Antiabortion Effort Targets Unbuilt Clinic
Two months ago, construction crews were busy laying the groundwork for a $6.2-million Planned Parenthood clinic on the city’s south side. But the site is deserted now -- gravel blows in the wind, a padlock clangs against a chain-link fence.
Work halted last month after local subcontractors were persuaded by anti-abortion activists led by a building supply executive to steer clear of the project or face the loss of future work. As pressure and controversy over the project grew, subcontractors stayed away and the general contractor -- one of the largest in the state -- pulled out.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 18, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Abortion clinic -- An article in Section A on Sunday about a boycott that halted construction of an abortion clinic in Austin, Texas, included a description of services planned for the clinic. It should have said tubal ligation, not tubal litigation.
The construction boycott is a new twist in the abortion protest movement, and one its backers say they hope to see used elsewhere.
Abortion rights activists decry it as economic blackmail.
“They pressured and intimidated mom-and-pop businesses that are not political, people who are just trying to make a living,” said Glenda Parks, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region. “Anti-choice hard-liners are in a frenzy of elation right now, but the boycott does not in any way signify what this community thinks about this clinic. There is enormous support for this project to go forward, and it will.”
The 9,931-square-foot clinic would be Austin’s fourth licensed abortion provider. The primary services provided by the clinic would be gynecological exams, tubal litigations and other health-care services to low-income women.
Austin, a college town known for its liberal politics and laid-back lifestyle, is a seemingly unlikely location for an antiabortion uprising. “People in Austin are tolerant,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, whose district includes the area where the clinic is to be built. “They are for affordable health care. We are not going to let a small group of radicals change that.”
Leading the boycott of the construction project is Chris Danze, 48, an executive at a concrete supply business and organizer of the Texas Contractors and Suppliers for Life Assn.
Contractors on the Planned Parenthood project “were given two messages,” Danze said. “The first is that it’s wrong to build an abortion chamber. The second is that it’s bad for future business.... We’re compiling a list. If you work on that project, you won’t be working on other projects.”
When ground was broken Sept. 23, Danze -- an owner of Austin-based concrete supplier Maldonado and Danze -- had already sent letters to several dozen local vendors. “Maldonado and Danze Inc., will remove from our list of approved suppliers, those suppliers who choose to participate in this new facility,” he wrote.
Some business owners who received Danze’s letter offered to send similar messages to their own associates, he said. Like a chain letter, word of the boycott spread.
About 750 central Texas subcontractors received letters asking that they turn away business from Planned Parenthood. Christian radio stations picked up the story and encouraged listeners to ask companies working on the project to quit. Contractor names and phone numbers were provided by Danze in widely circulated e-mails.
“The thing that’s different about the impact of this is how quickly these calls for action spread via e-mail and the Internet” said Parks of Planned Parenthood. “The calls that came in to the contractors were from all over the United States. We don’t know how many were from Austin.”
When local churches joined the boycott, business owners had a decision to make, said David Bereit, executive director of the Texas-based Coalition for Life. “There are 600 churches and three abortion clinics in the Austin phone book. The demand for church-building projects is greater than for abortion clinics. Builders have to look at the long-term potential of losing this business,” he said.
By November, general contractor Browning Construction Co. of San Antonio had lost its carpenters, heating and air-conditioning subcontractors, concrete suppliers and electricians.
“We have requested that the construction contract be terminated because we are unable to secure and retain adequate subcontractors and suppliers to complete the project in a timely manner due to events beyond our control,” said Browning in a written statement.
Parks would not comment on legal action against Browning except to say, “We’re working on closing out the contract.”
When construction resumes, Planned Parenthood will serve as the general contractor, she said. Businesses hired for the project will be fully aware of the controversy that may follow. “They’ll be prepared to withstand the pressure,” Parks said.
Some of the subcontractors that backed out in November were overwhelmed with phone calls, she said. One got 1,200 calls on his business line. Another got several hundred at home. “They were inundated. I don’t think they knew what to do.”
Danze said the calls were an exercise of free speech and that callers were instructed to be polite. “I think it’s wrong for one person to make 1,200 phone calls,” he said. “But it’s American as motherhood and apple pie for 1,200 people to make one phone call. That’s the American way, you express yourself.”
Sarah Wheat, spokeswoman for the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said that the battle isn’t over yet -- and that there are more voices to be heard. “At this stage it looks as though anti-choice groups have a victory, but the true victory will come when the clinic opens and clients are served,” she said.
Danze shrugged off criticism, going about his regular job and keeping supporters updated about companies that may sign on with the protest.
“We are beginning to gather information on [a contractor] who will most likely be the builder of abortion chamber when Browning clears out,” wrote Danze in a recent e-mail. “If you know subcontractors or suppliers who have worked for [the contractor] in the past, please pass that along to us.... Of course, if we don’t know who will be working on the project ahead of time we will find out the other way. We’ll drive by and look.”
Danze said he plans to meet with antiabortion leaders to discuss replicating his idea elsewhere.
“It may not work if you don’t have the same situation you had in Austin, where someone knows who all of the contractors are,” said Jim Sedlak, executive director of Stop Planned Parenthood International. “But this is one more weapon in our arsenal.”