“It Was Just One Thing After Another”

An abortion provider on his four-month ordeal to reopen the only clinic in northern Alabama.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Anti-abortion activists gather outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Currently, 23 states across the country have passed laws to force abortion providers to meet strict and medically unnecessary building codes and regulations in order to terminate pregnancies. From Pennsylvania to Texas, these laws have sought to close clinics under the guise of creating “safer” environments for the already safe process of ending a pregnancy.

But what is it actually like to try to get a clinic up to these new standards? We spoke to Dalton Johnson, owner of Alabama Women’s Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. Due to the new requirements in his state, Johnson’s clinic, the only provider in northern Alabama, had to close its doors at the end of June. Johnson expected to reopen quickly in a new location, with a building that would adhere to the new standards. Instead, his clinic was closed for almost four months, finally reopening on Oct. 15. We talked to Johnson about his battle with the city to get the clinic back up and running in the new location, the embrace of his community, and how northern Alabama almost lost its right to accessible abortion all because of a staircase.

Slate: While you were closed, what was happening to the women who still needed abortions? What were they doing instead?

Dalton Johnson: People were still calling. You felt bad for them, telling them that they had to go to Tuscaloosa or Montgomery, or sometimes Nashville, Tennessee. They would say, “I just can’t take two days off of work and then drive 200 miles.” That’s what people don’t get. Not only are you driving 200 miles one way, but you have to do it twice, or even three times if you go for a follow-up appointment. That’s what people are doing. Even in Texas, I don’t think they make that point stand out enough. With a 48-hour waiting period in Alabama, you can’t even stay overnight. Some patients used to stay overnight and do two consecutive appointments with a 24-hour wait, but with a 48-hour waiting period, that pretty much ended that.

Slate: Why exactly did your clinic have to move in the first place?

Johnson: The clinic on Madison Street was a two-story facility. However, the second story was only my office—the administrator’s office—and storage. No patient care ever took place upstairs. My building was only around 3,000 square feet, and 2,000 was patient care downstairs, 1,000 was upstairs—my private office and the storage. I had two staircases to the upstairs. I had one staircase that met code, which emptied out into the foyer and then out the door. I was just going to have to make that staircase go directly outside. Then I had the other staircase—a spiral staircase—down to the patient care area. The architects said that one would have to go directly to the outside. So I would have to put two new staircases into the building, and that would have torn up the design of the building and made it not functional. They said we would have to put in a new fire alarm system, with pull stations, like they have in schools, and we were fine with that. But they also wanted to have me install a new sprinkler system since it was a two-story.

Slate: The legislators who approved these new requirements said this all had to do with patient safety?

Johnson: Right. Even though no patient care took place upstairs. It was totally ridiculous. They were going to have me put in two staircases for me to exit my own office, for me to exit outside. They wanted us to put the sprinkler system in. All these things that had nothing to do with patient safety. We kept on submitting plans and suggestions to the architects, and they kept getting shot down. At that point we were running out of time, and the architects said, “Look, Dalton, to do this we are talking about a quarter of a million dollars. In addition to that, you are going to have to totally tear up the office.” We had actually gotten the fire department to come out and do a waiver on the sprinkler system, because in the safety code, if you are under 5,000 square feet and the local fire department comes out and sees that you have good egress to the building, then they can give you a waiver. However, the state declined to accept that waiver from the local fire marshal. When that happened, that’s when we looked at purchasing the building we just opened in now.

Slate: You had to shut down your original clinic and let that license go in order to start the process to license the new building. How long did you think that process was going to take?

Johnson: We were thinking that this would take about 30 days to remodel and then get the license. Instead it took about four months.

Slate: Did it take so long because of the remodeling or the relicensing?

