Mark Gietzen, who gained prominence as one of the nation’s most zealous grass-roots opponents of abortion, died on Tuesday. He was 69.
The Kansas Republican Party announced his death. The Wichita Eagle reported that Mr. Gietzen died when his Cessna 172 crashed a few miles northeast of Chambers, Neb. The Holt County Sheriff’s Office identified Mr. Gietzen as the pilot and said no one else was on the plane, the newspaper said.
Last August, in what would turn out to be his final large-scale political initiative, Mr. Gietzen (pronounced GEET-zin) spent nearly $120,000 to finance a recount of the decisive vote in Kansas to preserve abortion rights. That month, Mr. Gietzen told The Eagle that the expenditure would make it harder for him to renovate his Cessna, which he said he had been working on for 15 years.
The recount did not change the outcome.
Mr. Gietzen had been prominent in Kansas politics since the so-called Summer of Mercy in 1991, when thousands of people converged in Wichita to block access to abortion clinics, risking arrest.
A resident of Wichita since the late 1970s who had long been interested in Republican politics, Mr. Gietzen threw himself into political organizing after that summer and became chairman of the Republican organization in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita. With his help, the Republicans won the Kansas House of Representatives, inaugurating a run of control of both state legislative chambers that has continued ever since.
Mr. Gietzen devoted much of his time to an organization of which he was chairman, the Kansas Coalition for Life, and to its protests against Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita abortion doctor. The long-simmering battle against Dr. Tiller’s practice helped make the city a staging ground for the national abortion debate.
Mr. Gietzen presided over a network of hundreds of volunteers who protested against Dr. Tiller in shifts. They tried to persuade patients arriving at his clinic to change their minds — counting “saves” for women who decided not to get abortions.
Activists blockaded his clinic, campaigned to have him prosecuted, tailed him with hidden cameras, sued him, threatened him. One bombed his clinic. Another tried to kill him in 1993, firing five shots, wounding both arms.
Dr. Tiller defiantly dug in, expanding his clinic and beefing up its security.
The battle ended on a Sunday morning in 2009, when Mr. Tiller was shot to death while attending church. His clinic closed, and Mr. Gietzen found himself a frequent interview subject in the national news media.
“It looks like our prayer was answered,” Mr. Gietzen told The New York Times. “We would have liked to have done this a different way, though. Now we have thousands of people bad-mouthing us, refusing to donate, telling us our website incited this.”
Mr. Gietzen was born on Feb. 9, 1954, and grew up in Glen Ullin, N.D., a tiny city near Bismarck. His father was involved in the state’s fledgling anti-abortion movement.
He served in the Marines and, in the late 1970s, earned an associate degree in aviation maintenance from the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla. Soon after that, he moved to Wichita to work for Boeing.
He was a frequent unsuccessful candidate in local elections, including for mayor of Wichita.
He was the single parent of three children. Information about survivors was not immediately available.
The 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which examined the rise of populist conservatism in the state, depicted Mr. Gietzen as a symbol of some of the forces driving formerly liberal Americans to repudiate the Democratic Party.
“Gietzen was building a social movement, one convert at a time,” the author, Thomas Frank, wrote. “On the left it is common to hear descriptions of the backlash as a strictly top-down affair in which Republican spellbinders rally a demographically shrinking sector of the population for one last, tired drive. What the Wichita Republicans have accomplished, though, should dispel this myth forever. They shouted their fighting creed to every resident of the city, sharpening the differences, polarizing the electorate, letting everyone know the stakes.”
Mr. Frank continued: “Gietzen and company wanted not only Wichita’s votes but its participation. They were going to change the world.”