By Lily Bolourian
In 1991, ‘pro-life’ activists from across the nation came to Wichita, Kan., in an event called “Summer of Mercy” that targeted abortion providers with particular emphasis on the clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller. The event was organized by Operation Rescue, an extremist group that has been tied to violence against providers since its inception. During the week of action, thousands of pro-lifers were arrested as clinic entrances were physically barricaded and streets were shut down. The legacy of Summer of Mercy was a climate of escalating hostility and violence aimed at abortion doctors, staff, and clinics.
Less than two years later and after years of campaigns against him led by groups like Operation Rescue and violent extremists like Randall Terry, Florida abortion provider Dr. David Gunn was assassinated. The following year, Dr. George Tiller, the original target of Summer of Mercy, was shot in both arms by a pro-life activist. When a pro-life terrorist finally succeeded in murdering Dr. Tiller in 2009, information for Operation Rescue and their employee Cheryl Sullenger was found in the killer’s car. Sullenger has served time in prison for conspiracy to bomb an abortion clinic.
Summer of Mercy’s disastrous impact on reproductive rights providers throughout the country helped lead to the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act prohibiting threats and interference with abortion clinics.
On the 20th anniversary of the original Summer of Mercy in 2011, pro-life leaders again called upon advocates from across the nation to target Dr. Tiller’s friend and former student Dr. LeRoy Carhart in Germantown, Md., in a week of events they called “Summer of Mercy 2.0.” After Dr. Tiller was killed, Dr. Carhart vowed to bravely continue performing abortions. As pro-lifers descended upon Germantown, reproductive justice activists greeted them with events welcoming Dr. Carhart and supporting abortion access. As a lifelong resident of the area, I was proud to serve as one of the organizers who led these actions.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Summer of Mercy, an offshoot of Operation Rescue known as Operation Save America has come to Wichita to once again target the city that Dr. Tiller called home. Operation Save America claims to be a peaceful, nonviolent organization but has repeatedly made doctors and clinics targets for harassment through actions like handing out “wanted” posters with personal information on providers. Rev. Rusty Thomas, Director of Operation Save America, also recently penned a full-throated argument in favor of the imprisonment of women who obtain abortions:
“By refusing to criminalize the actions of the woman and instead labeling her a victim – we undermine both the humanity of the preborn child and the rightly stated argument that abortion is murder. When we are asked what the punishment should be for women who have illegal abortions, we should unashamedly respond – whatever the penalty is for murder in the state where it takes place.” (Emphasis added.)
As these hostile groups occupy the streets of Wichita this week, we must hold the pro-life movement accountable for speech and actions that inspire some within their movement to act out in violent ways. Despite what pro-life leaders claim in public, violence against abortion providers is not isolated, done in a vacuum, or the crime of a lone wolf. The rhetoric and imagery invoked by the pro-life movement has turned up the political climate and made it ripe for hostile actions against healthcare providers.
One cannot in one breath call abortion “genocide” and advocate for the imprisonment of doctors and patients and then feign outrage when someone chooses to take those words seriously and act upon them. We must commit to always honoring and defending abortion providers who stand bravely in the gap between legal abortion and vital physical access to the procedure.