Clinic defense has been a crucial part of left-wing social movements since Roe v. Wade affirmed the constitutional right to abortion in in 1973. The effort to defend clinics against an increasingly violent anti-abortion movement was where incredibly broad coalitions could be built to unite various ideological tendencies behind one clear goal: blocking far right demonstrators to make the clinic safe for patients.
In the 100 days after the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe, at least 66 clinics stopped offering abortion care and left people seeking abortion support with few options. The right wing’s victory did not halt anti-abortion organizing, but instead sharply escalated clinic harassment. Now reproductive justice organizers from around the U.S. are again prioritizing abortion clinic defense, and they are looking to the lessons of the past to figure out what kind of strategies make sense for the increasingly frightening period ahead.
A Centerpiece of the Left
Operation Rescue, founded in 1986, was one of the largest and most radical anti-abortion groups in the U.S. It often physically blockaded the entrances to clinics and badgered patients in a desperate attempt to stop abortions across the 1980s and 1990s. Each Saturday in California (where the organization had a headquarters), local members would meet in San Francisco, often at a church, and reproductive rights activists would be sitting outside. Once the anti-abortion organizers returned into their cars and began driving, members of the Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue would figure out which clinic they were targeting and then try to beat their opponents to the site.
“When we did clinic defense, it was because Operation Rescue would target clinics and close them down by surrounding them. So really, we reached into our activist networks far and wide,” says Jennifer Beach, who was a member of the San Francisco group Women Against Imperialism, which took part in the larger Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue.
“It took physical stamina. We had really physical confrontations … they might blockade a doorway and we would have to carry women over them to get to the door,” remembered Beach, noting that the intensity of the work required strong relationships. “You can’t build that kind of intense resistance without building a community of people who care for each other.” Organizers were able to operate at this level because they built trust by coordinating child care and support for those facing serious illness.
Political groups like the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, a radical organization created originally to support the Weather Underground, also were able to find success by prioritizing relationship-building.
In the 1980s and 1990s in Chicago, members of Prairie Fire worked with the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition, which included groups like ACT UP, Queer Nation and the Socialist Workers Party. A clinic on Chicago’s northeast side was targeted by Operation Rescue for two years, so it became the coalition’s focus. “People were really committed to working together and really stopping [attacks on clinics]. It was a realization that all we needed to do was show up and keep showing up and remember why we were there,” says Edith Scripps, a member of the Coalition and Prairie Fire in the 1980s. “There were times when there was a scuffle in front of the clinics. People were pushing. We just did what we needed to do. We wanted to keep the women safe.” Organizers would act as clinic escorts, so they were careful to ensure that they did not participate in behavior that would further traumatize the people seeking care.
Operation Rescue would hold grand banquets on the North Side of Chicago, rolling out the red carpets for some of their highest-profile members. Pro-choice activists brought their fight home and, as Scripps describes, they “went in dressed like normal white people and we carried trays of hangers that had red paint on them … we said ‘here’s what you ordered’” to the banquet participants, essentially bringing a type of confrontational performance art directly to the Operation Rescue members holding a fancy dinner.
These activists called themselves the Rosie Pettis Brigade, named after the first woman to die of an unlicensed abortion, and they showed the anti-abortion extremists that they would not back down. This was critical because the anti-abortion movement was an incubator for far right and white supremacist movements, which were a heavy presence in Chicago. Because opposition to abortion had the ability to act as a “crossover” issue for white nationalists, there was a large participation from the formal white supremacist and neo-Nazi movement in confronting abortion clinics. It was not uncommon to find out that those protesting abortion clinics and attending white nationalist gatherings were, in fact, the same people. Members of the anti-fascist group the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee assisted in these defensive actions, noting that those fighting abortion and those in the ranks of the Klan and neo-Nazi groups were often the same. “We put out a number of leaflets that were circulated to clinic workers, other defenders and women’s groups regarding those connections, also taking up the issue of not relying on law enforcement,” says Michael Novick, who was a member of John Brown in the 1980s in Los Angeles.
This dynamic ensured fighting for abortion rights a key part of militant anti-fascism.
The “white power” movement had emerged in the 1980s, often using lethal force against marginalized communities, and by the 1990s neo-Nazi gangs engaged in group attacks in city after city. In response, the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) was born as a federation of local chapters of young radicals using physical resistance to stop fascists.
In the mid-1990s, the ARA noticed that the same white nationalists it was fighting were also attacking abortion rights; high-profile, anti-choice leaders were heard making antisemitic and racist comments. Minneapolis ARA created a zine on the issue and pushed the network to take an openly pro-choice position, which it did in 1998 (though some chapters participated in pro-choice work as far back as the network’s formation in 1990). Columbus, Ohio’s chapter made clinic defense central and participated in escorting patients into clinics.
