Protests over abortion bring pain to the heartland

August 11, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

WICHITA, Kan. -- The quiet quality of life in this normally peaceful and law-abiding town is being rudely and violently interrupted these days.

More than 2,000 people, many of them local, have been arrested for trespass, loitering and even assault in the past four weeks.

For the first time ever here, a federal judge is in fear of his life and under round-the-clock guard.

The director of a local urban studies institute has seen some of his gentlest friends turn into "advocates of police brutality."

Strange things can happen when an explosive national issue -- abortion -- hits a heartland community with gale force.

Life became abnormal here July 15, when Operation Rescue, a national group of anti-abortion activists, came to town to try to close down three abortion clinics. Their tactic was not just to picket the clinics but to sit and sprawl in the streets, blocking the cars of women seeking abortions.

The shift from peaceful demonstration to physical confrontation angered U.S. District Judge Patrick Kelly. He ordered U.S. marshals to keep the clinics open and threatened the protesters with fines and jail.

Last week the Bush administration entered the fray, formally questioning the judge's authority to take such action while insisting it was not backing either side in the abortion dispute.

But Judge Kelly has been true to his word: More than 2,000 people have been arrested since July 15.

Yesterday, police and U.S. marshals arrested 76 anti-abortion demonstrators as protesters tried to stop people from entering the Wichita Women's Center by swarming the gates, Reuters reported.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, has compared Judge Kelly to "a Nazi judge in Germany" and accused him of seeing himself as "the savior of the child-killing industry."

Suddenly Wichita was national news. The abortion storm that had slowly been gathering across the country was now raging here.

*

The teen-age girl in white ankle socks, flat black shoes and a dark blue school skirt had her thick brown hair covering her face as she arrived at the Wichita Women's Center.

"Give me just a minute, honey," shouted Donna Lippoldt, a mother of five. "We just want you to know the truth before you make a final decision."

But a group of "Clinic Support" activists hustled the girl quickly out of earshot, beyond the police "restricted area" tape and through the dark glass doors to the waiting doctors.

Mrs. Lippoldt watched the familiar scene before saying bluntly: "They kill on Tuesdays and Thursdays here at this clinic at 3 p.m."

It was 3:10 p.m. on Thursday.

Had the girl stopped, she would have been given the information that Mrs. Lippoldt said has persuaded 25 other women to change their minds about having an abortion since Operation Rescue came to town.

Mrs. Lippoldt, an advocate of adoption instead of abortion, said: "I would have told her we have places that would take care of her, take care of her baby, help her finances.

"I would have asked her to follow me to the Pregnancy Crisis Center. We would have met her needs."

As she spoke, counterdemonstrators applauded the girl's decision to enter the clinic, then continued their silent march around the building. This time there was no violence.

Peggy Jarman, an abortion-rights leader, said: "I only care about one thing. I care about access to health care services in an environment that is not abusive to our patients. Abortion is legal in this country, and you have every right to access as far as I am concerned.

"Operation Rescue does not think law and order has been broken in this town because they only answer to God."

The anti-abortion activists are proud to admit that.

Donna Lippoldt's husband, Bob Larry, said: "God's going to solve it. Ultimately, God is going to win the battle here."

The Lippoldts and Peggy Jarman are citizens of Wichita, both committed to wage an indefinite fight for their beliefs.

The prospect of a city riven by that fight prompted the Wichita Eagle to comment last week: "The continued protests threaten to shred the community's social fabric. Neighbor is pitted against neighbor; workplace colleague against workplace colleague; church member against church member."

Ed Flentje, director of the Wall Center for Urban Studies at Wichita State University, also sees the developing tensions as ominous. He has seen some of his friends who favor abortion rights grow dissatisfied with police officers' restraint, turning into "substantial advocates of police brutality."

"The abortion issue has obviously polarized the community. It has made it a hot, hotter than normal, July and August in Wichita.

"My personal belief is this abortion issue is not going away in the short run. I think this community and many others across the country are going to be going through this same struggle."

*

Carol and Cindy -- not their real names -- are two of the women at the heart of the conflict.

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