Johnson: This was all the state foot-dragging. It was just one thing after another. The state finally came out and did their inspection. Then they kept going on about the fire alarm system. One thing after another. It was very frustrating. The architect and the fire alarm company said they had never seen anything like it, that they had done hundreds of these, and in this case the state was even looking at the functionality of the system, and a representative from the company actually had to call them and say, “You know, these fire alarm systems have been put in hundreds of buildings.” It was one thing after another.

Slate: And there were anti-abortion protests happening the whole time, at both locations?

Johnson: Oh yes, and there still are. Judge Thompson [the judge who stayed Alabama’s admitting privileges regulation, stating that it is too difficult in a state where doctors who provide abortions are often threatened with harassment and violence] is right. What they are doing now is basically attacking any physician who is associated with the clinic. Dr. Robinson [one of the clinic’s abortion providers] has an OB-GYN office. They protested out in front of her office the whole time the clinic was shut down. You have full-term pregnant women coming in for their prenatal care, and they are sitting out there protesting. They protest the hospital, too. They tried protesting the school nearby the new clinic, but that didn’t go over too well. The people in the community got angry about that one. They did that for maybe a week and then they got so much blowback from the community that they stopped that.

Slate: I understand part of the delay was a battle in the city council over a zoning variance for the clinic. What happened there?

Johnson: On the street we are on, there is a dentist’s office, a real estate office, a chiropractor, a closed bank. That whole strip of land is zoned for residential, but it should have been rezoned a long time ago for commercial and medical. What they did was instead, every time someone built something new, they got a variance. In our building, a doctor took over at one point, and then Dr. Robinson took over under the same variance. As soon as I bought the property and said I was putting the clinic there, suddenly there was a challenge to the zoning and an argument against the zoning variance. Even though we are licensed by the state of Alabama Department of Health, they tried to claim that an abortion clinic is not a medical facility. We do pap smears and a number of other medical services there, but they still tried to say we weren’t a medical facility.

They came up with every argument they could think of. They said it would be a disruption to the schools or to the community. Nobody would even know that the building that we were in was even doing abortions if it weren’t for the pro-life activists outside of it. They are the only ones out there protesting.

The neighborhood hasn’t done anything. The only one who opposed us was the chiropractor down the street, who was supposedly challenging the zoning ordinance, but he didn’t even show up for the meeting. I don’t know how involved he even is in the suit, since he wasn’t even there.

Slate: When the city council agreed to discuss the variance, anti-abortion activists showed up with a petition allegedly signed by local community members that said they didn’t want you in the neighborhood. Now that you’ve been open for a bit, how has that community reacted to you?

Johnson: They said the community was so involved, but every time they had a community meeting, it was almost always just the anti-abortion people, no one else. There might be three or four people from the community, but mostly no one was showing up. We haven’t had any community members say anything since we’ve opened up. The people in the dentist’s office next door have been very supportive of us, and the woman with the real estate office has been, too. People in the neighborhood walk by and say hi. We’ve had no blowback from the community.

All of those people on the petition are people who are not connected to the neighborhood. They had someone come in from Cullman, Alabama, a black man, speaking out against it.* It was offensive to me, as an African-American man myself, to be told that I was taking advantage of the black community. Madison Street is in one of Huntsville’s most expensive ZIP codes. One block over is the historic district, where you can’t get a home for under $800,000. To say that I am a black man, taking advantage of my community, is just offensive. But that’s just how low they will go.

Slate: You’ve been very public as a clinic director. Have you yourself been targeted at all by the protesters?

Johnson: Yeah, I’ve been through all of that before. I’m really cautious now.  Protesters are just a constant thing—they’ll show up at the office constantly. That part of the harassment never ends.

Slate: How did you finally get the clinic open?

Johnson: The zoning board went by the letter of the law. They said there have been three doctors in the building, and we can’t change precedent now. The precedent has been set. People aren’t going to buy a building if they have to worry about going back in front of the zoning board every time. That’s just crazy. They just stuck with the letter of the law, which was the right thing to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

Correction, Oct. 28, 2014: This article originally misspelled the city of Cullman, Alabama. (Return.)