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Past & Present: 25 Years After the Summer of Mercy

AP Photo/Jefferey Z. Carney


During July and August of 1991, thousands of members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue descended on the city of Wichita. Basing their actions on civil disobedience, their mission during what they called the Summer of Mercy was to “put their bodies on the line” for babies by ending legal access to abortion.

Every day, protestors arrived outside the Women’s Health Care Services run by Dr. George Tiller. They would lie on the sidewalks, blocking access to the clinic, while screaming threats and prayers at clinic workers and women in attempts to get them to change their minds.

The results of the Summer of Mercy were threefold. First, the summer protest resulted in thousands of arrests by the overworked police department. Second, it energized the anti-abortion movement throughout the country to continue using legal and extra-legal tactics to end legal abortion access. And finally, it highlighted the need for federal protections of abortion-providing medical clinics, an argument that the pro-choice movement had been making for years.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. While this act protected both access to clinics that provide abortion and the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protestors, it also prohibited damage or destruction of reproductive health care facilities and places of worship. While the Act did not eliminate violence, as evidenced by the May 2009 murder of Dr. Tiller, the National Abortion Federation cites that incidents of extreme violence have greatly decreased since 1994.

As Wichita prepares for the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy, it is important to reflect on the significant and infamous ways in which the city affected and continues to play a role in, the conversation about abortion rights and medical privacy. 

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.