North Dakota's Only Abortion Clinic to Close?


North Dakota's only clinic that performs abortions is in the middle of a battle over allegedly lapsed medical licensing for one or two of its doctors. And as usual, the size of the scandal depends on who is talking.

Via the Fargo In-Forum:

Fargo police are withholding details of their investigative findings into a Red River Women’s Clinic doctor with an expired license, saying it will be up to Birch Burdick to determine whether to file criminal charges.

Burdick, the Cass County state’s attorney, plans to review police reports, now complete, after officers inquired about Dr. Tami Lynn Holst Thorndike, a physician at the clinic whose North Dakota medical license expired June 30.

More than two dozen calls from the public were placed to police once it became known Thorndike’s license expired.

The downtown Fargo clinic is the only one in North Dakota that performs abortions. State law requires abortions be performed by a licensed physician, and failure to comply with the statute is a misdemeanor or felony.

Thorndike has active medical licenses in her resident state, Colorado, and in South Dakota. The investigation isn’t considered complete because it hasn’t been reviewed by prosecutors, and Police Chief Keith Ternes wouldn’t say late last week whether officers determined if Thorndike performed abortions in North Dakota after her license expired.

“We’re ready to forward our report to the state’s attorney’s office for review,” said Ternes, adding that the investigation was prompted last week when “a citizen brought it to our attention.”

Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women’s Clinic, would not disclose whether Thorndike performed abortions at the clinic after her license expired. Thorndike practices at the clinic six times a year and is not scheduled to return this year, Kromenaker said.

According to the Bismark Tribune, when medical lapses like these happen, the typical reaction is to get the licensing up to date, and possibly add a penalty to the proceedings.

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he has not dealt previously with possible criminal sanctions involving a medical license but has encountered the issue with nurses whose licenses had expired. In those cases, he said, warning letters were issued and no charges resulted.

Clinic director Tammi Kromenaker would not say whether the doctor performed abortions after her license expired. She said the clinic cooperated with the police investigation and that the doctor is working with the licensing board on a renewal.

"This is a paperwork matter and not a reflection of her abilities or competency as a physician," Kromenaker said. "She has never had a black mark on her record."

Duane Houdek, executive secretary of the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners, said the penalty for late license renewals is to pay triple the normal fee.

"From our point of view, a lapsed license is typically something that is taken care of administratively," he said.

But of course, this is North Dakota, the battleground for the Right to Life movement, and there is no calling them off if they smell even the slightest trace of blood in the water.  According to multiple reports, news of the license issue spread quickly via anti-choice protestor email groups, which resulted in dozens of calls to the police.

Tammi Kromenaker, the director of the Red River abortion center, the only one in the state, tried to dismiss any concern and told the Bismarck Tribune it was merely an “administrative oversight.”

“This is a paperwork matter and not a reflection of her abilities or competency as a physician,” Kromenaker said. “She has never had a black mark on her record. “I expect to have full resolution with no problem,” she said.

Still, pro-life advocates alerted state and local officials after an email bounced around local circles asking people to speak up once the information became known about the expired medical license. Local police received two dozen calls about the license.

And not to be outdone, Operation Rescue jumped on the chance to both file their own complaints, as well as conduct a "sting" on the clinic.

Operation Rescue received a tip that abortionists Lori Lynn Thorndike of Colorado and Miriam McCreary of Minnesota allowed their North Dakota Medical licenses to lapse on June 30, 2010. Operation Rescue immediately began to investigate.

An OR staffer posing as a potential abortion customer placed a phone call to RRWC on Friday, November 5, 2010. The caller specifically asked to be seen by "Dr. Thorndike."

"A friend of mine told me though about Dr. Thorndike. Said she was real helpful, so I was wondering if I could get her," said the caller.

The RRWC receptionist responded, "Okay, sure. Let me just put you on hold here. I'm gonna see what days we have available, and I'll be right back."

On Friday, the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners (NDBME) web site showed that Thorndike's and McCreary's medical licenses were on "Inactive - Expired" status. By Monday, record of Thorndike's license had been removed.

Operation Rescue has since filed a complaint against Thorndike and included a request to investigate the "emergency situation" that took place at RRWC on Friday afternoon. A copy of the phone call documenting the emergency was submitted as evidence. According to the receptionist, the undercover caller was told that there was an "emergency situation" that involved a woman who was sick and vomiting. The receptionist added that it was a "staff member" but that seemed suspicious in the context of the call. Operation Rescue believes the sick woman was more likely a patient suffering an abortion complication.

In a follow up call to the clinic about two hours later, another clinic worker answered the phone and told Operation Rescue's undercover investigator, who was still posing as an abortion patient, that the receptionist she had been speaking to earlier was not at the clinic. Calls to the county emergency communications department and a local ambulance company showed that an ambulance was not involved.

"We have reason to believe that the sick woman was transported to emergency care via personal vehicle so as not to call attention to the medical emergency," said Operation Rescue spokesperson Cheryl Sullenger.

"There is a real possibility that unlicensed abortionists may have botched an abortion and that the woman was placed in further jeopardy by clinic staff not calling an ambulance. If true, that means that the Red River Women's Clinic poses an immediate danger to the public and should be closed on an emergency basis pending further investigation."

How's that for detailed, evidence based, investigative work?  I highly recommend listening to their "phone call clips," that "prove" the story.

Obviously, finding a way to shut down the only clinic in a state would be a huge coup for the anti-choice movement.  The Red River Clinic was under a constant barrage of protest for the last month as a top target in the "40 Days" anti-choice demonstration. 

But rallying around a minor case of administrative oversight?  That's pretty desperate, even for the anti-choice movement.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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