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Maryland abortion protest target takes fight to protesters

The fliers first showed up in March, dropped on doorsteps of the big homes in Todd Stave's quiet cul-de-sac. They compared him to a Nazi.

Two months later and 50 miles away, new anti-abortion leaflets appeared in another peaceful suburban subdivision, this time in Baltimore County. They had the same bloody images. But now, they targeted Stave's in-laws, asking neighbors to pray for the family and to call or visit their home. Protesters had also showed up at his daughter's middle school.

But Stave, the son of a doctor who performed abortions and whose office was once firebombed, has decided to fight back. The 44-year-old businessman has responded with an offensive of his own, gathering volunteers to call abortion protesters at home.

He owns a Germantown office that he rents to one of the nation's best-known abortion practitioners, and he's used to the attention of protesters. Many family members and neighbors are not, and when they became targets, he created his own network of activists.

Abortion protests have widened their scope, with foes pressuring people who aren't directly involved in clinics. But Stave's decision to fight back has escalated this showdown to an unusual level — even for one of the country's most polarizing issues.

Some neighbors are shocked by the tactics used by those who oppose abortion.

"It's inappropriate," said Michelle Weinstein, an interior designer who is Stave's neighbor. "You don't get innocent people involved."

Leaders of two organizations that have led the fight against Reproductive Health Services in Germantown say they are not responsible for the fliers.

"I'm not going sit here and say this was a good thing to do, or a bad thing," said Michael Martelli, head of the Maryland Coalition for Life. "We're dealing with the killing of innocent people, so it's important to keep that in perspective. Some people are going to go to different lengths because of that."

Stave calls the fliers distributed in his in-laws' neighborhood "a new low."

"This is an attempt to embarrass my in-laws, who have no more control over the clinic than you do," he wrote in an email last week to his group, Voice of Choice, which has continued to contact abortion protesters by phone, email and social media.

'It wasn't my fight'

The clinic sits in an office park, in a row of identical brick buildings with green trim. Its only physician, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, is a former colleague of Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas doctor killed by an an anti-abortion extremist in 2009.

Carhart's arrival in December 2010 sparked outrage from anti-abortion activists, but Stave says he wasn't a target at first.

Carhart, who performs both early- and late-term abortions, said he picked Maryland for his practice "because the community is very pro-choice." He travels to the clinic from his home in Nebraska, which banned late-term abortions in 2010.

In the summer of 2011, activists learned that Stave owned the building. His father had started the clinic, and his sister now owns the business.

Stave learned about abortion when he was 5 years old, the year of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. "My parents were very jubilant on that particular day," said Stave, who grew up in a Jewish family in Potomac.

On weekends and in the evenings, his obstetrician father had performed abortions in Washington, D.C. — where the procedure was legal — to earn extra money. When Stave was 16 and his parents were on vacation in Cancun, extremists firebombed his father's College Park office.

U.S. marshals escorted him to school after the incident, which Stave called "a brisk wake-up call to the emotional attachment that some people have to this cause."

Still, Stave, an entrepreneur in the electronics industry, was never involved in the abortion-rights movement. That was his father's issue, he said: "It wasn't my fight."

His attitude changed when activists showed up at his 12-year-old daughter's middle school last fall.

The initial protest happened on the first day of school, but there was no mention of Stave's name. Ten days later, though, protesters showed up at back-to-school night, this time with Stave's picture on a banner that listed his home phone number.

Martelli said his group did not support the school rally, but that in his eyes, Stave "is really not any different than LeRoy Carhart."

The Maryland Coalition for Life had formed to fight Carhart's arrival. After they discovered Stave owned the building, they launched a letter and phone campaign to pressure him to stop renting to Carhart, Martelli said.

Many landlords who lease space to abortion providers face harassment, said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, adding that her organization published a guide on landlord-tenant issues because of the difficulties doctors face.

"There has been significant harassment and violence against providers for many years," said Saporta, whose group represents abortion providers and clinics, including the practice in Germantown. "But we are certainly seeing an increase in Internet harassment and an increase in the targeting of others who are not directly involved in the provision of care."

Stave said he decided to take action after the school incident. "They started attacking my family," he said.

Voice of Choice now has thousands of supporters. Stave won't say how he finds the personal information of the people his group calls.

At first, his wife, Randi, was worried that Voice of Choice could make the situation harder for her family. Her husband was accustomed to the attention of abortion opponents, she said.

"It's always been part of who he was, but it wasn't part of who I was," she said. "He can take it in stride."

But she said her family has seen an outpouring of support.

"If they're trying to embarrass my parents, they're not," she said. "They live in a very liberal area."

Her mother declined to be interviewed.

In March, activists also protested at the dental office of Stave's sister's husband.

Carhart said he's grateful for Stave's group.

"I just think it's horrible the way they treat the non-abortion providers," Carhart said. "Somebody needed to make them own their idiocy, and he's the first person in the country really that's had the brains and the intelligence and the ability to do that."

Jack Ames, director of the group Defend Life, said he has gotten a few calls from Voice of Choice.

"The Voice of Choice people have a right to do that," he said. "I would defend their right to do that,".

Ames called the recent fliers "perfectly acceptable" but said his group wasn't responsible for them.

"Whoever did that, I think they were doing a great favor for Todd Stave's in-laws," Ames said. "Just in case they didn't know exactly how he was making a living."

'How far is too far?'

Stave shared his story this week with students at Howard Community College. One student, 31-year-old Christina Jennings of Columbia, said she was particularly bothered by the protest at the school.

"I feel like people are using the First Amendment to attack people," Jennings said, "instead of using it to protect themselves. … When you start getting to his kids, it's just uncalled for."

Stave's friend Stephanie Guerin-Yodice teaches history at the college, and the situation fascinated her because it raises questions about free speech and other constitutional issues, she said.

"How far is too far?" she said.

Like Ames, Martelli said Voice of Choice does not bother him.

"I really don't have a problem with it," Martelli said. "It shows that what we're doing is having an effect. You don't get a response from someone if you are not being successful."

But Stave says his work has given pause to many protesters — and that people have realized that those who continue to harass his family "are on the fringe."

"It doesn't matter whether you are for or against abortion," he said. "Nobody wants protests in front of their middle school, nobody wants Nazi fliers distributed in their neighborhood."



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