When Protests Failed, Activists Paid $1 Million to Stop One of the Last Doctors Providing Later Abortions

Dr. LeRoy Carhart is back in Maryland with a new practice, and protesters are re-establishing their battle against him.

An anti-choice protester stands outside the Supreme Court on October 2. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

It all started as a miscommunication.

Late last year, as the Rev. Charlie Baile tells it, he was on the phone with his friend Grace Morrison.

“Charlie, please talk to him,” Baile recently recalled Morrison asking him before they hung up. She was referring to Todd Stave, whose family at the time owned two abortion clinics in Maryland.

As Baile explained to roughly 200 anti-abortion advocates at a recent Sunday-night dinner gathering at the Greenridge Baptist Church in Boyds, Maryland, Morrison was hoping the Presbyterian pastor would try to appeal to Stave on a spiritual level. Perhaps if he talked to Stave about his soul, Morrison thought, Baile would be able to convince him to shut down his family’s abortion business.

But Baile had misunderstood.

By “talk to him,” he thought Morrison (who confirmed Baile’s version of the story in a speech at the Sunday dinner) wanted him to talk to Stave about selling the clinics to the anti-choice community: the very one that had spent the last several years employing various tactics to try to shut down Stave’s Germantown facility, which was especially vilified for providing later abortion care. Every week, Dr. LeRoy Carhart would fly in from his residence in Bellevue, Nebraska, to perform abortions at that clinic through roughly 28 weeks into a pregnancy—or beyond, for specific maternal indications such as fetal abnormalities, young maternal age, rape, and incest. He is one of a handful of known doctors in the country who does this type of procedure.

Beyond staging regular protests outside Germantown Reproductive Health Services, some activists had called Stave’s family at home. Once, in 2011, a small group picketed outside his daughter’s middle school, holding gruesome signs and displaying Stave’s phone number.

Baile, who is the lead pastor at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Derwood, Maryland, knew it was a shot in the dark when, in early December, he pressed “send” on what he described as a friendly email that began with an apology for some of those tactics—tactics he disavowed during the Sunday dinner. (Baile later clarified that he had not been aware of the middle school protest until after the fact.)

So, he was surprised when Stave wrote back saying that, yes, he would consider selling the clinics.

Ten months and more than $1 million later, both abortion clinics have closed down.

Though the demise of the Germantown clinic was the real prize, the deal struck between activists and the Stave family included as a bonus the shuttering of the Stave family’s Prince George’s Reproductive Health Services in Hyattsville, Maryland, which provided only first-trimester abortions.

“The Germantown clinic was the only clinic on the East Coast that provided abortion care to a woman throughout her pregnancy,” Chelsea Souder, the clinic administrator for AbortionClinics.org, the network of clinics where Carhart practices, told Rewire in an email.

The story of how local anti-choice activists bought out the longtime clinic owners is ultimately a story of the lengths this movement will go to systematically eliminate abortion access.

The push to stop Carhart’s practice was a long-term, winding strategy that began the minute Carhart started practicing at Germantown Reproductive Health Services in 2010. It involved filing complaints against Carhart to the Maryland Board of Physicians—with no success, to date. It involved regularly protesting outside the clinic, filming, and documenting whenever an ambulance arrived to transport a patient to a hospital.

And it involved a lot of praying, which several advocates attending the Sunday dinner told Rewire they credited with the clinic’s closing.

What ultimately worked, though, was a seven-figure offer. Or, at least it worked for about a month: As of this week, Carhart is back in Maryland ready to perform later abortions at a brand-new clinic in Bethesda.

Dealing With the Other Side

But, of course, the Maryland abortion opponents did not know any of this when they gathered at round tables for barbecue and potato salad in the main hall of the Greenridge Baptist Church on the first Sunday in October. They were there to celebrate.

Among the gathered included staff and volunteers from the Maryland Coalition for Life, a state-based advocacy group that was involved in the effort to raise $1.2 million, the agreed-upon offer to Stave and his sister, Nancy Stave Samuels, Baile told the dinner guests.

