BEST OF INTENTIONS
Abortion Clinics Are Annoyed by Protesters. Pro-Choice Protesters.
By defying the clinics’ wishes, the protesters have formed their own radical wing of the pro-choice movement.
On a recent Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the Planned Parenthood in Madison, Wisconsin, for more than an hour, chanting, giving speeches, and occasionally raising their fists in the air. In their hands, they held a hot-pink and white banner reading, “We ❤️Abortion.”
They were members of Madison Abortion Defense, a group whose mission includes countering anti-abortion demonstrators outside clinics. The group is one of at least five similar organizations that have united to form the Movement for Abortion Defense coalition, dedicated to “opposing right-wing, anti-choice protests in the streets” and “reclaiming space and confronting antis at our clinics.”
There’s only one problem: Many of the clinics don’t want their help.
“In our experience, the way that patients experience counter-protesters is it’s just more bodies and more people with signs between them and getting the health care they need,” said Mel Barnes, the legal and policy director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. “We don’t think it’s productive because it tends to just stress patients out more.”
Other Planned Parenthood affiliates and independent clinics around the country agree. Last week, when the Movement for Abortion Defense published a manifesto on SocialistWorker.org, it was met with massive backlash in the reproductive rights community. Critics argued that the clinic defenders would only confuse patients, rile up anti-abortion protesters, and jeopardize the clinics’ relationship with local authorities. Others accused them of being selfish and putting their own interests above the patients.
The Daily Beast reached out to representatives for all six clinics where the Movement for Abortion Defense protests; four responded to say they discouraged counter-protesting.
“There are many places where we must make sure our voices are heard, and where we must show up and fight,” Ila Dayananda, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of New York City, said in a statement. “Saturday morning at our health centers is just not one of them.”
By defying the clinics’ wishes, the defenders have formed their own radical wing of the pro-choice movement. The members—many of whom worked for Planned Parenthood, NOW or other mainstream feminist organizations in the past—say they are frustrated by what they see as the pro-choice movement “ceding ground” to the right. They contend that the best way to combat anti-abortion activists is by taking the fight to them.
Much of that concern is grounded in very real issues. States have passed more than 400 abortion restrictions since 2011, and the number of abortion clinics fell in 2018 for the sixth year in a row. Eighteen states have laws on the books that could automatically restrict abortion access if Roe v Wade is overturned—a possibility that became more likely with Justice Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court last year.
To the clinic defenders, that is proof that the current pro-choice tactics aren’t working. Instead, they want to meet the anti-choice right at their level, protesting outside clinics with signs like “Free Abortion on Demand” and “Think Outside My Box.”
In New York, members of NYC for Abortion Rights crashed a pro-choice rally and laid under bloody sheets, symbolizing what would happen if abortion were outlawed. In Everett, Washington the Jane's Sidewalk Supporters for Choice protested a crisis pregnancy center fundraiser wearing Handmaid’s Tale outfits.
“People are just so sick of being told to donate money and to write to their legislators because it's not working,” said Michelle Farber, a member of Seattle Clinic Defense. “If you look at the history of how we actually have won any reforms in this country, it's come from long, long histories of grassroots struggle.”
“We think that this can be a part of rebuilding some sort of fighting abortion rights movement,” she said.
The debate over how best to defend clinics isn’t new. Since the late 1970s, when anti-abortion groups began physically protesting—and sometimes attacking—facilities, pro-choice groups have been torn between their desire to fight back and fear that it will upset patients.
In 1991, when an anti-abortion group mass-protested outside a clinic in Wichita, Kansas, clinic allies opted to leave defense to the police and private security. The protesters succeeded in shutting down the clinic for a week. The next year, when the same protesters headed to Buffalo, New York, they were met with massive counter-demonstrations by pro-choice activists who worked hand-in-hand with the clinics. This time, the clinics stayed open.
To this day, the Feminist Majority Foundation trains volunteers in clinic defense, including through peaceful demonstrations at consenting facilities. Other, more radical groups like Radical Women have also staged one-off counter-protests outside clinics that disagree with the practice.
Members of the Movement for Abortion Defense have thrust the conversation back into national news in recent years with their insistence on demonstrating outside clinics that rebuff them—sometimes as frequently as once a month.
NYC for Abortion Rights made national headlines when they staged an unsanctioned counter-protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Manhattan in 2017. Seattle Clinic Defense drew local media coverage last year, when an unsanctioned protest received thousands of RSVPs on Facebook.
