Across the U.S. and in many other parts of the world, cities and towns that only two weeks ago were bustling with people have since emptied as people try to “flatten the curve” or slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. For millions of people, life as they know it has come to a halt. But there is one group that is relentless in continuing business as usual: anti-abortion protestors.
Those belonging to one group in particular, 40 Days for Life, are committed to disrupting people who wish to enter reproductive health clinics through April 5, despite the possibility of contracting the potentially deadly virus or passing it along to someone else. The organization operates in hundreds of cities across the U.S. where it rallies people to show up in protest outside of clinics and dissuade pregnant people from continuing with their abortions.
“The abortion industry is still doing abortions...we are not going away unless we’re banned,” said CEO & President of 40 Days for Life Shawn Carney in a video titled “Coronavirus and Abortion” posted to the organization’s website on March 18.
Holding a bottle of hand sanitizer in the video, Carney encourages people to show up to vigils (how the organization refers to displays that it places outside of abortion clinics) and comply with the CDC at the same time so that “participating in 40 Days for Life is a safe and healthy thing to do.” But days before 40 Days for Life posted the video, the CDC had already warned the public that social distancing and self-isolation were necessary to slow the spread of the virus. On Sunday, the CDC also recommended that people avoid gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
40 Days for Life did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.
On Thursday, Reproaction, an organization that fights for reproductive justice, called on 40 Days for Life to cancel protests immediately in light of the health dangers posed by the gatherings.
“It is a public health hazard,” co-founder of Reproaction Erin Matson told VICE. “It is the opposite of a ‘pro-life’ effort to encourage large groups of people to gather in direct contradiction of the orders of governors around the country.”
“By their very nature, it is unlikely that the protests outside of health centers that provide abortion care are able to abide by these national rules and therefore are posing a risk of infection spread to the community,” said Jen Villavicencio, an ob/gyn in Michigan and a fellow with the Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Matson also worries about the health risks that protesters pose to others, as clinics that provide abortions are often located inside buildings with other businesses. By blocking sidewalks and or attempting to speak with people entering these buildings, protesters could potentially transfer the virus to passersby, people entering the clinic, and one another.
Villavicencio is also concerned about how protesters will increase panic among providers and patients during an already stressful time. “In the time of a pandemic, anxiety and fear are at an all-time high for both health care providers and patients, and protestors are only adding to that, all while putting themselves at risk of contracting a potentially dangerous infection,” she said.
In the 40 Days for Life video, Carney—who says that he just prayed at the vigil outside of a Planned Parenthood in Houston with his wife and eight children during the coronavirus pandemic—seemed sure that supporters could continue the protests despite the CDCs warnings and avoid coronavirus by taking precautions.
“Be sure to be safe, be healthy, keep a distance, use your hand sanitizer, and pray for an end to abortion,” he said.
40 Days for Life has yet to respond to Reproaction’s call.
Correction 3/20/20: We've removed a reference to a photo posted by 40 Days for Life on March 19 showing protesters standing in close contact as 40 Days for Life said it was taken before the coronavirus outbreak.