If the undercover recordings taken at a Planned Parenthood last year taught us anything, it’s that anti-abortion groups have gotten stealthier.
They still protest outside places that offer the procedure, but in recent years, abortion providers and supporters say that clinics have had an uptick in costly state inspections largely because of made-up complaints from the opposition.
“In the last two years, it’s really ramped up," said Peg Johnston, director of Access for Women, an organization that provides abortions. "I know of workshops that teach clinics how to survive these inspections [but] it really brings up a lot of issues around state authority and how civilian complaints are handled."
State health department inspections aren’t public records, so it’s difficult to quantify just how many complaints are filed, and no state health officials responded to requests for comment. However, Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, says this practice has become a “leading tactic" of the anti-abortion movement in the past five years or so.
Whenever a complaint is filed about an abortion clinic, regardless of its source or merit, the health department is required to conduct a surprise inspection of the whole clinic. In states with strict abortion regulations, these inspections are more than just an inconvenience -- they can be an enormous financial burden that lead to the closure of clinics.
In Ohio, where 90 percent of counties have no abortion provider and new regulations have prompted about half of the state's abortion clinics to close, inspections are especially tough. When a health inspector comes to follow up on a complaint, a slight administrative misstep can lead to a $10,000 fine. A FOIA request made by the Dayton Daily News in 2014 found that 11 clinics had been inspected at least 40 times under Gov. John Kasich.
Preterm, an abortion clinic in Cleveland, had a surprise inspection less than a month ago. Chrisse France, director of the clinic, said inspectors have been coming in a few times a year because of phoned-in complaints, and the clinic has only been fined once -- for a mislabeled syringe. But even though her clinic has passed every other inspection, the fees add up: It’s $845 in Ohio every time a health inspector has to stop by.
"Departments of health realistically should investigate claims called in. But when time after time a complaint is proven unjustified, and it takes time away from patients, it's a problem," said Jaime Miracle, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.
When asked about whether Right to Life supports or participates in this alleged protest tactic, Katherine Franklin, director of communication for Ohio Right to Life said: “Ohio Right to Life has supported peaceful rallies and protests that seek to expose the truth about the horrors taking place in America’s abortion industry. Additionally, it’s notable that even before the Planned Parenthood scandal, Ohio Department of Health was fining and revoking the licenses of abortion facilities for health violations, including rusty and moldy equipment and improperly stored tissue."
Saporta, of the National Abortion Federation, wants state agencies to start considering the source of complaints before going to investigate and levying "some sort of penalty against groups of people who are wasting taxpayer dollars on bogus complaints."
It isn’t just the health department that anti-abortion advocates are using in what are likely attempts to shut down clinics, though.
Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which operates one of Kansas’ three remaining abortion clinics, said she’s spent more than $200,000 on legal fees, including having to "answer subpoenas over a patient that’s never even stepped foot in the clinic,” she said. “And anytime there is a surprise inspection, that’s generally around $500 to 1,000 minimum."
Saporta believes these sort of tactics are being employed all over the country -- and not just by citizens.
"If you have a health department with appointees from a conservative governor," she said, "then they are happy to go out and do these inspections."
Abortion providers say it exemplifies the shift in the fight over abortion rights from the sidewalk to the statehouse.
“It used to be that standing outside a clinic protesting was how people demonstrated," said Burkhart. "But through political strategizing, we have these people in positions of power at the state level. There’s a lot of maneuvering going on at the statehouse to make things harder for us."
*Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Julie Burkhart as using the term "pro-life."