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Blue Mountain Clinic navigates trobled waters

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Anita Kuennen, executive director of Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic, delivers sentences with a mellow cadence and wry wit. Even when discussing the clinic’s status as a lightning rod for the abortion debate in western Montana, she maintains a measured tone.

Until, that is, the topic at hand is Montana’s potential to have the nation’s most comprehensive reproductive health care ban on the ballot in November. The initiative would declare that an egg becomes a human being at the moment of conception, rendering all abortions to be illegal.

“Sometimes I have to check myself from thinking, ‘How can people be so irrational that they would consider something like defining personhood at conception?’” Kuennen asks, incredulous. “We’re talking about something that’s so radically irrational that I think, ‘No, people in Montana can’t really go for that.’”

For Montanans on either side of the debate, 44,615 stands as the figure to watch. That’s the number of signatures abortion opponents must collect to get an amendment before voters that would enact a simple, but pivotal, change to the Montana constitution. If passed, measure CI-100 would extend rights to embryos and effectively outlaw abortion, stem cell research and more, depending on future court rulings.

Montana Right to Life director Greg Trude says his group does not keep an active tally of petition signatures. Rep. Rick Jore (C-Ronan), who introduced the legislation, did not respond to phone calls.

Lolo anti-abortion activist Marilyn Hatch, however, explains that supporters of CI-100 believe the measure will take the power out of the hands of activist judges on the Supreme Court. “I’ve seen pro-lifers compromise and compromise and compromise. I’m not about compromising,” she says. “It’s a line in the sand that has to be drawn.

“She’s against it I’m sure, because she gets paid to kill babies,” Hatch adds, referring to Kuennen. “The people who shed innocent blood in Missoula will be held accountable (by divine judgment).”

For those with less contentious vocations, the prospect of coming to work in such a hostile environment might prove overwhelming. But Kuennen, who has spent almost two decades working in reproductive rights, says she is quite accustomed to the gale.

“There are people who have the capacity to be in this environment. It can be invigorating; it can be exciting to be a part of something like this,” she says.

Kuennen started at Blue Mountain as a counselor 18 years ago, when she says vitriolic opposition characterized clinic life. Points in the clinic’s history offer not-so-subtle reminders of how quickly the debate can escalate. She was there in 1993, when former director Willa Craig took the job on a Friday only to learn the clinic had been destroyed by arsonist Richard Andrews before the weekend was out.

“That was probably more of a challenge than she thought she was going to take on,” Kuennen says dryly.

After Blue Mountain was rebuilt, Kuennen eventually ascended to director herself, serving from 1997-99 before going to work for the National Abortion Federation, a reproductive health care organization in Washington, D.C. When Kuennen re-inherited the clinic’s helm in May of 2007, much at Blue Mountain seemed in disarray. New staff struggled to adapt to the rigors of working amid the abortion maelstrom, she says. A new marketing scheme that emphasized primary care competed with other items on the clinic’s wish list. A major computer crash illuminated weaknesses in the billing system. To make matters worse, numerous members of the clinic’s board of directors were poised to move on.

“It was pretty dicey there for a while,” says former board member Laura Bender.

“My first impression, coming back, was that we looked like we were sort of taking the defensive posture,” recalls Kuennen. The new director decided to mark a change, starting with aesthetics, and tore down many of the tarps that once shrouded the perimeter of the California Street clinic. “The idea that we needed to hide what we were doing from the protesters just seemed [backwards],” she says.

Nine months later, Kuennen says she’s got the clinic house in order, but the challenges endure. One thing all abortion clinics face, she says, is the question of how to secure funding in the wake of Bush administration system cuts. Budget politics often force independent clinics to close or merge with Planned Parenthood. Behind it all, of course, sits a constant backdrop of protest, acrimony, and everything that comes with it.

“The truck out there, I think, speaks for itself,” she says, referring to a compact Nissan pickup parked across from the clinic and plastered with anti-abortion stickers, posters and slogans.

Hatch defends the truck and its message. The Blue Mountain Clinic employees “claim to be so pro-choice,” she says, “but then they want to pass a bubble law saying I can’t hand out a flier to the girls going inside. That’s the first amendment,” Hatch says. “They say it makes them feel threatened—well, what about the babies?”

Kuennen puts it in a national perspective. “This is what this particular type of health care entails,” she says.

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