A small office park in the center of Germantown has become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate.
Anti-abortion activists began nine days of protests outside the office of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, an abortion provider from Nebraska, on Sunday. Abortion rights advocates have also been out in force in what they describe as a peaceful presence to show their support for the doctor.
A kick-off walk Sunday afternoon drew about 220 people and raised more than $10,000 for the nonprofit Abortion Access Fund.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said organizer Kira Baughman, director of community outreach for www.abortionclinics.org. “It was awesome, really positive. It really reenergized us.”
Carhart is one of only a handful of doctors across the country who provides late-term abortions, which has made him one of the most visible targets of anti-abortion protesters. He began traveling to a family planning clinic in Germantown to provide his services in December after Nebraska outlawed abortions performed after the 20th week of pregnancy.
Protestors have kept a weekly vigil since Carhart began working at the clinic in December, Baughman said.
“This entire community is tired of this harassment. Abortion is a constitutional and legal right,” said Erin Matson, action vice president of the National Organization for Women. “We don’t see any other form of medical care being singled out for hatred, harassment and terrorism. This is a dark situation and something that needs to be righted here.”
The clinic was closed this week to keep the protesters away from patients, but supporters said they would not be bullied into leaving.
“Abortion rights are all about having control of your own health care,” Baughman said. “Medical decisions should be between a woman and her doctor. …We want people to know our clinic is open and welcoming.”
The anti-abortion protests are called “Summer of Mercy 2.0,” a nod to a series of protests 20 years ago against Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion activist in 2009. Abortion rights supporters named their response the “Summer Celebration of Compassion” and are dedicating it to Tiller’s memory. Carhart worked with Tiller for several years.
The original Summer of Mercy, organized by Operation Rescue, drew thousands of people and lasted nearly two months. Scott Roeder, who was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting Tiller in the head as he stood in the foyer of his church, said he first became aware of the doctor as a result of the protests.
On Sunday afternoon, police tape lined the perimeter of the property and a patrol car blocked the office park’s entrance. A procession of about 200 parishioners walked from the nearby Mother Seton Parish, singing hymns and reciting prayers. Officers stood watchfully along the street and a back-up van filled with more police was stationed nearby in case of trouble.
“It’s very upsetting, it’s a stain on the community,” Carl Vater of Germantown said outside of the church.
“It’s sad that that’s what our community is known for now,” said his mother, Janet Vater. The two have been protesting and praying outside of the clinic for years, she said.
A rally followed in the auditorium at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, where two women received ultrasound exams that were projected on a large screen. Speakers led prayers for women seeking abortions and the clinic’s employees and encouraged attendees to be “on the right side of history” like those who opposed slavery and Nazi atrocities.
“As people of faith we’re called to stand for human rights and social justice and to reach out to the needy and vulnerable in society,” said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, who has compared Planned Parenthood supporters to Ku Klux Klan members and accused President Barack Obama of lying about being a Christian. “…What we hope is that what happens here in Germantown is the first act of a national discussion about abortion.”
A crisis pregnancy center, nonprofits that counsel women against abortions, across the street from the clinic where Carhart practices has convinced 13 women to carry their pregnancies to term, Mahoney said.
Anti-abortion advocates are also holding daily prayer sessions outside the office park.
“We want [pregnant women] to embrace motherhood and we want to help them on that journey,” Chris Slattery, who runs crisis pregnancy centers in New York, told the protestors Monday afternoon. “…We pray for a successful closure. [Carhart] is a corrupt man and he needs to be chased out of this state, legally.”
The ongoing protests have been a source of frustration for nearby businesses.
“They are a big problem for us. Our customers hate it,” said Young Kim, co-owner of Diamond Cleaners. “Those pictures, they hate seeing them,” she said of graphic photos of aborted fetuses displayed by protestors on signs and a large truck that drove around the neighborhood Monday afternoon. Some customers have stopped coming to the business at times that anti-abortion protestors are there.
“A lot of customers complained. They don’t want to see them,” co-owner Tae Kim said. “I understand that they’re religious, but they’re affecting other people. They can find a better way to demonstrate.”
Business hasn’t been hurting the Country Cone Café but anti-abortion advocates have been bringing their message inside the shop, said cashier Sarah Blakeslee. Parking space has also been a problem, she said.
“The pro-life people come in here and pitch their position,” she said. “I just kindly tell them I understand but please don’t bring it in here. They’ve been pretty respectful.”