Fargo 'Failure' Holds Lessons for Pro-Lifers

FARGO, N.D.—Here on the Great Plains, an abortion battle has been under way for 18 years.

In 1981 the Fargo Women's Health Organization opened as the state's lone abortion clinic. It became the target of regular pickets and prayer vigils by pro-lifers who wanted to force it shut and make North Dakota the only abortion-clinic-free state in the wake of Roe v. Wade.

Today, instead of being clinic-free, the state is home to two abortion facilities.

Last summer, Jane Bovard quit as the longtime director of the Fargo Women's Health Organization, citing management disagreements with the clinic's owners. She then opened a new abortion clinic in downtown Fargo last August.

Pro-life leaders have since regrouped and evaluated their tactics in the failed bid to stop the new clinic from opening.

“We did some things wrong, and we did some things right,” said Tim Lindgren, state director of the Fargo-based North Dakota Life League. “Hopefully others can learn from our experience.”

Lindgren led the campaign against the opening of the second clinic last summer. Almost 6,000 signatures were presented to the Fargo City Commission opposing the new clinic and asking city officials to intervene. The group also held prayer vigils in front of the proposed location of the new clinic in this city of 77,000 people.

In a last-ditch effort to pressure city officials, more than 100 pro-lifers packed a Fargo City Commission meeting. Those testifying included students from the local Catholic high school and Father Peter Hughes, pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral, in whose the parish boundaries the clinic would be located.

The commission contended it could do nothing to stop the clinic, saying its hands were tied. Father Hughes responded, “When you stand before God, will you also say your minds were tied?”

Despite the organized opposition, the Red River Valley Women's Clinic began performing abortions in early August.

Fewest Abortion Providers

To pro-abortion organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the new clinic means more choices for women in North Dakota and western Minnesota. Lisa Marie Wright, communications director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota-South Dakota, told the Register that access to abortion services in the Dakotas is severely limited.

According to Planned Parenthood, North Dakota and South Dakota are tied for the fewest number of abortion providers per 100,000 women of childbearing age (0.7 vs. the national average of 4). North Dakota (population about 638,000) is also one of only two states with no statewide Planned Parenthood organization or network of clinics.

Wright said only 8% of U.S. counties have abortion providers, with the percentage even lower in the Dakotas. This, she said, results in many abortion-minded women being forced to travel six to eight hours to reach an abortion clinic. The new clinic in Fargo, Wright argued, simply offers more choices but doesn't add to the number of women seeking abortions.

North Dakota Life League's Lindgren disagreed, citing figures from the state Public Health Department. Statistics show the number of abortions in North Dakota increased to 1,242 in 1998 from 1,219 a year earlier. Lindgren noted that the 1998 figures include only five months of abortions performed at the new Red River clinic.

He also said the new clinic's opening sparked a “price war” between the rival facilities: The original clinic dropped its price nearly $100, to $300, in an attempt to attract new customers.

‘Go Public’

North Dakota pro-lifers aren't feeling defeated, however. They said they have learned from their experiences and hope to help those pro-lifers elsewhere who want to stop new clinics from opening.

Lindgren said that it's important for pro-lifers to “go public” immediately with petition drives, press conferences, pickets and prayer vigils. He said Fargo pro-lifers succeeded in dominating the news coverage for several days during their campaign.

The group also organized downtown business people to oppose the clinic's opening. Some business leaders joined prayer vigils and expressed their opposition. He also claims the clinic's presence in the downtown business district contributed to the defeat of a proposed renovation of the area this year.

“Even the pro-choice people recognize that abortion is bad for business,” said Lindgren. “Our campaign is still having an impact, people came out and put pressure on the city.”

Sue Brawn, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, confirmed, “The businesses were very much opposed to it [the opening of the clinic] because of the disruption of business [and] because they would have demonstrations in front of their businesses. Crowds, no matter where you are, intimidate people from coming into an area. That creates some very big concerns for people.”

Lindgren admitted that the new clinic's opening caught pro-lifers off guard in one important aspect: They lacked an appropriate legal strategy.

He said pro-lifers had contemplated introducing a city ordinance banning abortion. Instead, they decided to focus on a statewide abortion ban that was introduced in the state Legislature this year, but did not come up for a vote.

“We mounted the right kind of effort in opposition, but what we didn't do was offer the city commission [another] legitimate legislative proposal,” Lindgren acknowledged.

Apathy Abounds

Those who regularly picket, sidewalk counsel and pray in front of Fargo's abortion mills said the new clinic's location has opened up opportunities for pro-lifers to minister to abortion-bound women and downtown business owners.

Kathy Kirkeby, a pro-life leader in Fargo, has sidewalk counseled outside abortion clinics for more than seven years.

“Obviously the opening of any death camp is a tragedy,” she said of the new clinic. “But we're more visible to the community down there, and people know that abortions go on there.”

Yet, she said the opening of new abortion clinic isn't as disappointing as the apathy she finds in the community and the community's churches.

“There are bars and restaurants downtown and people sit outside at tables and eat lunch while they're killing babies next door,” she said. “I see more and more apathy.”

Kirkeby's advice to pro-lifers fighting abortion clinics is simple: Be visible.

“You've got to get out in the streets in large numbers, pray and speak with lots of people,” she said. “And we need to get our churches to come out to the death camps and pray. If just one entire church would do this, the places wouldn't open in the first place.”

Greg Chesmore is based in Bloomington, Indiana.