After Tiller: What Will Happen In Wichita?

Wichita, Kan., has been at the heart of the abortion debate for decades. Abortion protesters came from across the country to picket Dr. George Tiller and his clinic, where he performed late abortions. Tiller was murdered three weeks ago, and his clinic is closed.

Now, activists on both sides of the issue are trying to figure out what's next.

The Clinic Now

There's an eerie quiet outside Tiller's clinic. It's vastly different from the barricaded streets, honking horns and chanting picketers that characterized protests here over the years. The gates — which had been closed in an effort to protect those who visited the clinic — are open now. The "no trespassing" signs are still up.

"We used to come out here at 6:30 in the morning, and I'm not really an early-morning person," says Judy Weldy of the Kansas Coalition for Life.

Weldy's husband, Dale, helped set up more than 150 white wooden crosses just outside the fence nearly every morning. Although the clinic is closed, they wonder how long that will last.

"It's too good to believe that they're not going to continue. Been out here for a lot of years; I guess it's almost 20 years isn't it?" Weldy asks Dale.

The Weldys say they will continue to monitor what happens but they won't be out on the street like before.

"It is over for a while. We'll all get a little break from it, relief hopefully, but here, it hasn't stopped the abortions," Dale says. "They're going up to Nebraska, and they're going up to Kansas City, so we haven't stopped abortion."

It's not clear what will happen to the high-security building. Operation Rescue said it would like to buy it.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart of Nebraska says he will offer third-trimester abortions in Kansas, but he hasn't said whether that will be in Wichita. Abortion rights supporters understand why Tiller's family closed the clinic, but they, too, are worried.

'Business Of Healing'

Activist Diane Wahto was involved in the abortion rights movement even before thousands descended upon the city in 1991 for a huge anti-abortion protest called the "Summer of Mercy." At the time, three clinics in the city performed abortions. Now, all of them are closed.

"So much of our lives here, the lives of pro-choice people in this community, has been centered around keeping that clinic open and making sure that the antis didn't win," Wahto says. "And it makes me so angry, and yet there's no place to put the anger."

Wichita is a city of more than 300,000 people in the heart of the Midwest. It is an aviation hub, and it has long been at the center of the abortion controversy.

Wichita's mayor said Tiller's murder does not reflect the values of the community, and he says it's time to get along with the business of healing.

Scott Roeder, the suspect in Tiller's shooting death, remains in jail facing murder charges.

In a suburban neighborhood not far from where Tiller was killed, Amy Torkelson serves fruit and cereal to half a dozen children. Torkelson runs a day care in her home. She is also education director for Kansans for Life.

"Our efforts really don't change that much just because Tiller is gone," Torkelson says.

Her group is trying to pass laws that limit abortion, and they continue to oppose late abortions.

"We have a law on the books that is supposed to prevent abortions being done after viability unless there is something physically wrong with the women and so we're working to get those laws enforced," she says.

Weekend Vigils

Meanwhile, abortion rights groups are focusing on finding and training more doctors who will perform abortions. Julie Burkhart has been an abortion rights activist in Kansas for years.

"Maybe this will allow room for other providers across the country to re-evaluate and see where they can step in and fill that gap, that huge gap that's now been created," says Burkhart.

For now, women seeking abortions in Kansas can go to clinics in the Kansas City area — about a three-hour drive from Wichita — or they have to travel to Colorado, Nebraska or Okalahoma.

It's still an uneasy time in this city.

Over the weekend, anti-abortion groups held prayer vigils at several sites, including Operation Rescue's headquarters, which had been a clinic.

But abortion rights activists say abortion opponents should not be out on the streets in Wichita so soon after Tiller's murder, so they held signs to show their support for women's rights, outside the clinic in a steady rain.

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