By Jeff Schweers, FLORIDA TODAY
SUNTREE, Fla. — When the public learned the WomanCare Center of Melbourne’s landlord would not renew a lease for the clinic that provides abortions, director Tammy Sobieski got a barrage of phone calls from supporters.
Sobieski takes those calls as a sign of the need and community support for the services she has been providing since taking over the local abortion provider job from Patricia Baird-Windle.
“People are donating money to help us move,” Sobieski said. “It’s all been very good.”
Baird-Windle’s Aware Woman Center for Choice clinic had to move from its U.S. 1 location last year to make way for a state road-widening project last year. Now its successor, WomanCare, is moving because the tenants and owner are tired of the abortion protesters.
“It’s deja vu 20 years later,” Baird-Windle said. “It’s the same stuff. Only this time the clinic’s value to this community has been proven close to 200,000 times in terms of services rendered. It is the height of hypocrisy that this is happening all over again.”
Of course, those who have been fighting Baird-Windle and the abortion industry were encouraged by the decision of the owners of Suntree Plaza not to renew the lease.
“The only reason we’re there is because they’re there,” abortion protest leader Meredith Raney said.
Raney and other pro-lifers cheered when Aware Woman’s old building on U.S. 1 was razed.
However, it didn’t put an end to abortion in Brevard County or even interrupt the services Aware Woman had provided for 23 years.
Sobieski, who also runs clinics in Orlando, Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach, took the task of providing abortions and other health services to Brevard women from Baird-Windle, who had run Aware Woman for 22 years before deciding to retire as a services provider.
First, Sobieski had to find a location for the clinic, since the Florida Department of Transportation had condemned the old site and paid Baird-Windle for it.
She leased a vacant building from Rick Brough of Golden Triangle Realty, a subsidiary of Imperial Sterling Ltd., which owns the Suntree Plaza. Imperial Plaza and Centre of Suntree also is among its Brevard holdings. Her impression was she was leasing from pro-choice supporters who would be willing to renegotiate a longer term lease after seeing how things went the first year.
What she didn’t know is that the president of the company, Jerry Golding Levy, would soon kick his mother, Harriet Golding, out of the family business and replace her with a South Florida commercial broker.
Golding has since sued her son for $67 million.
The clinic’s opening was marked by several protests, but nothing large-scale as was threatened. Soon, the protesters dwindled to Raney and a few of the faithful, who picket about three days a week, and only in the morning.
“Things had gotten so quiet,” Sobieski said. “The goal was that everybody could get along, that we could all live in peaceful coexistence. Now we’re at a point where women are put at risk again, but we’re going to come out fine.”
In recent weeks, however, a woman armed with a Bible and a strong set of lungs has been spending one afternoon a week shouting at the clinic’s patients and other store customers.
“I had a pregnant customer get yelled at the other day,” said Jean Lehmann, who owns the Kids Cottage consignment store. “She came into the store crying because this woman was yelling at her.”
She believes that protesters have their right to free speech and that the clinic has a right to operate, but not at the expense of her business, which she said was nearly dead on Saturdays when protesters were present.
Mark Tietig, a lawyer and local representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, was troubled by the connection between the clinic and the protesters, who he said are skirting close to illegal activity.
“I would like to see people stand up for the rights of women to exercise control over themselves,” Tietig said. “And I would like to see the state take a close look at the protesters to make sure there wasn’t any illegal pressure put on the property owners in an effort to deny women their constitutional rights.”
Tietig said that although abortion opponents have the right to protest on a public sidewalk, they can cross the line if their conduct is not construed as pure speech.
“If you’re standing in the way to impede progress of access to the clinic, then that becomes a violation of their (patients’) rights,” Tietig said. “Conduct is much more subject to regulation.”
Tietig said he was not surprised that WomanCare did not get its lease renewed.
“I think it would take courage to rent to an organization that is subject to as much hatred as an abortion provider,” Tietig said.
Last week, Sobieski got a letter from Coldwell Banker in Pompano Beach informing her the lease would not be renewed. She said she’s made several calls to the office to find out why, or to try to renegotiate the lease or work out some other arrangement on the building, but her calls have gone unreturned.
For one thing, she’d like to have the property manager or owner explain why she’s being denied renewal, and why Golden Triangle is no longer responsible for Suntree Plaza.
Carla Casey, senior property manager for the Coldwell Banker office, said she was simply carrying out the owner’s instructions.
“When we are instructed by the owner or entity that has the portfolio of ownership, we carry out those instructions,” Casey said.