About half of the money, Baile said, came from a single donor, “an anonymous Christian businessman,” whom Baile said was in attendance at the gathering but would remain anonymous. The other half, Baile later explained to Rewire in an email, came from “well over 400 donors who gave anywhere from a $5 dollar bill to a $50k grant from a Catholic charity.” He said the average donor gave about $1,000.

“I have learned so much from you people,” a tearful Baile told the audience, some of whom had helped protest Carhart’s clinic for the last seven years. “I’ve learned a lot about the value of life, about perseverance. There is not one thing that is slick or savvy about what we did.”

Meanwhile, some in the local anti-choice movement rebuked this deal.

Lauren Handy, a Virginia-based activist who has also frequently protested Carhart’s Germantown practice, told Rewire in a phone interview that she didn’t think the strategy would ultimately work.

“I don’t think giving money to the opposition is a good way to go,” said Handy, who is the communications coordinator for Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. “Is it stopping [Carhart] from doing abortions in Maryland in general? No, they just got him out of their community.”

That was the question that concerned and divided some of the activists and church leaders involved: Would this deal permanently get rid of Carhart and his later-abortion practice?

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney—a Presbyterian pastor in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the director of the Christian Defense Coalition—told Rewire he was more involved in the plan to buy out Stave’s family in the early days than later in the process. Mahoney said there had been rumors for a while that their business was far from thriving and was likely going to shut down on its own. Some people thus questioned the utility of paying a family of longtime abortion providers. Mahoney, however, supported it.

“The general consensus was, if we have the opportunity to close this abortion clinic in our community, we’re going to do it,” Mahoney said.

Ultimately, this group of activists and church leaders helped coordinate the purchase of the property in Germantown, which is a condo in an office park. The aforementioned Christian businessman bought the real-estate property for about $600,000, Baile said. He said the coalition paid the Stave family another $600,000 on top of that.

The Maryland Department of Assessments & Taxation has no record of the real-estate transfer. Online, the state website shows the property owner is still the Norman A. Stave Testamentary Trust (named after Stave and Samuels’ mother). Employees at this state agency, as well as the Montgomery County Circuit Court’s Land Records Division and the Montgomery County Department of Finance, told Rewire there is no record of the real-estate transaction. An employee at the Land Records Division suggested this could mean the parties have not yet filed the official paperwork.

There had also been some concern initially that the Staves would take the money for the Germantown clinic and invest it into their second clinic. However, Mahoney told Rewire that as part of the deal, the Staves would need to close both clinics.

As of September 27, that’s what happened, Todd Stave told Rewire in a phone interview. He said his family has no plans to open any new abortion clinics.

Neither the Stave family nor the Maryland Coalition for Life would discuss with Rewire the amount of money paid to the Staves or the specific terms of the contract both parties signed. However, the Maryland Coalition for Life’s regional director, Andrew Glenn, told Rewire that his organization is comfortable with the terms they agreed to.

Stave said his family’s decision to sell has not been popular within the abortion rights community. He said over the years, abortion foes had offered him various deals, which Baile confirmed to Rewire. But this time, the offer was too high to pass up, Stave said—though he confessed the decision was “kind of an agonizing one.”

“In an effort to not paint myself as a giant evil moneygrubbing fuck, I want to make something reasonably clear,” Stave told Rewire. “I’m 50 years old, and as long as I can remember, our family has been in the abortion business. I remember my parents celebrating when Roe v. Wade was passed, and even before then, my father was doing abortions in D.C., where it was legal before Roe v. Wade,” referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide.

“Dinner-table conversation was about abortion, and how some poor 14-year-old came into the office today,” Stave continued. “This is something that I’ve done for my entire life. So, I’m big-time for the cause. I’m certainly pro-choice. But it’s still a business, and we had to make the unfortunate set of decisions to take this offer, because we’re not going to get a better one, which included staying open.”

Currently, Stave’s family and Carhart are involved in a legal dispute over who owns the rights to the medical records from Carhart’s patients. Stave told Rewire that his family is required to keep the records for five years, because they owned the clinic where Carhart was just a contractor. In the complaint, Carhart argues that state law requires him to keep the records of his own patients. In their response to Carhart’s complaint, Stave’s family has said they would turn over the records to Carhart if allowed to by the court. A hearing in the case is scheduled for October 18.

