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Regular protesters at North Dakota's only abortion clinic say legal victory is 'bittersweet'

On Wednesday, clinic escorts outnumbered protesters while at least four patients were led inside North Dakota’s lone abortion clinic at 512 1st Ave. N. in downtown Fargo.

Ken Koehler, 73, of West Fargo, holding his sign while clinic escorts for the Red River Women's Clinic wait for patients to arrive on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.jpg
Longtime anti-abortion demonstrator Ken Koehler, 73, of West Fargo, holds a sign as escorts wait for patients to arrive at the Red River Women's Clinic on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in downtown Fargo.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum
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FARGO — The weekly protest outside of the Red River Women’s Clinic on Wednesday, June 29 — the first since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision — was unusually calm.

The clinic, which has operated since 1998, is being forced to shut its doors by July 28, because the high court’s ruling triggered a North Dakota law banning abortion within 30 days if Roe was ever overturned. The clinic plans to move to Moorhead, but has not yet disclosed its new site.

On Wednesday, clinic escorts outnumbered protesters while at least four patients were led inside North Dakota’s lone abortion clinic at 512 1st Ave. N. in downtown Fargo. Journalists, including one from The New Yorker magazine, interviewed escorts and protesters, some of whom have been active since the 1980s when North Dakota had multiple abortion clinics.

Lori Kenney traveled about 45 minutes from Audubon, Minnesota, to protest in front of the clinic. She began demonstrating in Fargo nearly three decades ago, traveling by bus to get here. And she remembered a time when people blocked clinic entrances with their vehicles.

“Fifty years later, and now the Supreme Court sends the decision back to the states where it should have been,” Kenney said. “There is some joy. It feels like a celebration, but they will continue in Moorhead. It is bittersweet.”

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A patient walked by and Kenney tried to call her away. “Come back, don’t do it,” others around her said.

“I’ve got people wanting to adopt these babies, and they are just killing them one after another,” said Kenney, close to tears.

Protesters have routinely gathered on the sidewalk in front of the clinic on Wednesdays because that's the only day it offers abortions. Holding to that schedule, the clinic has four days left to perform the procedure in North Dakota.

A woman in a rainbow vest walks in front of abortion clinic, with protesters to her left and a colorful chalk drawing of a genie in a bottle on the sidewalk
Clinic escort Diana Goble rounds the corner outside of the Red River Women's Clinic on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in downtown Fargo.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

Diana Goble, 39, of Moorhead, has never lived in a time when Roe v. Wade was not the law of the land.

“I always relied on it being around. When I heard the news it felt like a punch in the gut, a betrayal of the country. I feel as if I’m not being treated human anymore,” said Goble, who's worked as a clinic escort for about four years. “I feel like contraceptives are next on the chopping block. I probably need to get my tubes tied. I’m scared that one accident will be the end of my life as I choose to be."

Since the Red River Women’s Clinic announced its decision to move across the Red River to continue operations in Minnesota, a GoFundMe page has brought in more than $816,000 in donations in less than a week.

“The clinic was only asking for $25,000. That speaks so much. Our politicians do not reflect the majority,” Goble said.

Ken Koehler, 73, of West Fargo, has been protesting outside of abortion clinics since 1981. Holding a tall sign that read “God’s Gift” and “Unexpected pregnancies," he said he is sad that it took the government nearly 50 years to reverse Roe v. Wade.

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He will continue to protest as long as he can because, “the killing of innocent life will go on just across the river,” Koehler said, pointing east.

“My body, my choice,” a woman yelled from across the street.

Koehler paused to address the statement: “Yeah, but there are two bodies there and they refuse to accept that,” Koehler said quietly.

Wide view of the abortion clinic in Fargo with protesters and clinic escorts out front
Anti-abortion protesters and patient escorts stand in front of the Red River Women's Clinic on June 29, 2022, in downtown Fargo.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

As clinic escorts gathered for a group photograph, one protester turned around and asked why a picture of the "death squad" was needed.

When North Dakota's abortion ban takes effect, it will be a Class C felony for anyone to perform an abortion, unless a pregnant female performs an abortion on herself. A Class C felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Performing an abortion will still be allowed if the mother’s life is in danger and in cases of rape or incest.

Quin Overland, a 29-year-old clinic escort, said she was probably one of the first people to discover the Supreme Court’s decision. She refreshed the page online continuously until she saw the announcement.

“We knew it was coming, but it still felt like getting shot in the chest,” Overland said. “We know that most Americans want people to have the ability to have an abortion, and that is heartening."

Overland, and other escorts like Lyndi Williams, both from Moorhead, said they’ve already heard men and women saying they’re planning to have surgeries to stop possible pregnancies.

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“Humans have been using family planning since humans existed,” Overland said.

“Men are talking about sterilization. This is not going to go the way people want it to go. Lots of men will get vasectomies and women will get their tubes tied,” Williams said.

Protesters and patient escorts on the sidewalk near the Red River Women's Clinic on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.jpg
Anti-abortion protesters and patient escorts stand on the sidewalk outside of the Red River Women's Clinic on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in downtown Fargo.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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