By Erinn Hutkin, Staff Writer, Naples Daily News
A tan van carrying two people turns into the parking lot of Southwest Florida Women’s Clinic in North Fort Myers.
Across the street from the clinic, one of three in Lee County that performs abortions, Fort Myers resident John Doherty stands under the midmorning sun holding a knee-high wooden cross.
Protesters John Doherty, right, and Joe Hennessy stand in the rain outside the Southwest Florida Women’s Clinic to protest the abortions that take place at the clinic. They protest by praying and yelling out to people entering the clinic. David Carson/Staff
“Don’t kill your baby,” he yells at the couple in their automobile armor. “That child will take care of you someday.”
Before the pair can exit the van, Doherty and two others outside the clinic talk to the woman in the passenger seat. They give her literature on abortion alternatives. One man gives the couple his home phone number. A few minutes later, the van drives away, the woman still in it.
For Doherty and a small group who protest outside the clinic three days each week, the incident is a victory.
“They were very receptive, they were at peace when they left,” Doherty reports after the couple leaves. “They will be especially blessed with this child.”
The event is not uncommon outside the North Fort Myers abortion office or at clinics across the country. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and every other Saturday, groups of abortion protesters stand outside the office run by licensed obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Ali Azima. Both Azima and those who protest his practice say they are there for the same reason – to help women.
Dr. Ali Azima in his office at the Southwest Florida Women’s Clinic in North Fort Myers. Azima, who is a Muslim, says protesters are trying impose their religious beliefs on him and as such are violating his constitutional rights. David Carson/Staff
Azima’s clinic serves as the site of a local battleground on which the war on abortion is fought almost daily, a war marked not by big battles but with small skirmishes. For the better part of two decades, a small brigade of protesters has stood guard outside the clinic on days abortions are performed. But in recent weeks, this quiet war has made itself heard – one protester and Azima have filed battery charges against each other, and a Fort Myers man was arrested for allegedly attempting to run over protesters with his car two weeks ago.
The battles show no signs of ceasing – both sides say they don’t plan to quit their respective practices.
It’s quiet, steamy Thursday when a dark-haired young woman parks her car in front of Azima’s clinic. Two men holding sun-shielding umbrellas and signs saying “We can help you,” approach her as she shuts off the car.
One of the men, Cape Coral resident Robert Smith, asks the woman if she’s a patient as he produces an orange paper brochure from a waist-side fanny pack. The pamphlet lists two dozen phone numbers of pregnancy and adoption referral centers, maternity homes and post-abortive counseling services.
“We try to direct women toward competency,” Smith said from the sidewalk leading to Azima’s office. “We’re not here to badger, we’re here to list options.”
The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 allows protesters to nonviolently oppose abortion. Smith said protesters at Azima’s office are unique because they are allowed to stand in the privately-owned parking lot and sidewalk outside the clinic. Two years ago, Smith said, the protester’s attorney discovered a Supreme Court ruling, Marsh v. Alabama. It states individuals are allowed to distribute religious and counseling information from publicly used sidewalks and parking lots on private property.
Outside the clinic, abortion protesters pray, hold beaded rosaries and carry signs on fluorescent green posterboard with slogans like “Don’t kill your baby.” Protesters say some women are receptive when they offer information; some, they say enter the clinic with only a few muttered words.
Sitting in his office, Azima tells of a 60-year-old female protester who, with her pastor, agreed to talk with him inside the clinic.
The doctor asked the woman if she opposed anything other than abortion.
“Drinking and driving,” she replied.
Azima said he then asked her why she didn’t protest outside liquor stores.
“That woman never came back,” Azima said.
But for years, protesters have continued to return to Azima’s clinics, demonstrating outside his offices in Fort Myers and Port Charlotte. While Azima says the U.S. Constitution ensures free speech, he faults the government for not “supporting the freedom of religion.”
Azima says his protesters follow Christianity and oppose abortion based on their belief in the Bible. Azima says because Christianity is not the official religion of the U.S., protesters cannot pass their beliefs to others.
“People are protesting all over this country based on religious belief,” Azima, a Muslim, said from his office recently. “They have to understand the U.S. government doesn’t have a religion- we have religious freedom. Nobody is seeing Jews, Buddhists and Islams protesting … only Christians are forcing their beliefs on someone else knowing there is religious freedom in this country.”
Azima deems religion a personal matter. He said people do not have the right to “force their opinion on others.”
“To interfere with my professional duties is a violation of my civic rights,” he said. “Nobody can tell me to shop in Winn-Dixie just because he shops in Winn-Dixie.”
Over the years, Azima said, he’s met with his opponents, trying to explain his views. He said he’s talked one-on-one with three separate protesters. He said he offered to talk patients out of abortions if the protesters would financially support the child for 18 years, find an adoptive home for the infant or adopt the baby themselves.
None of the three accepted his offer, Azima said.
