Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle staff reports

The two sides in the nation’s debate on abortion will mark today’s 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with their usual rallies and speeches.

But this year, there are signs that not all is the same on the national or local level.

The newly configured U.S. Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge in April to the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, allowing the law to go into effect for the first time since it was signed by President Bush in 2003. Some abortion-rights supporters fear the landmark ruling is the first step toward overturning the 1973 law that established a constitutional right to abortion.

In Kansas, grand juries seated through citizen petitions are investigating Planned Parenthood of Overland Park and abortion doctor George Tiller of Wichita.

And a new national study from the Guttmacher Institute shows abortions have dropped to their lowest level since 1974.

Abortion opponents are pleased with what they see.

“It’s been a long fight and a very hard-fought fight on both sides,” said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. “So I am encouraged, but I’m always cautious” about predicting what the future holds.

ProKanDo director Julie Burkhart, whose group supports abortion rights, finds the high court ruling and the grand jury investigations disheartening.

“Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land and has been for 35 years,” Burkhart said, “but we have seen a constant chipping away” by abortion opponents.

The partial-birth abortion ban sets the stage for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, she said, or at least stripped of many of its protections. The ban lacks an exception to protect a woman’s health, according to its interpretation by Roe v. Wade supporters.

Status of abortion rights 

Burkhart and the Kansas organizer for the National Organization for Women say the chipping away of reproductive rights is obvious in Sedgwick and Johnson counties, where grand juries are in session.

NOW organizer Marla Patrick of Lindsborg said abortion opponents have taken an “antiquated” Kansas law that allows citizens to seat grand juries and used it to harass Tiller and Planned Parenthood.

Abortion opponents have put a lot of roadblocks in Kansas and elsewhere, Patrick said, but she does not think they will ever succeed in criminalizing abortion.

However, Troy Newman, leader of Operation Rescue, believes that the picture of abortion is much different today than it was in the early 1990s.

“Honestly, the pro-life movement has never been sitting in a better position to win this battle,” Newman said.

The grand jury now meeting in Wichita has helped keep pressure on Tiller when prosecutors and lawmakers did not, he said.

“A grand jury, hopefully, would provide an independent investigation, because the prosecutors in this state are not prosecuting the law, on its face,” Newman said.

Dan Monnat, a Wichita lawyer who represents Tiller, said that local and state prosecutors have found little wrong with the doctor’s practices, as has the state Board of Healing Arts.

“Unfortunately, there are a small number of extremely loud people who have organized a no-holds-barred campaign designed to take these rights away from women,” Monnat said.

The abortion controversy remains at center stage in Wichita because Tiller is one of the few in the country who performs late abortions, he said.

A new tactic 

Monday, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Operation Rescue announced that it was starting a new tactic.

Newman, and Cheryl Sullinger, also of Operation Rescue, have been taking pictures of some of the women, who they think look like they’re in their late stages of pregnancy, entering Tiller’s clinic.

Monday, Operation Rescue posted pictures of women on its Web site. Their faces were obscured.

Newman said these are patients of Tiller seeking to abort their pregnancies.

“It’s an abortion clinic,” he said. “They perform abortions.”

Not every woman who goes to into the Women’s Health Services clinic goes there for an abortion, Monnat said. And posting their photographs publicly puts them in danger.

“You and I may not be able to recognize the women, but they now have to shoulder the burden of worrying about whether a relative, a pastor, a teacher, an abusive partner or a work colleague may recognize them as they entered doctor Tiller’s clinic on a specified date,” Monnat said.

“These women, if indeed they are even patients, did absolutely nothing wrong and did nothing to justify being subjected to public scrutiny,” Monnat said. “They simply, at most, sought health care, to which they are entitled under the laws of the United States.”

The demonstrations continue today.

A group of Tiller’s supporters plan a public demonstration from 7 to 10 a.m. today in front of Tiller’s clinic, 5107 E. Kellogg.

Operation Rescue will hold a candlelight vigil and prayer service at 6 p.m. today outside the clinic.

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