U.S. News

03.29.13

The One Woman Screwing Up North Dakota’s Plan to End Abortion

She's the only abortion provider in a state that just passed crazy restrictions. And she’s not backing down. Winston Ross goes to the culture war's new frontier: Fargo, North Dakota.

FARGO, North Dakota—An FBI agent sat quietly in the lobby of the Red River Women’s Clinic on Thursday morning, arms folded across his lap, waiting for the director of North Dakota’s only abortion provider to wrap up a local television interview, her umpteenth media appearance in the past few days. The agent asked to speak to Tammi Kromenaker privately, so she escorted him back to one of the few places in the small two-story building with a closed door, and they talked.

Just a courtesy call, the agent told Kromenaker; to let her know he was the person to contact should anyone decide to violate the federal law that prevents people from trying to stop women seeking an abortion from getting into a clinic, a law described in several bold-lettered signs at the clinic’s door, guarded by two security cameras that feed into the office. None of the protestors who have turned out to hurl invective and prayer at women on the one day each week Red River sees patients has ever actually tried to block someone from getting in the building.

At least, not physically. At the Capitol building in Bismarck, lawmakers are doing everything they can to make sure Red River’s three physicians aborts their last fetus by August 1, when a trio of America’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws just signed by Gov. Jack Dalyrmple will take effect, unless a court intervenes. The new laws have swept North Dakota, Fargo, and this tiny clinic into the eye of the country’s never-ending debate about a woman’s right to choose—40 years after the Supreme Court supposedly settled the issue in Roe v. Wade.

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One of the three bills signed by the governor this week will ban the practice as early as six weeks into a pregnancy—at the first detection of a fetal heartbeat. (Roe allows abortions until a fetus is viable outside the womb, around 24 weeks.) Another law requires doctors who perform abortions in the state to get admitting privileges at a local hospital, and a third bans abortions for reasons including gender preferences or genetic defects, an unprecedented law in the U.S.

As the only abortion-performing clinic in North Dakota, Red River is the main target. An average of 25 abortions take place here each Wednesday. That’s why Kromenaker has found herself the focal point of the national debate this week, the latest target amongst a host of state-by-state attempts to do away with a woman’s right to choose. For someone facing the closure of her clinic in a few scant months, though, Kromenaker is surprisingly upbeat. The “heartbeat bill,” as it’s known, is “blatantly unconstitutional” and won’t survive the scrutiny of federal courts, she is convinced.

Representatives of the National Center for Reproductive Rights have assured her they will pay to take the case to court, she said. The gender preferences and genetic defects law wouldn’t have much of a practical impact, because no one has ever come into her clinic wanting to terminate a pregnancy simply because it’s a boy or girl, and by the time most genetic abnormalities are discovered, the fetus is too far along to be aborted at Red River, which will abort up until 16 weeks. 

“The receptionist at my dentist’s office asked me, ‘Aren’t you scared?’” Kromenaker said in an interview. “If I was scared all the time, if I let this stuff get me down, I couldn’t do the work. I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have.”

Some of Kromenaker’s former clients, on the other hand, are furious. Amy Will says she had an abortion at Red River 11 years ago, just after she turned 21. She was living in nearby Jamestown at the time with “a really shitty boyfriend,” she said. Her mom had told her about the clinic long ago, when she was 15, and had made clear that if she ever got knocked up, terminating the pregnancy was absolutely what she should do and Red River was absolutely where she should do it, and that “no one is ever going to be mad at you” about it. “She was the mom who would hand out condoms before we went to parties.”

“If I let this stuff get me down, I couldn’t do the work. I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have.”

So Will didn’t have any doubt. She made an appointment, pushed past the protestors assuring her god would take care of the baby, walked up the well-worn stairs to the second floor and had an abortion. She had no regrets that day and she doesn’t now.

“I’d be living in a trailer in Jamestown, North Dakota, with a guy who didn’t have a job and liked to beat the shit out of me,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been a good situation for anybody. I probably should feel bad, but I don’t. My life turned out great.”

