By Wendy Norris
Shortly after pioneering Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered on May 31 and his Wichita clinic subsequently closed, other abortion physicians bravely stepped into the breach. Among the most public was Nebraska-based Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who for 11 years had traveled to Wichita monthly to perform late abortions at Tiller’s clinic. Carhart quickly announced he would continue Tiller’s work either at his Nebraska clinic in Bellevue or in Kansas.
And just as quickly, anti-abortion forces switched their campaign against Tiller to focus on Carhart. In an eerie similarity to Tiller’s struggle to defend himself against relentless legal attacks by former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, Nebraska’s attorney general Jon Bruning spoke about Carhart in a disparaging manner that signaled possible future legal action.
In a June 11 interview with Omaha’s KETV, Bruning said of Carhart, “I’m disgusted and I’m saddened, and I hate it that he’s here in Nebraska and I hate it that he’s in America. I mean, this guy is one sick individual.”
Shortly after that opening salvo, Troy Newman, head of the Wichita-based Operation Rescue—which had moved to Kansas from Southern California in 2002 to focus on closing Tiller’s clinic—announced a “Keep It Closed” campaign to prevent Carhart from opening a late-abortion clinic. This campaign is a coalition effort by Operation Rescue along with Nebraska’s Rescue the Heartland, which has been publicly harassing Carhart and his staff for years, and Nebraskans United for Life.
In August the trio of groups, along with the Christian Defense Coalition,filed a formal complaint with Bruning,alleging “illegal activities” by Carhart and supposedly backed by affidavits from disgruntled ex-employees.The attorney general passed the complaint to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, assuring Operation Rescue’s Newman in a letter that his office “will continue to monitor the progress of their [the Health Department] investigation.” The Nebraska Attorney General’s office
did not return repeated calls from Ms. for comment.
The anti-abortion groups then made a national call for a demonstration against Carhart’s Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska on August 28 and 29. But national prochoice groups led by NOW, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice America and The World Can’t Wait organized even greater numbers in support of Carhart. About 200 clinic defenders, from across Nebraska and 15 states, assembled in Bellevue in late August, dwarfing the 65 antiabortion protesters.
Carhart assured supporters at a press conference conducted by the pro-choice groups that he would not be intimidated and would continue to see patients. He wore a button saying
“Trust Women”—one of Dr. Tiller’s guiding principles.
Terry O’Neill, president of NOW, outraged by Bruning’s intemperate remarks,reflected, “I think a lot of people are now beginning to rethink the vicious smear campaigns by elected officials and authorities in Kansas against Dr. Tiller that created an atmosphere in which Scott Roeder [allegedly] felt empowered to commit murder.”
In reaction to the “Keep it Closed” campaign’s targeting of Carhart, a flood of new pro-choice volunteers are now offering their help, says Nebraska NOW president Erin Sullivan, who coordinated the pro-choice response: “People who had never been involved before drove to the clinic after seeing us on the evening news to offer their help and support.”
Although the number of “Keep it Closed” protesters was relatively small, the militancy of some who participated in Bellevue is troubling. A major player was Norman Weslin, founder and leader of the Lambs of Christ, a notorious anti-abortion group linked to violent extremists. Weslin has traveled to protest besieged clinics and has been arrested more than 70 times for clinic invasions, including twice at Carhart’s clinic. He and his followers once chained themselves to junk cars they dumped in the driveway of Tiller’s Wichita clinic, an event former clinic employee Linda Stoner remembers as chilling. “It was just chaos,” Stoner said. “The women would come in and they were traumatized.”
Larry Donlan, director of Omahabased Rescue the Heartland, has traveled and been arrested with Weslin for clinic blockades. Donlan drives one of Operation Rescue’s “Truth Trucks,” two of which were parked along one of the Bellevue streets closed off by police during the demonstrations.
Operation Rescue’s policy advisor, Cheryl Sullenger, also came to Bellevue from Wichita. Sullenger served two years in a federal prison for conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic in 1987. And according to press accounts, Sullenger admitted to providing information to Scott Roeder concerning Tiller’s church; Sullenger’s name and phone number were on a handwritten note in Roeder’s car when he was arrested for Tiller’s murder.
Finally, another Wichita follower of Operation Rescue who demonstrated in Bellevue was Jennifer McCoy, who served prison time for attempted arson at Virginia abortion clinics in the 1990s. She reportedly attended Roeder’s July 28 preliminary hearing and has visited him in jail several times as he awaits trial.
The “Keep it Closed” demonstrations appeared to be coordinated with A Woman’s Touch Crisis Pregnancy Center, located across the street from Carhart’s clinic. At one point during the day, Troy Newman held up a sonogram of a woman he claimed was a patient of Carhart’s who had come into the CPC instead.
“We’ve long believed that CPCs such as this one function as staging grounds for these anti-abortion extremists groups,” says Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who came to Bellevue to support Carhart. Bellevue Police took the potential for violence at the demonstration seriously; Capt. Herb Evers coordinated with 10 state, local and federal agencies to ensure the safety of Carhart, his staff and clinic. U.S. attorneys from Washington, D.C., were also on hand as monitors, and federal marshals provided protection for Carhart.
But the threat of harm has not deterred Carhart even in the face of continued local protests. He announced plans to open a new abortion clinic in Kansas by year’s end in defiant testament to his late friend and colleague. “Dr. Tiller was willing to fight back and so am I,” Carhart said.
For the complete Ms. article on the Vatican investigation, “Bad habits,” look for the Fall issue of Ms. on newsstands now, or have it delivered to your door by joining the Ms. community.