When Betsy Youmans and her husband decided to leave their conservative California county, they chose College Park, Md., a D.C. suburb with pretty old houses, proximity to major cities and values in accordance with their own: liberal. Then an abortion clinic decided to open nearby, bringing a national debate to their doorstep — literally.
Late one night in September a man approached their front door and left a flier with a graphic depiction of an aborted fetus and a message mocking the doctor and midwife poised to open an all-trimester clinic nearby.
“I physically got ill and started shaking,” Youmans said. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, where did we move?’ ”
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion, the June decision made it possible for 15 states to ban or mostly ban abortion while some top lawmakers in deep blue Maryland are considering enshrining the protection in the state constitution.
Fallout from the decision has deepened the country’s fissures, with a nationwide increase in harassment, and in some cases violence, against abortion providers reaching liberal enclaves friendly to clinics and pitting residents’ support for abortion access against opponents’ First Amendment rights.
The Youmans learned the man at their door, who is known to authorities as an antiabortion activist, and two women were dropping the fliers around the neighborhood and at offices in the medical complex where Partners in Abortion Care could open within weeks.
A Prince George’s County police spokesman said officers have been in touch with the clinic owners, and stressed that no one has been charged with a crime.
Diane Horvath, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said the clinic has a robust security plan. She and her business partner, Morgan Nuzzo, a nurse-midwife, have also contacted the FBI, which gives guidance to providers on things like what to do if there’s an active shooter.
“But we shouldn’t have to fear for our lives now to open a clinic. We shouldn’t have to think about the ways someone might kill us,” Horvath said in tweets that included a redacted photo of the flier.Eleven people who provided, sought or assisted in abortion care have been killed in the United States since 1993, when David Gunn was fatally shot in Pensacola, Fla.
A spokeswoman for the Washington office of the FBI, which investigates violations of federal civil rights laws, including a civil rights statute that makes it illegal to intimidate or interfere with a person giving or seeking abortion care, declined to comment on the flier.
The first time Horvath’s work on abortion intruded into her personal life she found a photo of herself on an antiabortion website. She was holding her 15-month-old daughter in the image.
“That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to be quiet about this stuff,” she said.
But they are careful. Before Horvath and Nuzzo began publicly fundraising for their clinic, they hired a company to identify any security liabilities in their online data. Horvath’s tweets about the flier helped raise $8,000 on their GoFundMe page, she said.
“I think they picked the wrong community this time,” she said.
Shyamala Rajan said she also received the flier and found the content “very offensive” and the way it was left late at night “immoral.”
“I’m not pro-abortion,” she said, standing in her doorway. “I’m pro a woman’s right to do what is right for her.” She didn’t know the clinic was moving within an eight-minute walk of her home until she received the flier, but she supports the business. “Now you need it more than ever. You need that safe space.”
Youmans, a mother of two who volunteered for Planned Parenthood in Arizona years ago, said she is still coming to grips with the reality that Roe was overturned but never imagined the fight would follow her to College Park.
“I think we should be outraged by this,” she said.
College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn said although he welcomed the clinic to Old Town, and supported its mission to prioritize abortion later in pregnancy, as of Wednesday council members had not discussed the fliers.
“We respect the ability of the police to do their jobs and not get directly involved,” he said.
John Rigg, a College Park council member who has lived in the neighborhood nearest the clinic, Calvert Hills, since 2007, said city officials have assured him county police will ensure patient and staff safety without infringing on protesters’ rights.
The office complex where the clinic will open takes up most of a city block and includes many other medical offices, including Rigg’s optometrist and his children’s pediatrician, and future protests can’t impede access for any patients, he said.
“I strongly believe that women’s healthcare includes abortion,” Rigg said. “I believe that’s a strong opinion that is held throughout the College Park community.”
In the South and Midwest, within a month of the decision overturning Roe, at least 43 clinics stopped offering abortion services in 11 states that banned abortion completely or starting at six weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights.
Many of the women denied care will travel to more permissive states, including Maryland, where an abortion may be performed at or after viability if the patient’s life or health is endangered or if there is a fetal anomaly. Local officials have tried to help clinics accommodate the surge in patients.
Montgomery County will give $1 million in grants to organizations that directly support access to abortion care. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) seeks a 15-week abortion ban, but Alexandria City Council plans to relax zoning requirements for new clinics and fund abortion services for low-income residents.
Starting with the leak of the draft opinion in May, the National Abortion Federation has tracked an increase in everything from threatening online posts to death threats, said Melissa Fowler, the group’s chief program officer.
NAF identified the man who distributed the fliers in College Park from security camera footage, Fowler said. He has ties to Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, a group of antiabortion activists who boast about their arrest records and travel from place to place targeting clinics and providers.
“This is not the first or the last thing this person is going to do,” clinic owner Nuzzo said. “We’re in a blue state, but look at this. These folks are everywhere.”
Scott Clement, Peter Hermann and Peter Jamison contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to include additional context about violence against people involved in abortion care.