'A piece of Fargo history': Site of former abortion clinic, major protests, to be demolished

FARGO-The old two-story off Main Avenue here looks like any house in need of fixing, with its peeling paint, patched up siding and overgrown trees.Upon closer examination, traces of a more complex, even turbulent history become evident.Long-faded...
A 110-year-old house that once held Fargo’s first abortion clinic is soon to be demolished. The most recent family to live at 11 14th St. S. has sold it to a property owner next door, who plans to tear down the house for additional parking.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO-The old two-story off Main Avenue here looks like any house in need of fixing, with its peeling paint, patched up siding and overgrown trees.

Upon closer examination, traces of a more complex, even turbulent history become evident.

Long-faded warning signs of "private property" and "premises under surveillance" remain.

On the backside, repairs are still visible from the time someone used a molotov cocktail to set the building on fire.

The structure at 11 14th St. S. was home to North Dakota's first abortion clinic, the Fargo Women's Health Organization, from 1981 to 2001.

Through the years, it was the target of break-ins, fire-bombings and contentious protests that tested law enforcement in ways they hadn't been before.

Retired Fargo Police Officer Pat Claus said it reminds him of how police dealt with Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s.

"The crazy mob mentality, and you had that thin blue line you were trying to walk," Claus said. "It became even thinner, trying to protect everybody."

The backdrop for those tumultuous times, however, will soon be history.

The house, built in 1908, has been sold to a next-door property owner, who will demolish it to make way for parking.

Eric Hansen, 32, and his father, Keith Hansen, who lived in the house for the past dozen or so years, decided to sell after growing tired of the ongoing repairs.

Though too young to remember the old clinic himself, Hansen recognizes its place in history.

"It seems like everybody knows about this place, you know. They all have their own stories about it," he said.

Wild protests

With a background in abortion rights, Jane Bovard helped start the Fargo Women's Health Organization in October 1981.

Now 75, she remembers the struggle of finding the space to begin with.

"Once they knew it would be an abortion clinic? Nope, they weren't going to rent to us," Bovard said recently from her home in Stillwater, Minn.

She dealt with sporadic protests and court battles in the early years, but nothing like what happened in March 1991.

About two dozen abortion protesters broke into the clinic before it opened for the day and linked themselves together at the neck with Kryptonite bike locks.

Two months later, members of the Lambs of Christ traveled from all over the country to Fargo to take protests to a new level.

They used a variety of means and materials to try to disrupt clinic operations, from putting junked cars in the driveway to locking their hands and feet in metal boxes inside the clinic.

The protests were so wild that the CBS newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," then the No. 1 show on television, devoted their Sunday report to the protests in Fargo.

Bovard hired Tammi Kromenaker to work at the clinic, just before one of the major protests.

"I started the next week and Jane said, 'I didn't know if you were even going to show up after that incident,'" said Kromenaker, director of Fargo's only abortion facility now, Red River Women's Clinic.

Lambs made their mark

When officers arrested the Lambs, the protesters refused to walk or give their names to symbolize the plight of the unborn.

Kim Claus, retired Fargo PD like her husband Pat, was a new officer at the time, still in training.

She gave each arrestee a number and snapped their photo before they were loaded onto city buses and taken to jail.

"We even had a nun with one arm. How do you handcuff her?" Claus said.

Martin Wishnatsky had traveled with the Lambs from New York to Fargo to protest.

Now 73 and working for a conservative Christian nonprofit in Alabama, he didn't intend to stay but ended up living in Fargo for 18 years.

"Kind of like a soldier that went to war and stayed in the country he fought in," Wishnatsky said.

While not a member of the Lambs, Adele Brennan of Fargo also protested abortion at the site then, just as she does now at the downtown Red River Women's Clinic.

She said she's glad the old clinic site is going away.

"It's gotten to be in very bad shape physically, slowly. It'd be nice if this one would go too," Brennan said with a laugh, referring to the newer facility downtown.

Building firebombed

Perhaps the most frightening incident for people who worked at the old WHO clinic was when it was firebombed in April 1992.

The fire was started in the early morning hours and discovered by a security guard, but not before it heavily charred the rear of the building.

Bovard tried to put any potential dangers of her work out of her mind.

"It's more scary looking back on it now than when I was living it," she said.

She and Kromenaker decided to leave Fargo WHO in 1997, after the clinic was sold and the building fell into disrepair.

Bovard and abortion doctor George Miks then opened Red River Women's Clinic in 1998, giving Fargo a second facility offering abortions for a time.

In 2001, Fargo WHO closed, citing financial reasons, leaving Fargo again with one abortion provider.

Demolition ahead

Inside the front door of the old house off Main, the clinic's sign remains overhead with "North Dakota Women's Health Organization, Inc." in white letters on a black background.

Intercom and security systems, long defunct, are still in place.

On the main floor, sinks have been removed from the former exam and procedure rooms.

On the second floor, the former waiting area for patients was turned into a bedroom by its current owner, its walls painted neon pink.

In a nearby bathroom, an opening through which to pass urine samples to the clinic's former lab remains, though it's long been nailed shut.

Hansen has moved out his belongings and once the house goes through a final inspection, it will be torn down as early as the first week of May.

Wishnatsky wants a plaque put on the site, he said, "to remember the children who died there."

Kromenaker isn't sad about the demolition, but it does make her reflect on her patients and the building's past.

"I think it's a piece of Fargo history," she said.