Julie Burkhart sat in her mentor's living room only a few weeks after he had been killed in church.
For eight years, Burkhart had worked for abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan.
That day, in Tiller's living room, she was keenly aware of the risks of continuing to work at an abortion clinic — Tiller's slaying in May 2009 was not the first time he had been attacked. In the 1980s, Tiller's clinic was bombed. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms but recovered.
But Burkhart knew she had to keep going. She told Tiller's widow that day — "We have to re-establish services."
Burkhart's organization, Trust Women, opened its first clinic, South Wind Women's Center, in Wichita in 2013.
Now, Trust Women plans to open its second clinic, this time in July in southwest Oklahoma City. Physicians at the clinic will perform abortions up to 21.6 weeks, which they interpret as the legal limit, in addition to providing other reproductive health services.
Burkhart did not get involved in women's rights work to provide abortion care in underserved communities — but that's where life led.
"I have a long history in political and women's rights work, but I can't say that this specific type of work was at the top of my list before the summer of 2009," Burkhart, CEO and founder of Trust Women, said. " ... That event, his assassination, was pivotal, and it really led me and other people in this line of work, it led our lives, in a direction we didn't think it would go."
'Time will tell'
Oklahoma has a long-held reputation of being one of the most anti-abortion states in the nation.
Earlier this year, the state made national headlines when Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, pushed legislation that would have effectively banned abortion in Oklahoma.
“Most people know I am for defending rights,” Dahm said to a group of reporters in May. “Those rights begin at conception.”
Senate Bill 1552 would have made it a felony for physicians to perform abortions.
Gov. Mary Fallin, who has signed 20 anti-abortion bills during her tenure as governor, vetoed the legislation, noting that the bill was vague and likely unconstitutional.
“While I consistently have and continue to support a re-examination of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, this legislation cannot accomplish that re-examination,” Fallin wrote in her veto message. “In fact, the most direct path to a re-examination of the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade is the appointment of a conservative, pro-life justice to the United States Supreme Court.”
Sen. Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City Republican who has worked as a physician for more than 30 years, said he did not support the bill — or the other seven abortion-related bills pushed this session — because for one, abortion is a federal issue, and secondly, lawmakers shouldn't push bills they know will be ruled unconstitutional and nullified.
There are other more effective ways to combat abortion in Oklahoma, such as promoting adoption and improving the adoption process so more women feel they can use that option instead, Yen said.
Yen said some constituents have voiced their concerns that if the South Wind clinic opens in Oklahoma City, there could be an increased number of abortions.
“I hope there will not be more abortions,” Yen, who is Catholic, said. “I think that facility will make it so that women don't have to drive to Tulsa or Norman. I'm hopeful it won't increase the numbers. I certainly don't know that to be a fact, but time will tell.”
Burkhart knows the political climate she's walking into.
Originally from Oklahoma, Burkhart has worked in Kansas for several years, a state that has seen not only anti-abortion legislation similar, if not identical, to Oklahoma's, but also serious violence.
On May 31, 2009, Tiller died after Scott P. Roeder, 58, shot and killed the physician in the foyer of a Lutheran church where Tiller was serving as an usher. During the trial, Roeder told the jury: “Those children were in immediate danger if someone did not stop George Tiller.”
Burkhart said she continues her work because she knows the issues that women face in trying to find quality gynecological care in Oklahoma.
In 2014, 48 of Oklahoma's 77 counties did not have obstetrician-gynecologists, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported.
There are about two obstetrician-gynecologists per 10,000 women, putting Oklahoma below the national average for these physicians.
“That is a clear indicator that people are not being provided adequate health care,” Burkhart said. “Also, (opening in Oklahoma City) fits right in with our mission. We work to provide reproductive health care services, including abortion services, in underserved communities, and for us, underserved is in what we call the abortion and health care desert that runs down the middle of the country through the deep South.”
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City is the largest metropolitan area in the United States without an abortion provider, Burkhart said.
Overall, Oklahoma has two abortion clinics: Abortion Surgery Center in Norman and Reproductive Services of Tulsa.
Trust Women's South Wind Women's Center in Oklahoma City will provide a range of reproductive services including medication abortion and surgical abortion services; long-acting, reversible contraception; hormone therapy and other services for people who are transgender; well-woman exams; and other family planning services.
Although it doesn't open until July, the clinic already has been the location for protests and prayer from religious leaders and anti-abortion activists.
The Rev. Bill Pruett, pastor of St. James the Greater Catholic Church, held a prayer vigil Monday near the clinic. About 100 people said several prayers and the rosary devotional.
Pruett plans to pray every weekday at 11:30 a.m. at a street corner near the clinic.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said he hoped that, through Pruett and his parishioners' efforts, the clinic would not open.
“Unfortunately, it appears that a clinic where abortions will be performed will soon be opening in a neighborhood in our community with the highest concentration of our Latino residents and parishioners,” Coakley said in a statement. “I am deeply disappointed that an out-of-state group is coming into our city and targeting the most vulnerable among us, our unborn children.”
Alan Maricle, who volunteers with the Abolitionist Society of Norman, said he has been to the clinic location several times.
The organization does not associate itself with the “pro-life” movement, with its members arguing that other anti-abortion efforts do not go far enough.
Rather, members of the abolitionist movement support legislation that outlaws abortion, such as a bill proposed at the Capitol this session that would have designated abortion as first-degree murder.
“We are immediatists, rather than incrementalists, which means we believe that not only would a law like a fetal anesthesia bill or a 20-week ban — not only would that not go far enough but it's also counterproductive and wicked,” Maricle said.
Abolitionist groups exist throughout the United States, with at least two groups in Oklahoma — the Norman society and the Abolitionist Society of Tahlequah. These organizations are “local autonomous abolitionist societies, independent in structure, yet unified in ideology and practice,” according to the Abolish Human Abortion website.
The Norman group has about 40 members, Maricle said.
Maricle said he hopes to be outside the Oklahoma City clinic at least once a week, holding signs and calling out to women who enter.
A few months ago, Maricle went to the clinic to tell contractors working on the building that it would be an abortion clinic. Toward the end of a video uploaded to YouTube, a few workers tell Maricle he needs to leave, telling him they've called the police.
“It's not your place to kick me off the property,” Maricle says in the video. “Why don't you call the cops or something? I'm out here pleading for life, and you are trying to destroy me, and get me in problems (with) the authorities. That shows your heart.”
Burkhart plans to host an open house at South Wind once they're open.
She plans to invite not only residents, business owners and religious leaders in the neighborhood but also all Oklahoma lawmakers.
Burkhart said she wants people to understand what her organization is about and the types of services they will provide.
The Wichita clinic sees protesters at least five days a week, and some of those protesters track when staff members arrive and leave the clinic, which has long concerned Burkhart, she said.
Burkhart said Oklahoma City hasn't seen the same level of protester activity and aggression, but she knows there are people who do not want the organization or its clinic here.
“Everybody has a right to express their opinion, and so certainly they have the right to express theirs, but that is not going to deter us in any way from providing services to the community,” Burkhart said.
Contributing: Capitol Bureau Chief Rick Green and The Associated Press