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):


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.

“So what scares you most?” I ask Burkhart on opening day. We’re now in the front office. Around us, young staffers preparing for the facility’s first scheduled patient keep rechecking compliance forms and testing the pens in the clipboards to make sure they work. They check to make sure a taxi company will pick up at the center. (It will.) My own preoccupation has been checking for protesters. I haven’t seen even one, which is very weird. Trust me, there are always protesters. Burkhart, though, is focused on the day’s mail—which looks like a lot of window envelopes. “You wouldn’t believe the crap,” she groans, thudding her body into a squeaky secretary’s chair. “My staffing agency dumped me. Local banks don’t want to give the business a line of credit. Politicians keep coming up with new, ridiculous, expensive rules.” Burkhart, who is the clinic’s director but not a doctor, waves a wad of envelopes. “Bills, bills and more bills. I know I am providing services that Midwestern women need. We’re the only abortion provider for 200 miles in any direction. But sometimes I worry I am going to be killed by regulation and red tape.”

Though never easy, the business environment for abortion providers became strikingly more difficult in 1992, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision affirming that states have the right to restrict access to the procedure, says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights think tank. Still, for nearly two decades, legislative restrictions focused mostly on creating obstacles for women who want to end their pregnancies: waiting periods, counseling, ultrasounds, payment out of pocket even if they are insured. But since 2010, when Tea Party fervor produced a 22 percent increase in the number of state legislative seats held by Republicans, there has been an exponential increase in legislation to defund medical clinics that offer abortion services (particularly those operated by Planned Parenthood) and in the passing of so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. What TRAP has created is a plethora of new rules governing abortion clinics. “Rules,” says Donna Crane, vice president of public policy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, “that have nothing to do with women’s safety but instead are designed to drive doctors out of practice”—say, regulating the size of clinics’ closets and the number of parking spaces they provide.

Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services, which Burkhart renamed the South Wind Women’s Center (for Kansa, the Native American tribe often known as “the people of the south wind”), had never received public money. And a federal judge blocked the TRAP laws that the Kansas legislature passed in 2011 from going into effect. But though she hasn’t had to deal with either of those problems, Burkhart says that since the day she announced the reopening of the clinic, she has been battered by a stunningly potent next-generation weapon in the fight against abortion: the legal complaint.

“No matter how bizarre or ridiculous, we have to respond to every one the other side files,” she says. In her case, “the other side” is most frequently Operation Rescue, which, according to its leader, Troy Newman, moved its headquarters from California to Wichita in 2002 specifically to “stop late-term abortionist George Tiller from getting away with murder.” The group complained to the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts (KSBHA) that the nascent South Wind facility lacked proper licenses and—because its physicians commute to Wichita for shifts—could not adequately care for patients. One by one, she batted back the allegations. Then, just as the clinic reopened last April—the day I visited, in fact, though she didn’t tell me what was distressing her until later—Burkhart was hit with a subpoena from the KSBHA demanding South Wind’s management and lease agreements. An operatic back-and-forth ensued over whether the clinic was meeting various codes. Three months later, Operation Rescue filed a 434-page complaint against Trust Women with the Federal Election Commission, accusing Burkhart’s group of engaging in political activity without registering properly, submitting reports through an unauthorized treasurer and using PAC funds and resources to operate a “for profit” business.

For profit? “If only,” Burkhart wisecracks, and then laughs, hollowly. “It used to be a bifurcated war against abortion rights.” Laws and regulations from establishment activists. Harassment and terror from street activists. Since reopening, she says, she has seen a kind of merging of those tactics, as opponents like Operation Rescue who once relied on street theater and intimidation now also deliver incessant legal blows.

The South Wind Women’s Center has passed some undeniable milestones during its first year—doubling its physician staff, expanding into services for LGBTQ people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and those who are questioning their sexual orientation) and beginning negotiations for a second site (in a bordering state with very few providers). But the clinic has also had to deal with the investigation by the KSBHA. South Wind’s ads were dropped by a radio network—“They finally let us back on after we collected 70,000 signatures and had a series of meetings,” Burkhart says—and utility companies that worked with the clinic have been threatened with boycotts.

“Bottom line: We opened April 3. We blew through our annual legal budget by June,” she says now. “We’ve wound up spending double what we expected on lawyers and ­accountants. The antis are trying to end abortion rights the 21st-century ­American way: by making abortion providers go bankrupt.”

