As an abortion rights advocate in a state trying to ban abortion, Helmi Henkin isn't usually in the position of turning away support.
Henkin chairs of the clinic escort program for West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, one of the three abortion clinics left in Alabama, and formerly lead communications for The Yellowhammer Fund, the only statewide abortion fund. In May, an anti-abortion protester tried to run over a WAWC escort in the parking lot with an SUV. One week later, Governor Kay Ivey signed an extreme abortion ban into law and, since then, Alabama has been in the national spotlight as a harbinger of what’s to come. Henkin has found that since the law’s signing, pro-choice advocates across the country feel an urgency to do something about it. Some send money, while others want to protect abortion clinics in a more physical way.
Henkin spent the weeks after the law’s passing fielding calls from people asking how they could help, including about a dozen inquiries from people interested in counter-protesting the clinic’s regular assembly of anti-abortion protesters. Henkin asked them not to, but said a few “lone wolf, vigilante heroes” have shown up anyway.
“Our clinic and our escort group are very adamantly against counter-protesting,” Henkin said. “Anytime something like [the ban] comes up in current events, we say, ‘By the way, if you are thinking about counter-protesting, please don't.’”
Most abortion clinics in the U.S. have squads of volunteer escorts who help patients get safely inside from the sidewalk or their car. Escorts operate in partnership with the clinics. They usually wear brightly colored vests and are trained not to engage with anti-abortion protesters. In contrast, "clinic defenders" typically don't work with the clinics. They often engage with protesters, sometimes creating a barrier to push protesters farther away from the property or distracting protesters with conversation so they don’t yell at patients. They also help clarify that “sidewalk” or “pregnancy” counselors are not affiliated with the clinic and hold up pro-choice signs.
Most abortion clinics ask people not to counter-protest—especially not against the clinics’ wishes. However, more clinic defense groups have cropped up across the country since the 2016 election. States have steadily eroded abortion rights for years, but Trump’s election, conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an uptick in anti-abortion protest activity, and a spate of extreme state-level abortion restrictions shook many new activists into action. Some activists began calling for a more aggressive, assertive movement for abortion rights and argued that the absence of such a movement is what allowed things to get this bad.
But as clinic defense groups across the country have discovered, there's a rift among abortion rights activists over the best strategy for supporting patients and providers and protecting abortion access.
Clinic defenders first emerged in the 1980s when militant, anti-abortion extremists organized “rescues,” where they tried to stop women from getting abortions. They formed blockades to prevent patients from entering clinics, chained themselves to the entrances, threw themselves under cars, and invaded clinic waiting rooms until police carried them out. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994 made these activities illegal and clinic defense groups largely went dormant, according to duVergne Gaines, Director of the National Clinic Access Project at the Feminist Majority Foundation. Clinic defenders have occasionally reappeared in response to escalating anti-abortion harassment—as they have again under the Trump administration.
The Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Abortion Federation have documented an alarming uptick in clinics experiencing severe violence, threats, targeted intimidation, and picketing since the 2016 election. The NAF’s most recent report identified 99,409 picketing incidents and 3,038 incidents of trespassing or obstruction in 2018—record highs. Weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a coalition of anti-abortion groups called ProtestPP helped organize protests outside hundreds of abortion clinics to encourage the new President to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding. When abortion rights supporters heard about the protests, they started organizing as well. Events cropped up on Facebook for counter-protests at clinics across the country.
“We saw the ‘antis’ planning a big action and quickly realized that there were fairly organized anti-abortion forces in New York City,” said Celia Petty, a member of New York City For Abortion Rights (NYC4AR). “Some clinics had patient escorts, but no one was taking on these people to reclaim space in front of the clinics.”
Running on post-Women’s March energy, thousands of people RSVPed to defend the clinics—until, that is, Planned Parenthood asked them to stay home. “It is our experience that having counter protesters often escalates the situation outside our centers and can contribute to a loud and more hostile environment that can upset both patients and staff,” Adrienne Verrilli, vice president of communications and marketing at Planned Parenthood New York City, said in a statement at the time.
Instead, Planned Parenthood asked supporters to demonstrate elsewhere, like a nearby park or outside a government building. In New York, a loose group that would become NYC4AR held a meeting to figure out what to do.
“We came up against the issue of the clinics not wanting us there, and we struggled with this a lot,” Petty said. “But half of the people in the room at our first meeting were current or former Planned Parenthood patients. They said they would have liked to have seen clinic defense, so we went ahead and I’m glad we did.”
