Divine Intervention

"So many women who wind up over there have been told a whole set of info that isn't true": Janet Nelson, a counselor at the Robbinsdale Clinic, with an anti-abortion neighbor looming
Diana Watters

On one side of West Broadway in Robbinsdale sits the Robbinsdale Clinic, a family-practice outfit that provides first-trimester abortions. Directly across the street with a more prominent sign--one that advertises free pregnancy tests--is the Robbinsdale Women's Center, an anti-abortion center that provides counseling on abortion alternatives. To say that the similar-sounding names and close proximity lead to mistaken identity would be an understatement. Clinic staffers claim that hundreds of women have complained to them that the center's name and location have caused confusion since the center opened its doors in 1992.

The conflict between the pro-choice clinic and the anti-abortion center is more than a neighborly spat in the suburban confines of Robbinsdale. It spotlights the age-old--and once-again intensified---battle over abortion.

On any given day, a rotating cast of abortion opponents will sit in a makeshift contraption that looks like a deer stand and hovers above the clinic's parking lot. They shout anti-abortion slogans at the clinic's patients. The lookout belongs to a house next door that's being used by an organization called the Pro-Life Action Ministries, a group closely affiliated with the Robbinsdale Women's Center. A banner attached to the house features a picture of an 11-week fetus and reads, "You don't have to abort. Free help across the street."

The sign refers to a cream-colored building with a white picket fence, the location of the Robbinsdale Women's Center, where many women seeking counsel on abortion end up--and aren't necessarily immediately told they are in the wrong place. That's the reason for eight complaints about the center's practices sent to the state attorney general's office over the last few years.

In one of the complaints, a woman says that she accidentally went to the center for an abortion appointment. When she arrived, a staff member at the center administered an ultrasound and informed her she was having a baby girl, even though the woman was just seven weeks along, a good three months from being able to determine the sex of the fetus. When she asked about the abortion, she was told she'd have to set up another appointment to "discuss her options."

Another woman writes in a complaint that she mistakenly called the center instead of the clinic to schedule an abortion and was told an ultrasound needed to be done first. She claims she was told by staffers at the center that most pregnancies end in miscarriage and scheduling an abortion before the ultrasound wasn't necessary. Despite the numerous issues regarding the center's name and business practices, so far nothing has been done about any of it.

"We've always been told that there's nothing we can do," says Joyce Johnson, director of the Robbinsdale Clinic for 24 years. "We're told that the patients are the ones who need to complain." The onus, then, is on the women seeking abortions, adding burdens and intimidation when their situation is struggle enough.

Clinic clients who feel they have been wronged by the place across the street are instructed by the staff to send complaints to Attorney General Mike Hatch's office. But AG spokesperson Leslie Sandberg says the office has limited authority, which does not include representing private citizens who register complaints against a business. Hatch's office often refers the women to the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, the Board of Nursing, or, regarding the name confusion, the Secretary of State's office.

But Kent Kaiser at the SOS's office says only business-name filings fall under the secretary's domain. "If you look at the names, they are significantly different," he contends. "If it's fraudulent business practices or charities, that falls under the attorney general's office." And since employees at the center are not physicians or nurses, the state medical boards do not take up any ethical issues. In other words, no one is accepting responsibility, or at the very least, knows for sure whose jurisdiction such issues fall under.


Political hot potato aside, there are real consequences for the center's actions, none of which appear to have any legal ramifications. "So many women who wind up over there have been told a whole set of info that isn't true," contends Janet Nelson, a counselor at the clinic. "It's harder to get their trust here because they're told a host of lies, like there's a link to abortions and breast cancer, which absolutely isn't true. We have to undo all the fallacies."

Peggy Benicke, the director of the Women's Center, counters that while the center is strategically located to reach "abortion-minded women," all staffers are trained to inform every woman that the center does not provide abortion services. "All of the charges that the clinic makes, the list of complaints, those could have been made up," she says. "They don't release any of the women's names. There's no way to verify if any of it's true."

And Benicke may not be wrong. However, when I call the center posing as a 20-year-old wanting to speak to someone about an abortion, my experience mirrors those of the women who wrote to the attorney general's office. The woman on the other end of the line tells me she can set up a consultation. I tell her that I'm five weeks along, and she says it's necessary to first set up an ultrasound to determine if it's a "good pregnancy or not." Then she offers, "Many pregnancies end in miscarriages." At the end of our conversation, she informs me that the abortions are done "someplace else," but that the center provides the necessary preparation to determine if I was "carrying normally." Nothing was said to give me the impression that I called an anti-abortion center.

"They may be helping some people," Johnson offers. "But for the most part it's all miscommunication."

While the problem with the center has left the clinic staff with little recourse, they have been able to get the deer-stand perch moved back from the fence--but only by a mere 18 inches. Johnson also has had little luck finding anyone to ensure that the center follows the requirements laid out in a 1992 Hennepin County court ruling, when the clinic filed a restraining order against the center.

According to court documents, Judge Franklin Knoll declared that the center is prohibited from using "Robbinsdale Women's Center" unless the disclaimer, "Alternative Abortion Services: not affiliated with the Robbinsdale Clinic, P.A." is prominently displayed at all public entrances. The center has a placard with the disclaimer at its side entrance. But in the back entrance, where visitors are instructed to park, no sign exists. "As far as I know, we're only required to have one sign," Benicke offers.

The dispute between the neighbors probably won't go away anytime soon. The May 2005 passing of Minnesota's Positive Alternatives Act, a state grant program that gives state funding to crisis pregnancy groups that oppose abortion, promises that the center only stands to gain more funding, which it currently receives from private donations and churches. "We're not ruling it out as an option [for funding]," Benicke says. "It's an issue for the board to decide. It really is going to depend on what the restrictions are."

Johnson, meanwhile, is left feeling more defeated than ever. "In the age that I am, in my entire adult life that I have been lobbying for reproductive freedom--why does it seem like we're going so far backwards?"

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