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Published January 19, 2013, 11:30 PM

Outside clinic, pair divided by views can still connect

FARGO – As a blast of wind along First Avenue North downtown threatens to lift his 5-foot anti-abortion placard clean out of his hands, Ken Koehler braces it, and himself, against the driving snow.

By: By Emily Welker, ewelker@forumcomm.com, INFORUM

FARGO – As a blast of wind along First Avenue North downtown threatens to lift his 5-foot anti-abortion placard clean out of his hands, Ken Koehler braces it, and himself, against the driving snow.

It is a Wednesday morning – the day abortions are typically performed at Red River Women’s Clinic – and this is the kind of thing Koehler’s been struggling with for 31 years, in more ways than one.

“It’s hard to crawl out of that warm bed some mornings to come here,” Koehler admits, as he wrestles his placard back into place by his side.

Koehler says he’s been in front of Fargo’s abortion clinic almost every Wednesday morning since the first one in town opened on Main Avenue back in 1981. He only missed a few years in the 1990s, he says.

“I suppose it was some form of weariness, waiting for laws to be enacted that protect innocent life in the womb, like the laws that were in place when I was young,” he says of the years he missed. “There was some weariness. There still is.”

Koehler and those who share his views aren’t the only passionate believers regularly stationed outside the clinic on Wednesdays. There are also sidewalk escorts such as Courtney White who volunteer to shepherd patients inside the building.

“It’s not about what I would do or want my daughter to do, it’s about what I think other people have the right to do,” White says.

Though the underlying issue that drives both sides to the same spot every week is as heated as any political topic in the U.S., White and Koehler often talk. They are friendly, in a sense. Though White has only been coming here a year to Koehler’s 31, she says she’s gotten to know him fairly well.

“Ken’s probably the sweetest of all the protesters,” White said from her home near Concordia College in Moorhead, where she’s a sociology student.

Like Koehler, White has seen and heard things that distress her. She thinks many protesters are their own worst enemies when it comes to getting their message through to patients who come to the clinic.

“When you can walk next to an escort who supports you, it’s a lot nicer for them to have a buffer. … I’m sure these women have had extensive counseling at this point, their minds are made up. And I don’t think shaming them is going to make a difference,” she says.

White says the worst comments she’s endured have come from out-of-town groups, including a member of one of those groups who hurled racial slurs at her.

“They said, ‘They kill negroes like you in this clinic, that’s why places like this were created was to kill negroes like you.’ And I was like nice. Nice.

“I just had to walk away,” said White.

White said she feels that Koehler is on the fringes of the main group of protesters, and she wonders if in some ways, she and he could find some way toward common ground.

Indeed, Koehler says there are abortion rights he does support, such as in the event the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest. But he said cases in which the mother’s health is at risk are likely to be subject to interpretations that he feels are too broad, such as the medical concern for a woman’s emotional health should she be forced to carry to term.

“To say she’s going to be emotionally affected – well, she’s going to be affected emotionally either way,” he said.

Koehler said he does think about the possibility a patient who may be killed by carrying to term might be among those who appear on the sidewalk in front of the clinic some Wednesday.

He acknowledges he’s aware his presence, and his placards, might deter her.

“But I would hope in those cases, her doctor would be performing that for her,” he said. “Ninety-five to 99 percent of abortions aren’t those cases. … They’re not her.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541