Battleground Nebraska: Extremists Turn Focus to Carhart

Battleground Nebraska: Extremists Turn Focus to Carhart

Wendy Norris

Shortly after Dr. George Tiller was murdered on May 31 and his Wichita clinic subsequently closed, other providers bravely stepped into the breach. Among them is Dr. LeRoy Carhart, now targeted by anti-choice forces in an eerily similar campaign.

This article was originally published in the Fall issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.  The article was developed in partnership with Rewire.

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."

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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 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 pro-choice 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 anti-abortion 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. 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 Omaha-based 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.

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