Abortion protesters, proponents reflect on decades of Fargo clinic struggles as nation marks 40 years of Roe v. WadeFARGO - The light tan building with glass block windows looks like any other building in downtown Fargo.
By: Robin Huebner, INFORUM
FARGO - The light tan building with glass block windows looks like any other building in downtown Fargo.
But every Wednesday, it draws a small crowd of people praying or holding signs, intermixed with others wearing bright green vests who quietly usher young women into the front entrance.
Wednesday is the day abortions are performed at North Dakota’s only abortion facility, the Red River Women’s Clinic at 512 1st Ave. N.
The clinic offers surgical and medical abortions and terminates more than 1,200 pregnancies a year.
Watching the quiet proceedings outside the clinic, a newcomer to Fargo may think the city has an uneventful history related to abortion.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As the nation on Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme court ruling that legalized abortion, The Forum looks back on the clinics in our area and the key players in the struggle.
The face of abortion
Perhaps the woman most synonymous with abortion rights in Fargo is Jane Bovard. She is part-owner of the Red River Women’s Clinic and the building in which it’s located, along with retired abortion doctor George Miks, of Chisholm, Minn., and a third, silent partner, who also is a physician.
Bovard helped start the city’s first abortion clinic, the Fargo Women’s Health Organization, or Fargo WHO.
Bovard was approached about opening that first clinic while she was head of the North Dakota chapter of the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League in the late 1970s.
It took several years to get the right people and details lined up, and in October 1981, Fargo WHO opened in the only building they could find to rent – a two-story house built in 1908 at 11 14th St. S.
Over the next 10 years, clinic workers would have sporadic protests and court battles to deal with, but nothing like what began in the early 1990s.
“It was a living hell,” said Bovard.
During that time, the clinic was the target of break-ins, contentious protests and firebombings. Bovard was threatened, robbed at gunpoint, and her north Fargo home was repeatedly picketed.
“It was horrible. So stressful,” said the 69-year-old Bovard, speaking by phone last week from her winter home in Phoenix.
“It became really hard to do my job running the clinic. We were constantly on edge that someone was going to do something we hadn’t thought of,” she said.
Bovard found a staunch ally early on in Jon Lindgren, Fargo mayor from 1978 to 1994.
“It was a time of intensity,” Lindgren recalls.
Lindgren, now 74, was behind efforts to keep abortion protesters from picketing neighborhoods, specifically around Bovard’s home.
He also stood firm in making sure police officers were able to do their jobs and keep protesters from blocking streets or sidewalks.
“Even very pro-life police officers told me, ‘We can’t allow them to take over the city,’ ” said Lindgren.
New level of protest
One of the first tactics used that caught the city and clinic workers off-guard involved two dozen protesters who broke into the clinic in March 1991 and locked themselves together at the neck with Kryptonite bike locks.
Two months later, a group called Lambs of Christ, which had been targeting several Midwestern cities, descended on Fargo to take abortion protests a step further.
“They invaded our clinic carrying (200-pound) metal boxes. They put their hands and feet into them, like an octopus, and locked themselves inside,” Bovard said.
“Police had to drill through the metal to get them out,” she said.
It was the first of almost a dozen similar protests that year resulting in the arrests of almost 200 Lambs, who ultimately would stretch city and county resources to the limit.
Their method once arrested: refuse to give their names or to walk, which the Lambs said symbolized the plight of the unborn.
It resulted in cumbersome court proceedings and the Lambs being jailed far longer than anyone thought, prompting many to be transferred to other county jails.
The burden was heavy. According to news reports at the time, the taxpayer tab in Cass County for housing and prosecuting the Lambs totaled $250,000.
“Their strategy was to make the disruption so extensive that we would close the clinic,” said Lindgren.
“We resolved that we wouldn’t let them succeed.”
Protesters then and now
Martin Wishnatsky was one of the Lambs of Christ members who came to Fargo in 1991, intending to be a thorn in the side of the city, county and Bovard.
The now 68-year-old traveled to Fargo with a group from New York that was involved in anti-abortion work there.
Quiet and reserved, the Harvard grad with a doctorate in political science wasn’t comfortable being a “sidewalk counselor” like many of the Lambs.
But he wasn’t afraid to sit squarely in front of the clinic entrance, to serve as a barrier between it and arriving patients.
“We were willing to be arrested for peaceful intervention between the child scheduled for execution and the doctor assigned to do it,” Wishnatsky said in a recent phone interview from Montgomery, Ala.
Along with other out-of-state protesters, Wishnatsky often was joined outside the clinic by local pro-life supporters, including Kathy Kirkeby, now 65 and living in West Fargo.
Forty years after the legalization of abortion, both Kirkeby and Wishnatsky remain deeply saddened.
“It’s become accepted,” said Kirkeby. “It’s very, very sad for our country, our mothers and fathers.”
“Abortion is a terrible tragedy, and probably the greatest disgrace in American history,” said Wishnatsky.
He now has turned to a different method of educating people about the pro-life movement.
Wishnatsky received a degree from Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va., last year, and just last week began a clerkship in Montgomery with the Alabama Supreme Court, serving under Chief Justice Roy Moore.
According to the university’s website, Wishnatsky and the other clerks “will assist in research and writing opinions, having significant influence in the court.”
When asked if he might somehow be able to make a pro-life impact in Alabama, a state he says has abortion laws similar to North Dakota’s, Wishnatsky paused for a time before answering.
“The chief justice makes his own decisions,” he said, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.
During their time as protesters, both Wishnatsky and Kirkeby were arrested. As a result, Wishnatsky served time in jail and in the state’s minimum security prison in Bismarck. Kirkeby was acquitted on one charge, while a later charge was dropped.
