When pro-choice activists showed up at New York City’s Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood early on Saturday April 1, it was immediately clear that something wasn’t right.
Members of NYC for Abortion Rights called a counterprotest that morning to oppose a vigil by the “40 Days for Life,” part of a series of actions around the country organized by religious opponents of women right to choose.
When pro-choice protesters arrived, the church group that was supposed to be gathering hadn’t yet showed up. Instead, a few individuals were handing out anti-choice literature to passersby, asking if they were pregnant and attempting to discuss “options” that didn’t include abortion.
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Planned Parenthood escorts in official pink Planned Parenthood escort vests stood in front of the clinic and on the street corner opposite. But there was another person immediately in front of the clinic doors — a middle-aged white male who also wore a pink vest but one that didn’t sport the official Planned Parenthood escort logo.
As he spoke with a young woman of color who looked confused, it became clear that he wasn’t an official escort — he was an anti-choicer deliberately attempting to confuse patients by dressing as an escort and give them false information about abortion.
The official clinic escorts did nothing to interrupt him or usher approaching women safely into the clinic. They simply opened the front door when a patient was immediately in front of it.
Some NYC for Abortion Rights activists walked across the street from their designated protest area, interrupted the fake escort’s conversation with the young woman, and attempted to prevent him from harassing her. They did this in a nonviolent and nonconfrontational manner, simply notifying the woman that she didn’t have to discuss her options with this anti-choice protester, and that she was free to go inside the clinic and talk to a medical professional.
During this interaction, the pro-choice side set up its originally planned counterprotest, holding signs that said “Trust Women” and “NYC4Abortion Rights” and chanting. After a lengthy conversation, the young woman talking to the fake escort left.
Despite police presence and officially cordoned off protest zones, the “escort in disguise” and a few cohorts remained directly in front of the clinic, completely unfazed, and continued to distract and harass women attempting to enter.
Eventually an activist crossed the street, stood immediately adjacent to him and informed patients, “He’s here to harass women — you don’t have to listen to him,” as he handed out literature to those walking by.
This continued throughout the 40 Days for Life demonstration, in which a church group gathered in a protest pen on the corner opposite the pro-choice demonstrators and the clinic. We chanted throughout, including “Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate,” “Fund Planned Parenthood, one in every neighborhood” and “Pray, you’ll need it, your cause will be defeated.”
After an hour of praying, this group left, but the “escort in disguise” remained for another hour, attempting to divert women from Planned Parenthood’s doors. A few pro-choice protesters subsequently went to the end of the block and helped walk patients to the door of the clinic, buffering them from the anti-choicers.
This activist version of “escorting” patients past the anti-choice bigots and their abuse stood in contrast to the rules that Planned Parenthood imposes on official escorts, demanding that they not confront or protest the bigots at all costs.
By 11 a.m. the anti-choicers packed up to leave. Cops removed barricades, pro-choicers congregated to debrief, engage passersby who had joined the protest in conversation and hand out flyers for an upcoming meeting.
On February 11, pro-choice activists turned out to this same Manhattan clinic to counterprotest anti-choice bigots who were part of a national day of action demanding that Planned Parenthood be defunded. Since then, there’s been ongoing controversy regarding Planned Parenthood’s official stance that counterprotests should not occur directly in front of clinics.
Planned Parenthood argues that such actions are stressful and confusing for patients, and it would prefer that pro-choice demonstrations take place away from clinics, leaving anti-choice demonstrators unchallenged and allowing official escorts to usher women into buildings.
Even before the April 1 interaction, members of NYC for Abortion Rights believed that this strategy of ignoring anti-choice demonstrators was detrimental to maintaining a woman’s right to access abortion and other reproductive health services. This is particularly true in a climate in which funding for Planned Parenthood faces significant attacks, abortion rights across the country are being chipped away, and clinics of all types are experiencing increased anti-choice harassment.
The interaction with an “escort in disguise” has only made it clearer that it’s urgent that we stand up and defend the clinics, directly in front of their doors if needed.
If officially trained escorts are relegated to doing nothing more than opening a door when a patient gets to it and if no one is there to counter the anti-choicers’ lies, any patient can be harassed when entering a clinic.
While Planned Parenthood argues that counterprotests by pro-choicers confuse patients, I would ask which is more confusing, a group of demonstrators holding signs saying “Trust Women” and chanting “My body, my choice” or someone outfitted as an escort who does not work for Planned Parenthood and who is deliberately attempting to dissuade women from entering?
This isn’t the first time a fake escort and his friends have distracted women in front of the Margaret Sanger clinic. According to a woman who lives in the neighborhood and who joined the pro-choice demonstrators, this situation occurs on a regular basis, and has for more than 15 years.
At least once a month she sees people handing out literature and harassing patients, and on some occasions she has stood out in the street, by herself, with a sign supporting Planned Parenthood and abortion rights. She was incredibly grateful on this Saturday when a vocal, confident group of people came out to stand in solidarity with patients seeking health care and to counter the anti-choice bigots.
It’s shocking that in the middle of New York City — one of the most liberal cities in the country — this type of behavior on the part of anti-choicers has gone unchallenged for more than a decade. What’s less surprising is that if this tactic is occurring here, it is definitely occurring in other locations. In fact, fake escorts have been around for years.
It is also a crying shame that many pro-choice demonstrators protesters don’t feel comfortable intervening between an anti-choice bigot and a patient seeking medical services. Twenty years ago, activists likely would have encircled the anti-choice fake escort, making it impossible for him harass patients. Today, there is a discomfort about using such tactics.
Twenty years ago, official escorts might have been more proactive in actually escorting patients into the clinic — from across the block or down the street, and buffering them from harassment. Today, it appears that some escorts are relegated to quietly opening a door.
Who knows how many thousands of women and other patients have been confused by this fake escort and have been talked out of entering. These types of anti-choicers will remain unless and until something forces them to leave.
If they have been able to remain steadfastly in their place for this long, without on the ground pushback from pro-choice groups, it’s likely that they will continue to stay, and unopposed they may choose to escalate their tactics.
According to a National Clinic Violence survey, 2016 saw a massive increase in “severe violence” at clinics — almost double what was reported in 2014. Some 25 percent of clinics report anti-abortion activity daily, 29 percent of clinics experience propaganda being handed out specifically targeting the doctor (such as “wanted” type posters with name/picture/home address of doctor), and 34 percent report severe violence has occurred at their clinic (up from 20 percent in 2014).
Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood’s strategy of non-confrontation means that the anti-choicers engaging in these acts feel no pressure to leave. It’s well beyond time to stand up to right-wing, anti-woman bigots and force them off the sidewalks in front of our clinics.
Imagine if instead of a few anti-choicers milling about in front of a clinic, detaining women and feeling completely unopposed and unashamed of their actions, dozens or hundreds of pro-choice activists came out to counter them.
If the antis were outnumbered every time, would they eventually stop showing up? Would women and other patients entering the clinic feel more confident and comfortable in the fact that others supported their efforts to make their own choices about their future — to choose abortion if they wanted to, or to not choose abortion if they didn’t?
We don’t know for sure if the pro-choice side arguing unapologetically for abortion rights can win, but it is certain that if we do not try, we will lose, and our rights will continue to be chipped away until legal, safe abortion is no longer an option.