When Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky announced the closing of its Fort Wayne office last week, officials said harassment and intimidation by anti-abortion activists prompted the decision.
But the closing of the office, which did not provide abortions, also put a spotlight on a strategy of a little-known group opposed to abortion – Created Equal of Ohio, based in Columbus – to target personally those the group considers abortion enablers.
Planned Parenthood officials last week said the name of the group – which has Fort Wayne ties, despite its location – was on a one-page leaflet they cited as an example of harassment.
Distributed in a Fort Wayne neighborhood, the leaflet included the name, address and picture of a Planned Parenthood-affiliated nurse practitioner, plus “statements she was enabling child-killing along with other negative comments.”
That's according to a report Fort Wayne police filed after responding to her complaint at Planned Parenthood's office at 3914 W. Jefferson Blvd.
The Jan. 26, 2017, report is the only one about harassment that police filed bearing that address in the last three years, according to Officer Michael Joyner, police spokesman.
The report says the woman was told to contact police if she feared for her safety and the FBI about a concern that someone had lifted her picture and personal information from her Facebook account. The report was sent to a police officer in the woman's neighborhood but does not indicate whether there was further investigation.
Mark Harrington, executive director of Created Equal, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that his group was responsible for the leaflet. He said it is part of a larger effort by the group called “Project Weak Link.”
“The idea here is that just like boycotts are effective for getting people and corporations to change their behavior, it's applying pressure on abortion providers, in this case ... what we call enablers to abortion, to cease doing what we oppose,” he said. “We apply public pressure or exposure.”
Harrington said since 2016, the effort has primarily targeted as “weak links” companies that dispose of medical waste from abortion facilities. “They are the ones who keep abortionists in business,” he said.
One such company, Stericycle, based in Illinois, sued Created Equal in 2016 after it distributed flyers with a picture of an aborted fetus and a photo of the company's chief executive officer stating he “enables baby killing.”
In a campaign similar to the one conducted locally, the leaflets were circulated in the executive's neighborhood, according to an online summary of the case. A vehicle with a similar message on it drove through his neighborhood.
An Illinois judge dismissed Stericycle's suit, which charged defamation, false-light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress on freedom-of-speech grounds, according to the summary.
Lawyers for Stericycle argued its contracts prohibited handling fetuses. They also said that provision had been disregarded or misinterpreted by clients and the company had ended relationships with ones that would not certify they did not engage in that practice.
The company reiterated that policy in an email to the Journal Gazette last week.
“For many years, Stericycle has required our health-care customers to agree to a stringent set of policies. These policies specifically prohibit the handling of fetuses by Stericycle. We work only with customers who certify that they understand, agree to follow, and do follow these policies,” the statement says.
Harrington, 58, said Created Equal considered the case a victory. He said the Fort Wayne leaflet did not rise to the legal definition of harassment as Planned Parenthood charged. He called it “constitutionally protected free speech.”
Created Equal is a nonprofit organization eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. It is Christian in orientation, he said, but casts arguments against abortion not in religious or theological terms but as human-rights issues.
He added that the Fort Wayne leaflet “wasn't coordinated with (Allen County) Right to Life,” adding the leaflet was the only such action in Indiana of which he was aware. Cathie Humbarger, director of Allen County Right to Life, last week said the group was not involved with the leaflet and does not engage in or condone “intimidation.”
However, Allen County Right to Life and Created Equal have informal ties.
According to Created Equal's website, four of its 12 listed leadership team members – Director of Training Seth Drayer, Administrative Director Rachel Burkey, Director of Outreach and Engagement Ian Spencer and Special Projects Coordinator Silas McCulfor – say they are from Fort Wayne or the Fort Wayne area.
Drayer, for example, is pictured online with Humbarger last July at an annual training session for young abortion opponents in Fort Wayne.
He was identified as a Created Equal staffer from Fort Wayne who took part in previous training sessions. Drayer also is listed as a trainer at this year's Life Defenders boot camp that took place Friday and Saturday at the University of Saint Francis.
“I've known Seth for a number of years, and the reason we have him is we teach apologetics at our life defenders camp. We teach students how to defend life in a gracious way ... and he's one of the best trainers there is,” Humbarger said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Planned Parenthood officials last week said Humbarger led an effort to convince a local real estate company not to assist the group in trying to find a new office – supplying screen shots of her Facebook pages showing her asking supporters to call a commercial real estate firm and ask whether Planned Parenthood was a client.
Humbarger acknowledged the pages were hers but said she did not consider the calls harassment or linked to Created Equal.
“When we think someone is helping an abortion provider, we ask people to help and call and ask. We always want to give the person we heard something about a chance to respond.”
Kristie Gillespie, Planned Parenthood's executive director, said Thursday the group was notified by the realty company “that they no longer wanted us as a client.”
Planned Parenthood was told last year its lease would not be renewed. It is now looking for a new office in Fort Wayne with a different company. Gillespie said she would not comment on that effort.
The closed office's shopping center, including Planned Parenthood's address, was listed last week as available for lease by the Bradley Company, Fort Wayne, on the popular online commercial real estate site LoopNet.com.
A grassy strip along the road in front of the center was frequently the site of antiabortion protests. However, police records show they responded to the Planned Parenthood address only four times in the last three years.
Along with the 2017 harassment complaint, other calls were for an alarm, a report of an out-of-county molestation and a suspicious person who was gone by the time police arrived.
Gillespie said the staff members have been told “your life will become unlivable in Fort Wayne” if they continued to work for the group. She said those subject to harassment might not use the office address to file a complaint – or might not file at all.
“You start thinking about reporting to police, and what else could happen and ... who else is going to be impacted,” she said. “You sometimes have to make that decision (not to report), unfortunately.”
She said the person identified on the leaflet left the agency and a new nurse practitioner was being trained. But the departure left an appointment backlog that could result in a month-long wait for an appointment. She said patients seen dropped from about 3,000 a year to 1,600 after the employee left.
Last week, potential clients were referred to Planned Parenthood offices in Mishawaka and Elkhart, neither of which provide abortions.
Gillespie said centers in Merrillville, Georgetown/Indianapolis and Bloomington still provide surgical and nonsurgical abortions. An office in Lafayette provides nonsurgical abortions only.
The Fort Wayne office was not licensed to provide either, Gillespie said.
It did provide contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases and some cancers, among other health services.
A group of about 50 people, many dressed in pink T-shirts, demonstrated in support of Planned Parenthood in front of the closed office Monday evening.
Demonstrations are also planned in front of the Women's Care Center, 921 Coliseum Blvd. W. at 9 a.m. July 23 and July 28, said Nancy Pearson of Fort Wayne, an organizer.
The demonstrations are to point out that although the center offers pregnancy tests, it does not offer the same range of health services as the Planned Parenthood office, she said in an email.