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On the first Saturday of every month, a procession of 50 to 100 people—including friars, nuns, priests, and church attendees—departs from the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street and marches two blocks North to the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street to protest. NYC4AR begins picketing outside the church and then walks ahead of the procession and claims the sidewalk directly across from the clinic’s entrance.
NYC4AR also joined groups in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett, Washington; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; and Cincinnati, Ohio, to collectively form the Movement for Abortion Defense (MAD). In March, Michelle Farber of Seattle Clinic Defense and Anne Rumberger of NYC4AR published a post on SocialistWorker.org announcing MAD’s own national day of action on April 6. The goal of the campaign and of clinic defense more broadly, they wrote, is to “protect patients and staff from harassment and intimidation” and “to demoralize the anti-choicers and reclaim the space in front of abortion clinics as our own.”
NYC4AR member Kate Castle said anti-abortion groups have successfully used the space outside clinics to build their movement. Walking through a gauntlet of yelling strangers to access abortion is now considered routine, and states have passed hundreds of laws restricting abortion over the past decade. Castle and other NYC4AR members argued that, by ceding physical space, the abortion rights movement has also ceded cultural and political space. They hope that by standing up to protesters, they can help take back the conversation, erode stigma, and inspire others to fight for abortion access. If more people were willing to yell in support of abortion, perhaps access wouldn’t be so imperiled.
“The physical space has an impact on legislation, on media, on messaging,” Castle said. “Most people believe in the right to abortion, but that’s not reflected in what you see outside abortion clinics.”
This stance has frustrated clinic owners, abortion providers, staff, and volunteers. To Mia Raven, who runs the clinic escort program for Reproductive Health Services of Montgomery, Alabama, the decision to go against clinics’ requests smacks of arrogance.
“If you do this shit after a clinic has asked you NOT TO, YOU ARE NO DIFFERENT THAN THE REGULAR ANTIS WE DEAL WITH DAILY,” Raven wrote in a March 2019 Facebook post.
NYC4AR’s decision to proceed with the counter-protest in New York was controversial from the outset. People blasted NYC4AR on their Facebook page, saying that if Planned Parenthood asked them not to show up, they shouldn’t show up. The group disagreed, but did what they could to minimize the disruption—singing instead of chanting, for example.
Despite the somewhat tense relationship with the local Planned Parenthood, Rumberger said she believes NYC4AR’s actions are having a positive impact.
“We are standing in solidarity with patients, making it safer for patients to enter the clinic without being harassed, and challenging the messaging that the antis have been putting forward outside the clinics for years,” Rumberger said.
But according to Verrilli of Planned Parenthood NYC, clinic defenders aren't particularly helpful and actually create more work for the clinic. She said it’s “10 times” louder when NYC4AR appears and patients regularly complain about the noise and difficulty in getting in the door.
“The dynamic has completely changed out front on that first Saturday,” Verrilli said. “Since the counter-protesters have been coming, the protesters have doubled in size and there are way more police. We ended up getting soundproof headsets for the patients because it gets incredibly loud, with a lot of shouting and screaming.”
Many clinics don't support counter-protest groups due to concerns that they will add fuel to an already combustible atmosphere. In early May, Pennsylvania state legislator Brian Sims posted videos of himself rebuking anti-abortion protesters, including teenagers, outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia. Within a week, hundreds of anti-abortion activists descended outside the clinic and mobbed the street with signs and chants. A GoFundMe campaign set up by the teenagers’ father raised almost $130,000 to support the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia.
The prospect of making protests worse is a major concern for Calla Hales, who runs four abortion clinics in North Carolina and Georgia. Her organization’s Charlotte location, A Preferred Women's Health Center, attracts some of the worst protest activity in the country, according to Gaines. In 2016, Hales helped form a volunteer clinic defender program to help keep the hordes of protesters, which can number in the thousands, at bay. These volunteers go through training with the clinic and are given a set of guidelines to follow. Hales isn’t opposed to clinic defense in theory, but is angered by groups that show up in direct opposition to a clinic’s stated wishes.
“We have to fight against constant harassment from protesters, and it's so hard to comprehend how people claiming to support you feel ‘inspired’ to add directly to the pain and suffering of us and our patients,” Hales said. “The idea that an abortion clinic becomes a ‘turf war’ for anti-choice and pro-choice activists is honestly unsettling for me—it's a fucking medical clinic.”
Clinic workers also say that patients can’t always tell the difference between who is there in support and who is there in opposition—all they see is a mob. But clinic defense groups insist that patients can tell the difference between them and the people praying (and yelling) to end abortion. And certainly some can.
