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Published September 23 2010

Fargo clinic scenes a window on abortion debate

JL Beers serves burgers and brews next door.

Cars roll past it down First Avenue North.

And everyday life swirls around the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo as if unaware of the profound ideological collision happening on the sidewalk.

As they do most days of the year, protesters gathered outside North Dakota’s only abortion facility on Wednesday. But the morning’s collection of about 100 people marked the first in a 40-day, nonstop prayer vigil that is part of the international 40 Days for Life campaign against abortion.

While there were fewer protesters later Wednesday morning, there was a constant presence of individuals praying and holding rosaries and signs.

“Would you take one of these brochures?” Marlene Sahr asked a couple leaving the clinic Wednesday morning.

“No, thanks,” the man politely replied.

Sahr didn’t need a special event to bring her out on this cool, gray morning. She comes to the clinic year-round to offer “hope and help” to those considering an abortion.

“I don’t raise my voice,” she said. “I offer them hope.”

The whole scene in front of the clinic was the image of an ideological divide that continues to be one of the more flammable moral arguments in our nation. Standing on First Avenue’s sidewalks Wednesday, protesters held signs with the words “Pray and fast to end abortion in North Dakota.” Meanwhile, on the outside of the Fargo clinic, someone had posted a sign that read, “Pray to end sidewalk bullying.”

On both sides of the street, volunteers in bright yellow-green vests bearing the word “ESCORT” waited to help patrons to the clinic’s door.

“We’re anti-harassment,” said an escort named Mike, who declined to give his last name.

While the issues at play here are serious, the area outside the clinic is certainly not an entirely somber setting. For many people, it’s business as usual on a busy downtown Fargo block.

At one point, a man emerged from a blue Bud Light beer truck parked on First Avenue near the Hotel Donaldson and began walking along the street with two kegs.

“Need an escort for the beer?” joked Caitlin Smith, a volunteer escort and 22-year-old student at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Next door at JL Beers bar and restaurant, North Dakota State University student Thomas Jangula sat on a stool as he ate a burger with barbecue sauce and bacon.

“I honestly don’t even know what they’re protesting,” said Jangula, who studies mechanical engineering. “I figured they were doing something, but I really didn’t care.”

Charlotte Berg sat at a table toward the back of the bar with a friend. The protesters didn’t bother her.

“I’m thrilled to see those people out there stating their belief,” she said.

Her friend chimed in: “That’s what being an American is all about, I guess.”

At the next shop over, First and Deli owner Shari Wise said protests like the one Wednesday morning aren’t good for business.

“It’s just the big events that are hard on business,” Wise said.

Among those on the other side of the issue was Laura Peters. She didn’t plan to protest on Wednesday, but she saw the large crowd outside the clinic in the morning and was troubled by negative comments some people made when they came into the store where she works.

“I have 10 minutes between one job and the next,” she said, holding a 40 Days sign. “I wanted to support life.”

As for the organization at which the protests are actually aimed, Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker sees the protests as an intimidation tactic.

“I think its harassment,” she said, standing on the sidewalk with escorts and protesters.

Kromenaker said she’s concerned for her patients “having to walk through a large crowd of angry, harassing protesters.”

Colleen Samson, a 40 Days for Life North Dakota board member, sees the protests differently.

“Our goal is to be peaceful and prayerful. It is never our desire to harass anyone,” she said.

For her, it’s a matter of life and death.

“The truth is, babies are dying every week in this building,” she said.

But Kromenaker believes if people protested another business in the manner in which the clinic is being protested, some changes would be made to prevent it.

As she spoke, the driver from a car passing by yelled something about “choice” from his window.

Still, despite the explosive nature of the issue, things were subdued as of Wednesday afternoon.

The history of abortion protests in the Fargo-Moorhead area has not always been so docile.

In the past, protesters locked themselves together at the neck and to heavy metal boxes inside a now-closed Fargo clinic just off 14th Street and Main Avenue.

The community’s abortion debate even captured some national attention when it was covered by national television news programs including “60 Minutes.” The crew in town was working on a 1992 story about anti-abortion campaigns, including the one in Fargo.

Still, if the confrontations have become less fevered, it’s not because there isn’t still passion on both sides.

Monique Kraemer stood in front of the clinic Wednesday holding a rosary.

“I’m here to support life,” she said.

When she looks at what goes on at an abortion clinic, she sees “people being killed. … They’re just as innocent as the people in Auschwitz.”

About the vigils

The annual 40 Days for Life campaign began Wednesday and continues through Oct. 31. According the 40 Days for Life website, the effort “is a community-based campaign that draws attention to the evil of abortion through the use of a three-point program” of prayer and fasting, constant vigil and community outreach.

Events related to the drive are being held in 238 locations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, Northern Ireland and Denmark.

As part of 40 Days for Life, local anti-abortion protesters plan to stage a nonstop prayer vigil in front of the Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion clinic in North Dakota.

The first North Dakota 40 Days for Life event was in 2007.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734