“Lady,” an activist with ARA Cincinnati, described a dire scene at clinics: people throwing things at women going in, people unable to access medical care, people getting hurt. “We were called in by escorts to work with them to stop these goons from standing around and peppering the streets with their violence against the patients going in,” Lady told Truthout. If anti-fascism was about community self-defense, then the ARA Network was extending defensive skills to the community most under threat from the far right.
Two anti-abortion groups, the Catholic Human Life International and Missionaries to the Preborn, organized a speaking tour of cities across Canada in the early 1990s. The ARA protested these events and ensured that people knew that Human Life International was trying to launder the images of extreme far right militants under the guise of respectability. (The book We Go Where They Go contains documentation of this.) “We had a tussle with them, and, in that case, that got a lot of mainstream attention because they had a lot of quite extreme people involved with them. People who were really linked to a guy who was suspected of being a sniper who was shooting abortion doctors,” says Kristin Schwartz, a member of Toronto ARA. This is a classic anti-fascist tactic: Since far right movements often try to brand themselves as respectable, anti-fascists often are burdened with proving to the public that the far right is not what it presents itself to be. At the same time, the kinds of skills that anti-fascists had honed while researching and confronting the far right were largely applicable to the clinic defense context. So, the two forms of organizing folded into one another, building a natural overlap.
This even extended into infiltration. Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the founder of the anti-fascist One People’s Project, was a member of ARA in the 1990s and went undercover and joined an anti-abortion group associated with the Holy Family Church to get inside information. “When I got to Columbus in 2001, my roommate worked at a clinic besieged by the worst protesters so I went there and friended them up,” says Jenkins.
Jenkins started attending anti-abortion meetings, collecting a dossier on their members, and found that they had connections to the terrorist group Army of God, which was implicated in the murder of abortion doctors. “When we put their info out online it was a huge thing amongst them, especially for the mainstreamers who did not like being associated with the Army of God crowd,” Jenkins told Truthout.
While the focus of the anti-fascist movement has changed somewhat, some of those who did the work argue abortion defense should remain a key focus. “Anti-fascists should take anti-abortion groups — especially the ones who stand in front of abortion clinics abusing, threatening and physically assaulting women – anti-fascists should take them as seriously as they take white nationalists who are doing the same things,” says Lady. “These anti-choice groups represent the largest fascist threat in our lifetime.”
Renewed attention on abortion is not just energizing the far right, it is attracting thousands of people to get involved in the world of defending abortion access. One newer group is the Abortion Access Front (originally known as the Lady Parts Justice League), which started as a roving comedy show that would allow local abortion rights groups a chance to pitch their audience about getting involved. The organization recognized threats to clinics were becoming a pressing issue, so it took some of the tactics gleaned from anti-fascist groups, such as research and doxing, and employed it to track the anti-abortion militants.
“I think it’s going to grow because part of what we’re also tracking is threats to people’s care, and so the criminalization of people’s data and just the nature of trying to seek care across state lines and what that entails,” says Kat Green, who was the managing director at the Abortion Access Front. “Volunteering locally is the best way to do any of this. People need to be building community locally.” The group has countered Operation Save America (rebranded from Operation Rescue) events for years now, and holds an “Operation Save Abortion” day inviting people to get involved. Green has recently created a new group called Endora so that she can track the far right more regularly and provide the data to organizations that need it for safety, such as abortion clinics.
Part of this defensive work today includes supporting patients in and out of clinics. This may involve prison support and legal aid for those facing increasingly draconian laws, particularly around telemedicine and medication abortions. “[That] approach of having a kind of underground and autonomous response is going to be required,” says Beach. Because many laws have been put in place that are aimed at protecting the physical space of the clinics themselves, particularly those that limit where protesters can stand and what tactics they can take, abortion defenders can use some of the resources that would have been used for direct clinic defense to support those facing other issues related to abortion access. That could mean directing money, time and activism in the direction of supporting abortion funds, mutual aid organizations and legal defense for those seeking abortion care in this new legally repressive environment.
“Some people have never been activists; people are looking for leadership which is not sectarian and which gives people a way to feel empowered and to play a role that’s effective. And that means we have to have good leaders who are actually saying specific things to do with outcomes … so that people can see that they are being effective,” says Scripps.
The primary lesson these activists offer is that a connection must be built with the public that ensures a long-term investment, which is a generational issue that will require years of careful community organizing. The threats to abortion access have increased with the rise of the far right, but we have also seen an explosion of antiracist and left-leaning activism as people build networks to fight back. If massive coalitions and lasting relationships are the foundation of winning a path back to accessible abortion, then our ability to win becomes a possibility.
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