This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!
On May 31, 2009, Julie Burkhart, executive director of ProKanDo, was in Washington, D.C., to strategize with other women’s health-care advocates about keeping abortion safe and accessible. ProKanDo is the pro-choice political-action committee founded by Dr. George Tiller, one of the few U.S. physicians performing later abortions at the time.
Four months earlier, Barack Obama had been sworn in as U.S. president, and anti-choice forces appeared to be mobilizing their resources and passions toward state houses and even city halls. In Kansas, the Legislature had just passed a bill to allow prosecutors to file criminal charges and husbands to file civil suits against doctors who performed late-term abortions on women for medical reasons. Fortunately, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius vetoed it. But Burkhart expected the fight—especially in Kansas—to go on and on. After all, the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue had moved its headquarters to Wichita just to try to “close” Dr. Tiller’s “business,” which included terminating late-term pregnancies because of fetal abnormalities and/or maternal health issues.
At her meeting in the nation’s capital, Burkhart’s phone started to vibrate and wouldn’t stop. Finally, she peeked down at the texts filling her screen: At church that morning, they read, Dr. Tiller had been shot and killed.
Burkhart first heard of Dr. Tiller in the late 1980s, when she began working at a Wichita abortion clinic during her summers home from college. “Of course I always knew that some people opposed abortion,” Burkhart says. “But it was shocking to realize that I really had to fight to keep my own community a place where it was accessible. Because when you work in a clinic and you hear story after story after story, abortion isn’t an ‘issue,’ it’s something women simply need to have available to them.”
Burkhart began to feel so strongly about women’s health care that she wanted to become a physician. But the day before she was to take her MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), the body of Burkhart’s stepsister, who had been missing for a week, was discovered; she had been killed by her partner. “I didn’t know he was violent,” Burkhart says. “And I was absolutely heartbroken to discover that she had been so alone with that. I’d spent a lot of my life trying to help women not to be alone.”
Burkhart needed to fight for women again, and Dr. Tiller gave her the opportunity. “In 2002, he wanted to start a political-action committee to help elect Kathleen Sebelius governor [and pro-choice state legislators]. We turned out to be very effective in not just supporting candidates, but really educating legislators [about women’s health care and abortion rights]—cutting through often crazy political rhetoric and just providing useful medical facts. Right here in Kansas we wound up with a pro-choice Senate for years.”
All of those hard-won successes felt like they didn’t matter very much when Scott Roeder ended George Tiller’s life.
“I stopped abortion in Wichita,” Scott Roeder proudly told a reporter at the city jail shortly before his conviction. And he was by and large correct: As 2013 begins, a handful of private Wichita providers offer the procedure to their own patients, but since the day Dr. Tiller died, most women in the city have had to drive three hours if they want to terminate a pregnancy.
Publicly, Operation Rescue president Troy Newman denounced Dr. Tiller’s murder as a “cowardly act” and falsely claimed that his group had no ties to Roeder. Nonetheless, if any provider tries to resume Dr. Tiller’s work, the level of protest will be “beyond anything anyone could imagine,” Newman told The New York Times.
In 2011, a local family doctor, Mila Means, thought she could simply add abortion to her practice, so she bought some of Dr. Tiller’s equipment and trained with a Kansas City abortion provider. But suddenly she could not find a landlord willing to rent her office space and was hit with an onslaught of threats, including a letter from Scott Roeder’s friend and fellow anti-abortion extremist, Angel Dillard, who wrote, “You will be checking under your car every day— because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” For now, Means has put her plans on hold.
Two months after Dr. Tiller was killed, Julie Burkhart started Trust Women, a nonprofit she named after the pin Dr. Tiller wore every day. The organization’s mission is to continue the physician’s life’s work: provide access to abortion services and improve maternal health. Last August, Trust Women bought Dr. Tiller’s Wichita clinic and made plans to open the South Wind Women’s Center. Beginning this spring, it will offer comprehensive women’s health care—including first- and early-second-trimester abortions. Burkhart has already hired staff, including two ob-gyns and one family doctor.
Burkhart certainly knows that now is a very tough time, and Wichita, Kan., a very tough place, to open a new abortion clinic. The state currently has an anti-choice Assembly, Senate and governor. In the summer of 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a TRAP law that gave the state’s three existing abortion clinics (all in the metropolitan Kansas City area) just 11 days to comply with 36 pages of new regulations. A federal judge has blocked the new rules from going into effect until a suit against the law goes to trial, but other anti-choice efforts have followed.
The most terrifying thing for any abortion provider is, of course, the constant threat of violence. Burkhart has endured it for years: harassing phone calls and hate mail, endless nails in her tires. A giant cross was recently erected in her backyard. Troy Newman has been seen stalking the perimeter of the South Wind property. Anti-abortion “pastor” Mark Holick organized picketing in front of Burkhart’s home and has published a WANTED-style poster of her, accusing her of being “instrumental in the homicide of thousands of innocent children.”
Burkhart is often asked, “You have a young child—a daughter—how can you do this?” Burkhart feels the answer is obvious: “I have a young child—a daughter—how can I not do this?” She is very fortunate, she says, to have had the benefit of Dr. Tiller’s friendship, leadership and wisdom. “His office was covered with sayings,” Burkhart recalls, such as, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
But the Tiller-ism that is especially speaking to Burkhart’s heart right now is this: “It’s never too late to do the next right thing.”
Photo by Jeff Tuttle