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The Summer of Un-Mercy and Its Aftermath

By Diane Wahto
Review | July 3, 2011

Copyright, 2011, Antoine Doyen
Peggy Bowman / courtesy of Antoine Doyen, whose professional photos can be viewed here

WICHITA, Kan. - Given the dismal state of affairs in the state of Kansas, now would be a good time to revisit the early 1990s when Operation Rescue (OR), then under the direction of Randall Terry, caused no end of chaos here.

For those active in the Wichita pro-choice movement during the summer of 1991, reading Fetus Fanatics: Memoir: When Government Collaborates with Anti-Choice Zealots brings back the upheaval of that time with full emotional force. Peggy Bowman, calls her book, published in 2005, a memoir, which is apt, as the events and facts of that summer are filtered through her eyes.

While others who were active in the battle against the anti-choice onslaught may have differing perspectives, Bowman's account covers the important highlights of that summer. She also includes timelines, maps, and transcripts of court decisions to help readers keep track of the geography and chronology of events.

Bowman now heads the Second Chance Fund, which provides aid to low-income women who need money to pay for abortions. in 1991, Bowman was the spokesperson for Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was one of the few physicians in the world who performed late-term abortions for women with problem pregnancies. Many of those women found they faced threats to their health or even death as they reached the third trimester stage of their pregnancies. In other cases, the fetuses were too malformed to survive after birth.

Dr. George Tiller
Among her other duties, Bowman would often go the members of the Kansas State Legislature with pictures of horribly deformed fetuses to show to legislators who were determined to see to it that women would not be able to get the services they sought from Dr. Tiller. Women from all over the world were referred to Women's Health Care Services by their family physicians when it became apparent that their pregnancies were extremely problematic. Contrary to anti-choice propaganda, these women and their families wanted children and were saddened by the circumstances that brought about the late-term abortions.

As the OR siege continued against the three Wichita abortion clinics then in operation, Bowman also organized a clinic support group to help patients gain access to Women's Health Care Services with as little harassment as possible. This group also formed the core of the pro-choice advocacy in the area.

In Fetus Fanatics, Bowman succeeds in conveying the frustration of the staff of the three clinics in Wichita at the time of the siege, as well as their determination to keep those clinics open. What is most telling is that the patients would not buckle under to the antis' bullying. Patients worked with clinic staff and support volunteers to gain access to the clinics, particularly Dr. Tiller's clinic, in order to keep appointments and get the services they wanted. This, despite the meddling of the Wichita mayor, Bob Knight, and city council members, notably Frank Ojile, who welcomed the antis and their potential disruption of clinic business.

Bowman recounts the efforts not only of local politicians, but also of those on the national level, to aid and abet the antis in their disruptive tactics in Wichita. Bowman points out more than once that she had to keep reminding herself of what woman went through to get abortions before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Several details mark the events of those weeks of siege. The Wichita police tried to keep order, but after one day of clearing away clinic harassers from the gates of Women's Health Care Services so that patients could come in, officers were given orders by city officials to go easy on protestors.

When police tried to control the crowd from horseback, they discovered that the "peaceful" antis were tormenting the horses by sticking knives into them. U. S. marshals were on hand, but under orders from the George W. Bush White House, they were unable to do much but stand by. Even Judge Patrick Kelly, generally considered a pro-choice hero at the time, was inconsistent in applying his court orders against the protestors, according to Bowman.

Many of the anti-choice protestors came from out of state. As the protests continued, many pro-choice activists, also from out of state, came to town to get in on the act. As often happens, this caused conflicts over strategy between the local and the out of town pro-choice activists, as Bowman points out.

While the legal issues relating to this siege are complicated, Bowman's explanation of these legalities is clear and focused. It is helpful that she has updated the political fallout from the summer of 1991 to the time of the book's publication. Addendum 3, "A Paradigm Shift," outlines a course of action based on people's poll responses that supposedly would bring the pro-choice position back to the centrist position it once was.

While Bowman puts forward some common sense proposals, she seems to overlook the fact that the people in power now are not interested in applying common sense to the reproductive rights debate; they are interested only in forcing their views on everybody else. For example, when then-Senator Sam Brownback said he ran for president in 2008 in order to restore a sense of "decency" to the country, we all knew he was talking about making abortion illegal.

Brownback is now the governor of Kansas. The off-the-wall protestors of 1991, including Rep. Tim Huelscamp, who spent time in the Sedgwick County jail for blocking patient access at Dr. Tiller's clinic, are now lawmakers making policies in Kansas and in Congress.

Until these people are defeated, common sense approaches are nothing more than rhetoric.

On the whole, though, this memoir makes for interesting and informative reading, both for those of us who were there and for those who need a reminder of how a rabid minority supported by anti-choice politicians can bring a city and a state to its knees. It is also a reminder of what women lost when Dr. Tiller was murdered and when extremist
right-wing politicians took over the Kansas governor's office and the state legislature.


So what are some of those "common sense proposals" Bowman discusses?

Brad--Read the book. Do I have to do everything?

This is a great post. Peggy Bowman is truly a she-ro, and her fight serves as a reminder to the rest of us that we must continue.

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