The Great Recession of 2007–09 hit Burkhart’s family hard. “Wichita lost one third of its jobs, including his,” she says, pointing at her husband, Keith Sellers, a quality engineer at an aerospace firm, who, on the clinic’s opening day, is examining some wires poking out of a wall. The family—they have a daughter, now 13—limped along on Burkhart’s nonprofit salary for about a year. Sellers traveled to gigs in Alabama, Oklahoma, wherever he could find them. Burkhart stayed in Wichita with their child and grew ProKanDo into the state’s largest PAC during the depths of the financial crisis and the final days of the notably antiabortion George W. Bush administration. The group was credited with helping elect Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat (and now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services), in 2002 and 2006 and with increasing the number of pro-choice state house members, no easy feat in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two to one.

I ask Burkhart what kept her going, and so successfully, through all these challenges. “Given these problems, this must be a deep calling for you,” I say.

Burkhart laughs—smirks, really—suggesting she thinks “calling” is a corny idea, even though much of what she then says belies that conclusion. “If you would have looked at my life between birth and maybe five years of age, you probably would have thought I’d have been married to a farmer in northern Oklahoma. But my parents got divorced, we moved, and my mother started engaging in second-wave feminism. So I grew up thinking about injustice and how to solve it.” Burkhart’s mother, LaRilla Combs, a retired early-childhood-education coordinator, remembers it a little differently. “Yes, I became involved in feminism, but Julie was always just Julie,” she says. In second grade, she came home in a rage because the teacher had needed to move a piano and asked only the boys to help. “When we got Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be You and Me record, wow, I thought she was going to wear that thing out,” says Combs.

Brenna Davis, COO of a Wichita aerospace-parts supplier, has been friends with Burkhart since they were in 10th grade. Back in the ’80s, the two traveled together. These days they and other girlfriends have regular women’s art nights, when they paint and sculpt.

“Julie is a very gentle, compassionate person who has always been focused on helping others,” Davis says. “She was raised that way...But after Julie returned from college in Seattle, she was bolder about her politics. I think living in a place where her politics and ideas were mainstream strengthened her resolve, sharpened her focus. It made her feel like women in Wichita deserve everything women in Seattle have. It made her feel really sure her ideas are not ‘out there.’ ”

The summer between her sophomore and junior years as a political science major at Seattle Pacific University, Burkhart came home and applied for jobs at all three abortion clinics then operating in Wichita. For an activist, that made sense: In 1988, abortion was where the political action was. During the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta that summer, Operation Rescue, then a new group, pioneered the use of civil disobedience to blockade U.S. abortion clinics, often by mimicking babies and crawling across parking lots to clinic doors. Some 1,300 “Baby Does” (like infants, they didn’t carry identification) were arrested and made the nightly news for weeks.

A year later, the Wichita Women’s Center, which was located a few miles downtown from Tiller’s clinic, offered Burkhart an internship. She jumped at it. “Theoretically, I knew that if you don’t have the right to choose whether or not to have a child, you really don’t have any rights at all,” she says. “But what I didn’t understand until I worked at that clinic was the total, complete desperation of women who are pregnant and don’t want to be. Within days I could not imagine working at anything else.” As soon as she graduated, Burkhart returned to the Wichita clinic full time.

What Burkhart did not know was that her hometown was about to become ground zero for America’s abortion wars.

In 1991, Operation Rescue decided to best its performance in Atlanta with a “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita. The “rescuers,” as they call themselves, chose that city specifically because Tiller’s late-term practice was located there, but the busloads of antiabortion protesters who arrived in town targeted all three clinics, including the one where Burkhart worked. In ­response, the clinics rescheduled abortion appointments to take place at dawn or at night. Some workers, fearing they would never get past the mobs outside their doors, slept at their facilities. Still, the protesters managed to shut down all three of Wichita’s abortion clinics for a week. The siege lasted a month and a half, until the governor called out federal marshals to restore order. A d├ętente followed, but it didn’t last.

America’s war over abortion was entering its most violent period. From 1993 through 1994, there were at least seven attempted murders (including the first shooting of Tiller), five murders and several clinic bombings. In 1994, Burkhart decided to take a break. She returned to Seattle to run political campaigns for local progressive candidates. She also began taking all the science courses she needed to go to medical school.

