Women Dig In
The defense of Planned Parenthood is the latest battle in a long campaign
It's been a month since an anti-abortion boycott brought construction to a halt on a new Planned Parenthood clinic at Ben White and South Congress, where all that visibly remains, for the moment, is a chain-link fence giving way to a cheerless dirt lot.
Yet the mood is anything but cheerless at Planned Parenthood's central offices, just west of Downtown. "There's been such an outpouring of support since this happened," said Glenda Parks, the organization's chief executive officer. What happened is the now nationally publicized story of how Chris Danze, the owner of a foundation contracting company, spearheaded an aggressive boycott of subcontractors and vendors that ultimately forced Browning Construction, the San Antonio general contractor, to abandon the project just two months after breaking ground.
The boycott may have galvanized right-wing opposition, but it also served as a wake-up call to local pro-choice advocates, and put Planned Parenthood's Austin office in the national spotlight. "Those people who are kind of complacent in Austin and elsewhere are realizing that even in this so-called liberal place, this kind of travesty can happen," Parks said. "And they're concerned. They're very, very concerned."
The distress signals went out almost immediately after Browning called the morning of Nov. 4 to drop the bombshell: Subcontractors were dropping out of the project left and right, Browning reported, because they feared their participation in the project might threaten their livelihoods. And Browning, one of the largest construction contractors in Texas, was also feeling the heat from a bombardment of phone calls and e-mails.
"We knew that there were problems with the subcontractors," said Parks, "but I was very shocked that Browning would withdraw from the contract. We had been working with them for a year, so it's not as if they were unaware that something could happen. I said, 'Is this your final decision?' and they said, 'Yes, it's a corporate decision, the final decision.' Well, there's not much you can say after that."
Parks and the rest of the staff spent several hours processing the bad news. "We had had the day to sit around and mope about this and feel as if the wind had been knocked out of us. We were all really stunned but knew that it was very important that we break this story, that we be the first to try to break the information so we could get our side out. But we also lamented the fact that we knew this would be declared a victory by Chris Danze and that this could escalate things, and it would just get nastier."
The rest of that day was spent crafting the message that Parks would deliver. Less than 24 hours later, Parks was standing in front of TV cameras in a City Hall conference room, flanked by three former mayors -- Gus Garcia, Kirk Watson, and Bruce Todd (Mayor Will Wynn was out of town) -- and Council Member Brewster McCracken and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, whose South Austin district includes the site of the new clinic. (The irony of the timing -- on the same day that President Bush signed a new law banning late-term abortions -- was not lost on those in attendance.)
The former and current elected officials were quick to denounce the boycott, with Todd calling Danze's actions "economic blackmail."
The support of the former and current public officials served as the perfect antidote to what had transpired the day before. "Once you start feeling the support, it's like ... this is the Austin that I believe in," Parks said. "It really changed from that moment on."
Weeks later, Planned Parenthood's phones are still ringing off the hook with callers offering support. "I've had many, many contractors call and say they'll work on the project -- some because they believe in the cause; others are calling because they need a job," Parks said. With this kind of assistance readily available, Planned Parenthood has elected to proceed as its own general contractor, although Parks is reluctant to provide the names of those lending a hand. "Sooner or later all of this will be known," she explained, "but let's let them have their peace for a while."
Just before Thanksgiving, the project's new team assembled to plan a course of action for the project. Architect Tom Hatch says he's committed to see the clinic through to its completion despite boycott organizers' calls and e-mails. "I'm a former board member of Planned Parenthood, and I've worked with them for 25 years, designing their clinics," he said. "Architects don't make a lot of money, so that was my way of contributing." Hatch explained his commitment to the cause this way: "I believe so strongly that most of society's ills would be, if not remedied, then surely helped by children who are wanted and loved. Choice," he said, "is not a government decision, it's a personal decision."
Planned Parenthood's donations have also exceeded the year's fundraising goals by a wide margin, with contributions still coming in at a steady clip from all parts of the country. A Methodist minister in Seattle made a donation after reading the story in the local press; other donations have come from Washington, D.C., and California. "Maybe it's a slow news time," Parks said, "but this is something new and different, I guess, and this story is being picked up and printed in a lot of places. I have no idea why it's that interesting, but it is."
