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The Matter With Kansas

What role did the state's political climate play in the murder of Dr. George Tiller?

No one who has written about Kansas politics can be unfamiliar with Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated Sunday as he was entering the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. Tiller has been the target of the state’s right-wing Republicans for two decades. He was also the focus of the fanatical anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, founded by Randall Terry, which is now headquartered in Wichita. Both the state’s Republicans and the leaders of Operation Rescue have some explaining to do in the wake of Tiller’s murder.

In the 19th century, Kansas was a hotbed of political extremism--from abolitionist John Brown to temperance crusader Carrie Nation. The Populist Party won control of the state legislature in 1890 and elected the first Populist senator. But for most of the 20th century, its politics was dominated by moderate Republicans like Alf Landon and Bob Dole. That changed in the 1990s--and it had something to do with George Tiller and Operation Rescue.

Tiller has been performing abortions in Wichita since 1973. His clinic is only one of three nationally that offers legal late-term abortions. His clinic was bombed by anti-abortion protestors in 1985. And in 1991, Terry’s Operation Rescue staged a Summer of Mercy in Wichita, which attracted protestors who blockaded Tiller’s clinic for six weeks. At the summer’s end, Pat Robertson urged a crowd of 35,000 at the Wichita State College Stadium to transform the state’s politics.

As Thomas Frank describes in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the Summer of Mercy gave rise to a far-right challenge to the state’s moderate Republicans. Before long, the more extreme GOPers were taking over party committees and seeing their candidates elected to state offices. But their ascendency also led to the reemergence, after decades in the wilderness, of a viable Democratic party in Kansas, led by Kathleen Sebelius, who is now the Secretary of the Health and Human Services. Moderate Republicans, tired of far right candidates espousing creationism and committed to banning abortion, began voting for Democrats like Sebelius or Representative Dennis Moore.

At the center of this rightward shift in the Republican Party was a Johnson County (Kansas City) lawyer and radio personality, Phill Kline. Kline was elected to the state legislature in 1992, in the wake of the Summer of Mercy. Kline toed the anti-abortion line, but he emphasized cutting taxes. When he ran successfully for attorney general in 2002, however, he ran and conducted himself in office as a full-blown social conservative. “Kansas leads the nation on social issues,” he boasted.

Kline focused almost entirely on bringing criminal cases against Tiller. Kline even tried to obtain the records of women who visited the clinic in order to show that Tiller lacked justification for performing abortions. (He appointed an abortion protestor, a veteran strategist from the Summer of Mercy who had been arrested twelve times and who had no apparent interest in any other issue, to head the state’s consumer protection division.) He brought 30 criminal charges against Tiller. By 2006, the state’s voters had had enough. He was defeated for re-election by a Democrat who dismissed the 30 charges.

Kline’s successor did bring a technical charge against Tiller, but he was acquitted. Tiller was never convicted of anything, but there is an ethics complaint from the state Board for the Discipline of Attorneys pending against Kline, who after failing to get elected as Johnson County district attorney, left Kansas to become a law professor at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Kline’s fall from political grace parallels that of the Republican right in Kansas. Moderates are back in control, and that is probably bad news for the Democrats. (Last fall, for instance, moderate Lynn Jenkins ousted far rightist Jim Ryun in the Republican congressional primary and went on to defeat Democrat Nancy Boyda, who took out Ryun two years ago.) But Operation Rescue, which inspired the Republican right, remains in business for the moment. The current president is Troy Newman, a San Diego preacher who moved to Wichita in 2002. His second-in-command Cheryl Sullenger, who was convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic, arrived from San Diego a year later.

Since taking control of Operation Rescue, Newman has organized countless protests against Tiller, whom the organization describes as a “murderer” and a “killer.” Newman organized a “Year of Rebuke” to expose anyone with personal or profession ties to Tiller. He opposed Sebelius’s nomination at HHS because, he claimed, she was a friend of Tiller’s. “Mrs. Sebelius is in a lot of hot water for her associations with Mr. Tiller," Newman contended. Even today, in the wake of Tiller’s murder, one can read on the organization’s website a story, “Tiller Abortion Worker Honored at White House by Obama,” or order a copy of “The Tiller Report.”

Kline and Newman have condemned Tiller’s murder. The current suspect Scott Roeder contributed comments to Operation Rescue’s website, and Sullenger’s phone number was reportedly found in his possession--but he remains merely a suspect who was identified with other pro-life groups besides Operation Rescue. Still, there are questions that Kline, Newman, and Sullenger need to answer, and that Damon Linker has ably posed. Does the obsession with ending abortion--and the branding of those who perform abortion as killers--create a political framework in which a deranged person can justify killing someone like George Tiller?

There are, of course, many reasonable people who oppose abortion and would like to see it banned or severely restricted. These include church organizations and politicians from John McCain to Robert Casey. But there is also a fanatic fringe--as evidenced by an organization like Operation Rescue, or a politician like Kline--whose practitioners believe they are defending the purity of family and nation against the evils of modernity. The Taliban does not have a monopoly on this kind of political primitivism. It can also be found in Wichita, Kansas, and it provides the justification for horrible acts like the assassination of George Tiller.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.