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c.2013 Houston Chronicle< On nearly every weekday morning between late 2010 and this spring, Eileen Romano stood outside a Beaumont abortion clinic to do what she could to fight a procedure she saw as morally wrong.
Unlike traditional so-called sidewalk advocates, however, Romano did not simply try to talk the women who arrived out of having their abortions. She also sought to get the clinic closed with a tactic that is becoming increasingly common in the Texas anti-abortion community: tracking license plates.
Romano wrote down the numbers on the cars that parked outside the facility, checking to ensure the plates showed up twice - for a pre-abortion consultation required by state law and the procedure itself. If a car only came once, she said, it was a sign the doctor had done the abortion without a consultation, and the 63-year-old activist made a note to potentially report to state regulators.
Before the clinic closed in March, Romano estimated that she documented nearly 7,000 license plates. She still has the records.
”We never used the license plate numbers to delve in someone’s personal life. Never. That was not the purpose of it,” Romano said. “The purpose was tracking and keeping tabs on the numbers and what was going on.”
The tactic and other ways in which anti-abortion activists are taking legal enforcement into their own hands became public this week when opponents released audio of an event that drew about 350 people to the state Capitol to learn “what you can do to keep abortion facilities closed.” One trainer bragged that her group not only tracked patient license plates, but also used plates to identify abortion doctors to see if they had admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, as required by law.
”We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet,” said the trainer, Karen Garnett, executive director of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee, adding, “You have license plates, car model, make, description of the person.”
Abortion-rights supporters in Texas and across the country denounced the tactics, calling them a new iteration of a long pattern of harassment by anti-abortion activists that has in some cases ended in violence.
”No one appointed them law enforcement officials, or officials of the health department,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. “It’s about intimidation.”
Spokeswomen for the Texas Medical Board and Department of State Health Services said their agencies investigate clinics based on citizen complaints but declined to comment about whether they encourage or discourage the tactics adopted by some anti-abortion activists.
Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion Texas Alliance for Life, said the tactics have become more common since a 2011 law requiring women to see a sonogram before getting an abortion and last summer’s approval of House Bill 2 over a nationally-watched filibuster.
House Bill 2 was back in court Wednesday for closing arguments in a challenge to the admitting privileges requirement and a separate provision set to take effect Sept. 1 that would require abortion facilities to comply with the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.
Abortion providers told a federal judge that the requirements would impose a severe financial burden on them, forcing clinics to close and leaving thousands of Texans hundreds of miles from any place to get the procedure. State lawyers defended the law largely by citing a recent appeals court decision on a similar lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel is expected to rule by Sept. 1, with an appeal likely to follow immediately.
Pojman predicted the law would be upheld and the new tactics would continue to grow in popularity.
Today, the tactics are used by only some of the many anti-abortion groups in the state.
Pro-Life Texas Executive Director Jason Vaughn said he had not heard of the tactics, but that he “would be very cautious” about using them.
Christine Melchor of the Houston Coalition of Life said the group’s sidewalk advocates do not track license plates. Instead they focus on approaching women in a respectful way, which she said has become the norm for the movement.
Still, the anti-abortion activists who said they track license plates described their efforts with pride.
Garnett in an interview rejected any comparison of the tactics to intimidation.
”I’m truly appalled that any kind of harassment or stalking language would be associated to me or to our ministry,” she said. “We have been out in front of the abortion facilities here in Dallas since 1997. We are 100 percent peaceful, prayerful, respectful and we would never, never consider harassing or stalking anyone.”
Defending the action
Garnett said that in the past 17 years the group has not had any incident and has helped 7,500 women considering abortion choose instead to go through with the pregnancy.
She defended the use of license plates to identify abortion doctors as a legitimate tactic because the information is in the public interest and difficult to obtain.
”They don’t wear a badge,” she said, adding a website called publicdata.com allows users to identify people with license plates.
And she said the group has used information gleaned by sidewalk advocates to file two inquiries with the Department of State Health Services about potential legal violations - one about a suspected failure to conduct a pre-abortion consultation and one about a doctor thought to not have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
Romano, the Beaumont activist, said she thought her actions helped lead the clinic there to close. That was good, she said, because the clinic did not act responsibly and she saw women there coerced into having abortions.
The stated reason for the closure of the clinic, part of the Whole Woman’s Health network, was that the doctor could not obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The Department of State Health Services has over the past year revoked the license of one Texas abortion doctor and his clinic, A Affordable Women’s Medical Center in Houston, according to state records. The physician there, Dr. Theodore Herring, was performing abortions without admitting privileges.
That was discovered during an annual inspection of the facility. XXX - End of Story<3D>
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