Wake County

Can abortion foes and clinic be neighbors? Raleigh board will decide

Tonya Baker Nelson, executive director of Hand of Hope Pregnancy Centers, left, talks with Calla Hales, communication and budget coordinator for A Preferred Women's Health Center, center, during a comment period during a discussion of rezoning to allow Hand of Hope to have an office next door to A Preferred Women's Health Center during the Raleigh City Council regular session in the Council Chamber in the municipal building in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, June 21, 2016.
Tonya Baker Nelson, executive director of Hand of Hope Pregnancy Centers, left, talks with Calla Hales, communication and budget coordinator for A Preferred Women's Health Center, center, during a comment period during a discussion of rezoning to allow Hand of Hope to have an office next door to A Preferred Women's Health Center during the Raleigh City Council regular session in the Council Chamber in the municipal building in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, June 21, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

A Raleigh board’s interpretation over whether an anti-abortion group operates as a civic organization or a medical facility could determine whether the group can open an office next to an abortion clinic.

A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, which encourages alternatives to abortion, wants to open an office in a house at 1522 Jones Franklin Road. The house is next to A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Raleigh, which offers abortion services.

Hand of Hope already has an office less than half-mile away from the health center on Jones Franklin, but in December 2015 it bought the property next to the center in order to save money (Hand of Hope leases its current space) and to get it closer to potential clients.

At question is whether Hand of Hope is qualified under city codes to open an office on the property next to the health center. Civic groups, unlike medical facilities, are allowed under city rules to operate offices on residential property.

Video: Citizens on both sides of the issue speak on zoning request by Hand of Hope Ministry, an anti-abortion group, during the Raleigh City Council meeting on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. Hand of Hope owns the property next to Preferr

In November, city staff deemed Hand of Hope to be more of a civic group than a medical facility based on its religious affiliation and lack of staff with medical training.

City codes allow residents to appeal city staff’s zoning interpretations to the Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial panel of Raleigh and Wake County residents responsible for interpreting zoning regulations. So last week, The Schnider Group LLC, which owns A Preferred Women’s Health Center, filed an appeal with the city. The city hasn’t posted a hearing date.

The health center’s appeal is the latest development in an ongoing debate over land rights and community values that started nearly nine months ago after Hand of Hope announced its intentions to move.

We’re very clear on what our role is. We’re not trying to be something we’re not.

Tonya Baker Nelson, Hand of Hope’s executive director

On its website, Hand of Hope says it offers pregnancy tests, tests for sexually transmitted diseases and non-diagnostic ultrasounds. The health center, unlike city staff and Hand of Hope, considers those services to be medical in nature.

“These are all medical diagnostic tools which should be performed in controlled settings by trained staff,” Calla Hales, the center’s spokeswoman, wrote in its appeal.

“Additionally, Hand of Hope states that they provide ‘non-diagnostic ultrasounds’ to show expectant mothers an ‘image of a child’s beating heart or fingers and toes,’ which is contradictory – providing a woman with information about fetal viability is, in fact, a diagnostic tool,” Hales wrote.

Hand of Hope’s move could also worsen traffic and enable activists to block access to the health center’s facility, Hales wrote.

Medical director

Hand of Hope lists Dr. Greg Brannon, a local obstetrician and political activist, as its medical director. But it’s unclear how many tests and ultrasounds Hand of Hope administers, or how much time Brannon spends at the facility.

In filling out city paperwork for its code interpretation, Hand of Hope attorneys declined to answer such questions, saying it doesn’t provide medical treatment, care or drugs, and that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the city from regulating the group’s “speech activities based on their content or viewpoint.”

Tonya Baker Nelson, Hand of Hope’s executive director, on Monday reiterated her claim that Hand of Hope employees don’t participate in protests or block access to the health center. She disputed the claim that using an ultrasound constitutes a medical procedure.

“We’re not making a medical diagnosis. We don’t say ‘You’re pregnant.’ We say you’ve had a positive pregnancy test,” she added. “We’re very clear on what our role is. We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”

Nelson also clarified that Hand of Hope’s staff doesn’t perform or interpret STD tests. Its facility is merely a site where Wake County health officials sometimes administer STD testing.

“We don’t collect the samples. We don’t get the results,” Nelson said. “We’re just a testing site for Wake County.”

Initially, the city told Hand of Hope that it would need to rezone the property next to the health center. Per protocol, Hand of Hope asked the Raleigh City Council to rezone its property – a request council members unanimously denied in July.

Tonya Baker Nelson, executive director of Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, was shocked after the Raleigh City Council denied her group's request to conduct business in the house it owns next to an abortion clinic.

In August, Hand of Hope filed a federal lawsuit against the city saying the council violated the First and 14th amendments of the Constitution by denying the group’s right to free speech, religion and equal treatment under the law.

Hand of Hope in September then asked city staff to review how the organization is classified in city codes. The city earlier this year considered Hand of Hope to be a medical facility but, upon further review, reinterpreted the group as a civic organization – an interpretation that enables Hand of Hope to open an office next to the health center without rezoning the property.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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