But the day before Burkhart was due to take her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), her phone “wouldn’t stop ringing,” she says. And the news was horrifying. Her stepsister had been murdered. By her boyfriend. With a baseball bat. “I was reeling. I mean, we thought he was a nice guy,” she says. Long story short: Burkhart never sat for the MCAT. “I still regret not going to medical school,” she says. “I wound up spending most of my career in women’s health. It would be very good for me to be a doctor.”

Burkhart returned home to Wichita and to abortion work. “I needed to be very close to everything and everyone I cared about,” she says. “I guess that included work.” She spent two years at the local Planned Parenthood. Then, the year Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman moved to town, George Tiller asked her to run ProKanDo.

Burkhart has to cut off her story because “a security guy is coming to fix a security thing” at her house. “I’ve got to meet him because I’ve gotten some threats,” she says, as calmly as if explaining her dishwasher is on the fritz. She’s referring to the giant cross that appeared one day on her lawn and to Mark Holick, pastor of Spirit One Christian Ministry, a self-described “church without walls” that has an aggressive antiabortion agenda. Holick has handed out to her neighbors wanted-style flyers calling her an “abortion-homicide leader.” He has repeatedly walked the perimeter of her clinic (which “feels like stalking,” Burkhart says), and he has shouted through a bullhorn at her, “Where’s your church?”—perhaps in the hope of saving her soul but perhaps as an implied threat, given that George Tiller was gunned down at his place of worship. (Holick has not responded to requests for comment.)

After running Tiller’s ProKanDo for seven years and serving on the front lines of America’s abortion wars for the better part of two decades, Burkhart quit in March 2009. “It wasn’t that I was tired of working for women’s rights and talking about abortion, but I was feeling boxed in,” she says back at her house. “I thought I needed to do something bigger, maybe broader.” So that April, Burkhart became executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition and moved with her daughter to St. Louis. (Her husband was back and forth to jobs in other cities.) Then, on May 31, Burkhart was at a political meeting in Washington, D.C., when, in an eerie echo of the day she learned about her stepsister, her cell phone “would not stop vibrating,” she says. This time, the messages were from her former coworkers at ProKanDo. “Something bad has happened,” read one text. “Call!” read another.

George Tiller had been murdered. “It sounds strange,” she says, “but my brain accepted that he was dead. Maybe it was all those years of incessant threats. What I couldn’t believe was that the clinic was closed. Women in Wichita had no access to abortion.” (The two other clinics there had gone out of business years earlier.) “Shortly after the funeral, a bunch of us who worked with Dr. Tiller sat around [his widow’s] living room, and we were like, ‘We’ll reopen. We’ll do it!’ But that was so pie in the sky. Frantic. Grief talk. Mixed up. No plan.” Burkhart re-turned to her job in St. Louis.

“I sat there, and I just kept thinking, Someone will step up. Someone has to step up.”

It took nearly a year, but in 2010 a Wichita family practitioner, Mila Means, announced she would train to do abortions. Operation Rescue protesters immediately began demonstrating outside Means’s office. Her landlord sued to prevent her from “creating a disturbance and a nuisance.” Angel Dillard, an antiabortion activist who has visited Tiller’s assassin many times in prison, sent Means a letter saying that if she became an abortion provider, she would be checking under her car every day—“because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” A judge ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that Dillard’s warning meant that violence against the doctor was likely or imminent, and that her letter was free speech and did not violate the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Means gave up on her plan.

Back in St. Louis, in those difficult months after Tiller died, Burkhart spent her days trying to make a success of her new job (it wasn’t going well, she admits, even before Tiller was shot). She spent her nights trying to figure out the best way to honor the memory of her former boss and mentor. In July she started her PAC, Trust Women. “I guess I thought we’d raise money for—” Burkhart stops, shrugging. “The truth is, I was lost. My new job wasn’t working. A long-­distance commuter marriage wasn’t working...I said to my husband, ‘Let’s go home to Wichita.’ ”

Where, Burkhart says, no one was “stepping up.”

The loss of Tiller’s clinic created a veritable “abortion desert” in a 400-square-mile region across two states in the center of the nation. “I think that should be unbelievable,” Burkhart says. “Third World stuff. I mean, seriously—we are going to be a country that forces Midwestern American women to be pregnant?”