An event page for the coalition’s upcoming Day of Action—their first coordinated effort as a group—has become a lightning rod.
“A lot of the protesters we have are really volatile,” said Amanda Reyes, a long-time Alabama clinic volunteer who recently aired her concerns on the event page. “These people who are coming to different clinics, they might not know what’s going on… They can really put a lot of people, including themselves, in danger and really jeopardize a situation.”
The groups counter this criticism by saying that they, too, are Planned Parenthood patients and former staffers, and that many of the staff support them—even if the management doesn’t. Faber said when she worked at Planned Parenthood in 2016, the staff would occasionally order lunch for the defenders.
Two Planned Parenthood employees on the East Coast told The Daily Beast they supported the idea behind the protests, but also worried about how they would affect patients. A third, an employee at the Margaret Sanger clinic, said she appreciated the thoughtful way NYC for Abortion Rights approached their protests, and wished Planned Parenthood would give them more leeway.
“I wish that it wouldn’t be a blanket rejection of counter-protesting,” she said. “It would be nice if there could be an elevated level of what they accepted or supported in front of the clinic, because right now that territory belongs to the protesters.”
Kelsea McLain, the outreach director at A Woman's Choice in North Carolina, used to feel that way, too. The Texas native is in charge of the clinic's escort program, which helps usher patients through the anti-abortion protesters. For years, McLain let the escorts be their own clinic defenders, arguing and yelling back at protesters whenever they caused a scene.
But about three years ago, the clinic adopted a non-engagement strategy. Within weeks, McLain said, they saw the number of protesters drop dramatically. She also noticed a change in how local police treated clinic escorts and employees, now that they’d distinguished themselves from the protesters. Calls about noise complaints and privacy violations were taken more seriously, she said, and even their relationship with the city improved.
“I think it’s funny that I’m the one talking about non-engagement because the rule I give our new volunteers is ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’” McLain said. ”I’m always the first one to run outside and argue with a protester.”
“But these are people that love contention and love the fight,” she added. “When you give them that fight, they recruit five of their friends to come with them the next weekend.”
Three states over, in Jackson, Mississippi, the situation looks different. Escorts at Jackson Women’s Health, the state’s last remaining abortion clinic, freely engage with the protesters who congregate there daily. (Or as clinic director Shannon Brewer put it, they just tell them to “fuck off.”)
Brewer, who has worked at the clinic for 18 years, said she supports her escorts in fighting back and stands behind the clinic defenders who rally outside the gates.
“Non-engagement does absolutely nothing,” Brewer said. “I really feel like the protesters work off of fear. If they feel like you’re scared if they feel like they’re intimidating you, that’s what they operate off of. But if they feel like they can’t intimidate you, then it makes it harder.”
The clinic defense groups say their demonstrations have already had a demonstrable effect. In Madison, clinic defenders protested the anti-choice 40 Days For Life event last fall, blasting music and chanting in the background of the rally. Their recent rally outside Planned Parenthood, with the “We <3 Abortion” banner, was supposed to be a counter-protest of the same event—but none of the anti-abortion activists showed up.
In Everett, organizers said only a handful of protesters turned out to a similar anti-abortion event this year, when usually there would be dozens. Since Seattle Clinic Defense started counter-protesting on Capitol Hill three years ago, Faber said the number of anti-abortion demonstrators outside the clinic has dropped from 20 to about five.
The defenders have also made some concessions. In New York, the counter-protesters have started singing protest songs instead of chanting, in hopes of seeming less threatening to patients. They’ve also started focusing their demonstrations on the church where anti-abortion activists gather, hoping to keep them from reaching the clinic at all. After the Seattle counter-demonstration went viral on Facebook, organizers moved it from the Planned Parenthood clinic to a local park.
In fact, Long said the recent debate over clinic defense has made her question her commitment to the tactic altogether. She worries that the focus on a singular, controversial strategy could overshadow her organization's real goal: galvanizing a grassroots abortion rights effort.
In an interview, Long heaped praise on clinic escorts and said she was hesitant to contradict anyone who worked at a clinic for that long. But she couldn’t hide her anger at the situation, and the feeling that something radical needs to be done to change it.
“I want to point out that the reality of the situation currently—which is that you need somebody's help to walk into a clinic to get a health care procedure—is so offensive to adult people who are going to get this care,” she said.
“You shouldn't have to be escorted anywhere. It's demeaning. We shouldn't accept this as a reality. We need to start thinking about how do we change this so that it's not the conditions anymore.”