Voice of Choice: Landlord Counters Harassment from Abortion Protesters by Turning the Tables on Them

Pro-life activists protest at the March for Life rally in January in Washington, DC. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty …Todd Stave understands why protesters target the clinic he leases to a late-term abortion provider in Germantown, Maryland. He owns the building, not the business inside it, but still: Even though the protesters' signs are graphic and disturbing, and even though does not agree with the point they're trying to make, he acknowledges that they should be able to protest his tenant's work.

[Related: Georgia lawmaker counters abortion bill with one restricting vasectomies]

"Totally appropriate. It's their right," he told Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak. "They are protected by the First Amendment. And outside the clinic is probably the most appropriate place for them to express their views."

But when the protesters showed up at his daughter's middle school in Rockville, Maryland, last September, they took things too far.

One large banner featured his photo, his name, his phone number, and the words "Please STOP the Child Killing" -- even though he's the clinic's landlord, not the doctor. The posters didn't name his children but, since they share his last name, it's an easy connection to make. (Since the protesters did not set foot on school property -- though their graphic signs and photos of mangled fetuses were visible to students -- the presence was not against the law.)

"It's horribly outrageous that they're going out in front of a middle school," he told The Washington Post at the time. "It is way crossing the line. I very much respect the right of the protesters to do so in front of the clinic, or the steps of Capitol Hill, or the courthouse. But in front of a middle school is really not an appropriate place to do anything except protest for better teacher wages or the school budget."

Harassing children in the name of protecting the unborn? Maybe. Jack Ames, the director of Baltimore-based Defend Life, which organized that protest, told the Washington Post that he thought the middle school was "a very good public venue" and complained that picketing the clinic Stave owns is difficult because it's located inside a private office park. Though some protesters showed up on the first day of school, others picketed the school after hours, during parent-teacher night.

Soon after that, Stave started receiving dozens of harassing phone calls at home, day and night. Rather than bowing to demands that he terminate Dr. LeRoy Carhart's lease, he wrote down the names and numbers of the people calling him -- and then he and about 20 friends started calling them back. Politely.

"In a very calm, very respectful voice, they said that the Stave family thanks you for your prayers," he told The Washington Post. "They cannot terminate the lease, and they do not want to. They support women's rights." Stave's supporters did their research: During these calls, they would politely ask how the anti-abortion protester's children were doing and mention their names and the names of their schools if they could find that information easily. "And then," Stave explained, "we'd tell them that we bless their home" and mention the protester's address.

At first, only a handful of friends were making the calls on Stave's behalf. But more and more people offered to help. Soon, more than 5,000 volunteers were returning the harassing calls with polite words of thanks, and Stave founded Voice of Choice so they could help do the same for others.

"We use email, telephone, and social media in peaceful, person-to-person counter-protests against groups that target abortion facilities, providers, and patients, as well as their families and communities," the group's website explains. "We don't question anyone's right to express opinions and ideals; we challenge their bullying tactics and their contempt."

Still, some anti-abortion protesters are chafing at Stave's tactics. A member of Operation Rescue told LifeNews.com that he received "over a hundred text messages in a 48 hour period by a phone number originating from Stave's area code" (he does not mention how Stave obtained his phone number). A website called WhoisToddStave.com (which was taken down sometime in late March, but is still available in Google's cache), uses language and videos that are nearly identical to what Operation Rescue president Troy Newman told LifeNews.com. The Colorado Coalition for Life put a positive spin on Stave's counter-protest, calling his supporters heathens and calling the phone calls "an awesome opportunity to share the Gospel with the lost."

Michael Martelli, the head of the Maryland Coalition for Life, told Yahoo! Shine that Stave called him at home last September.

"I received several phone calls, the first of which was from Todd Stave himself," Martelli said in an interview on Wednesday. "He called my home and spoke with my wife. He spoke to her by name and asked if he could speak with me."

Martelli wasn't home at the time, but says that Stave left a message for him with his wife. "He said her name and the names of my two boys, and said, 'If you would like any peace in your life, you need to make sure this stops.'"

Martelli says he received several other calls after that, all within three or four days, all from Stave's volunteers. "We had polite conversations," he said. "They did reference names of family members and such."

Martelli said that his organization did launch a campaign against Stave in September 2011, but that campaign was focused exclusively on Stave and did not involve his family members in any way. "Todd Stave is not an innocent landlord in this deal," he said. "He's a 50 percent owner in the abortion facility." Of the more "questionable and controversial tactics" like picketing the school, Martelli said, "We have not participated in those types of activities at all. But we certainly do support and encourage the vigil that takes place on the public sidewalk at the abortion facility."

Stave -- whose father, a doctor who performed abortions, used to run a women's reproductive health clinic on the property Stave now leases to Carhart -- is clear about which side of the abortion debate he's on. "I've been a member of this fight since Roe v. Wade, since I was 5 years old," he said. He says that he's glad that the personhood bills in Mississippi and elsewhere have failed because it shows that, in spite of what conservative lawmakers may think, "the majority of voters want to see women's rights preserved."

Still, "We must all respect the process," Stave wrote in a letter on the Voice of Choice website. "The people who started and supported the [personhood] initiative should be recognized for trying to effect change in their communities in a legal and proper manner. They were not violent, and they did not infringe on the rights of others."

Thanks to the thousands of polite phone calls, the harassment by phone has stopped. But anti-abortion groups continue to target Stave and his family: While he was out of town in mid-March, his Rockville neighborhood and his sister's in Potomac were papered with flyers comparing him to Hitler, featuring color photographs of bloody, dismembered fetuses and Holocaust victims hanging from nooses. (You can see the flier here, but be warned: The images are extremely disturbing.)

When protesters turn to terrorist tactics -- police are investigating a small, homemade bomb that exploded outside the Appleton Health Center, a Planned Parenthood affiliate, on Sunday night -- do they undermine their message? What do you think Stave's kinder, gentler counter-protest?

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