Not everyone agrees that an absence of abortion providers should be unbelievable. “Julie is killing babies,” Troy Newman tells me at his organization’s headquarters, just two miles from Burk­hart’s facility, which once housed Wichita’s Central Women’s Services abortion clinic. He says that ultimately he and Burkhart may want the same things. He muses that, like him, she may be “tired of our country full of war and death and funerals,” that she wants “a steady job, a house, enough to survive and see her grandkids.”

“Sure, I believe she thinks she’s doing the right thing,” he adds. But what she’s doing for a living is “an intrinsic evil.”

 “I wouldn’t be here if my mother had exercised her ‘choice,’  ” the boyish-looking 48-year-old says. Wearing shorts (he’s just back from his morning yoga session), Newman pops up and down from his desk, talking animatedly. His office is decorated with hunting paraphernalia, a paperweight containing a hologram of an aborted fetus, a bumper sticker that says GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE, ABORTION CLINICS KILL PEOPLE.

Raised in San Diego, Newman became a born-again Christian during high school, he says, then worked as an engineer for defense contractors into his midtwenties. In 1990 a friend showed him a pamphlet about abortion. “I had never thought about what that was,” he says. “But once I did, I couldn’t believe it. A freaking holocaust!” That friend took Newman to a protest. Operation Rescue was in its heyday, but then with the Clinton presidency came legislation that penalized, via fines and jail sentences, the blocking of access to abortion clinics. Newman, who soon became a rising star in the organization, says he quickly lost faith in rescue as a tactic.

“It came to me when I was sitting in the Placentia city jail in California after a rescue,” he says, palming his fetus paperweight. “I thought, We need to be more effective. So let’s focus in. What’s the weak link in the abortion chain? Well, it’s the abortionists. And what is your ultimate goal? Close the clinic.” So Newman focused in. First, he took out newspaper ads: “Reward! For information leading to the arrest and conviction of abortionist George Tiller. Do you know of: Insurance fraud? Botched abortion? Tax evasion? Sexual harassment or rape? Substance abuse?” Then he went after “abortion collaborators,” meaning anyone who did business with someone working at an abortion clinic—dry cleaners, grocery stores, etc. Finally, he says, he began investigating.

“Today 80 percent of what we do is focus on the enforcement of the law, and 20 percent is tweaking the laws to enhance enforcement,” Newman says. “We complain. We demand inspections. We uncover deficiencies, evasions, criminality.”

So far, Burkhart’s only sanctions appear to have come from the Federal Election Committee, which fined her PAC $4,268 for filing issues such as a missed deadline—infractions she says the FEC had already notified her about before Newman filed his massive complaint.

“It’s harassment,” Burkhart says. “Pure and simple.”

“It’s a tactic,” Newman says. “Legal and effective.”

Since opening a year ago, South Wind has performed 1,000 abortions. But the center has also had heavy demand for long-acting contraception, such as Depo-Provera. Whether the opposition is being litigious or violent, the best defense, Burkhart says, “is making abortion part of the medical mainstream. When something is alone, an outlier, it has a target mark on it.” So Burkhart is part of a trend, pioneered by Planned Parenthood, of treating abortion as just one of many gynecological services. An abortion clinic in Buffalo, for -example, recently added a birthing center. Trust Women is working hard to make sure its facilities are as full service as possible. “Lactation consulting, STI and cancer screening, infertility counseling, prenatal care—all that stuff,” Burkhart says, adding that Midwestern American women should have access to complete medical care. “Anything less is sick.”

At long last, she finally appears. South Wind Women’s Center’s first patient. She’s a weary-looking woman who seems to be in her twenties. Maybe her breasts are a little full with an early pregnancy, maybe not. I can’t really tell. Burkhart’s staffers are almost excessively nice as three of them hand her a clipboard with, yes, a tested and fully functional pen. She fills out forms. It turns out she doesn’t want an abortion. She wants “options counseling.”

Burkhart grins as her nurse takes the woman back to a private room.

“We’re in business!” she whispers.

“You are,” I say.

“I know you are scared for me,” she says.

“I am.”

“It’s sweet.”

“It’s visceral,” I say. “Deeply, painfully felt.”

“I’m not cavalier. I know, you know”—she pauses—“what has happened, what can happen. But think about what would be really scary: me, out of business.” 

AMANDA ROBB is a frequent contributor to More.  

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First Published Thu, 2014-02-06 16:28

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