When asked if it had anything to do with the abortion protesters or the clinic moved there, Casey said, “There are concerns all the way around, whether it’s the general public or the tenants.”
Morton Schlossberg, secretary of Imperial Sterling Ltd., the parent company based in New York, said, “I’ll make it simple for you. It is a longstanding policy of this company that we don’t discuss leases and other matters of our tenants.”
He refused to answer any other questions about the company.
Sobieski said it was shortsighted and cowardly to not renew the lease, that abortion clinics attract less danger than public schools.
“People have a perception about abortion and family planning,” Sobieski said. “At some point, I thought we’d get beyond this.
Sobieski does have some regrets about moving. The Suntree Plaza building was a secure one for the patients and staff, big enough to accommodate several exam rooms, a large waiting room and a community room that Sobieski had plans for.
Also, the owners spent $10,000 on new carpeting and other interior improvements on the 3,800 square-foot-space, leading Sobieski to believe they wanted her to be a longtime tenant.
The clinic gets about 3,600 customers a year, but only one-third are seeking to terminate their pregnancies, Sobieski said.
The rest want Pap smears, birth control pills, cancer screens, prenatal care and other health services they can’t afford on their own but make too much to qualify for under Medicaid.
“Not everyone who walked in here had an abortion,” Sobieski said.
WomanCare provides low-cost pelvic exams, birth control and other services that family planning researchers say are desperately needed to bring down the state’s teen pregnancy rate and unwanted pregnancy rate.
Brevard recorded 1,115 abortions in 1999. The state reported 83,971 for the year.
Clinic’s other services
Sobieski said her Melbourne clinic performs more than 100 abortions a month. But unlike her other clinics in Orlando, Volusia and West Palm, more than two-thirds of the people who come to WomanCare in Melbourne are seeking other services — such as Pap smears.
“That’s when you can gauge the needs,” Sobieski said. “Abortion is a one-time event. Others see us once a year for their exam, then monthly to get their prescription filled.”
That includes Cathy Stanton, great-great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a vice-chairwoman of the Indian River chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Although past her child-bearing years, Stanton said, she relied on the clinic for other health services.
“They do provide other services for less,” Stanton said.
Stanton said she was shocked when she learned the lease was not being renewed but still had some sympathy for the shop owners.
She wonders, however, what the clinic’s forced move says about the area.
“This is the South, the Bible Belt, and clinics have been harassed and bombed throughout the South,” Stanton said. “I just hope there’s hope for the future, that people will change, but as long as they have these fundamental attitudes, things will remain the same.”
It was the same attitude her great-great grandmother confronted when she and Susan B. Anthony tried to get women the right to vote 100 years ago, Stanton said.
“I hope they find a place,” Stanton said. “This community can’t afford to lose the services they provide.”
This is nothing new to Baird-Windle, who found out early on that she needed her own building. She lost a building lease in Melbourne in 1977 from a supporter who feared the repercussions her leasing to Aware Woman would cause.
“It’s economic and commercial extortion,” said Baird-Windle’s husband, Ted Windle.
Windle understood the motives of the tenants and the landlord.
“They’re businesspeople. We found that wherever we went, businesspeople will only go so far,” Windle said. “When it comes to their business or yours, their business wins out. None of them are martyrs.”
The first Aware Woman was in Cocoa Beach, in a building across the alley from the Inner Room strip club that now houses a carpet outlet. It opened just a couple of years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that affirmed women’s right to abortion on demand.
A number of women’s health centers opened around the nation during that time to meet a demand for services — low-cost abortions, pregnancy counseling and prenatal care — that hospitals and gynecologists weren’t offering.
By 1981, Aware Woman had its own building on U.S. 1 and Dixie Way in Melbourne. There it provided abortions, birth control and other services.
The Windles weren’t so successful in Port St. Lucie, where they wound up closing a clinic because of the hassles and pressures placed by the abortion picketers.
Such problems occur elsewhere, too.
“As we speak, a doctor in Omaha, Nebraska lost his lease, tried to buy the office and couldn’t get the mortgage money,” Windle said. “The same thing happened to us in Port St. Lucie.”
Baird-Windle said it’s interesting that so many women who have benefited from the clinic don’t stand up for it now.
“Some of the women who have been so beautifully served have become solid middle class and upper class citizens and they should be helping Tammy to buy a building,” Baird-Windle said.
For now, Sobieski remains optimistic.
“We knew it was a possibility and knew it could happen,” Sobieski said. “But in every problem there’s an opportunity.”