Todd Stave has been part of the nation’s heated and sometimes violent abortion debate since he was 5 years old.
Growing up, he lived with the haters who crank-called and relentlessly protested his childhood home and who firebombed his father’s Maryland abortion clinic in 1982. And when he inherited it as an adult, he endured the calls to his house at all hours of the night, the graphic fliers dropped throughout his neighborhood, the protesters who showed up at his kid’s middle school with graphic posters of bloody fetuses.
Now at 50, Stave is finally calling it quits. Last month, he agreed to sell the Germantown clinic — one of only a few in the country that offer late-term abortions — to the Maryland Coalition for Life, the anti-abortion group that opened a crisis pregnancy center across the parking lot and staged frequent protests outside his door.
The coalition won't get any physical part of the practice -- no instruments, furniture, medical records, nor any kind of patient data or any other asset, Stave said. They simply bought its closure.
“They’re going to claim victory,” said Stave in his first interview about the decision to sell the clinic for an undisclosed amount.
But slow your roll, abortion rights opponents. It’s more complicated than caving to pressure.
Yes, Stave is relieved that his family will be free after decades of harassment, but the decision was also driven by the declining demand for abortion and the soaring cost of security.
Though Stave vehemently supports a woman’s right to choose and felt conflicted about selling the clinic, “it’s still a business,” he said. “And a business has to make money.”
The abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The number of abortions they performed every week? “It can be counted on one hand,” Stave said.
Between the high cost of an elaborate security system to protect a clinic bombarded with death threats and its constant legal fees (which reached six figures last year), they simply couldn’t keep the clinic afloat, he said.
When Guttmacher reported earlier this year that abortions had fallen by more than half nationwide, conservatives patted themselves on the back for the restrictive state laws they passed that target things like door width and parking space to try to shut clinics down through code violations. They cheered the legislation that forced women to look at ultrasounds before getting abortions. They believed that their relentless harassment of women going to clinics and campaigns like the fake, felonious videos they made about Planned Parenthood worked.
The unintended pregnancy rate, along with the abortion rate, has dropped, too.
Teen pregnancies are at a record low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And sex education in our schools — often opposed by the very same people who oppose abortion — is working.
Education, access to reliable birth control and the availability of the so-called “morning after pill” — not moral shaming — are the keys to the falling abortion rate.
Stave said his dad, and later his sister, who ran the clinic for 17 years after their father died, often saw patients whose parents “wouldn’t talk to their kids about safe sex. Those are the ones who would show up on Saturday mornings.”
His father was an obstetrician and gynecologist who provided an array of health services for women. In wasn’t until after his death that the clinic focused only on abortions, with LeRoy Carhart renting the space to become one of America’s few doctors who very publicly offers late-term abortions.
“Maybe another 10 doctors do them, too, but they are more quiet about it,” Stave said.
After George Tiller, another late-term abortion provider, was murdered in his church on a Sunday morning in 2009, Carhart adopted a very elaborate plan of travel and communication to deal with the constant death threats. He flew from his home in Nebraska to Maryland weekly to perform those abortions.
In the past year, the number of those abortions didn’t reach double digits, Stave said.
The women typically came from far away. Nearly all of them were married, often older and usually already mothers. And they were told, late in their pregnancies, that their lives were in danger, or that the complications in their pregnancy were a near guarantee that a child would not survive after birth, Stave said.
“It was usually a very agonizing decision. Nobody wants abortions to begin with. That’s something the other side doesn’t understand,” Stave said. “The reality is that people still need them.”
Because most of the women were already traveling to the Maryland clinic from elsewhere, the Stave family reasoned that they can also find their way to the other remaining providers — the public ones in Denver and Albuquerque, as well as the underground network of doctors who do it quietly.
“There’s a lot of sadness, yeah, a feeling that we’re letting the public down,” Stave said, days after closing the deal.
“It’s a tough thing to do. There’s no question about it,” Stave said. “My father started (the clinic) shortly after Roe v. Wade was passed. It was one of the longest, continuously operating businesses in the country, and we feel that we have served the community for a very long time, in a cause we strongly believe in.”
But in the end, he said, the low demand wasn’t worth the toll this took on his family. They were exhausted.
Carhart has vowed he’ll open again, elsewhere in Maryland.
Stave said Carhart is going to have a hard time finding another landlord willing to put up with the protesters, the exorbitant security rates, the legal fees, the whole fight.
“All women have to do is know who to ask,” he said. “Plenty of doctors do this, do what is legal. They’re just not loud about it.”