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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback compared past "Summer of Mercy" anti-abortion protests in Wichita to the abolitionist movement that helped end slavery in a major speech Wednesday night.
The Republican governor, who opposes abortion, included the reference to the 1991 and 2001 protests outside the clinic of Dr. George Tiller — the late-term abortion provider who was gunned down in 2009 — in his State of the State address.
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 Kansas "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. "The Summer of Mercy sprung forth in Kansas as we could no longer tolerate the death of innocent children."
The address is often a governor's biggest speech of the year in which he or she lays out a legislative agenda. Wednesday's address was broadcast live statewide on public television and radio.
The first "Summer of Mercy" demonstrations in 1991 brought thousands of anti-abortion protesters to Wichita, putting national attention 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."