Most people don't associate the construction industry with anti-abortion activism, but most people haven't met Chris Danze, who grew up in the liberal town of Austin and graduated from UT in 1977 with a degree in business. Danze says there was no particular turning point in his life that led to his recruitment into the anti-abortion war. Rather, he said, he's held to his beliefs since his youth. "I've always been interested in defending the family -- even when I was in high school and throughout my college years and after I got married and got into business. I'm not particularly interested in politics. My interest is in defending the primary institution of our nation, which is the family."
"Defending the Family"
Danze and his wife, Sheri, are devout Catholics and are active in church campaigns. Sheri is co-coordinator of the Gabriel Project, a crisis pregnancy center run by the Catholic Diocese. Chris is president of a concrete construction company, Maldonado & Danze Inc. His construction contacts enabled him to work the phone and send e-mails urging contractors and vendors against participating in Planned Parenthood's Choice Project, a $6.2 million health care facility that will provide a full line of gynecological services, as well as abortions to low-income women. When Planned Parenthood broke ground Sept. 23 at the site at 201 E. Ben White, Danze and a couple of dozen picketers were on hand for the ceremony. "They were there when I drove up," recalled Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who spoke at the groundbreaking. "They greeted me with tasteless and disgusting pictures."
Danze formed a group calling itself the Texas Contractors and Suppliers for Life and sent regular "call lists" to like-minded allies, with the names and phone numbers of electricians, plumbers, roofers, and other subcontractors and vendors who had signed on to work on the Choice project. In one e-mail, he offered a "boycott prayer of the day" and an account of the "status and dynamics of our current struggle with the Prince of Darkness." Boycott callers were told to remind vendors that they'd risk getting blacklisted on church construction projects if they participated in the construction of a "child-killing compound." Danze's unusual tactics gained him national attention via the Internet, the mainstream press, and the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Struggling With Satan
To judge from his published statements, Danze is motivated as much by puritanism as by anti-abortion principles. He denounces Planned Parenthood for making information about healthy sexuality available to teens, calling it not a health care organization but "a social movement that promotes sexual chaos, especially among our youth." It is this "sexual chaos," Danze believes -- not the rational choices of adult women -- that generates the "violence of abortion."
Browning Construction was feeling cornered by Danze's boycott efforts, claiming they could not retain enough subcontractors to stay on schedule, and it stayed on the project just two months, throwing in the towel even before the foundation was laid. Despite Planned Parenthood's perseverance and renewed community support behind the project, Danze says he'll continue his boycott efforts. "Business people need to be cognizant of who they're working for," he said. "And if they have a philosophical problem with a particular industry or business, then they should not engage in business activities with those businesses."
Danze is not the first protester to call for a contractor boycott of a Planned Parenthood office, but his effort is apparently the first to force a general contractor off the job. Ann Glazier, director of security for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said a contractor boycott was first tried on a Planned Parenthood facility in Lincoln, Neb., in 1998, but the original contractor in that case stuck with the project until the clinic's completion.
"I don't think that [Danze's] boycott has been successful because Planned Parenthood has announced plans to finish the building," Glazier said. "I think this is another tactic that anti-choice forces have used, and it's a relatively new tactic, but I don't think there is any way that you can call it successful." But while the Choice Project remains under construction, the literal battle may not be over for several months, and it is likely that the war will go on, here and elsewhere. Danze and his allies are not newcomers to the anti-abortion crusade, and they remain determined to make it as difficult as possible for women to exercise their rights to reproductive choice including, as necessary, the right to terminate a pregnancy -- which the protesters insist is tantamount to murder. For Danze, it doesn't matter that the provision of medical abortion will be a relatively minor aspect of the Choice Project's wide range of health care services. Danze inevitably refers to the clinic as an "abortion chamber" or an "abortuary."
However the battle of Austin turns out, Danze is already a hero in the eyes of David Bereit, who runs the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life in Bryan (a city that Planned Parenthood's Glazier describes as a Texas hotbed for anti-abortion activity). The Bryan-College Station Planned Parenthood clinic is the site of large and frequent demonstrations, occasionally receiving public encouragement from District 5 state Sen. Steve Ogden. Thus far, however, protesters have had no permanent effect on the clinic, and Planned Parenthood's Debbie McCall says they will not be moved. "There are protesters here every day -- they're here right now," said McCall. "But my skin has grown a lot thicker over the years. Now I just look right through them."
