Whole Woman's Health Caught Up in Anti-Abortion Turf War
Longtime Austin clinic forced to relocate
After 16 years as a trusted local abortion care provider on North I-35 and Highway 183, Whole Woman's Health is moving – but not with much choice.
Even though the clinic and its founder, Amy Hagstrom Miller, successfully challenged provisions of 2013's anti-choice House Bill 2 at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Whole Woman's Health flagship location in Austin (there are six others in the network) had to close during the legal fight. Hagstrom Miller managed to hold on to the leased space by way of dogged fundraising and her own cash, converting it into a co-working office for progressive organizations before officially reopening in 2017 ("Whole Woman's Health Reopens," May 19, 2017). But now, that space is being taken over by new tenants with ties to an anti-abortion group, a growing trend nationwide.
The space is now held by Lion Venture Partners, whose leader Andy Schoonover is the co-founder of Carrying to Term with his wife Stephanie, who told the Chronicle they "have no future plans to occupy commercial real estate space." It's unclear precisely what the owners intend for the building, but Carrying to Term's mission is to guide women with terminal prenatal diagnoses to "choose life." (Editor's note: After this story was published, it was revealed that Andy Schoonover is also the executive director of Austin Life Care, a crisis pregnancy center that is moving into the former Whole Woman's Health clinic. See our update.)
"While most doctors simply advise abortion, they should be fully informing parents and telling them that they can choose life. They can carry to the natural term of the baby's life and give birth to their child," reads a glowing feature on the group on the Live Action website. "By providing the doctors with information and resources to pass on to parents ... they are equipping doctors and parents with the knowledge that abortion isn't the answer."
Carrying to Term, according to Stephanie Schoonover, does all of its work remotely; the group has collaborated with crisis pregnancy centers in at least 23 states. Generally religious-based centers, CPCs typically aim to dissuade women from abortion and often provide false and misleading medical information. When Lion Venture Partners offered Hagstrom Miller's landlord a cash-up-front, five-year lease last April for the entire building housing her clinic, it was a deal he (perhaps understandably) couldn't refuse.
Hagstrom Miller, who has no doubt that Lion Ventures targeted her location deliberately to disrupt Whole Woman's Health, told the Chronicle it was nearly "impossible" to counter that offer, even though she'd had a good, long-term relationship with the owner. "We had to ask, 'What's the best use of our resources? Do we want to play a chess game, or have a bidding war over property with an anti-abortion group that is basically trying to get us evicted, or do we want to focus on our patients and programs?'"
This isn't the first time abortion opponents have eyed that real estate. In 2014, while WWH was closed by HB 2, anti-choice spokeswoman Abby Johnson approached the landlord in the parking lot. Hagstrom Miller's fundraising drive ultimately blocked Johnson's attempt, but the anti-choice camp often targets reproductive health clinics – often in longtime locations well-known to women in the community – for conversion into CPCs, where those seeking abortion care can be confused or entrapped. Laws such as HB 2, which impose far more stringent regulations on abortion clinics than on other health care facilities, make them vulnerable to these efforts; anti-choice groups and CPCs have swooped in to convert abortion clinics in Maryland, Kansas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, with some becoming memorials for the "unborn."
In Bryan, a former Planned Parenthood center – shuttered in 2013 after being forced by anti-choice lawmakers out of the Medicaid provider network – is now a CPC. "What was once a place of death and grief where an estimated 6,400 abortions were performed has been transformed into a place of life," said Tracy Frank, Hope Pregnancy's executive director, in 2015. "We feel like we have reclaimed and redeemed the ground." Austin LifeCare, a local CPC, has lobbied City Council as recently as last November to let it take over, at a higher rent, the city-owned space on East Seventh Street where Planned Parenthood provides preventive health services (and not abortions).
Whole Woman's Health has found a new home at Duval Road and Highway 183 – albeit with higher rent (nearly $2,000 more a month) and 700 fewer square feet. The search was much tougher than expected in largely pro-choice Austin; viewing 80 properties in eight months, Hagstrom Miller says she was turned down repeatedly. "We live in progressive Austin, but we felt the bias of providing abortion care. There's the stigma, and it's disappointing that even in Austin people have a hard time seeing us as mainstream health care." The old clinic saw its last patient on Friday, Feb. 15, and officially opens its new doors on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Currently embroiled in three lawsuits against Texas anti-abortion laws, Hagstrom Miller says,"We already spend so much time fighting bad laws from the state and mitigating stigma in the press. And now, quietly, behind the scenes, the anti-abortion strategy is working to further destabilize us. It's all very much by design."
You can find Whole Woman’s Health at 4100 Duval Rd., Bldg. 2, #201, 512/250-1005, or www.wholewomanshealth.com.