When Kelly Benzin arrived at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, abortion clinic where she works one recent Wednesday morning, everything seemed normal. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the Heritage Clinic for Women had been drawing about five to 15 protesters a day, she said. One was just setting up his chair as Benzin pulled in.
But around 8 a.m., when the clinic officially opened, Benzin realized that about 25 to 35 people had started to gather outside. Soon, they started to approach patients, handing out roses and trying to talk them out of getting abortions.
“No social distancing whatsoever. Some of them had masks on,” recalled Benzin, who provided photos of protesters standing close together, sometimes without masks. The clinic administrator sprang into action. “I think I gave a couple patients masks outside that I just had in my pocket. It was more of, ‘Get them in and get them safe’ than worrying about the virus at that moment.”
By the end of the day, police had arrested two people and cited three others, all for trespassing.
“I want to say that I was shocked, but I don’t particularly think that I was,” Benzin said. “I don’t think that the pandemic is something that is going to prevent them from doing things like this.”
In the months since the coronavirus pandemic upended life across the United States, public gatherings have largely vanished thanks to stay-at-home orders and Centers for Disease Control warnings about the dangers of being near other people. In Benzin’s home state of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has explicitly suspended all “in-person activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.”
But workers at abortion clinics across the country told VICE News that protesters are still showing up at their doors. They often ignore the CDC guidelines meant to keep people safe from COVID-19, such as staying six feet apart from one another and wearing masks, these workers said. Clinics have also told the National Abortion Federation, the professional organization for U.S. abortion providers, that they’re now facing increasing online harassment and receiving more mail from abortion opponents.
“People have time on their hands,” explained National Abortion Federation President Katherine Ragsdale.
When the scope of the pandemic first became clear and states started to shutter non-essential businesses, the anti-abortion movement sprang into action. Public officials in nearly a dozen states claimed that abortions were non-essential and tried to block clinics from performing them. In some states, like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas, they were successful: Abortions were temporarily halted statewide.
It was an achievement abortion opponents had dreamed of for more than four decades, ever since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade. And in Ragsdale’s eyes, the public officials’ temporary success galvanized protesters.
“The language, then, that they use to support those decisions incite other anti-choice protesters,” she said. “That emboldens them and they see this as seizing the moment.”
On Mother’s Day weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, about 50 people stood outside the EMW Women's Surgical Center — the last remaining abortion clinic in the state — carrying signs with messages like “Babies are murdered here,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. “Shame on you,” one unmasked man shouted at a woman entering the clinic. “You’re going in there without any shame to kill your child.”
Most were not wearing masks and did not keep their distance from one another or from people entering the clinic, according to the Courier-Journal. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has said that social gatherings of no more than 10 people are only allowed starting Monday.
When the pandemic first broke out, Ona Marshall, who co-owns the EMW Women's Surgical Center with her husband, initially anticipated that fewer people would show up to protest the clinic. But instead, she said, there are sometimes even more protesters. Last Saturday, a week after the Mother’s Day protests, 60-odd anti-abortion activists gathered outside the clinic.
Normally, volunteer escorts will help shepherd patients into the clinic and keep protesters away. But the pandemic has forced the clinic to stop using volunteers. Instead, Marshall has two security guards to guide patients.
“The major issue is they don’t follow any guidelines. They don’t social distance.”
“The major issue is they don’t follow any guidelines. They don’t social distance. They don’t wear masks. They accost patients face to face. They block, stalk, push, shove, talk, scream,” Marshall said. “It’s business as usual out there for them.”
She added, “Under these conditions, of course, it’s selfish and dangerous and can cost people their lives.”
In a lawsuit filed in North Carolina in April, abortion opponents suggested that their work remains essential in a pandemic. In late March, two staffers and an attorney with the anti-abortion organization Love Life were arrested outside a Greensboro abortion clinic for breaking a county ordinance that limited all non-essential activities. Love Life sued the city and the county, arguing that the arrests violated the group’s First Amendment rights.
“Love Life would violate its religious beliefs if it were forced to refrain from praying for women facing unplanned pregnancies and for the lives of their unborn babies, in the general vicinity of those people in need, or were prevented from providing its charitable services according to its mission,” the lawsuit reads.
Love Life also alleged that there were fewer than 10 people gathered outside the clinic, in accordance with the ordinance. They were always at least six feet apart and carried hand sanitizer. (At the time of the arrests, the CDC had not yet recommended that people wear face masks.)
A Charlotte clinic, A Preferred Women's Health Center, used to draw around 200 protesters every Saturday before the pandemic hit, according to its executive director Calla Hales. Now, those numbers have dwindled: The clinic sees just between 20 and 50 protesters on weekends.
But now that some church services are once again allowed in North Carolina, those numbers are once again creeping up. On one mid-May weekend, Hales said the clinic spotted 64 protesters.
“It's intimidating for all patients and staff involved.”
“It's intimidating for all patients and staff involved,” Hales said over email. “It's just one more layer of needless stress and harassment.”
Abortion rights advocates who spoke with VICE News compared the protesters outside their doors to the people who are making a public show of refusing to abide by stay-at-home orders and guidelines to wear masks. In Michigan, which has seen perhaps the most high-profile rallies against stay-at-home orders, clinic administrator Benzin said the two groups are “definitely a Venn diagram.”
“There’s more faith and less science in their belief system,” she said.
Josie, a clinic escort at Alabama Women's Center in Huntsville, said that she’s watched elderly protesters hug one another outside the clinic — though she noted that one couple, who used to bring their kids to protests, have stopped doing so. (Josie preferred to be identified by only her first name, due to safety concerns.) Sanithia Williams, an OB-GYN at the same clinic, said that more protesters have recently started showing up at another facility where she works, even though she doesn’t perform abortions there.
Since the pandemic began, Williams has also received two letters from people who oppose abortion.
“They both mention, basically, that I’m loved by Jesus Christ,” Williams said. The letters, she said, are “the first time I had been targeted more specifically, where someone actually located my address. It did feel a little bit more threatening.”
But Williams always knew that this is a potential side effect of her job. Even before the pandemic, anti-abortion activity was on the rise: In 2018, clinics reported more than 99,000 incidents of protesting — up from about 78,000 in 2017, according to the National Abortion Federation. They also reported more than 21,000 incidents of online harassment and hate mail in 2018, compared to about 15,000 such incidents in 2017.
“I put a lot of thought into what it would mean to be targeted in that way, and really feel strongly that the work that I’m doing is right,” Williams said. “It’s really important for people to be able to create the lives and the families that they choose. Whether people like it or not, abortion is sometimes a part of that.”
Cover: Protesters gathered outside a Grand Rapids, Michigan, abortion clinic in mid-May. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Benzin)