Kristin M. first visited the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street a year ago for an OB/GYN checkup. She walked up on a Saturday morning, saw the sea of anti-choice protesters, and broke down crying as soon as she made it through the door.
A few months ago, Kristin returned to the clinic for STD testing and the sidewalk was clear. When she left, the protesters were there—but so was NYC4AR. Two women from the anti-abortion group approached Kristin and said, “Jesus still loves you,” which inspired her to stand with the clinic defenders. She stayed for about 15 minutes before leaving to meet a friend, but said she wished she could have stayed longer.
“When there are protesters outside, it’s very overwhelming and you never fully know the level of safety or what level of crazy people are going to be,” Kristin said. “And then there’s a group that protests the anti-choice protests. When you see those people and know ‘They are here for me, they support whatever I just went through, and they are here to make sure I am safe,’ that is so crucial.”
While one concern about clinic defenders is that they can cause hostilities to escalate, the counter-argument is that hostilities are escalating already. Gaines said the cascade of abortion bans over the past few months has further emboldened abortion opponents. She’s observed an increase in hostility against providers across the country, and particularly in those states where abortion access is hanging by a thread.
“There can be no question: In states like Alabama, anti-abortion extremists are frothing at the mouth,” Gaines said. “There is an escalation in unruly protests, threats, and harassment targeting the courageous providers—including volunteer clinic escorts—and the patients and communities they serve.”
Gaines said clinic defense can be “extremely beneficial,” if done correctly, but it’s a problem when groups organize without clinics' support. She participated in clinic defense herself in the 80s and understands the desire to take bold action when it feels like fundamental rights are under attack.
It was amid the current increasingly hostile climate that groups across the country started to connect via word-of-mouth and decided to create a national coalition that shared ideas and planned coordinated actions.
Farber, the co-author of the piece in Socialist Worker, is also a nurse midwife and former abortion provider at Planned Parenthood in Washington state. She has worked with Seattle Clinic Defense since it formed in 2011 and said she hopes that marshaling disparate groups into the cohesive Movement for Abortion Defense will give people the confidence to start their own groups and boost recruiting.
“It really put us in a totally different place because we started to all talk to each other and figure out what was working,” Farber said. “We are trying to do something proactive and take a stand and hoping to have a respectful debate about where the movement goes next.”
MAD is planning its next national day of action in the fall, in response to 40 Days for Life, a national, biannual series of Catholic anti-abortion protests. MAD has heard from three other clinic defense groups—in Gainesville, Florida; Buffalo, New York; and San Jose, California—that would like to participate, bringing the number to 10. MAD is also planning a campaign to picket crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which attempt to dissuade people from having abortions and often use misleading tactics.
This latest wave of extreme abortion bans fueled a groundswell of activism, including nationwide #StopTheBans rallies on May 21—but not outside clinics. There are a number of groups, in addition to MAD, organizing direct action. On May 30, a group called Reproaction held a demonstration outside a CPC in St. Louis located across the street from the Missouri’s last abortion clinic, which the state is trying to shut down. There was also a protest in Kansas City, Missouri, where a line of abortion-rights activists circled Country Club Plaza—a distance of over a mile. Days after the Alabama ban was signed, 1,000 people showed up for a rally in Huntsville and protesters wearing red “Handmaid” costumes have become a staple of statehouse protests in Montgomery (and elsewhere).
Castle of NYC4AR said all of this street-based demonstrating is exciting and important, but as long as anti-abortion protesters harass patients outside clinics, the need for clinic defense will remain. To members of MAD, clinic defense is about standing up for specific clinics, but it’s also about standing up, unapologetically, for abortion rights as a moral issue and refusing to be quiet or cowed at a moment when Roe v. Wade feels profoundly at risk. It’s part of a broader push for dramatic cultural change. The question is whether activists can, or should, pursue this strategy without the clinics behind them.
One Planned Parenthood New York City employee, who spoke to VICE anonymously because she wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of the organization, said she is glad to see counter-protesters, although many of her coworkers don’t feel the same way.
“I understand Planned Parenthood’s perspective that the louder it is, the more intimidating it is, but I think the long history of ceding space outside the clinics has proved ineffective,” she said. “I think people are sick of playing defense and saying ‘Fuck this, we aren’t going to take this lying down. If you want to protest at our clinic, we will meet you there.’”
Correction 7/10/19: This story has been corrected to reflect that Helmi Henkin has left The Yellowhammer Fund.
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