Legal abortion has long been challenged in North Dakota, including in Grand Forks
While abortion remains legal in North Dakota, the July 28 deadline set by Attorney General Drew Wrigley for abortion to be banned is drawing near. It could mark the end of the history of legal abortion in the state.
FARGO — The overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court on June 24 may mark the end of the history of legal abortion in North Dakota.
The controversial procedure has a challenged history in the state, and while abortion remains legal in North Dakota, the July 28 deadline set by Attorney General Drew Wrigley for abortion to be banned is drawing near.
The Red River Women’s Clinic is North Dakota’s only abortion clinic, and until officially illegal in the state, the clinic will continue to provide the service, says Tammi Kromenaker, clinic director.
Prior to the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, which constitutionally protected abortion, some doctors performed abortions illegally, said Jane Bovard, founder of Fargo’s first abortion clinic and the Red River Women’s Clinic. Bovard said some were performed under the guise of a “D&C for irregular bleeding.”
After Roe v. Wade was decided, two doctors in North Dakota started offering abortion services: Dr. Richard Leigh in Grand Forks and Dr. Robert Lucy in Jamestown. Leigh had been working as a gynecologist and obstetrician since 1956, and began offering abortion services shortly after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
After having an abortion in Minneapolis, Bovard started North Dakota’s first abortion counseling and referral hotline in 1974, listing her home phone number as The Abortion Counseling Service of North Dakota.
“Typically, I referred them to Minneapolis because I prefer a full-service opportunity for people to talk to somebody and receive some counseling instead of just marching into the doctor's office and getting up on the table and leaving,” she said.
In 1975, Bovard started a North Dakota chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Working with the National Women’s Health Organization, Bovard opened Fargo’s first abortion clinic in October 1981.
Protests at Leigh’s clinic in Grand Forks heated up in 1987 after anti-abortion activists claimed to find fetal tissue remains in the dumpster at his office. The protests were successful in securing a city ordinance banning the disposal of fetal remains and other human tissue types in the city’s garbage dumpsters, landfill or sewers, reported the Herald in December 1987. Leigh denied allowing fetal remains to be put in the dumpster.
In 1988, Leigh stopped performing abortions. Lucy retired in February 1990, leaving Fargo WHO as the only abortion clinic in North Dakota for a time.
''I felt I performed a service,'' Lucy told the New York Times after his retirement. ''I saved lots and lots of marriages, and prevented a lot of girls from having to quit school to have a baby.”
There had always been anti-abortion protests at Fargo WHO, said Bovard, but the early 1990s brought more intense protests.
In March 1991, protesters broke into Fargo WHO before it opened for the day and chained themselves together at the neck using bike locks. A few months later, members of the Lambs of Christ, a national anti-abortion group known for its extreme protests, traveled to Fargo.
The Lambs protested at the clinic for a number of years, using tactics like locking their hands and feet in metal boxes inside the clinic and putting junked cars in the driveway to disrupt clinic operations. When arrested, members of the Lambs often refused to walk or give their names to police officers.
Fargo WHO was firebombed in April 1992.
Along with the clinic she started, Bovard herself was a target of protesters. She said protesters would picket outside her house, on and off for years.
“It just became a normal thing, and I just have to chuckle when I hear that the Supreme Court justices are upset that people are picketing their houses,” she said. “They weren’t quite that upset when abortion providers were being picketed.”
Kromenaker, now director of Red River Women's Clinic, was hired at Fargo WHO by Bovard in 1993. A week before she started, the Lambs staged a protest where they placed junked cars in the driveway of the clinic.
“When I showed up that next week, she said she wasn’t sure if I was going to show up because that had been a scary deterrent,” said Kromenaker.
In 1997 Bovard parted ways with Fargo WHO and started the Red River Women’s Clinic in 1998 with abortion doctor George Miks. Kromenaker followed, leaving Fargo WHO in 1998. By February 2001, Fargo WHO had closed, citing financial reasons, once again leaving the state with one abortion clinic.
As long as the Fargo clinics have been open, says Bovard, they have been challenged by the North Dakota Legislature.
“From ‘81 on there were attempts by the Legislature to eat away at whatever to try to restrict things,” she said.
The Red River Women’s clinic successfully challenged the country’s first six-week fetal heartbeat law, which the North Dakota Legislature passed in 2013. The law would have banned abortions as soon as a heartbeat is detected in a fetus, around six weeks into pregnancy. With the backing of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the clinic successfully blocked the ban.
On June 24, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade when it decided abortion is not a constitutional right. Because of a trigger law passed by the North Dakota Legislature in 2007, abortion is to become illegal in North Dakota 30 days after the Supreme Court Decision. Attorney General Wrigley determined that date would be July 28.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Kromenaker announced that the clinic would be moving across the river to Moorhead, Minnesota. A GoFundMe for the clinic has raised more than $937,000 for the move since the Supreme Court decision was announced. Kromenaker says individuals and businesses in North Dakota have supported the clinic by volunteering as clinic escorts, offering moving services or doing fundraisers.
“It’s sort of unreal,” said Kromenaker.
But, the Red River Women’s Clinic is not leaving North Dakota without a fight. On Thursday, June 7, the clinic announced it filed a lawsuit with the Center for Reproductive Rights challenging the trigger ban. The lawsuit alleges the abortion ban infringes on North Dakotans’ constitutional rights and disputes the effective date of the trigger law, because the Supreme Court has issued an opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, but has not yet issued a formal judgment to a lower court. This step can take 25 days or more. The suit asks for the effective date of the abortion ban to be pushed back and not enforced.
Kromenaker says the lawsuit could buy the clinic time, or allow the clinic to remain in its Fargo location. Until abortion is officially illegal in North Dakota, the Red River Women’s Clinic will continue operations in Fargo.
“We will deeply mourn having to leave North Dakota after all that we’ve been through — everything Jane went through, all that violence and destruction, all the lawsuits and resources and time we’ve put in, all the community connections we’ve made,” said Kromenaker. “That’s going to be a real mourning period for us, but we are committed to providing this care and we’re committed to the patients we serve, and that’s why we’re undertaking this enormous challenge to open a new facility across the river.”