Anti-abortion activists say they've got another arrow in their quiver to use against what they believe is the murder of unborn babies: A handshake with a real-estate agent.
They've discovered that one of the best ways to shut down an abortion clinic is to buy the building in which it's located.
"With civil disobedience we might be successful at closing an abortion clinic for of couple hours a day, but the tactics we're using now permanently close the abortion clinics," said Cheryl Sullenger, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. "It's much more effective, and we don't have to go to jail and wear handcuffs, so we're liking this much better."
On June 28, Operation Rescue bought a piece of property in Wichita, Kan., where it is based, to eventually be used as the group's new headquarters. But the spot it chose was no random parcel of land; the site had been leased to an abortion clinic since 1983.
"We found out from our realty agent that the building that housed the local abortion clinic was up for sale," Sullengberg said. "After the offer was put down for the building, the abortion clinic had indicated that they were maybe thinking of closing, and they came to us to see if they could maintain the tenancy of the building."
Unsurprisingly, Operation Rescue turned them down, she said. The clinic, Central Women's Services, left, and the land became the property of the anti-abortion group for $112,000. They plan to make part of the one-story, 2,100-square-foot site into "a memorial for the babies that died there," Sullenberg said. Operation Rescue has already been holding tours of what it says were the previous occupant's unhygienic conditions.
But the greatest legacy of the real-estate sale may be that Operation Rescue claims to have opened up a new front in the war against a legal practice it sees as morally indefensible.
"It's a wonderful thing," Sullenberg said. "Most abortion clinics are not wanted in their neighborhoods. Communities just don't want abortion clinics operating in their neighborhoods."
Other anti-abortion groups have claimed similar victories.
In 1993, an anti-abortion group bought Tennessee's Chattanooga Women's Clinic in bankruptcy court for $294,000. It's now the National Memorial for the Unborn. In 2000 in Bellevue, Neb., anti-abortion activists, including a state senator, bought the land that held the Bellevue Clinic, which was run by Leroy Carhart — the same doctor whose name graces the landmark abortion-rights case, Stenberg v. Carhart. They were unable to evict Cahart because his contract specified that he had right of first refusal; the anti-abortion activists were forced to give ownership of the property to Carhart in 2003.
And it's already common practice to buy or lease property near abortion clinics, then use them to house anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers, often with names like "A Better Choice," or something that could mistaken for an abortion provider.
"We've got places pretending to be abortion-type clinics and they're actually pro-life," said Mark Pederson, office manager for the abortion clinic, Aid for Women, of Kansas City, Kan. "There's even a place right next to us called the Pregnancy Resource Center or something."
Similar tactics have proliferated on the Internet, where anti-abortion groups buy up Web addresses similar to those of abortion providers or abortion-rights groups, then use them to lead to Web pages with anti-abortion materials.
"Our idea is to change the hearts and and minds of people about abortion," said Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League. "Ideally, we'd like to see all of the abortion clinics close and nobody seeking abortions, but as abortion clinics do close, women still do need services to carry their babies to term and realize that the life is a blessing to them."
But many questioned how effective the Wichita buyout was, or whether it was even really a buyout.
According to Pederson, whose office provided doctors for the Wichita clinic, Central Women's Services had already decided to pack up well before Operation Rescue bought the property, not because of any pressure from anti-abortion groups but because it hadn't made enough money over the winter to keep up with the bills. The last abortion took place in May, and the space was mostly empty by the time of the sale, Pederson said.
"How do you evict someone when they were already gone?" he asked.
It also didn't rid Wichita of abortion clinics. The Central Women's Services business and its equipment were bought by the other abortion provider in the city on June 1 nearly four weeks before the land sale. Pederson said Operation Rescue is calling it a victory for one simple reason: Publicity.
"They're desperate for publicity," Pederson said. "Why do they drive around with big old trucks now with the abortion stuff on it? Because they're not getting the attention they hoped, they're not blowing up clinics as much, they're not doing blockades like they used to in the '80s with 30 people chained to the clinic or whatever. It's the start of a publicity campaign. It's just a fund-raising tactic."
And funds would be exactly what anti-abortion groups would need to actually try to use real-estate buyouts as a regular tactic, according to Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based abortion-rights organization.
"This is not a trend and this is not a strategy that they've employed successfully," she said. "I'm not sure they have the resources to effectively carry out that strategy throughout the United States or that clinics wouldn't be protected under the leases that they've already signed."
Even other anti-abortion groups expressed skepticism about how practical Operation Rescue's move could be on a larger scale.
"It's a great strategy if you can come up with the money to do it, but that would probably be a great stumbling block, because most pro-life groups are pretty close to the line and don't have much money left over, and property's expensive," Scheidler said. "I don't think you could buy them all and put them out of business that way. If there are women who still want abortions, they'll go elsewhere. The pro-life movement has to continue to sidewalk counsel, picket abortion clinics and raise public awareness about what abortion really is."
Sullenger stuck to her guns, however, and said that buying out the property abortion clinics stand on would be the weapon of choice for future anti-abortion activists.
"Well, it keeps us out of jail, for one thing," she said, laughing.