The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alan Braid is known for defying the Texas abortion law. He’s spent years challenging antiabortion laws.

Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services, a clinic where Alan Braid provides abortion care, in San Antonio on Sept. 24. Braid provided an abortion beyond the new legal limit to a woman after the new Texas law, known as S.B. 8, went into effect. (Julysa Sosa for The Washington Post)
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Earlier this month, Alan Braid did what no other surgeon in Texas had dared: He violated his state’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Then he announced it to the world. In a Sept. 18 op-ed in The Washington Post, Braid explained that he’d performed the procedure on a woman who was in her first trimester but beyond the state’s new limit, because she had a “fundamental right to receive this care.”

Afterward, antiabortion groups circulated pictures of Braid on Facebook. Hundreds of people who’d never met him started calling him a “hero.” To others, the 76-year-old OB/GYN was “an example of evil.”

Among abortion providers in Texas, Braid is known as a tireless doctor who has challenged many of the antiabortion laws that have surfaced from the state’s conservative legislature, said Antonio Cavazos, a retired OB/GYN who worked alongside Braid in San Antonio from 2016 to 2018. Now, Braid has stepped up to lead the charge against one of the greatest threats to abortion access in decades.

“I fully understood that there could be legal consequences,” Braid wrote in the op-ed, “but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”

The op-ed seems to have galvanized antiabortion advocates in Texas. The San Antonio Coalition for Life has seen an uptick in volunteers eager to protest outside Braid’s clinic since he published his op-ed, said Amy Voorhees, the group’s founder.

“We want the law to be obeyed because life exists at that moment,” Voorhees said, referring to the point in pregnancy when an ultrasound machine can detect cardiac activity. “It’s important to protect it, so to find that he just doesn’t care, well, obviously, it’s disappointing.”

Twelve other states have passed similar six-week abortion bans. But before those laws took effect, courts sided with abortion rights groups and ruled them unconstitutional. Texas’s law succeeded where others have failed due to its unique enforcement mechanism: Because the law empowers citizens to sue those who help facilitate an illegal abortion in Texas, abortion rights groups could not anticipate who would enforce the ban and file a lawsuit.

To successfully challenge the law in court, abortion rights advocates needed someone to perform an illegal abortion, and someone else to sue them over it. In his op-ed, Braid admitted to providing an abortion on Sept. 6 to a woman who was past the legal limit, essentially baiting antiabortion advocates to file a lawsuit against him. Sure enough, when courts opened on Monday, two people — a disbarred lawyer serving a federal sentence in Arkansas and another man in Illinois — sued him for the violation.

“He will do what he feels is right,” Cavazos said. “He’s going to go down swinging.”

Before the ban took effect, Braid used to take breaks, he said in a phone interview on Sept. 17. Every few weeks, he would switch off with another doctor so he could have some down time.

Abortion providers ask Supreme Court to step in quickly to review Texas law

But that doctor chose to leave the clinic after the ban, Braid said, because she was concerned about potential legal liability. Since then, more people have been making appointments earlier in their pregnancies. They seem to know they are running out of time, he said.

“There’s an awful feeling in the room until we can confirm their gestational age,” he said.

Some patients start sobbing when he tells them they are too far along, he said. Others cry with relief when he says they’re under the legal limit.

When he has to turn a patient away, Braid says he discusses how they might access an abortion out of state. He referred one high-risk patient to a clinic in Oklahoma, he said, offering to help her make the appointment and find money for travel.

“She looked at me like I was crazy,” Braid said. The woman had three kids and a full-time job. “She told me, ‘I couldn’t go if you chartered a jet.’ ”

When Braid enrolled in medical school at the University of Texas in 1968, abortion was not yet legal across the country. Some states, including California, Colorado and New York, allowed the procedure under limited conditions, but in Texas — unless a woman’s life was in danger — doctors had to turn patients away.

Still, Braid’s professors taught him that abortion was “an integral part” of women’s health care, he recalled in the op-ed.

When he began his obstetrics and gynecology residency at a San Antonio hospital in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided, he found that patients were pursuing abortions, whether or not it was legal. Some had crossed the border into Mexico, he said, and others had tried to perform the procedures on themselves. In the first year of his residency, Braid said he saw three teenagers die after having illegal abortions.

In 1973, he recalled, he saw one patient who had a rubber catheter in her uterus after a self-managed abortion.

“Her vagina was packed with rags,” he said. “She was septic.”

Braid spent the next four decades as an OB/GYN in Texas, conducting standard Pap smears and pelvic exams. He delivered more than 10,000 babies. Whenever he could, he performed abortions at clinics in the area. For years, he worked for Marilyn Eldridge, a lawyer who opened Texas’s first independent clinic after Roe v. Wade. Eldridge challenged antiabortion restrictions that emerged in Texas, and eventually opened other clinics across the state and one in Oklahoma.

Kathy Kleinfeld, who runs the abortion clinic Houston Women’s Reproductive Services, said Eldridge was Braid’s inspiration.

“He refers to her as his Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Kleinfeld said.

