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Abortion Rights Opponents Are Targeting Patients Seeking Care in Blue States

Clinic defense is an essential part of the abortion rights movement in the repressive post-“Roe” era.

Abortion rights demonstrators rally in Union Park before marching into downtown on May 14, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

In the post-Roe era, as draconian abortion bans sweep the nation, cities like New York, Chicago and Santa Fe remain vital holdouts for patients seeking abortion care — and also a site of ongoing focus for the far right.

Right-wing vitriol aimed at big city abortion providers in “blue states” was already a regular feature of the political landscape before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. As my NYC for Abortion Rights comrades and I discussed in Truthout previously, the anti-abortion right has long had its eyes on New York, which it dubs “the abortion capital of America.” We can expect that street confrontations with anti-abortion forces in New York City and other urban centers will continue to escalate as more people cross state lines to seek abortion care, and as anti-abortion forces intensify their scrutiny of the country’s remaining providers.

As an abortion clinic defender in New York City, I was present at a recent face-off that occurred on October 29, when a far right evangelical group called “Love Life” showed up outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan to harass abortion patients.

Love Life regularly holds “Prayer Walks,” which greatly resemble the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s “Witness for Life.” These consist of the anti-abortion activists (or antis) walking from a nearby church to SoHo’s Planned Parenthood location intimidate abortion seekers. Generally, the antis will congregate opposite the clinic, ostensibly to “pray for the unborn.” Many of them stand at strategic points directly in front of the clinic and on pedestrian walkways with pamphlets in order to conduct “sidewalk counseling,” which is in reality direct harassment of patients.

On October 29, a group of about 10 clinic defenders — counterprotesters who use direct action to oppose harassment of clinics by anti-abortion activists — gathered in the chilly hours of the morning in downtown Manhattan to oppose a Love Life “Prayer Walk.” I was present as one of the clinic defenders. As the church doors opened, a mass of about 40 anti-abortion activists streamed out, in their signature light blue t-shirts. The group included men, women and children — sadly, it’s not an uncommon sight to see the abortion rights opponents bringing their kids with them to harass abortion patients. When Love Life members encountered us linking arms and chanting, “New York is a pro-choice town!” — they hesitated, before turning around and heading back into the church.

We weren’t sure that they had totally given up though — and sure enough, after a brief interlude, the doors opened again and 10 burly Love Life men emerged. These men weren’t so daunted by our linking arms — they pushed and shoved the clinic defenders, who were mainly women and femmes, with increasing levels of aggression in their haste to reach the clinic. One of our members was actually pushed to the ground. We heard one of these men pull out his phone and call the cops. “It’s ANTIFA!” he cried.

Finally, we reached the clinic, where the male Prayer Walkers gathered on the sidewalk across the street to pray. Clinic defenders opened umbrellas to block them from view of the patients. This time, there were very few “sidewalk counselors” — most of them, presumably, were with the group that remained in the church. After about half an hour, both groups dispersed.

The far right group Love Life was formed in North Carolina in 2016, inspired by the efforts of Jason and David Benham. It is a registered nonprofit that receives millions of dollars in donations and has outposts all around the country.

Jason and David are the sons of Flip Benham, former director of Operation Save America, a far right, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and Islamophobic offshoot of the notorious anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. In North Carolina, Love Life has bought property surrounding an abortion clinic in order to more effectively harass patients and staff.

Love Life regularly live streams its harassment of patients as a recruitment tool. Its website, social media presence and messaging are bright, slick and couched in positive, upbeat, women-centered language with a large splash of the American entrepreneurial spirit. The following message appears in all capital letters on its website: “Did you know that Love Life was started when a group of entrepreneurs decided to do something about abortion in their city? What if you could be a catalyst of cultural change in your city while still leading your company or owning your business?”

In 2019, Love Life opened an office in New York City, where the group regularly conducts clinic harassment campaigns in Manhattan and the Bronx. The aim is clear — to bring an end to abortion access nationwide. Love Life claims to provide material needs for expectant parents, like providing diapers and hosting baby showers. “Let us help you!” is the group’s common refrain, as members follow patients right up to the clinic doors.

Earlier in October, Love Life held a “sidewalk counseling boot camp.” Dozens of opponents of abortion rights flocked to New York City from Tennessee, Kentucky, Miami, and elsewhere, presumably to train for increased harassment campaigns. There were far more “sidewalk counselors” at this action. I obtained a copy of one of their flyers — printed in color on expensive paper, clearly not a DIY job. The flyer lists a phone number and website for supposedly “reversing” the abortion pill — a medically unproven and dangerous procedure. It describes various abortion procedures using deliberately manipulative language, and lists “potential emotional effects” of abortion such as “self hatred, self-destructive behavior” and “sexual dysfunction.” The front of the flier reads, “God has people here to help you through your entire journey of pregnancy and beyond…. Your child is not a mistake.”

Planned Parenthood maintains a strict policy of non-engagement with opponents of abortion rights at clinics and tends to frown on clinic defense, on the grounds that direct action of this sort politicizes a medical issue and creates a more stressful environment for patients. But volunteer escorts were clearly untrained to handle the increasing aggressiveness of these hecklers, enabling them to crowd patients right from the moment they exited their cars to when they entered the clinic, even banging on the doors.

And the right-wing activists distributing pamphlets are not legally allowed to follow patients — but they did, tailing patients for about half a block as they exited the building.

Without a force that keeps opponents of abortion rights away from clinics, it’s clear they feel emboldened to escalate in their tactics. And with ‘90s-style clinic invasions on the rise all around the country, it’s clear that we will need a ‘90s-style clinic defense presence to reclaim and defend the clinic space. Clinic defense was an essential part of the abortion rights movement in the post-Roe era of violence against clinics. The Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue, one such organization from that period, stated: “Our first line of defense for protection of reproductive rights is self defense. We cannot rely on courts, police or legislatures to protect our fundamental rights to control our bodies and reproductive options.”

The right continues to pass state-wide abortion bans with an eye toward a federal abortion ban as well as legislative attempts against birth control. But it is also starting to realize that the “love the fetus, hate the child” public perception isn’t doing anti-abortion agitators any favors. Love Life’s marketing materials insist that it provides expectant mothers with all their material needs — though they don’t fully specify what these might be. And now mainstream Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are making overtures toward paid family leave — paid for out of the family’s future Social Security payments, not by employers or by higher taxes on the wealthy.

As we continue to defend abortion in the streets, the left needs to expose the hypocrisy of many of these right-wing efforts to combat the GOP’s “hate the child” image problem — and it also needs to mobilize progressive forces to meet the material needs of workers and families.