The EMW Women's Surgical Center, the last remaining abortion clinic in Kentucky, is bracing itself for one of its biggest battles yet. On Saturday, anti-abortion zealots from all over the country, organized by an extremist Christian group called Operation Save America (OSA), will descend on the clinic for a week-long protest, coordinating with churches in the area.
The anti-abortion group has explicitly said their aims are to "shut down" the clinic and block patients from entering the facility. Ultimately, they want to make Kentucky the first state without an abortion clinic. "Please pray Kentucky makes history," Joseph Spurgeon, a local pastor with OSA, writes in a flyer for the gathering.
EMW has already faced a steady stream of protests as Republican Governor Matt Bevin has also made it clear he wants to eliminate abortion providers from the state. In addition to passing a bill that shames women by requiring doctors to show and narrate ultrasound images to pregnant women—even if a woman states that she does not want to see them—this year, Gov. Bevin blocked a new Planned Parenthood clinic from providing abortions and shuttered EMW's clinic in Lexington.
At what's now the only abortion clinic in Kentucky, which has also been threatened with closure, it's typical to see as many as 40 anti-abortion protestors on a given day, holding up graphic signs and shouting at women walking up to the clinic. Many protestors use cameras to record the patients. As a necessary safety measure, the clinic has dedicated volunteer escorts who help patients navigate the throng.
According to Meg Sasse Stern, a clinic escort at EMW, the actions of the protestors make patients feel scared, threatened, and unsafe.
"Women come into the clinic from so many walks of life, with so many stories. Many of the patients I see have traveled far to get their abortions. They've had to take extra time away from their work and their children, find transportation, and figure out how to pay out of pocket for care that isn't covered by their insurance," Dr. Ernest Marshall, owner of EMW, said in an ACLU press conference. "After overcoming so much to come to our clinic, are patients are forced to face a final obstacle: the excessive bullying and harassment by protestors outside the clinic… It's awful that they are subjected to surveillance and humiliation outside our doors."
After an incident in May, when ten OSA followers locked arms in front of the clinic's doors to physically block women from entering, EMW has tried to get the Louisville city council to institute a 20-foot buffer zone to protect the clinic and its patients from attacks. (Last week, someone tried to kick in the clinic's front doors after hours.) In advance of OSA's "national event," federal prosecutors are also seeking a court order to keep the clinic entrance unobstructed.
In city council meetings, Spurgeon has said even if the buffer zone is instated, he and the other protestors will not obey it. The national director of OSA, Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, has put it this way: "As God is our witness, we will never give up our duty to minister the Gospel of the Kingdom at the gates of hell."
"It's awful that they are subjected to surveillance and humiliation outside our doors."
EMW is expecting hundreds of protestors throughout the week. While the clinic is working with local law enforcement, the US Marshall's office, and has stepped up security to prepare for the protests, they have no intentions of shutting down.
The status of abortion rights in the state is dire. The fate of the EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville is the fate of reproductive rights for women in Kentucky.
"One year ago, the Supreme Court Ruled in Whole Women's Health vs. Hellerstead, that a woman should be able to get safe, legal, abortion care without substantial obstacles. Unfortunately, state politicians have not headed that ruling," Bridget Amiri, an attorney with the ACLU said. "Kentucky faces a perfect storm of attacks: A legislature that continues to pass ever more onerous restrictions on women seeking a abortion, a governor with a personal personal crusade to shut down every clinic in the state, and escalating protests that recently culminated in a blockade that prevented patients from entering the front door. Women in Kentucky already face too many barriers to obtaining abortion care, and if the last clinic is closed it would amount to a ban on abortion in the entire state."