An unassuming Manassas office park on Forestwood Lane once served as a flashpoint in the abortion debate, with an abortion clinic and a center designed to dissuade women from choosing the procedure sitting side-by-side in a squat, brown building.
These days, both businesses are gone, and it’s been years since crowds of protesters packed the clinic parking lot.
But recent changes have put the building back in the spotlight. A Catholic charity has opened a free medical clinic in the office that once housed one of Northern Virginia’s only abortion providers, and questions persist about how local abortion opponents engineered that change.
The Amethyst Health Center for Women once served about 1,200 patients each year before its owner shut its doors in September 2015. By February 2016, The Washington Post discovered that a Catholic foundation had bought Amethyst and promptly began forwarding callers looking for the clinic to the AAA Women for Choice Pregnancy Center, the anti-abortion center next door to Amethyst’s old space.
The office stood empty until this December, when its new owner — the BVM Foundation — partnered with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington to rechristen the space as the “Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic.”
The charity began accepting low-income patients Dec. 6; AAA Women for Choice shut its doors two days later.
“We just want to transform this place that was once a place of pain and death into a place of life,” said Dr. Scott Ross, a deacon at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville who serves as the clinic’s medical director.
Jim Koehr, the secretary/treasurer of the BVM Foundation, similarly sees Amethyst’s conversion to the Mother of Mercy clinic as “a local story of redemption.”
Women’s health advocates, however, aren’t so sure.
“I’m always a big advocate for people being able to have more healthcare, but unfortunately, women tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to their health,” said Tarina Keene, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “This Catholic charity almost certainly won’t be providing birth control options. And if a woman does show up there who has an unplanned pregnancy and needs to know what all of her options are from a medically accurate standpoint, she’s not going to get that information she needs to make an informed choice.”
Keene is also frustrated that the clinic’s former owner felt “duped” into selling the space to Koehr and his colleagues at BVM, given the group’s antiabortion views.
The Catholic foundation’s backers forcefully argue that they were fully transparent with Amethyst’s owner about the transaction, though the former owner ardently disputes this version of events — Amethyst’s one-time owner requested anonymity for this story after years of death threats due to her association with the clinic, relaying her views to Keene in lieu of commenting on the record.
“She felt really awful and terrible about how things happened,” Keene said.
AN ACRIMONIOUS ACQUISITION?
BVM’s backers believe they did nothing wrong in acquiring the former clinic and re-engineering the space, arguing that their actions have been distorted by both the Post and advocates like Keene.
Sean Garvey, the BVM Foundation’s chairman and one of its original founders, said the sale only came about because a man who once spent weeks protesting outside the abortion clinic managed to befriend Amethyst’s then-owner. She was contemplating retirement after running the clinic with her husband for nearly 30 years, and she expressed a willingness to sell the space in conversations with the protester.
Garvey said he was soon looped into these discussions, and he rounded up other Catholic entrepreneurs in the area who were interested in shuttering the clinic. Koehr estimated that about “seven to 10” donors from around the county chipped in the bulk of the building’s $360,000 sale price, and they formed the BVM Foundation — using an acronym for “Blessed Virgin Mary” — to formally take over the space.
Garvey said he repeatedly spoke with Amethyst’s owner during this process, making it clear that his group wanted to see the clinic closed, even bringing in an anti-abortion obstetrician (who knew its then-owner) for a walk-through of the building as BVM pondered what it might do with the space. “I promise you; we were not duplicitous,” Koehr said.
Keene says Amethyst’s owner remembers the process quite differently. As she told the Post in 2016, she insists she handed the sale process off to real estate agents, and only ever met lawyers representing the prospective buyers, who, she believed, were medical office investors.
“The day after she signed on the dotted line, she found out it was an anonymous Catholic charity that actually bought it,” Keene said. “In fact, I tried to get her to file a lawsuit against her real estate company at the time, because she had stipulations about who she’d sell to when she engaged with them, and she basically felt tricked.”
Garvey conceded that there were “a lot of lawyers” involved in the negotiating the sale, which is the only way he can imagine any confusion arose.
Koehr also noted that the group of investors only formally became the BVM Foundation relatively late in the process, as they weighed what sort of organizational structure would best suit their purposes.
“She was unclear on our plans, so she didn’t know what would happen afterwards,” Garvey said. “But that wasn’t part of the conversation. The conversation was: We’re buying this after it’s shut down, because we want it shut down, and that’s all you need to care about. She knew who it was.”
However, Koehr doesn’t dispute one key part of the Post’s story. When asked if his group kept Amethyst’s phone line active in order to forward calls to AAA Women for Choice, his answer was simple: “Of course.”
“Think of the desperate place a woman has to be in to call an abortion clinic, and just because an abortion clinic shuts down doesn’t mean that those women stop existing,” Koehr said. “We wanted to make sure that someone was answering the phone: someone who cared. [The Post] painted it as this duplicitous thing, but we’re doing it out of love for these women.”
Keene can’t help but feel that such a practice was quite deceptive, noting that it’s a “tactic we’ve seen across the country” of abortion opponents directing women seeking an abortion to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” designed to urge them not to terminate their pregnancies.
Staff at AAA Women for Choice didn’t return calls seeking comment — a voicemail at the center said it formally ceased operations on Dec. 8 — but they described a series of their tactics to the Post last year, which included showing women graphic videos of abortions or telling women that receiving an abortion will make it harder for them to get pregnant in the future.
MOTHER OF MERCY’S FUTURE
The debate over how BVM acquired Amethyst aside, Koehr hopes the new free clinic can become “something good” for the community. He said BVM settled on Catholic Charities as a partner for the effort because the group would be able to offer basic medical care for the uninsured, and also connect people to its other offerings, like “adoption services, food, mental health counseling and immigration and refugee services.”
Ross said Mother of Mercy will be the group’s first such free clinic in the area, and they are aiming to serve “25 to 30 people” each week. The clinic is currently staffed by volunteers (including a handful of local doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners) so it’s only open one night a week, and they offer a range of “general adult medical services.”
“We know that we’re going to be a small portion of satisfying the need here,” Ross said. “We know we aren’t the whole solution yet. We may never be, but our goal is to see where God guides us.”
Ross said he even hopes to offer some limited geriatric services through work with other local doctors, not to mention providing care for pregnant women. In a roundabout way, AAA Women for Choice will be helping with that effort.
Will Waldron, the executive director of Divine Mercy Care, said his nonprofit will pay for one pregnant woman each month from Mother of Mercy to receive treatment at the Tepeyac OB/GYN Clinic, the anti-abortion care provider that Divine Mercy Care raises money to support. Waldron said the bulk of the money for that effort will come courtesy of AAA Women for Choice, as its owner plans to sell the building in the coming months and donate the profits to Divine Mercy Care.
“When the abortion clinic next door went away, the demand for AAA had gone down so significantly,” Waldron said. “So it made some sense for them to move on and direct their resources into a similar mission to help women in need.”
Waldron sees this new effort as evidence that things have “come full circle” for Amethyst, painting it as a result to be celebrated for the community.
But Keene can’t help but lament what’s become of the clinic, as access to abortion continues to erode around the state.
“Our abortion providers perform an amazing service for women in the commonwealth...but they continue to have to close their doors,” Keene said.