When Peter Brownlie arrived in Kansas to lead Planned Parenthood in 1999, he expected tough fights over abortion.
He knew Kansas was an abortion battleground, engendered by the late-term abortions performed by Wichita physician George Tiller, who was later shot to death.
And just eight years earlier, there was Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy” protests in Wichita, which led to more than 2,600 arrests of abortion foes.
But a grand jury investigation? A criminal indictment? A law that came within an hour of closing the state’s abortion clinics? He had no idea.
Brownlie survived each of those challenges at Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which operates one of three abortion clinics in the Kansas suburbs. Now as he plans to retire by next spring, Brownlie declares victory.
“The state has pretty much thrown everything at us that they could think of to shut us down,” Brownlie said in an interview this week. “We’re still here.”
Although Brownlie believed he was battling for the health rights of women, abortion opponents saw him as part of an “abortion cartel” killing thousands of unborn babies every year.
“He has disguised himself as a warrior for the weak, but he’s been a weapon against the weak,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue in Wichita. “I say, ‘Farewell.’”
Over the years, Planned Parenthood has annoyed abortion opponents who believe it too quickly goes to court to challenge the legality of restrictions that they think are reasonable attempts to protect the unborn.
A criminal case brought in 2007 accused Planned Parenthood of performing illegal late-term abortions and falsifying and forging records. Brownlie steadfastly argued there was no evidence to merit the charges.
The criminal case was tossed five years later. And Phill Kline, the former Kansas attorney general who launched that probe, is gone.
Planned Parenthood dodged closure two years ago when it was licensed at the last minute under a new law imposing strict rules for abortion clinics.
And a conservative Kansas Legislature and governor have done about all they can to limit abortion short of an outright ban.
At 67, the 1960s-era civil rights activist said he is ready for a breather.
“It feels like a really appropriate time to step aside,” he said. “I’ve been at it for a long time.”
Looking forward, Brownlie believes the organization is in good shape politically and financially despite pending legal hurdles. Several court battles remain, including an effort to stop the state from stripping Planned Parenthood of federal family planning funds and another over the new licensing rules for abortion providers.
Locally, Planned Parenthood is based in Overland Park with a yearly budget of about $7.5 million.
In 1998, the year before Brownlie arrived, the local Planned Parenthood chapter raised $546,000. Last year it raised $1.2 million.
As chief executive, Brownlie oversees nine health clinics across Kansas and western Missouri, including Kansas City, Independence and Grandview. Abortions are provided only at the Overland Park office.
Brownlie has been with Planned Parenthood since 1976. During his career he served as the chief executive for the agency in South Bend, Ind., and later in Fort Worth, Texas.
Brownlie came to Kansas in 1999 after serving for a year as the chief executive of an agency in Austin, Texas, that provided AIDS and HIV services.
His brother died of AIDS in 1989.
He knew Kansas would present obstacles, but he had no idea about the battles that would keep him in the news for most of his tenure.
“I certainly never envisioned a criminal investigation,” he said.
And with the controversy came unease, especially after Tiller was shot to death at his church in 2009.
There were never threats directed at Brownlie, but “the possibility of some violence is not far from my awareness.” Brownlie said he wore a bullet-resistant vest at times and was accompanied by a security guard.
He would vary his route to work and change up his office hours. There was the occasional glance in the rearview mirror to see whether he was being followed.
“That just becomes second nature,” he said.
But he has long been familiar with controversy. A self-described child of the 1960s, Brownlie took a year off from college to register voters in Mississippi and Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement.
Looking back at his perpetual battles in Kansas, Brownlie said he has no regrets.
“There was no question that there were some extraordinarily difficult times, very stressful times,” Brownlie said. “It’s my calling.”
After Brownlie arrived in Kansas City, both Missouri and Kansas enacted laws limiting abortions. Kansas saw one of the biggest drops in the Midwest.
During Brownlie’s first year in the Kansas City area, there were 12,395 abortions performed in Kansas and 8,113 in Missouri.
By last year, the number of abortions performed in Kansas had been slashed by 40 percent in Kansas and 30 percent in Missouri.
Long term, Brownlie believes the abortion rights movement will prevail.
“The time and direction of society is on our side,” he said “Ultimately at some point in the next 10, 20, 30 years, this intense battle over abortion will be over.”