Gov. Sam Brownback says Kansas has been called to be a national leader on moral issues, comparing past anti-abortion protests in Wichita to the abolitionist movement that helped end slavery.
In his annual State of the State address Wednesday, the Republican governor referenced the 1991 and 2001 "Summer of Mercy" protests that were held outside of the late Dr. George Tiller's clinic. Tiller, a late-term abortion provider was gunned down in 2009.
Brownback said that in the past, Kansas has been called "to blaze the trail for America out of the wilderness" on moral issues. He also said the state "marked the bloody trail out of slavery" when the nation was undecided on the issue.
"The chains of bondage of our brothers rubbed our skin and our hearts raw until we could stand it no more and erupted into 'Bleeding Kansas,' " Brownback said in his speech, which was broadcast statewide on public television and radio. "The Summer of Mercy sprung forth in Kansas as we could no longer tolerate the death of innocent children."
The first "Summer of Mercy" demonstrations in 1991 brought thousands of anti-abortion protesters to Wichita and put a spotlight on Tiller, who was among a handful of U.S. physicians performing abortions in the final weeks of pregnancies. The 2001 anniversary demonstrations were smaller.
Tiller was shot to death in the foyer of his church in 2009 by Scott Roeder, who professed strong anti-abortion views. Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to serve a minimum of 50 years in prison. His appeal will be heard by the Kansas Supreme Court later this month.
Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said called Brownback's remarks "insensitive" and said the 1991 protests started a cycle of violent anti-abortion rhetoric that led to Tiller's death.
"That event brought thousands of extremists into Kansas from around the country," Brownlie said.
But Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy director for Operation Rescue, which organized the protests, was pleased by the reference. She said they inspired people to enter politics or take other steps, such as opening crisis pregnancy centers.
She said if Brownback had failed to mention abortion Wednesday, it would have been "kind of a slap."