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JOANNA WEISS

A voice of change on abortion

Todd Stave did not set out to be an activist. But because he is the son of an abortion provider, activists have thrust themselves upon him.

When he was 16, his father’s office was firebombed in the middle of the night. When he was in college, his father called and asked if his roommate could bring him a welder: Some protesters had broken through security and chained themselves to his operating table.

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And though Stave, now 44, grew up to become an airplane salesman and an energy entrepreneur, he inherited his father’s reproductive-health clinic in suburban Maryland. So when LeRoy Carhart — one of the few doctors in America who admits to performing late-term abortions — started working there, the protesters found Stave.

More specifically, they found his 11-year-old daughter. On back-to-school night last September, they showed up in front of her school, wielding a banner with Stave’s picture, name, and home phone number, along with the message, “Please STOP the Child Killing.”

Coincidentally, I went to the same school in Rockville, Md., years ago — and I can only imagine how I would have felt, at an age of deep and toxic self-awareness, to see that rhetoric applied to my own family. Stave’s friends and acquaintances sympathized, too. That night, they asked Stave what they could do to help.

That’s when Stave did something revolutionary: He told them to call the protesters back.

Stave’s idea has resulted in a nascent abortion-rights group called “Voice of Choice,” and it shines a light on a corner of the abortion debate that most of us, wringing our hands on the sidelines, never see. We read about broad political strategies, state-by-state attempts to legislate shame, cynical congressional dances over federal funding.

On the ground level, in the abortion debate, the battle has been one-sided.

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But underneath all that, there is a much more visceral game playing out on the ground level, between patients and doctors and business owners and a zealous core of protesters who believe that public shaming will help their cause. Sometimes, those activists can be vicious: They’ve door-dropped fliers around Stave’s neighborhood, featuring a doctored picture of Stave in a Nazi uniform. They’ve circulated fliers near his in-laws’ house, featuring dead-fetus photos and a high school picture of Stave’s wife.

But sometimes, the front-line protesters can be surprisingly polite. That’s what Stave learned about the people who started calling his house, at about the same time they showed up at his daughter’s school. Sometimes he’d get 30 to 50 calls a day: people asking him to shut down the clinic, and saying he was in their prayers.

“They really had my best interests in mind,” he said. “They wanted to make sure I was going to get to heaven.” They even offered their names and phone numbers, when he asked.

So he decided to treat them as human beings, too — people who would share that human desire for privacy, that unsettling feeling that comes when someone knows precisely where you live. Stave asked his volunteers to call each activist who had called him, offering thanks for the prayers, but adding that the clinic would stay open. There should be no arguments or anger, he said: “If you can’t be Christianlike in your demeanor, don’t participate.”

What he didn’t expect was the interest he would draw. Within 48 hours, he had about 5,000 volunteers. By now, 10,000 people have signed up. On his website, www.vochoice.org, he strategizes with other people who have been harrassed. Now, he’s trying to sustain the movement: I met him in Boston this week, where he had visited a donor.

Stave said he understands the roots of the support. On the ground level, in the abortion debate, the battle has been one-sided. Patients, going through their own private forms of hell, are expected to walk past screaming protesters and quietly take the abuse. “I’m the first organized group to ever fight back,” Stave said. “They have acted with complete impunity until I came along.”

Many longstanding abortion-rights groups have explicit non-engagement policies, he said, and that’s understandable: They don’t want things to escalate or people to get hurt. “The perception is that these people are crazy and violent,” Stave said. But with a few notable exceptions, he insists, “They’re not. They’re just crazy.”

Not too crazy to understand consequences, though. Because most of the calls to Stave have stopped.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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