Braid took over the clinic in 2012. Eldridge died in 2019 at 81.

As the owner of Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services, Braid was humble and eager to learn, said Kleinfeld, who came down to San Antonio to consult and advise Braid in his first months after opening. After she observed Braid and his employees, she said, Braid gathered everyone in the break room.

“He asked me in front of all his staff, ‘Kathy, you’ve spent the day here with us. Do you have any suggestions?’ ” At Braid’s clinic, she said, there was no need for corporate formalities. “I felt like I was sitting at a family dinner table.”

For the past decade, Braid has thrust himself into legal battles against antiabortion legislation. In 2011, Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a regulation that required patients seeking abortions to view a sonogram of the fetus. Two years later, Braid’s clinic was among those who sued to stop H.B. 2, a law which required Texas abortion clinics to comply with a host of new restrictions that was ultimately overruled by the Supreme Court. Under that law, abortions had to be performed in hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers, by doctors with admitting privileges at local hospitals.

Texas doctor who violated state’s abortion ban is sued, launching test of constitutionality

Half the clinics in the state were forced to close as soon as the law took effect. Most providers waited anxiously for the issue to resolve itself in the courts, Kleinfeld said.

Braid was in his late 60s then, and some of his colleagues figured he would retire. Instead, he took out a loan and began building a $3 million, state-of-the-art facility to comply with the new regulations. Kleinfeld said he was the only abortion provider in the state who built a brand new surgical center in response to the law.

“He refuses to sit back and wait for things to happen,” Kleinfeld said. “He learned everything he could about ambulatory surgical centers: how wide the doorways have to be, what kind of flooring they need, airflow.”

The facility opened in 2015, the same day the Supreme Court overturned the law, Braid said.

“So now I had a 3-million-dollar building I really didn’t need,” he said.

Still, Braid never seemed to regret the decision, Kleinfeld said. He had readied himself for this outcome, and focused on what the new facility would enable him to do. Because Braid’s clinic is now an ambulatory surgical center, Kleinfeld said, high-risk pregnancy doctors in the area can refer patients to him.

Cavazos said many doctors in the area wouldn’t perform abortions when a patient’s life was in danger. “But [Braid] would,” Cavazos said. “And he’s to be admired for that big time.”

He met Braid in the early 1990s when they were both working in gynecology at a local hospital. They stayed in touch, and after Cavazos closed his own clinic in 2015, he ran into Braid while Christmas shopping at Best Buy. Braid asked Cavazos why he closed the clinic.

And I said, ‘Well I’m thinking about retiring,’ ” Cavazos recalled.

Braid shook his head no. He was a decade older than Cavazos, but he was still working.

“You’re too young to retire,” he told Cavazos. “Come work with me.”

Cavazos wanted to travel, but he agreed to start part-time at Alamo. Often, Cavazos said he’d return from trips to Europe, and Braid would express a little jealousy.

“I remember he even said, ‘You know, you’re younger than I am. You’re doing it right, and I’m not doing it right. I should be doing those trips,’ ” Cavazos said. “And I said, ‘You know what, Alan? You could.’ But he kept saying, ‘Well, I’ve got to stay here to keep my finger on the pulse of the business and what things are happening.’ ”

Cavazos left Alamo in 2018 and moved to Oregon. When Texas passed the six-week ban, Cavazos again thought of his old friend. Braid is “an excellent golfer” who likes to host parties at his house, Cavazos said.

“I thought, ‘Okay, now he’s going to retire,’ ” Cavazos said. “And then I see his name on the national news, and I thought, ‘Yep, that’s Alan.’”

Antiabortion advocates with the nonprofit San Antonio Family Association have been praying and talking to patients outside of San Antonio abortion facilities for more than 10 years. Patrick Von Dohlen, a board member for the group, said Braid has become “meaner” as he’s grown older.

“He’s been aggressively rude and crude to people on the sidewalk,” Von Dohlen said.

Von Dohlen said Braid has used the op-ed, and the subsequent fallout, to drum up free advertising to help pay back the loan he took out to build the surgical center.

“Alan Braid has shown himself to be an arrogant and yet desperate individual,” he said. “He has made a living from harming women, killing babies and destroying families. He needs his abortion business to continue to maintain his lifestyle. ... We pray for his conversion of heart.”

Kleinfeld said Braid fills an essential role in Texas abortion care — not just as a legal advocate, but in his daily work at the clinic. He is part of a group of male doctors in their 70s and 80s who perform a large portion of abortions in the state, refusing to retire because they remember a time before Roe. The doctor at Kleinfeld’s clinic is 80.

These men “aren’t going to be around forever,” Kleinfeld said.

Now the lone doctor at Alamo, Braid refuses to close the clinic, even for a day. He has already recruited a friend to fill in for him when he attends his nephew’s wedding in October. His friend is 81.

Braid’s colleagues have stopped asking him when he’s going to retire.

“I often asked him why he kept doing it,” Cavazos said. “And he said, ‘I don’t want to let them beat me. It’s them against me, and I’m just not going to let them.’ ”