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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Protesters Who Push the Limits

Abortion opponents are legally invading the privacy of everyone who works at a Kansas clinic. The providers refuse to be intimidated.

February 17, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

WICHITA, Kan. — In the failing light of dusk, a dozen protesters pace a street corner in silence. They wave photos of tiny, dismembered limbs. On the posters, in neat black letters, they have written the name, address and apartment number of a nurse who works at a local abortion clinic.

She lives in the worn brick building behind the picket line; a protester points to her window with a plastic arrow, the kind that might direct traffic to a garage sale. Only, this one says in red: "ABORTION NURSE."

The men and women, and several bundled-up children, stand vigil for an hour in a cold gray wind, then head home for supper. They will return. For this is just the start of a campaign that tests the far limits of free speech: a crusade to expose abortion providers, to isolate them, to shame, even harass them into quitting.

They have chosen Wichita to make their stand because it's home to one of the few clinics in the country that offer abortions to women in advanced stages of pregnancy.

Local activists maintain a steady vigil outside the clinic, clutching baby blankets as they kneel on the sidewalk in prayer.

Bent on more aggressive confrontation, Troy Newman, president of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue West, moved his family here from Southern California two years ago. He then persuaded half a dozen like-minded friends to join him.

Forces marshaled, he drew up the most far-reaching battle plan that abortion rights advocates have ever seen -- legal, but deliberately invasive. He calls it the Year of Rebuke.

Over the next 12 months, Newman and his followers will point their arrows at everyone who works for Women's Health Care Services, from the chief physician to the armed security guards.

Photos of the mangled heads of fetuses will greet the receptionist at her favorite restaurant. Protesters will point out the nurse as she walks into the mall, the office manager as she heads into church. Every clinic employee can expect pickets at home, yellow arrows pointed at their front doors.

Newman will pick through clinic workers' trash to figure out where they do business; he'll trail them at a distance to learn their routines.

His goal is not just to make their lives uncomfortable. He wants to unsettle and disgust their friends and associates, so their hairstylists and their pharmacists, even their neighbors, make it clear they're not welcome in Wichita.

"If Josef Mengele came into a bank saying, 'Here are a few gold teeth I ripped out of the Jews before I gassed them,' the bank would be horrified. They'd say, 'I'm not taking your blood money.' That's the picture of abortionists that we have to paint," Newman said.

"This is a personal campaign. It's letting people know abortion is not abstract," he said. "There's a real person who holds the scalpel, and he lives next door to you."

Hardball tactics are nothing new in the abortion wars, even among activists sworn to hold only peaceful protests.

Abortion opponents photograph women entering clinics and post the pictures online. Warning of the "baby butchers" nearby, they send gruesome postcards to neighbors of clinic workers. They boycott construction firms building clinics. Activists have even trailed doctors through grocery stores, hissing, "How can you live with yourself?"

Newman's campaign aims more broadly; he vows to make abortion "an unavoidable issue" throughout Wichita. If he offends people, fine. If he repulses them, even better, so long as he gets them to think about what happens at the clinic on East Kellogg.

"The whole idea is to create an atmosphere in which people are forced to deal with it," he said.

Abortion providers insist they will not be intimidated.

"Unfortunately, we're used to dealing with protesters," said Carrie Klaege, the clinic manager, whose suburban home has been picketed frequently. "If their point is to get us to quit, this is probably the worst way to go about it."

*

In a windowless clinic wedged between a Mazda dealership and a sports bar, Dr. George Tiller performs thousands of abortions a year, including several hundred on viable fetuses.

In Kansas, as in most states, it is legal to abort a fetus that could survive outside the womb, but only to save the life or protect the physical or mental health of the mother. Tiller is one of just four or five physicians in the U.S. to offer the procedure; women fly in from all over to see him.

Some of his patients are victims of rape or incest. Many have just learned, in their second or third trimesters, that their fetuses have severe deformities and would probably die within hours of birth.

Tiller did not respond to requests for an interview; he rarely talks to the media. But in 31 years of performing abortions in Wichita, he has shown he won't be pressured into quitting.

In 1986, a pipe bomb exploded at his clinic. In 1991, abortion opponents put the facility under siege, blocking access to the gate for six tense weeks. In 1993, Tiller was shot through both arms by a protester. He was back at work the next day.

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