A Maryland abortion clinic, one of only a few that provides late-term abortions to women in the United States, plans to close its doors and is under contract to be purchased by an antiabortion group that has worked for many years to shut it down, according to an official with the coalition that has plans to buy it.
If the sale goes through this fall, the new owners of the Germantown clinic will soon be owned by the Maryland Coalition for Life, a grass-roots organization that has staged regular protests at the clinic and, in 2011, opened up a crisis pregnancy center across the parking lot to counsel women against choosing abortion.
"It's a miracle. You fight for something for seven years, and all of a sudden it's handed to you," said Dennis Donnelly, media director for the coalition. He said that a donor came forward this summer, and the group raised additional funds to make an offer to buy out the owners of the facility.
The clinic — Germantown Reproductive Health Services — has been operating for more than 20 years, but it became a central target for antiabortion activists nationwide when LeRoy Carhart, a Nebraska doctor who performs late-term abortions, came to work there in late 2010.
The owners of the property declined to comment for the story, under an attorney's advice. The Washington Post is not publishing their names due to their privacy concerns. They also own an abortion clinic in Prince George's County that does not provide late-term procedures. The fate of that clinic is unclear.
Three other members of the Maryland Coalition for Life did not respond to interview requests, and one who is closely involved with the deal declined to comment.
Carhart issued a statement Thursday that said the clinic will continue to provide care for patients "until we're forced to close our doors."
"I am doing everything in my power to keep my practice open, and I am considering options looking toward the future," he said. "It's heartbreaking that anyone would want to take health care away from women and families by targeting our clinic."
Local abortion rights activists said that Carhart had assured them Thursday that he would continue to provide late-term abortions at a new clinic he was in the process of opening somewhere in the region.
"I have spoken to Dr. Carhart and he is in the process of trying to get his facility operating," said Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. "It will be the same clinic staff and they are hoping not to have any interruption in providing this service."
The new clinic could be operating this fall, she said.
Carhart is one of a few physicians in the country who offers abortions in the later stages of pregnancy, usually defined as beyond 26 weeks after a woman's last menstrual period. Many states have banned surgical abortions after 20 weeks, and not many doctors have experience with the technique.
Advocates for abortion rights say there is an unmet demand for late-term abortions, particularly from women who learn late in their pregnancies about fetal abnormalities and sometimes from women, who are young or living in stressful circumstances and do not find out they are pregnant until late.
The Germantown clinic was one of three facilities where the procedure was regularly performed, Philip said, with the others in Boulder and Albuquerque.
The Maryland clinic has drawn patients from a huge portion of the country. "Without it, you're talking about people in the eastern United States traveling to Colorado and New Mexico," Philip said.
Carhart, a retired Air Force surgeon, began providing late-term abortions at his clinic near Omaha in 2009 after George Tiller, a mentor who performed the procedures, was assassinated while attending church in Wichita.
Carhart, now 75, began commuting long-distance to Maryland to work at the Germantown clinic after Nebraska made it illegal to perform most abortions beyond 20 weeks.
Protests were organized as soon as he arrived. Picketers were a regular presence near the clinic. They launched letter-writing campaigns and candlelight vigils.
Some activists picketed outside the Montgomery County middle school attended by the daughter of one of the clinic's landlords during back-to-school night, waving a large banner that showed the owner's photo, name, phone number and the words "Please STOP the Child Killing."
A few months after Carhart arrived, the coalition opened a crisis pregnancy center across the parking lot from the clinic to counsel women to choose alternatives to abortion. As part of the coalition's "Kick Out Carhart" campaign, the organization has attempted to document the number of women who came and go each day. The website also has posted pictures of ambulances outside the facility.
In 2013, a 29-year-old woman died after having a late-term abortion at the clinic. The case garnered national attention from antiabortion activists and intensified calls to close it down. Maryland health officials who investigated the case ultimately found "no deficiencies" in her care.
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said the clinic's closure represents a hard-won victory, after years of protests against Carhart. "We were there the first day the dreadful Mr. Carhart showed up. And we are delighted to see him leave," Newman said.
He said the closure is another example in a long line of clinics that have been shuttered because "we forced them out of business." Newman said the Wichita headquarters of the antiabortion organization he works for is located in a former abortion clinic that was put up for sale after it fell behind in rent.
Since 2012, 145 independent abortion clinics — nearly a third — have closed, according to a report released this week by the Abortion Care Network, an association of abortion providers that are not affiliated with doctor's offices, hospitals or Planned Parenthood.
The closures have coincided with a wave of strict new laws favored by antiabortion politicians, but that's not the only reason the clinics are being shuttered. Even in blue states, clinics are struggling to keep afloat as physicians retire and as they struggle to make ends meet.
The U.S. abortion rate in 2014 fell to the lowest level since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally, according to a report published in January by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.