Would they change what they did, and do they think their personal sacrifices made a difference?
“No regrets. No regrets at all,” said Wishnatsky.
“There are always babies saved by what we do,” said Kirkeby.
As far as Bovard is concerned, the protests didn’t bring the results the anti-abortion activists wanted.
In fact, she said, her clinic patient load went up because of all the attention.
Through it all, has Bovard ever questioned the work she does?
“Nope. In fact, the more someone tried to stop me, the more I pushed back.”
Bovard decided to leave Fargo WHO in 1997, after not liking the direction it was heading.
“The clinic had been sold, and the new owners weren’t paying their bills,” Bovard said.
“I felt my reputation was on the line and decided I didn’t need the hassle.”
When Fargo WHO abortion doctor George Miks approached her about opening their own clinic, Bovard reluctantly agreed.
“The biggest hurdle was finding a building,” she said. “Nobody wanted to sell or rent to us.”
They eventually secured the building on First Avenue North, and opened Red River Women’s Clinic in July 1998, giving Fargo a second facility offering abortions.
In 2001, Fargo WHO closed, citing business and financial reasons, leaving Fargo again with one abortion provider.
Changing of the guard
From her home in Arizona, Bovard still keeps in touch daily with Tammi Kromenaker, the newest public face of abortion rights in Fargo, and director of the Red River Women’s Clinic since it opened.
Though Bovard has some involvement in the clinic finances, Kromenaker runs the show.
The two worked together for years at the other clinic, so Bovard says it was natural for her to choose Kromenaker as director.
“She and I are a lot alike, very detail-oriented, so it works well,” said Bovard.
Both women say the biggest threat to North Dakota abortion rights comes from the state Legislature, which continues to pass laws making it more difficult to get an abortion.
Just last week, a bill was introduced calling for restrictions on abortions relating to genetic anomalies and gender selection.
And the clinic currently is in the middle of a lawsuit against the state over a bill passed in the last session, which bans a widely accepted use of a medication that induces abortion.
Kromenaker says new studies are showing positive results for that medication, which is less expensive for the patient.
“We want to be able to offer that regimen,” said Kromenaker. “It just makes sense to offer what’s most up-to-date.”
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in April.
Though the atmosphere around the abortion clinic today may be less tense than in years past, there are still plenty of reasons for employees to keep their guard up.
“There’s always a personal risk,” said Kromenaker.
“Abortion is fraught with people who will go to the ultimate extreme of murder,” she said
In the United States, at least eight people, including four doctors, have been killed in attacks against abortion providers.
One security feature now in place at the Red River Women’s Clinic doesn’t allow both front doors to be open at the same time. A patient comes through the first door, gets approval via video screen, and is buzzed into the clinic through the second door.
Bovard recalls an incident that happened before that system was installed.
She says abortion protester Wishnatsky was able to slide into the clinic, right behind a patient.
According to Bovard, Kromenaker yelled at him to leave.
“She grabbed a Taser and said ‘Do you want me to use this?’ He turned around and left,” Bovard said.
Kromenaker also uses clinic escorts on a regular basis, something she says they never used to have or need.
The volunteer escorts were brought in after the inaugural 40 Days for Life vigil in 2007, put on in part by the Catholic Diocese of Fargo.
With the huge crowd on hand, “That was the first time we felt we needed help,” said Kromenaker.
She has since put one clinic escort on the payroll “to be my eyes and ears,” she said.
Fighting with prayer
The 40 Days for Life event is an important one for the Fargo Diocese.
“We have documented 55 babies saved from abortion at the Fargo abortion facility since we started keeping track in the fall of 2007,” said Rachelle Sauvageau, director of the Respect Life office at the diocese.
How did they arrive at that number?
Sauvageau says it’s based on women who’ve come out of the abortion clinic and either told a sidewalk counselor or prayer volunteer that they have chosen to give life to their unborn child, or because they have gone to FirstChoice Clinic in Fargo for support.
The diocese also holds annual prayer events in front of the abortion clinic, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, along with Respect Life Sunday and Walk with Christ for Life in October.
One of the most recent moves by the Diocese is designed to meet abortion head-on, with the help of proximity.
It opened a chapel in the next-door building to the east, a stone’s throw from the abortion clinic.
Catholic Mass is held in the chapel every Wednesday, the day abortions are performed.
Bovard said the Red River Women’s clinic makes a decent profit “but nothing out of this world.”
The primary goal, she says, has always been to provide the service.
Abortion is important to her on a professional and personal level.
In 1974, Bovard had an abortion when she was pregnant with her fifth child.
“We were heavily in debt with my husband in graduate school, and we just needed to be able to take care of the four kids we had,” she said.
Bovard said she wants to be thought of as someone very committed to safe, quality abortions for women who chose to have one.
She said she’s proud of an abortion complication rate at the clinic that’s close to zero, and that they routinely send women away who are unsure of their decision.
Kromenaker reminds people that just because the clinic exists doesn’t make women choose abortions.
“If women don’t want to be pregnant, they will do whatever it takes to not be,” she said.
North Dakota is one of four states, including South Dakota, Wyoming and Mississippi, that has a single abortion provider.
“The antis want more than anything to be able to shut them down,” said Kromenaker.
Former mayor Lindgren says several times during the tumultuous early ’90s, national anti-abortion leaders came to Fargo to say they were going to close the abortion clinic.
“They don’t say that kind of thing anymore,” said Lindgren.
“In general,” he adds, “abortion is here to stay.”
Readers can reach Robin Huebner at email@example.com