By Eleanor Klibanoff, The Texas Tribune
“Rio Grande Valley abortion clinic bought by anti-abortion pregnancy center” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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For years, protesters gathered daily outside the Rio Grande Valley’s last abortion clinic, praying for the day it would be put out of business.
If their prayers were ever answered, and abortion banned, they could buy the squat, sandstone building in downtown McAllen, turning it into a memorial for the unborn or using it to house their own anti-abortion counseling center.
Using a shell buyer to mislead the building’s owner, the anti-abortion McAllen Pregnancy Center has finally achieved that goal. In mid-October, they took ownership of the former Whole Woman’s Health clinic site.
“To say we were duped is an understatement,” said Whole Woman’s Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller.
How an anti-abortion nonprofit came to own the area’s last abortion clinic is a story of real estate chicanery, but also the widening divide between abortion clinic operators and the communities they used to serve.
Before the overturn of Roe v. Wade, clinics and community activists were on the same team — offense inside the clinic, defense outside. But the last few months have upended that dynamic.
After years of serving as escorts and advocates for the clinic, community organizers say this quick-change sale is the latest proof that when it comes to defending reproductive rights they — and the Rio Grande Valley — are on their own.
“It’s just a reminder that we’re in a really bad spot, and it’s probably going to continue to be that way for our region for a good while,” said Noemi Pratt, board secretary for South Texans for Reproductive Rights. “And they were so easily able to Trojan Horse their way in there. How did you so easily allow this to happen?”
When Hagstrom Miller answers the phone, she sounds exhausted.
“It’s been a bumpy couple of days,” she said. “In a bumpy couple of months. Or, actually, when did it start? Before SB 8, even. Maybe the [executive order]?”
Hagstrom Miller has been operating abortion clinics in Texas for nearly two decades. It’s never been easy.
When the state passed a 2013 omnibus law that shut down half the clinics in the state, she took the case to the Supreme Court and won. In 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order shutting down abortion clinics during the early days of the pandemic; then, the state banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.
Through all of that, Whole Woman’s Health fought to stay open. But when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, there was nothing left to fight. Whole Woman’s Health immediately shut down its four Texas clinics.
The group had to try to sell two buildings in McAllen and Fort Worth and get out of two leases, in Austin and McKinney, while also trying to relocate some of its operations to New Mexico.
When the McAllen building went up for sale, South Texans for Reproductive Justice reached out to Whole Woman’s Health and then launched an online fundraiser to raise $400,000 to buy and remodel the building.
South Texans for Reproductive Justice wanted it to become a hub for their ongoing fight for abortion access and reproductive health care in the Rio Grande Valley.
The all-volunteer nonprofit group nursed a fantasy: “We wanted to roll up there and be like, ‘McAllen Pregnancy Center, you think that you won, but we’re still here,’” said Pratt, referring to the crisis pregnancy center that aims to discourage women from getting abortions.
“It was important for the community to know that … the lights are still on and we’re still fighting,” Pratt said.
The original fundraiser was framed around helping South Texans for Reproductive Justice buy the building, which would help Whole Woman’s Health with its move to New Mexico.
Pratt says that a lawyer for Whole Woman’s Health contacted them after the fundraiser launched and told them they couldn’t use the company’s name in their materials.
Hagstrom Miller says the email didn’t come from the company’s lawyer, but rather from an employee who happens to be a lawyer. She said Whole Woman’s Health was supportive of the group’s fundraiser, but they did ask South Texans for Reproductive Justice to not use their name.
“It just felt weird that they … put it in their fundraising campaign like they were helping us fundraise for New Mexico, when we had a separate GoFundMe for New Mexico,” Hagstrom Miller said. “It was confusing, and that’s the piece we asked them to take down.”
The fundraiser now says it’s raising money to buy the “now-shuttered abortion clinic in McAllen, Texas.” Pratt said temporarily pausing the fundraiser set back their momentum considerably.
“It kind of doesn’t have the same impact,” she said. “We felt like we couldn’t say the name even though that was what it was called and everyone knew it that way.”
The group managed to raise close to $13,000 from 97 supporters, still far short of their $400,000 goal. A few weeks ago, Whole Woman’s Health reached out to say they were going to accept a cash offer from another party — a group of doctors operating under the business name Peruvian Alliance.
Hagstrom Miller said Whole Woman’s Health, their lawyers and their realtors looked into the group, which is led by a local doctor, Luis Rosas. She said they were particularly excited about a young Latina family doctor who was part of the group.
“We were thinking how awesome it would be if it could be used for a family practice clinic, led by a bilingual doctor, serving people of color and whoever needed care in the community,” she said.
Within two weeks of buying the building, Peruvian Alliance sold it to the McAllen Pregnancy Center, deed records show.
McAllen Pregnancy Center received more than $3 million in the last three years from the state-funded Alternatives to Abortion program. In 2018, it relocated to “the foot of the cross,” as a promotional video said, three doors down from the Whole Woman’s Health clinic.
Rosas did not respond to requests for comment. Reached by phone, a woman who identified herself only as Selena declined to comment on behalf of the McAllen Pregnancy Center.
The building they just bought has been an abortion clinic for nearly five decades. Whole Woman’s Health bought it in 2004 from the original tenant, an abortion provider named Dr. Pedro Kowalyszyn.
South Texans for Reproductive Justice fears that women won’t realize it’s now serving as a crisis pregnancy center that will try to talk them out of abortion, leaving the group in the painful position of considering ways to protest the building they once worked so hard to protect.
“It’s changed from one day to the next,” Pratt said. “We want people to know that building is no longer a safe space. It’s no longer protected.”
Hagstrom Miller said it’s heartbreaking to think of their “sacred space” being handed over to anti-abortion activists, and she understands the anger and betrayal that has bubbled up on Twitter, most of it directed at Whole Woman’s Health.
“Did we intend to cause harm to the community?” Hagstrom Miller said. “Of course not. We fought with them and for them for decades. But does our clinic ending up in the hands of anti-abortion people cause harm to the community? Yeah, absolutely.
“We feel very sorry we sold our clinic to some apparently bad people,” she said.
Hagstrom Miller said she advocated at the highest levels, including to Vice President Kamala Harris, for wind-down funding that would help clinic employees and community organizers navigate the sudden cessation of abortion access.
She said one funder, who she declined to name, told her they didn’t see the point in investing in something that was “already dead.”
Without that soft landing, she understands why organizers in the Valley feel abandoned — she feels abandoned by people above her, and they likely feel abandoned by people above them. All of this, she said, goes back to forces much greater than the clinics or the organizers.
“I see all of this as a byproduct of what we’re going through as the rug is being pulled out from under the very people who have dedicated their lives to this work,” Hagstrom Miller said. “We’re all navigating this grief and trauma and change in the work we love.”
Whole Woman’s Health is investigating whether it can take legal action against the original purchasers of the building. South Texans for Reproductive Justice say they intend to keep working to find a home for their work, which they see as more essential than ever.
But everyone is taking a beat to regroup after this latest devastating blow.
On the wall outside the clinic, there is a mural, painted by a local artist. Beautiful depictions of Latina women, working together in community, are laid out under the words “dignity, empowerment, compassion, justice.”
Both Pratt and Hagstrom Miller said they can’t imagine seeing that mural painted over. But they also can’t imagine seeing it used by a group that defines those terms so differently than they do.
For them, there are no good options on the horizon for the mural — or abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/04/texas-abortion-clinic-pregnancy-crisis-center/.
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