Bereit says he's astounded that Danze was able to pull off such a feat in Austin. "From the very beginning, I don't think anybody believed that anything would come of the boycott [or] that Browning would pull out," he said. "But I think that of all the places that this not only happened, but it got the results that it did, is just amazing," he said. "I live in a very conservative community overall, but we were not successful in preventing Planned Parenthood from performing terminations in our community. And the fact that there has been an effort in Austin that has at least definitely hindered and temporarily halted the construction is quite surprising."
Danze is a familiar face at the three licensed abortion clinics (the new Planned Parenthood will be the fourth) in Austin. He is a weekly picketer at Whole Woman's Health in North Austin. Owner Amy Miller says she "inherited" Danze when she bought one such clinic in far Northwest Austin. She believes it was Danze's constant presence and letter-writing campaign that eventually forced her landlord to evict her; that's when Miller bought Whole Woman's Health (formerly the Ladies Center) and merged the two practices into a holistic wellness center for women. Not long after she opened Whole Woman's Health, Miller says, photos of her -- scrawled with the words "serial killer" -- started arriving in mailboxes in her Bastrop area neighborhood.
"[Danze is] here every Saturday, sometimes with four or five others. Sometimes his wife comes with him, but most of the time it's the middle-aged men with baseball caps," Miller said. "They yell things like, 'How many babies are you going to kill today?' But our focus is our patients, so we don't interact with them, or give them any energy. Our philosophy is, 'Don't feed the protesters.'"
Nevertheless, as reflected in entries in journals that the clinic provides in its waiting and recovery rooms, Danze's presence does little to put patients at ease. "I felt that I was being harassed by these men at my most vulnerable time," one woman wrote. "It's a hard enough choice to get the strength to come to this place [but] these protesters only add more stress to the situation."
While Austin is a city that prides itself on free speech, Danze crossed the line, pro-choice supporters say, when he threatened people's livelihoods. "This is nothing but organized harassment and intimidation," said Mayor Will Wynn. "Planned Parenthood is an important piece in the overall health care puzzle," he said. "We in this community need every piece of that health care puzzle that we can get."
Indeed, Rep. Rodriguez said he looks forward to the 10,000-square-foot clinic and flagship office opening to serve low-income residents in his district. "I support a woman's right to choose," he said, "but in my mind this is an affordable health care issue. The abortion issue is almost like a sidebar because of every other thing that Planned Parenthood does as far as gynecological services, wellness programs, and family planning. It's great that women without health insurance have a place to go for their annual examinations."
Wynn and Rodriguez's comments are echoed by hundreds of other pro-choice Austinites willing to speak out on the issue by signing petitions and making contributions to pay for newspaper ads and to help pay for the new construction team being assembled. This time, Parks and Hatch want to make sure they don't lose another round of contractors to Danze's boycott efforts. "If he wants to picket and carry a sign in front of our building, that's fine," said Parks. "But what he's doing is unusual in that this is the first time there has been such a vicious and massive campaign on innocent bystanders. These [subcontractors] are people who are not politically involved; they are people who build buildings -- and they need jobs."
As the right-wing assault on reproductive health care rights continues, Planned Parenthood and other legal abortion providers won't be looking to the Legislature for backup. In fact, new rules that take effect in January as part of House Bill 15 will only serve to bolster abortion opponents. Informational brochures that women will be required to read during a mandated 24-hour waiting period (if they can afford the time and money for two-day sojourns to clinics) include color photos of fetuses during several stages of development -- and also claim that abortions can increase a woman's chances of breast cancer, despite the lack of credible data to support such a claim.
Rights Under Assault
As things stand now, abortion providers already appear to be headed toward extinction in Texas, with such services provided in only 14 out of 254 counties.
Nationally, Planned Parenthood is neither immune to picketers nor vandalism incidents at its clinics, with areas of Texas, Florida, California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania as identified hot spots. But the Austin incident caught the national organization somewhat off guard. "I was a little surprised," said security director Glazier. "People who know about Austin assume that because the atmosphere is so open and welcoming of different points of view, that everybody's pretty liberal. But certainly there is a place there for some very conservative views, and so in the end it's not surprising. The surprise is that in an area like Austin that they would organize it in such a negative way. They couldn't come up with a positive way to accomplish their goals."