A Baltimore County woman says her employers harassed her for weeks while she was deciding to have an abortion and then fired her five days after she had one.
In a lawsuit, similar to only a handful of other cases nationwide, Robin Flanigan claims the anti-abortion owners of a Columbia hair salon called her and her relatives at home, interrupted her at work and gave her religiously oriented handwritten letters urging her to maintain her pregnancy.
Ms. Flanigan is seeking nearly $4 million in damages in a civil suit against the employers, contending she was wrongfully discharged in 1990 from her job as a hair stylist.
But the employer, Robin George Davidson, calls the case absurd, denying Ms. Flanigan was fired because of the abortion. He says she was fired because she could no longer function on the job after she had the abortion.
The suit, filed in Howard County Circuit Court last month, is one of about a half-dozen cases in the country involving women alleging they were fired for having abortions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's hard to justify firing somebody for engaging in something that is a constitutionally protected right," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, spokesman for the ACLU's Baltimore chapter. "The private activities somebody does off the job are irrelevant if they don't affect on-the-job performance."
Even some anti-abortion activists question the fairness of Ms. Flanigan's dismissal, based on her allegations.
"I'm totally against abortion, but I don't think that's the solution," said Doug Stiegler, executive director of the state Family Protection Lobby in Annapolis.
Ms. Flanigan, who lives in West Edmondale, is seeking $3.7 million in damages from Mr. Davidson and his wife, Patrice Davidson.
A state unemployment insurance board ruled in 1991 that the Davidsons had no grounds for the dismissal and awarded Ms. Flanigan unemployment benefits.
Ms. Flanigan decided to sue the Davidsons because she couldn't get over the anger she felt about the firing, her attorney said.
Ms. Flanigan contends the Davidsons harassed her in an effort to persuade her against the abortion. They even had pictures of aborted fetuses placed at her work station, she said, during the three months she worked at their shop in 1990.
She didn't quit the job because she needed the money, her attorney said. She hoped the problems would go away after she had the abortion.
Ms. Flanigan -- 21 and single at the time -- had an abortion on Dec. 10, 1990. Five days later, she was fired from her job at Revelations in Hair Design in Columbia.
"People who are pro-life think you don't want kids or that you don't love kids," said Ms. Flanigan, now 24, married and working at a Pikesville salon.
"That's not true," she said. "I just felt it was something I had to do."
The Davidsons, meanwhile, argue that Ms. Flanigan was fired because she could no longer function at her job after having the abortion. They described her as being paranoid and disruptive.
"She had changed radically," said Mr. Davidson, who has operated the salon for seven years. "She was just upsetting the business completely. I couldn't allow that to go on."
Ms. Flanigan said she was hired as a stylist by the Davidsons in September 1990, leaving a job at another salon. "I thought it was going to be something wonderful," she said.
Ms. Flanigan said a co-worker was with her when she learned she was pregnant in November 1990. That co-worker told the Davidsons.
Ms. Flanigan recalled Mrs. Davidson was excited about the pregnancy, telling her it was wonderful news. But Ms. Flanigan didn't feel the same -- she thought an abortion was the best alternative.
Ms. Flanigan said her fiance, the father of the fetus, supported her choice. She said her mother, although opposed to the abortion, respected the decision.
"It wasn't what I wanted for my life at the time," said Ms. Flanigan, who got married in May 1991. "I wanted to be solid in my marriage before I had children."
But the Davidsons vehemently opposed Ms. Flanigan's plans for the abortion.
"The defendants launched an endless assault against [Ms. Flanigan] to coerce her and intimidate her into not having the abortion," according to Ms. Flanigan's suit, filed on Dec. 6.
The defendants also called Ms. Flanigan's relatives, telling them of her desire to have an abortion and urging them to talk her out of it, Ms. Flanigan said.
In addition, the Davidsons had a series of graphic photographs depicting aborted fetuses put at Ms. Flanigan's work station, the suit says. Upon seeing the pictures, Ms. Flanigan became hysterical.
"[The pictures] just totally blew me away," Ms. Flanigan said. "It just continues to haunt you."
"I'm still always cautious when I talk to people, especially at work," she said. "People I see, who know about the abortion, they still look at me funny."
Mr. Davidson said he and his wife are not responsible for the pictures.
"We did not do that," he said. "That was an employee. That was on the employee's own volition."
He noted that his wife sent Ms. Flanigan a letter encouraging her to have the baby. He added that a friend called Ms. Flanigan's mother, who then called the Davidsons to discuss the abortion.
Mr. Davidson, who has four children, said he and his wife tried to talk Ms. Flanigan out of getting an abortion.
"We're not in favor of anybody doing that," said Mr. Davidson, who noted he and his wife were hoping to help Ms. Flanigan through her pregnancy. "We're very pro-life . . . But that's not the issue."
The Davidsons do not belong to any anti-abortion groups, but occasionally participate in marches through their church, the Ellicott City Assembly of God, Mr. Davidson said.
Ms. Flanigan's attorney, David Shapiro of Baltimore, said the lawsuit could set a policy to determine to what extent an employer can dictate their beliefs in the workplace.
Gloria Totten, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said women who have abortions should be protected by the same laws that allow people to dress or wear their hair as they wish while on the job.
"We don't want women getting fired because they get an abortion," Ms. Totten said.
Lee Hoshall, assistant general counsel for the state Human Relations Commission, said the Davidsons may have violated discrimination laws if Ms. Flanigan's dismissal was solely based on her abortion.
"The basic issue to me is that abortion is not a job-related factor," he said. "There's no legal justification for taking action against an employee because she had an abortion."
The commission -- which is not involved in the Flanigan suit -- has handled cases involving women who have been fired for becoming pregnant, but never one involving a woman fired for having an abortion, Mr. Hoshall said.
Sidney Marcus, president of Maryland Right to Life, said many women who have an abortion or a miscarriage suffer from a hormonal imbalance that may cause personality changes.
Mr. Marcus said he believes the outcome of the case will be based on credibility.
"It depends on who you believe," he said. "That's going to be up to the judge and jury."