In late February, at a town hall in Tennessee, a visibly nervous young woman stood up to confront Rep. Marsha Blackburn. From the crowd, facing her representative, she described the circumstances that had caused her to first visit Planned Parenthood. Community health centers had turned her away when she was a working, uninsured college student seeking health care: "I couldn't go anywhere else," she recalled, her voice swelling with emotion.
Planned Parenthood, unlike the rest of the providers she tried, was able to provide her with a free pap smear; a week later, it came back abnormal. "I had to get a colposcopy right away," she said, crediting the organization with saving her life. "I understand that [Planned Parenthood] provides abortion services, but we are not the only abortion clinic that exists… What do you have to say to the 2.5 million people who go to Planned Parenthood every year and depend [on it] for their live-saving care?"
Blackburn thanked the woman for being "courageous" in telling her story, but said she "stands firmly in my belief that taxpayer funds ought not to be used for abortion services." Members of the crowd immediately rebuked her—"They're not!" they said loudly—but Blackburn ignored the outburst and repeated herself: "I stand firm in that belief."
Though Blackburn was fairly unreceptive to her constituents, she at least agreed to actually face them. Dozens of protesters who showed up at Republican Rep. Rick Allen's office in Augusta, Georgia, last weekend weren't so fortunate—Allen refused to see them as they stood outside his office, and the building's owner eventually called the police, who asked the group to move to nearby public property.
Despite being invited by the rally's organizers to meet with his constituents, Allen did not attend. A chair reserved for him sat empty in front of the building.
Alyssa Harris, an educator, was there, though, carrying a sign that echoed the sentiments of similar gatherings across the country. "Take politics out of health care," it read. She said she was also there as a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood. "It's frustrating to me that people are uneducated about what Planned Parenthood does," she told Broadly. "We saw our Planned Parenthood in Augusta get shut down [last year]. And the day it shut down, there was a rally out there. People who saw it just as an abortion clinic, they were celebrating, but really it was a sad day because a lot of those women had to find somewhere else to get those vital health care screenings and services."
"I don't think a room full of men should be making choices about women's bodies," she continued. "I want my daughter to be able to grow up in a world where she can make her own decisions about her body—not be shamed if she decides to have an abortion, not be shamed for partaking in birth control."
I don't think a room full of men should be making choices about women's bodies.
Saturday's rallies followed a week of civic action across the country, as members of Congress returned home on their first legislative session recess of the year. Across the country, tens of thousands of people flooded town halls and government buildings to protest the current administration's agenda and show support for Planned Parenthood, which GOP lawmakers have threatened to cut off federal dollars. (A leaked draft of House Republicans' bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act includes a provision that would block Medicaid reimbursements to organizations that provide abortions—despite the fact that only three percent of the Planned Parenthood's health services are abortion services.)
Kelley Robinson, assistant director of youth and campus engagement for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says the message coming out of last week's town hall meetings was clear: "There's a price to pay when legislators mess with Planned Parenthood and women's access to health care."
In Nevada, for example, one young woman cornered Sen. Dean Heller outside of a private luncheon last week to ask him if he planned to defund Planned Parenthood. "I don't have a problem with Planned Parenthood," he replied, then went on to say the organization doesn't need federal dollars because "they perform abortions" and "there are alternatives, that's called community health centers all over the state" that "provide a broader array of health care to women and men."
Meanwhile, hundreds of protestors lined the sidewalk outside, demanding a public meeting to speak with their representative.
Town hall meetings are "a two-way street," says Michael Neblo, a political science professor at Ohio State University who's studied the forum. Not only do they allow members of Congress a chance to report to their constituents about their activities in Washington, he explains, but they also let lawmakers hear about the issues the people they represent care about. Neblo says that a third function of town hall meetings is that it's a form of petitioning governments for redress of grievances, or the right to make a complaint or seek assistance from the government. While it may not be a formal petition, "town halls are the main way where average citizens exercise that right."
That's why it looks so bad when some legislators appear to be avoiding meeting with their constituents. "Even when you get yelled at," Neblo says, "part of the job is standing there and trying to do your best to express yourself and explain yourself."
There's a price to pay when legislators mess with Planned Parenthood and women's access to health care.
In some cases, Republican legislators have outright said they're afraid to meet with their constituents in a public forum. One Texas representative went so far as to suggest holding a town hall meeting could potentially be dangerous, and pointed to former Arizona lawmaker Gabby Giffords' 2011 shooting as an example of "the threat of violence at town hall meetings." Others have lambasted these meetings as being unproductive. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said "people get rude and stupid―on both sides" while Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz insisted town halls are filled with protesters who "intimidate and bully people."
Yet it appears the protests may be having their intended effect. On Sunday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich told Face the Nation host John Dickerson: "Look, I don't understand everything that's going on with these town halls, but… I think it's having an impact from the standpoint of 'Hey, people are watching.'"
More importantly, constituents remain committed to being heard, despite the criticism. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey has been noticeably absent from meeting with the people he represents. In response, a group of women launched Tuesdays with Toomey; they visit his office weekly to share their concerns about the issues they care about, though he's never there. On February 22, two activist groups hosted a town hall meeting at a local church in Allentown, though Toomey declined to attend.
The following day, Planned Parenthood advocates conducted a daylong "search party" to look for him. Approximately 150 people in groups of two to five took turns visiting one of Toomey's four offices throughout the state every half hour or so to request a meeting with the senator. Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood PA Advocates, Association & PAC, told Broadly that the organization and other constituents in the state have had "a terrible time reaching anyone in his office, whether it be staff for the senator himself."
"The question is really, 'Where is Pat Toomey?'" she continued. "He works for us, he should be in Pennsylvania, we should have an opportunity to talk to him, and none of that is coming to be."
Stevens said that, as the day went on, some of Toomey's staff members became impatient: "In most places in the state, as the day went on, we got real hostility from the staff." They never did find Toomey, Stevens added. "We missed him by a couple of hours in Pittsburgh, is what we heard."
These boisterous crowds aren't new, Neblo says. In fact, The Advocate reports, during Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy's town hall meeting on February 22, one woman held up a sign that read, "Thanks, Tea Party for the tactics! —The Resistance." "The irony," Neblo explains, "is back when the ACA was being enacted, Tea Party representatives were gathering in force at Democratic town halls and protesting and disrupting those. Now the coin has flipped here, and you have Democratic activists crashing Republican town halls."
"Anybody who wants to have a chance to talk to or confront a member of Congress should be given that chance," he says. "One of the things we need to communicate sometimes is that people are angry, and that's fine, just as long as it doesn't crowd out other forms of communication."
"There is room for angry protests," he emphasizes. "It's just that that can't be our only form of constituent/member interaction."
Advocates for Planned Parenthood appear to agree. On Wednesday, patients, supporters and providers from across the country traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with Republican and Democratic members of Congress in a "We Are Planned Parenthood" Capitol Takeover Day. They'll share their personal stories to highlight the devastating impact defunding the organization would have on communities nationwide.
Robinson, the spokesperson for the political action arm of Planned Parenthood, also says they're gearing up for the fight ahead. "Paul Ryan said he wanted one of the first acts of this Congress to be repealing Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood, and they haven't been able to do that yet, and we see that as a victory," she says. "So, we're going to keep up the fight in hopes that they'll listen to their constituents and ensure that millions of folks across the country maintain access to health care."