“They are protesting,” the doctor said, pausing for thought. “But they are not being realistic.”
For protester Doherty, his anti-abortion belief is indeed very real. And strong. So strong that he says God creates disasters like “earthquakes and planes falling from the sky,” as a “huge chastisement,” for legalizing abortion.
Tiny blue and pink crosses clank like wooden wind chimes as Doherty paces the street in front of Azima’s clinic. The small religious icons – representing aborted fetuses – hang from a tall wood cross the 63 year-old carries.
Doherty, one of about 40 people who protest Azima’s office during the week, has said he will not yell anti-abortion messages at vehicles anymore, but he refuses to stop protesting.
Doherty and four others outside the clinic on this day protest for common reasons. Life begins at conception, they believe. What prompted their protests differs with each person.
For Doherty, a mailing from two priests he met last year in Ireland prompted his clinic presence. The letter he received referred to the Bible, saying “those who not do something to oppose abortion are as guilty as those who do it.”
“Those are frightening strong words,” he says, his voice thick with Irish brogue. “(Abortion) may be lawful, but it’s highly immoral.”
According to the Florida Department of Vital Statistics, there were 2,099 reported abortions in Lee County in 1998. Of those 2,028 were performed for non-medical reasons of personal choice. Last year in Collier County, there were 110 reported abortions, all for personal choice. While there are three to four known abortion providers in Lee County, Collier’s only known abortion doctor, Dr. Wallace McLean, stopped offering the service two years ago. Pickets protested outside his Naples clinic and his home, but he cited lack of support from the medical community as his reason for discontinuing abortions.
Some Naples protesters have continued outside Azima’s office, but the Fort Myers clinic has remained largely violence-free.
Lee County sheriff’s deputies responded to the clinic 56 times between April 1994 and May 25, 1999, for reasons such as trespassing, assistance and information. Recently, a deputy has parked outside Azima’s office on protest days. Protester Lawrence Atkinson said he calls sheriff’s office before demonstrating, especially since “the incident.”
The “incident” took place May 28 as Atkinson, 66, and Doherty prayed outside Azima’s office. Philip Allan Heim, 45, who lives near the clinic’s 3979 Northside Circle location, was arrested after he drove his 1994 Ford Probe onto the grass where the two sat, knocking Doherty from a lawn chair to the ground, according to sheriff’s reports. Those reports say Heim then exited his car, yelled at the men and grabbed them by their shirts.
Heim was charged with aggravated assault, misdemeanor battery and felony battery on a person over age 65.
Earlier, on May 13, Azima and Doherty fought in front of the clinic. Each pressed battery charges against the other. Doherty was issued a trespass warning ordering him not to go on Azima’s property.
Azima’s office has not been a casualty of severe violence, but Florida ranks as one of 12 states who’s clinics sustained violence in 1998, according to an annual clinic violence survey report by the Feminist Majority Foundation.
The survey states four of 32 Florida abortion clinic respondents suffered chemical attacks. Meanwhile, eight reported vandalism, five received bomb threats, three were blockaded and two were invaded.
The report states 63.5 percent of 351 nationwide respondents reported zero violence in 1998.
Local protesters say any violence outside Azima’s clinic is sparked by other people. They say they simply offer information – information that includes newspaper articles that list 10 complaints filed with the Florida Board of Medical Examiners against Azima between 1981 and 1989. The complaints include suspension of Azima’s license for one year in 1986 for instances like failing to recognize he had not terminated a pregnancy and burning a patient’s cervix by cleaning it with alcohol. Azima calls the suspension a “frivolous action,” and points to a page in a Johns Hopkins University textbook that recommends the alcohol cleaning he said he performed.
However, Char Wendel, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Collier County, said even the presence of non-violent protesters may scare women away from clinics.
“The reality is that women will continue to need to have abortion as an option,” she said. “If we continue to erode access to safe abortion, women will be forced to go to the back alley.”
Wendel said she receives 10 to 12 calls for abortion referrals each week as well as “a number” of calls from women asking about self-abortion methods.
Bernadette Reilly, an occasional protester and president and executive director of Right to Life of Lee County, disagrees that protests force women to terminate pregnancy illegally.
“We don’t want to intimidate. (Women) are not going to take our information if they feel that way,” she said. “Everybody here has more pleasing things to do than protest. It’s not easy to be here, but we have a commitment to try to help women and babies.”
Meanwhile, as protests continue outside the Fort Myers clinic as they do at clinics across the country, the number of abortions appears to be decreasing. According to Planned Parenthood statistics, the abortion rate decreased from 26 per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 1992 to 23 per 1,000 in 1996. During that time, the number of abortion providers fell 14 percent.
For protesters like Doherty, the small battles outside Azima’s clinic compose more than a war against abortion.
“This is spiritual warfare and the only weapons of spiritual warfare are prayers,” he said. “I’ll be here until the day I die or until this abortion clinic is no longer here.”