A year later, Will met her future husband, they quickly (and accidentally) had their first of two children, and are happily married still. North Dakota’s new laws have left many in the state “in shock, that they actually passed. It’s so ridiculous.”

Adding insult to that injury, for Will, is the governor’s acknowledgment, when he signed the bills Tuesday, that there’d be a court challenge and that the state would need to set aside money to fight. This, in light of cuts in funding for programs such as Women Infants and Children’s, that provide food to the underprivileged children, already?

“That blows my mind, when we won’t pay for kids to have milk in school; to take care of those babies,” Will said.

Thirty-two-year old Amanda, who asked that her last name not be used, feels similarly. She has two daughters, 7 and 11, and when she got pregnant last February, it was with a man who had become “all of a sudden not a very nice guy to my kids.” She moved out, and two weeks later found out she was pregnant. Staying in a friend’s basement at the time, Amanda “knew right away that was my choice,” to have an abortion. “I had to do this, or I would be stuck with another child, with no help.”

Amanda’s youngest daughter found the pregnancy test in the trash, and at first, she lied about it, saying it must be someone else’s. But when the laws passed in North Dakota, Amanda’s daughter wanted to go with her mom to one of the abortion rights rallies held in Fargo recently.

“That’s when I talked to her about it,” Amanda said in an interview. “I said mommy had to make this choice.”

She doesn’t know what would have happened if Red River hadn’t been there, she said. “I knew I really did not want to be pregnant. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

The North Dakota statutes upset her, she said. “Closing the clinic isn’t going to stop abortions. It’s going to stop safe abortions. That’s scary.”

Woman after woman is reacting across North Dakota the same way. Emily, 29, had an abortion at Red River three years ago because she and her boyfriend felt they weren’t ready to bring a child into the world. Now that they’ve been together for six years, they’re talking about children. But she has no regrets about her visit to the clinic, and thinks North Dakota lawmakers have stepped out of line. “Every woman has a right to make that decision,” Emily said.

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Former clients and people from all across the world have reached out to Kromenaker in recent days, she said, flooding her telephone lines and email inbox with offers of support and donations —$10,000 in the past three days. One woman she met at a recent rally stopped in after the TV interview to give a $40 cash donation. She didn’t write a check, she said, because she doesn’t want her husband to find out. They do not agree on the topic of abortion rights.

“I’m embarrassed for my state,” the woman said. “There are people all over the country, all over the world now, asking what is wrong with these people in North Dakota?” 

The hate mail—the pictures of babies and fetuses, the veiled threats —  goes in a file in Kromenaker’s cabinet. The positive letters are pinned to a bulletin board. More than anything, people want to know what they can do. She believes the best tact is to wait for the court battle and fight it there, but she knows that’s not a satisfying answer.

“Telling people ‘Let the lawyers litigate’ is not what they want to hear. They’re mad,” she said. There’s talk of a rally this weekend, a referendum drive, fundraisers, campaigns to oust those lawmakers who supported the bills, and more. “The hard part is channeling that energy until November 2014. How do you sustain anger?”

As she fields a slew of phone calls and emails, the clinic’s director is trying to prepare for the worst. Red River’s three doctors will all apply for privileges at the two local hospitals, Essentia Health and Sanford. A spokesman for Essentia told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the staff there is “open” and that physicians from outside the hospital can apply for a range of privileges there, from admitting patients to performing procedures. That said, “we do not perform abortions at Essentia Health-Fargo, and we would not credential a physician to perform a procedure that our hospital doesn’t offer.  We do not have plans to challenge this law.”

Sanford’s spokesman said the hospital has bylaws that apply equally to any physician requesting privileges, though the hospital takes no position on abortion and does not allow them to be performed there.

As Kromenaker awaits more clarity from the courts and the hospitals, she’s keeping an eye out, a la the FBI agency’s visit Thursday. On her way to work Thursday morning, a man was stumbling around near the clinic’s entrance, shouting incoherently, something about George W. Bush. Kromenaker’s pace quickened, and she avoided eye contact, but at some point the man pointed at her, and screamed “HEY YOU!”

Kromenaker stopped.

“You’re saving women’s lives!” the man yelled. “ Good for you.”