardonic Midwestern in-between.

We’re in the reception area now. It looks like a cross between a bank branch and a 12-step meeting room—gypsum ceiling panels, bulletproof customer-service windows, a poster of aphorisms (or, as the staff likes to say, Tillerisms):

THE ONLY REQUIREMENT FOR EVIL TO TRIUMPH IS FOR THE PEOPLE TO DO NOTHING.
GLORY MAY BE FLEETING BUT MEDIOCRITY IS FOREVER.
SOLUTIONS, NOT PROBLEMS.

For more than 25 years, the man who favored those maxims, George Tiller, MD, was America’s best-known abortion provider. He operated his practice, which was especially controversial because it included very late-term procedures, out of this Wichita, Kansas, facility. Before he was killed by an antiabortion activist on May 31, 2009, the doctor was the target of an online report that tracked his location and activities, regular cable-TV vilification (Fox newscaster Bill O’Reilly referred to the physician as “Tiller the baby killer”), a clinic firebombing and, in 1993, a shooting that wounded him in both arms. From 2002 to 2009, Burkhart was the CEO of Tiller’s political action committee, ProKanDo, which was dedicated to helping elect Kansas politicians who supported abortion rights. A month after his murder, Burkhart started a PAC named for the most ubiquitous Tillerism, the one the doctor wore on a lapel pin every day: trust women. In April 2013, her similarly named foundation reopened the center, which had been shuttered since the day Tiller died.

Burkhart’s friend and boss was the eighth American in two ­decades—including doctors, receptionists, a clinic escort and a security guard—to be murdered by antiabortion activists. An uncle of mine, Bart Slepian, MD, killed in 1998, was the seventh. Since then I’ve done a lot of reporting on abortion and abortion violence, which is why I was there, about a year ago, to witness Burkhart’s first week in business—the first week there had been an abortion clinic operating in Wichita, home to the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue, in four years. What I witnessed during my visit was indeed disquieting, though not at all in the way I’d expected.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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