At the Sunday celebratory dinner, several speakers and attendees said the clinics’ closing was an answer to seven years of prayer.

“The arrival of LeRoy Carhart in Germantown in 2010 was an evil presence,” Glenn said at the dinner. “But God used his presence to unite the pro-life movement and the Christian community.”

And it seems that Stave’s family has also been graced.

“This was a blessing for us that somebody was actually willing to pay us to go away, because otherwise it would have been worth nothing as a business,” Stave told Rewire.

But while Stave might be leaving the abortion business, Carhart is determined not to do the same.

Indeed, the AbortionClinics.org network has announced a brand-new clinic opening in the area Tuesday. At this new clinic, located roughly 16 miles southeast in Bethesda from where the former clinic stood, Carhart plans to continue performing later abortions. The clinic intends to also offer comprehensive reproductive-health services, Souder says.

“We are going to continue to offer abortion care throughout pregnancy for women and offer general women’s healthcare services (i.e. contraceptives, well women exams, STD testing/treatment etc.),” Souder told Rewire via email.

Activists—some of whom are not connected to Baile’s church or the Maryland Coalition for Life—have wasted no time resisting the new clinic. The Kansas-based anti-choice group Operation Rescue has already leaked the clinic’s address. A coalition has planned protests for the opening week and claims to have filed complaints against the new clinic.

“It is unfortunate the location was announced in the way it was by anti-abortion extremists, who are actively encouraging people to harass and bully patients and staff at the new clinic location,” Souder said. “Our number one focus is ensuring our patients’ privacy is protected and they are safe in accessing care at our clinic.”

Targeting Carhart

Carhart is arguably the most famous of the few doctors who openly provide abortions during the third trimester. These abortions are often referred to in the media and by lawmakers as “late-term abortions,” though, as reporter Robin Marty has pointed out, this is a political term with no scientific meaning.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most women in the United States have abortions within the first 12 weeks of their pregnancies, those who need later abortions may do so as a result of extreme circumstances. As the website for Carhart’s abortion clinics states: “Our most common reasons for referrals for advance care is the very late diagnosis of a pregnancy in a woman with a severely compromising medical condition, very young maternal age, rape and incest.”

Carhart, in fact, has a well-known U.S. Supreme Court case named after him: Gonzales v. Carhart. In that 2007 decision, the high court upheld a ban on a controversial procedure that Carhart and other providers had previously used when doing abortions at later gestational ages. The decision was a big victory for the anti-choice movement, as it succeeded in both showing a type of abortion procedure could be banned, and further limiting abortions at later stages.

The doctor remains one of the most frequent targets of many abortion opponents’ ire. Before Carhart, it was his mentor George Tiller, who performed abortions at later stages in Wichita, Kansas, until Scott Roeder gunned him down at the doctor’s church in 2009. After that, Carhart, a retired Air Force surgeon, started providing abortions later in pregnancy at his clinic in Bellevue, Nebraska. In response to a campaign targeting Carhart’s practice, Nebraska passed a 20-week abortion ban in 2010, which is why Carhart started regularly commuting to Germantown.

Last year, congressional Republicans launched an unsuccessful investigation into Carhart’s medical practice, a decision largely influenced by the Center for Medical Progress’ biased, heavily edited series of videos from 2015 that accused Planned Parenthood clinics of trafficking fetal body parts—without presenting any convincing evidence. Congress used the campaign as a jumping-off point to target providers of later abortions, including Carhart.

As a result of the congressional investigation, Stave said his business had been forced to pay expensive legal fees, which is another major reason he said he agreed to shut it down.

Stave said he remembers abortion opponents protesting outside his family’s abortion clinics—where his late father, Carl, provided a full range of reproductive health services in addition to abortion—and outside his family’s home when he was child. In 1984, anti-abortion extremists firebombed the Prince George’s Reproductive Health Services clinic, causing $100,000 worth of damage but no injuries, according to the Washington Post.

But it was after the Stave family hired Carhart to perform later abortions at their Germantown clinic in 2010 that anti-choice activists ramped up their efforts, Stave said.

