By Deborah Oyer
Two years ago, my landlord told me he wouldn’t be renewing the lease for my medical practice when it expired in June 2002. I naively assumed this wouldn’t be a problem. With a weakening economy and plenty of medical and commercial space available, surely I’d be able to find a good home for my business. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My business, Aurora Medical Services, provides women’s reproductive health services. More specifically, we are one of the leading abortion providers in Washington state. We do this proudly and openly. As a result, we were almost run out of town.
Friends in the abortion community across the country warned me that it wouldn’t be easy to find new space. Oh no, I told them, Seattle is a very progressive town; I won’t have any trouble. During the two years I worked to find a new site, I was shocked to find the extent of overt discrimination here.
Right off the bat I identified a great space in a medical building in the Northgate area. I informed them of the nature of my practice. The owner and I agreed on the price and terms of the lease. Right before signing, the questions began. “How many abortions do you perform in a year?” “How much of your practice is abortion related?” The building owner withdrew his offer.
Space in a nearby building was available. After agreeing to general terms with the owner, questions and comments arose. “How long have you served on the board of the National Abortion Federation?” “I see that you lecture on abortion at UW Medical School.” “Your Web site shows you provide information for women considering abortion.” His interest in my work was narrow. I was never asked about my tenure on the alumni board of Harvard Medical School or my community involvement. This building owner, too, withdrew the lease.
This scene played out again and again. Owners typically wanted to meet with me to discuss their concerns. “How often have there been protesters at your clinic?” “Can you assure me there won’t be any demonstrations near my premises?” Three more rejections ensued. Most of these spaces remain unoccupied today.
One of Seattle’s leading hospitals had the perfect space in a great location for my practice. The hospital flatly refused to deal with me. Shocked, I made appeals to its officers and directors to no avail. I began to worry I wouldn’t find space anywhere. I extended my search to a larger geographical area and to buildings that weren’t built for medical use. Open discrimination thwarted every option.
After 18 months of searching, I became desperate and made an offer to lease space in Gateway Center, a largely vacant shopping plaza at 183rd Street and Aurora Avenue. The owners agreed to lease us an empty shell that we would need to convert to medical space. The lease was signed in December 2001.
For the next few months, I worked with architects, construction companies and the Shoreline permit office. The timeline was very tight and I worried that the construction wouldn’t be complete before my existing lease expired. In late March, we finally received our permits and were set to begin construction. Then the building owners changed their minds.
Attorneys for the owners threatened to sue us to terminate the lease. They charged that we hadn’t been sufficiently explicit about the problems associated with housing an abortion clinic. They criticized us for not disclosing that “other landlords declined to lease to Aurora.”
Attorneys at the Northwest Women’s Law Center assured us that our lease was solid and we would win the case in court. On principle, we wanted to fight Gateway’s discriminatory actions. However, we didn’t want to jeopardize the important services Aurora Medical Services provides for countless women. A protracted legal battle might risk a temporary closure of the practice.
In May, we were able to find space in a wonderful medical building at the corner of Broadway and Madison Street in Seattle, with welcoming owners. We reached an out-of-court settlement with the owners of Gateway Shopping Center. Our abortion and reproductive health services continued without interruption at the new site in July.
Although we were able, finally, to find new space, our two-year struggle serves as a reminder that the battle for abortion rights in Seattle is being fought every day. Anti-abortion scare tactics are restricting services. This nation won the right to a legal abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973. With the passage of Initiative 120 in 1991, these rights were codified in state law.
Now the right to a safe, legal abortion is being threatened in a more insidious manner. We can’t afford to let up. The battle to protect a woman’s right to choice is a never-ending one.
Deborah Oyer, M.D., owns Aurora Medical Services, which is hosting an open house at its new site (1001 Broadway) from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21. The public is welcome.