Revolution #169, June 28, 2009

Reporters Notebook from Wichita

On, May 31, when an anti-abortion assassin killed Dr. George Tiller, it was a huge loss to women everywhere. We lost a brave, skilled physician who was one of three doctors in the country that publicly specialized in late term abortions and saved thousands of women's lives. And Wichita lost its only abortion provider and clinic. Today, the nearest clinics that provide abortion services are in Tulsa, Oklahoma which is two hours away and Kansas City which is three hours away.  Wichita once had three abortion clinics, now it has none. In 1991, the Christian fascists vowed to make Wichita "an abortion free city"—a goal, which at this point, they have now achieved through cold-blooded murder. (More on Dr. Tiller and the morality and science of abortion at every stage of pregnancy, see Revolution newspaper issue #168.)

In 1975, two years after abortion became legal in this country, anti-women, anti-abortion forces started rabid picketing of Dr. Tiller's clinic. For decades thereafter Dr. Tiller, his family, and staff endured daily harassment, death threats, stalking, vandalism, bombings, and baseless lawsuits. A nodal point in the battle for abortion rights and one of the fiercest attacks on abortion access was in Wichita, in the summer of 1991. This was when the Christian fascist organizations Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League, organized a massive siege of Wichita abortion clinics, which they called "The Summer of Mercy." The events that summer had a lasting effect on people in Wichita and is still widely talked about.

I have been in Wichita to distribute and report for Revolution newspaper (see my first installment of Reporters Notebook from Wichita in Revolution issue #169). I had the opportunity to talk to some of the clinic supporters who were on the front lines of that battle. Two of the people I spoke with were Peggy (Jarman) Bowman and Julie Sheppard. During the summer of 1991, Peggy worked for Dr. Tiller as his public relations spokesperson and she also headed up the Pro Choice Action League, which organized volunteers for the clinic during the 1991 siege. She is the author of Fetus Fanatics, Memoir: When Government Collaborates with Anti-Choice Zealots, a book that documents the reactionary siege of Wichita in 1991. Bowman is now the director of the Second Chance Fund which is an organization that helps Kansas (and now Tulsa, Oklahoma) women who are seeking an abortion or emergency contraception. Julie was a clinic volunteer during the siege of Wichita and is currently the president of the board of the same fund. On their website they have a quote from an abortion provider that says: "There aren't 'women who have abortions' and 'women who have babies.' Those are the same women at different points in their lives."

The following is taken from the conversation I had with these two women:

Peggy (Jarman) Bowman: I never call it the "Summer of Mercy," I call it the "Siege of Wichita"… or the "Summer of Horror" because there was nothing merciful about how they [the anti-women/anti-abortion forces] acted and how they treated our patients.

Julie Sheppard: My daughter and I, we did a lot of protesting that summer to try to stop the [anti-abortion] protesters and protect the clinic and let it be known that there was a force to be reckoned with, and that they weren't going to come in here and completely stomp on us without anyone doing anything about it. Since the government wasn't stepping up, we were going to protect the clinic.

I had been at clinic support protests before. I was just flabbergasted, as a young adult that not everyone was pro choice. "Summer of Mercy" was not the beginning, there was more than one clinic back then (there were three clinics). We would go to different ones to show our support. But that was a horrible time. Everyone came out of the woodwork to help—at last. That summer we had to defend ourselves instead of just being a presence at the clinics. This was a new thing with people [the anti-abortionists] having banners and posters. My "favorite" was this girl that had a sign that said, "Dr. Killer killed two of my children," like she was sucked in there by some magnetic force. I also went to the Central clinic [another clinic in town at the time]. They were obstructing traffic, disturbing the peace. They came and stayed and the government did nothing.

Peggy (Jarman) Bowman: Day after day it was different. Women had to sit in a van and wait [to get into the clinic]. One day the police put the patients in their vans, drove pass the protesters, stopped in front of a clinic door that wasn't normally used, they jumped out and formed a line to the clinic door, and the patients in seconds got into the clinic. We all cheered. The next day the police were standing around doing nothing. The gate was blockaded by hundreds [of anti-abortionists], about 600, not counting the other hundreds across the street singing and carrying on. I think that was the single worst day of the siege. I asked the police when they were going to clear the path and they kept saying they were waiting for orders, they don't know when. Patients were in a line waiting to get in. We eventually worked it out with police so that they [the patients] would have to sneak behind the police to get in. We had escorts for the patients, they would have covers over the patients' heads so they weren't identified.

The police told me they were told not to do anything. For 26 hours, literally, they stood there and waited. That day or the next day, they eventually started arresting people, but the anti-abortionists took these baby steps and it took hours to arrest them. When the gates looked like they were getting clear, the Christian Broadcast station would tell people to come on down—[saying] nothing will happen to you—you don't even need to pay the fine. And that was true. In the meantime those who were arrested were processed and would come back to the clinic. This went on for 7 weeks. By the 7th week things started to slow down.

Police said they were told not to do anything. I had friends on the city council who told me what was going on downtown and who was calling the shots. It was Mayor Knight.

Julie Sheppard: The reason [the police and the U.S. Marshals weren't doing anything] was because the President, [George H. W. Bush], the Governor, the Mayor, and the city manager supported the invasion, that's why they got away with it.

Peggy (Jarman) Bowman: We have always been so very insistent and for all the right reasons, all of our medical records are private, and it has been extremely important that women have abortions in private. We need women to be willing to come forward and talk about this procedure in her life and at that particular time in her life. I am not sure how we are going to put all that together. But it must be done. It will help dilute the anti-choice message considerably when women are willing to come forward and make these kind of statements. There are a number of vehicles, we get requests from reporters all the time asking if there is a woman who is willing to come forward and talk about their abortion experience. This can play out on radio, TV, in the blog, on Twitter, in lots of different ways. Maybe it will be as effective using their first name only, we don't want women in positions that they will be attacked by the anti-abortionists. I have seen it first hand when it has happened and it is very, very horrible. There are millions of women who have had at least one procedure, some more than one, we need them to find a way to come forward, in a way that will help others to understand how vital it is that abortion remain legal and accessible. Right now it is still legal but it is becoming more and more inaccessible.

I think it is likely it would help. When you go into the clinic you have people yelling at you "don't murder your baby" and when you come out of the clinic they yell "you murdered your baby." You have to be a really strong person to be able to go through that kind of torture and to not absorb some of that in some way. Certainly the women go to the clinic and see another dozen or two dozen women there going through the same thing they are going through. They know they are not alone. In addition to coming and going to the clinic you see billboards, see horrible trucks parked outside the church you go to, TV ads. There is nothing that really counters that. How often do you see pro-choice billboards or pro-choice ads on TV? How often do you see in a television series a woman have an abortion? I saw a television show with a teenager in New York City who went to a doctor and she was told at 14 weeks pregnant that she was too late to get an abortion. I started to scream at the TV—that was pathetic, it is untrue.

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