Activists Vow To Drive Abortion Provider Out of Bethesda

Controversial clinic opens office on Old Georgetown Road this week


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Pastor Charlie Baile of Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Derwood opens the Tuesday demonstration in prayer.

Bethany Rodgers

Scores of protestors raised signs and denounced a new abortion clinic in Bethesda, and some said they won’t stop until the controversial provider is forced to leave.

“This is a war,” anti-abortion activist Missy Smith said to demonstrators gathered along Old Georgetown Road, near the new clinic.

The provider, Nebraska-based AbortionClinics.org, advertised on its website that it would open Tuesday and offer “advanced gestation abortion care” at a leased location in Wildwood Medical Center.

The practice’s owner, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, is familiar to local activists because he provided late-term abortions at Germantown Reproductive Health Services until the clinic closed earlier this year. The location was one of the few in the nation that offered late-term abortions, but shut its doors after an anti-abortion group bought the building where it operated, according to a Washington Post report.  

An AbortionClinics.org press release stated that Carhart is the only clinician on the Eastern Seaboard who provides abortions for “some patients whose care has been delayed by onerous anti-abortion barriers or are facing diagnoses that threaten their health or pregnancy.” After the Germantown location shut down, these women had to travel across the country to find the same services, the release stated.

Carhart also operates a practice in Nebraska and began traveling back and forth to Maryland in 2010 when he worked as medical director at the Germantown clinic. He decided to open his own practice in Maryland because of the state’s abortion laws, clinic spokeswoman Chelsea Souder said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

“There’s a lot less barriers for women when they’re accessing abortion care,” said Souder, director of clinical services and communications director for AbortionClinics.org.

She said Carhart spent “quite a while” searching for an appropriate location for his clinic after years as a contractor in the Germantown clinic. She would not provide information about the Bethesda lease, such as its duration or when it was signed.

Several county police vehicles were parked around the medical center at noon Tuesday as activists held their press conference and demonstration across the parking lot, several hundred yards away. While some of the demonstrators claimed Carhart canceled appointments in response to public pressure, Souder said that wasn’t the case.

Souder said the clinic has received threats in recent days, although she wouldn’t describe any of them, and reported that the provider is working with local law enforcement. Clinic staff members were aware of the protest Tuesday, but she said the gathering didn’t affect operations at the center.

“This is something that, unfortunately, staff and patients have to endure on a regular basis,” she said.

County police presence outside the Wildwood Medical Center in Bethesda on Tuesday. Bethany Rodgers.

During the press conference, the activists alleged that the facility lacked a state license necessary for operating as an abortion provider.

Brittany Fowler, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Health, wrote in an email that AbortionClinics.org had received a license Tuesday morning.

Susan Abel of Gaithersburg said she volunteered with a protest group as a “sidewalk counselor” outside the Germantown clinic for nearly six years, trying to talk to women as they walked inside. She said she hopes Bethesda residents will undertake a similar effort at the newly opened clinic.

“The womb of one’s mother … should be the safest place in the world, and yet the womb of one’s mother has become the most dangerous place in the world,” she said.

Lauren Handy, who helped organize the demonstration, urged attendees to show up for weekly candlelight vigils outside the abortion clinic, starting with one planned for Tuesday evening. Others asked anti-abortion activists to continue praying about the clinic, and Smith pitched the idea of “shaming” Carhart into leaving by demonstrating at the airport each time he arrives from Nebraska.

In the press release, Carhart is quoted saying that “those of us committed to reproductive freedom cannot rest while anti-abortion extremists work overtime to rob women of their health, lives and autonomy.”

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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