Over the past several years, abortion opponents have relentlessly targeted women’s health clinics for closure. In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections — when anti-choice lawmakers won significant victories and turned their attention toward finding new ways to restrict the procedure — clinics have been closing at a record pace, leaving broad swaths of the country without any access to abortion providers whatsoever.
According to a recent Bloomberg News investigation, nearly one in ten abortion clinics have either shuttered or stopped providing the procedure since 2011. Medical professionals warn that this trend is having dire consequences: Since abortion has been segregated from the rest of reproductive health care and pushed into standalone clinics, targeting those facilities effectively cuts off access to the procedure altogether.
Yet this particular strategy shows no sign of abating. The people who run reproductive health clinics have a difficult road before them, as anti-abortion groups use a combination of increasingly creative tactics to make it too difficult for their businesses to remain operating:
Forcing clinics to widen their hallways, expand their closets, and install new air conditioning systems
Anti-abortion activists have wielded the power of state legislatures in order to limit access to clinics. By drafting new laws that tighten the regulations on women’s health clinics — and effectively framing this effort in terms of “patient safety” — abortion opponents have facilitated a wave of state policies that require clinics to make costly and unnecessary renovations to bring their building codes in line with surgical facilities.
This tactic, known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, has swept the country. Twenty-two states require abortion clinics to meet the same standards intended for ambulatory surgical centers. In eleven of those states, the TRAP laws specify how wide the clinics’ corridors need to be — presumably in case a stretcher needs to fit through, even though just 0.23 percent of abortion patients ever experience a major complication that requires hospitalization.
In practice, this means that abortion clinics are being required pour money into remodeling projects that don’t have any effect on their ability to provide safe abortion care — like installing more water fountains, expanding janitor’s closets, replacing the floors, widening doorways and hallways, and updating the ventilation systems. Many of the providers who run independent clinics have estimated that the cost of these updates could exceed one million dollars, and choose to close down because they simply can’t afford to spend that kind of money.
Complaining that new clinics are violating zoning agreements
Even when clinic owners attempt the make the extensive renovations required under TRAP laws, the new surgical centers don’t necessarily appease the very same right-wing groups who initially called for them.
In Texas, which infamously passed a restrictive TRAP law in 2013 that’s putting dozens of its clinics in peril, Planned Parenthood has opted to spend more than six million dollars to build a state-of-the-art ambulatory surgical center in San Antonio. But that construction project is still being met with protests from abortion opponents, who say they’re “deeply troubled by Planned Parenthood’s abortion center.” They’ve even unsuccessfully sued to stop the construction, alleging that Planned Parenthood isn’t following the proper zoning regulations and the city shouldn’t have given out the permits.
“These are the very people who wanted this law, and so we complied with the law they wanted, and now they are not happy about it,” Jeffrey Hons, the president of Planned Parenthood South Texas, told the San Antonio Express-News this month. “I could build this building on Mars, and they still wouldn’t be happy.”
Similar zoning fights have unfolded in states ranging from Virginia to Alabama to Connecticut. This dynamic clearly illustrates that the fight over reproductive rights is becoming hyper-localized: In some places, the control of a city zoning board can determine whether an abortion clinic is allowed to remain open.
Pressuring construction workers to stop building clinics
If state laws and local ordinances can’t stop clinics, abortion opponents can go straight to the source: The contractors and builders who are responsible for renovating reproductive health clinics. This tactic — which originated in Texas about a decade ago and has since spread further across the country — involves making it too much of a hassle for other businesses to work with abortion providers, in the hopes that they’ll opt to end their contracts.
In Louisiana, for instance, anti-abortion groups are currently fighting hard to stop the construction of a new Planned Parenthood clinic. The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans successfully pressured constructors to halt their work on their clinic by threatening to refuse to hire them for any future church-related projects. And two anti-abortion pastors in the area personally visited the home of the owner of Absolute Concrete Solutions, the local company they believed was scheduled to pour the concrete for the new clinic’s foundation, to tell them that the job “was not worth it” and that “God hates this project.”
Major anti-abortion groups like Texas Right to Life have been upfront about why they believe lobbying construction workers is a good use of abortion opponents’ time, even if it’s ultimately unsuccessful. “Our goal is to save lives by making Planned Parenthood spend more time and money on this project than budgeted. If we can’t completely stop the construction, we can delay it and make it more expensive to complete,” the director of the group said back in 2012.
It’s largely successful. One spokesperson involved with the construction project in Louisiana told the New Orleans Advocate that the resistance from abortion opponents has “cost millions” as four different concrete companies all backed out of the project over the past several months.
Arguing that clinics draw too many disruptive anti-abortion protesters
In perhaps the most ironic argument deployed against clinics, some conservative groups claim that abortion providers shouldn’t be allowed to operate their businesses because they attract too many anti-choice protesters to otherwise quiet neighborhoods.
It’s a case that anti-choice groups have repeatedly made against the clinic in Kansas that used to be operated by slain late-term abortion provider George Tiller. In 2013, right after the clinic’s new owner re-opened it to the public, critics cited their own disruptive protests — including graphic anti-abortion signs that they said may be “inappropriate” for children — to explain why the clinic shouldn’t be allowed to continue operating in the neighborhood where it’s located. One anti-abortion activist argued that the clinic’s new owner would “provoke” gun violence.
Last fall, while arguing in court that North Alabama’s only abortion clinic shouldn’t be allowed to continue operating, lawyers representing an anti-abortion group played videos of confrontations between abortion protesters and clinic escorts. They argued that the arguments in front of the clinic would be too noisy for the neighbors, and the surrounding area shouldn’t be subject to the potential disruption. James Henderson, the executive director of the Alabama Christian Coalition, testified that the clinic needs to go because he faces “the risk of personal physical injury” during his own protests at the site.
Meanwhile, in California, abortion opponents have been waging a legal battle against a Planned Parenthood clinic because they say it’s in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act — alleging that the clinic will result in significant “environmental impacts” to the region because of the noise and the traffic disruptions stemming from their own protests. “Of all the well-documented abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act, this one may be the most absurd,” an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle lamented this week.