The Maryland Coalition for Life was founded in response to Carhart’s presence in Germantown. Over the years, this small nonprofit has largely dedicated its activities toward shutting down Carhart’s practice and trying to convince his patients not to go through with their scheduled abortions. In 2011, the group co-sponsored a weeklong “Summer of Mercy” rally, during which hundreds of abortion protesters, many from outside the state, descended on Carhart’s clinic in Germantown.

Mahoney told Rewire that within the anti-choice movement, activists hope to replicate the strategy that closed Carhart’s clinic in other cities. He also said that he and others are working on a strategy to convince office parks around the country to explicitly ban abortion providers in their leasing contracts.

“We Didn’t Trick Anybody”

In 2012, the Maryland Coalition for Life purchased a building across the street from Germantown Reproductive Health Services and started Germantown Pregnancy Choices. Commonly known as a “crisis pregnancy center,” or CPC, many of these centers have been criticized for using coercive tactics to get women in the door, such as having a misleading office name that sounds like an abortion clinic or using smartphone surveillance to target women seeking abortions.

Janet Kotowski, the manager of Germantown Pregnancy Choicesand one of the speakers at the Sunday celebratory dinner, said that some women who came to the center thinking it was the abortion clinic would accuse the CPC of trickery.

“We didn’t trick anybody,” Kotowski told the audience. “God brought them to us.”

Many crisis pregnancy centers offer what they describe as free medical services, often consisting of over-the-counter pregnancy tests, non-diagnostic ultrasounds intended to move women seeking abortions to reconsider, and counseling about the risks of abortion, which is sometimes based on false or misleading information.

But the main service Germantown Pregnancy Choices provided was deterrence. Volunteers for the center would stand outside Carhart’s clinic and try to convince his patients to cancel their appointments and go across the street to the CPC. The volunteers there would refer people to the two more established CPCs in the area, in Rockville and Shady Grove, the Maryland Coalition for Life’s Glenn told Rewire.

The center also served as an observation center for the anti-choice community. Germantown Pregnancy Choices filed a complaint with the Maryland Board of Physicians last year, according to the Maryland Coalition for Life, arguing that Carhart’s license should be suspended. In a post announcing the complaint, the organization cited the death of Jennifer Morbelli as an example of the reasons Carhart’s license should be suspended. In 2013, 29-year-old Morbelli died after receiving an abortion Carhart performed.

The Maryland Board of Physicians investigated allegations it received at the time that Carhart did not provide Morbelli with proper care and then “close[d] this matter without further action,” according to a letter from the board to Carhart, which Carhart provided to the Washington Post in October 2013. “Since the Board has closed this matter, it does not consider any action pending against you,” the letter read, according to the Post. Operation Rescue has also complained to the board about Carhart in the past, without success.

During these past five years, Kotowski said that the volunteers at Germantown Pregnancy Choices ended up speaking to “thousands” of women seeking abortions later in their pregnancies and convinced more than 400 women not to have the abortion.

During the dinner, Ellen Curro—who served as a consultant for Germantown Pregnancy Choices—told a story about a couple whose fetus had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. She claimed that she and others at Germantown Pregnancy Choices had convinced this couple to forgo an abortion. The woman eventually gave birth to a mostly healthy baby with a minor complication, a result Curro credited to prayer. (Rewire was unable to corroborate this story.)

Glenn said that even in the case of fatal fetal anomalies, he does not believe a person should have an abortion after 20 weeks.

“The baby has to be delivered anyway, either if they deliver the baby alive or dead,” he argued. “At this point, if they go to Shady Grove Hospital, they can deliver the baby alive. And there are families that are willing to adopt these babies even with poor fetal diagnoses. For a while, when I was in Germantown, I stood on the sidewalk with a sign that said, ‘I will adopt your baby,’ to let women know that we really are serious. We do care about them, and we care about the babies.”

Glenn, a father of five, said no one took him up on his offer to adopt.

The number of women who have these types of advanced abortions is small. The CDC estimated that in 2009, 1.3 percent of all abortions in the United States took place after 20 weeks’ gestation. Stave told Rewire there were just a few of these cases at the Germantown clinic each week. But reproductive rights advocates argue this option should be available to women who need them for a variety of reasons.

Souder said because of medical privacy laws she couldn’t respond directly to the Maryland Coalition for Life’s claims about Carhart’s patients: namely, that the majority of those seeking later abortions were not doing so because of fetal anomalies or health reasons. But she noted one reason patients delay their care is because of the proliferation of restrictions around the country—including 20-week abortion bans in 19 states—and the relative dearth of providers. One thing Carhart hopes to do is continue to train future providers of later-gestation abortions, she said.

“There isn’t a single abortion narrative,” Souder told Rewire. “Some patients were unable to access care as soon as they wanted because of the onerous and medically unnecessary legal and financial barriers put in their way by anti-abortion politicians and extremists. Others were facing heartbreaking news about a wanted pregnancy or their own health. There are as many reasons for seeking abortion as there are patients who have abortions.”

During the few weeks after Carhart’s clinic closed, women seeking this type of abortion were redirected to another clinic that recently opened in Washington, D.C., according to Annie Hollis, the board vice president of the Baltimore Abortion Fund, which helps raise money for people who seek abortions but cannot afford them and the associated traveling and lodging costs.

Hollis told Rewire in a phone interview that at least two women that she knows of were left in very challenging situations after the Germantown clinic was forced to close suddenly. Even though the Baltimore Abortion Fund scrambled through the weekend to raise thousands of dollars to help pay for their abortions, she does not know if they were able to reschedule elsewhere.

“We’re really happy that Dr. Carhart has found a new place to be,” Hollis said. “We’re really excited to keep working with him, because that clinic is really such a lifeline for people, not only in Maryland, but all over the East Coast. I think the effects were sort of reverberating among every abortion fund that works on the East Coast.”

Glenn said Germantown Pregnancy Choices will not renew its lease next month, now that there is no abortion clinic across the street. He noted that the other CPCs in the area will continue serving women facing crisis pregnancies. He said he does not know what kind of business will replace the abortion clinic; that is up to the anonymous Christian businessman who bought the property. Given the office park’s other businesses, he speculated it might be medical in nature.

Several people at the Sunday night dinner told Rewire they hoped Carhart would retire. But the 76-year-old doctor has vowed to keep working, and to keep providing later abortions in Maryland.

“Those of us committed to reproductive freedom cannot rest while anti-abortion extremists work overtime to rob women of their health, lives, and autonomy,” Carhart wrote in a statement to Rewire. “This is why I count my colleagues among the most compassionate and courageous people I know. And this is why I am committed to reopening my practice in Maryland.”

Carhart officially reboots his abortion practice in Maryland starting Tuesday, and the anti-choice community has already restarted its campaign against him. Operation Rescue is mounting claims that Carhart’s new clinic is not properly licensed to perform abortions in Maryland. Opponents have begun calling the leasing agent in the building that is housing the new abortion clinic, suggesting the new operation would hurt its business and reputation, reported Bethesda Magazine. Organizers from local and national groups are staging a protest in front of the new clinic Tuesday afternoon.

“We have been working very closely with [the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] to ensure we are licensed with the state of MD and plan on providing care this week,” Souder told Rewire in response to this claim. The department did not respond to Rewire‘s requests for comment.

Activists have also told Rewire they intend to pursue a statewide ban on abortions after 20 weeks, as well as continuing to ask the state to investigate his practice.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal 20-week abortion ban, a bill that were it to become law would likely immediately face a constitutional challenge.

But for now, it looks like Carhart’s clinic will stay open.

“I understand why some physicians opt out of providing a service that is constitutionally protected yet under constant threat,” Carhart told Rewire. “My family and my colleagues have experienced losses that could compel anyone to walk away—including the assassination of my associate and friend, Dr. George Tiller, who was shot and killed by an anti-abortion extremist while at church. But every day, my commitment to women’s health and decision-making outweighs any fear, and I—and others around the country—continue to serve the women who need us.”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the number of doctors performing abortions in the third trimester and to include more details about the Sunday night dinner.