Starting on September 26, thousands of anti-choice demonstrators descended on abortion clinics and reproductive health centers for their biannual “40 Days for Life” — with a goal of picketing abortion clinics 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 40 days straight.
Supporters of reproductive rights need to rise to this challenge with a vocal resistance. While the anti-choicers have grown more confident under the Trump administration to protest the clinics, mainstream women’s organizations unfortunately haven’t responded in kind, failing to organize any opposition on the ground when the right descends on our clinics.
This means it will be up to local activists to build an opposition from the bottom up. And there are models of grassroots pro-choice mobilizations, mainly around defending clinics, that we can learn from and expand upon to make our side stronger.
The history of past moments when the anti-abortion fanatics were on the offensive shows that they can be pushed back — by a confident and activist response that unapologetically defends reproductive rights.
For many, seeing anti-abortion activists outside of abortion clinics seems timeless — they have always been there and will always be there. But the history of 40 Days for Life is relatively recent.
Anti-choicers held the first 40 Days for Life vigil in Brazos Valley, Texas, in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2007 that the actions were expanded into a nationally coordinated event. The spring 40 Days campaign was added in 2008, doubling the amount of time protesters are outside of clinics.
Now, a decade later, 40 Days for Life boasts over 750,000 volunteers, actions in 769 cities, and 96 abortion clinics closed. A six-person board of directors features a former prosecutor and litigator, experts in nonprofit management, independent finance investors and a former abortion provider and physician.
What started as a small, community effort to harass Planned Parenthood has now brought on some of the most prominent figures that the pro-life world can afford.
The 40 Days for Life’s “mission” claims it is “a community-based campaign that takes a determined, peaceful approach to showing local communities the consequences of abortion in their own neighborhoods, for their own friends and families.” The three points of the campaign’s program, according to the mission, are “prayer and fasting, constant vigil and community outreach.”
The 40 Days website implores activists to make an “educational and peaceful stand” outside clinics and engage communities in public prayer, door-knocking campaigns and reaching out to other pro-life people. 40 Days for Life also hosts a podcast and regularly updated blog, and its list of endorsers runs from Pope Francis through every current leader of the anti-abortion movement.
Gone is the fire and brimstone of the old Operation Rescue — now renamed and reformed as Operation Save America — which firebombed clinics and murdered abortion providers.
The anti-abortion movement has undergone a radical makeover — partially because of the 1992 FACE Act, which made it a federal offense to engage in the types of blockade and intimidation tactics that Operation Rescue was engaged in, but also because their methods fell out of favor in the public eye.
The anti-abortion movement didn’t exist in either the U.S. or Canada until after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.
The first iterations of a grassroots anti-abortion movement focused on letter-writing campaigns to legislators. These early efforts provided the beginnings of an infrastructure and a strategic model for focusing on rolling back abortion rights through legislative means.
In their book The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement, Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon detail the character of the anti-choice movement immediately after Roe, which they name the “traditional model.” This model is exemplified by Operation Rescue:
(a) has a largely male-dominated public face (b) aims primarily at limiting/banning abortion by using legal challenges, political mobilization, legislation, and even intimidation and violence; (c) publicly and explicitly defends its policy position with reference to explicitly stated religious principles; (d) often embodies an angry, aggressive, sometimes violent, and “anti-woman” tone; and (e) employs heavily fetal-centric arguments to buttress its position.
By contrast, 40 Days for Life walks back the aggressive nature of some of the more violent, extreme methods of the anti-choice movement, portraying its actions as “nonpolitical” and simply praying for the end of abortion.
The anti-choice movement is reinventing itself in other arenas as well, as documented by Buzzfeed earlier this summer: One of its reporters profiled the “Pro-Life Women’s Conference,” founded by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic manager and golden child of the anti-abortion movement.
The conference boasted seminars with titles like “Don’t Be Weird: Ineffective Messaging in the Pro-Life Movement,” which discouraged hyper-religious or extremely gory themes and encouraged attendees to don vests that look strikingly similar to clinic escort vests and approach patients looking friendly and helpful.
Newer anti-choice organizations like New Wave Feminists and Feminists for Life and many crisis pregnancy center websites put young women front and center. They may be motivated by religious convictions, but they avoid focusing on that.
This shift among anti-choicers is something to be reckoned with. By tacking left, they have become even more influential than in the days of clinic blockades and crosses held high, because they have so seamlessly made themselves look and sound progressive.
Still, while some parts of the anti-choice movement are looking to rebrand and bring in more millennials by co-opting of feminist and empowering language, other factions are doubling down on intimidation and harassment.
In July 2018, Operation Rescue — a split off from the original OR which kept the name — launched a new website aimed at collecting video footage outside of clinics and then using it to identify providers and clinic staff and get clinics inspected.
Another aim is to portray abortion as an inherently unsafe procedure by tailing ambulances that are called in the very rare event that a patient must be transported to a hospital.
Whether the anti-choice movement looks like a young, hip feminist or an older white man shouting fire and brimstone, one thing is clear: Clinic harassment and blockades has only increased since 2015.
According to the National Abortion Federation, which tracks clinic harassment and intimidation, the increase is startling. In 2016, there were 31 instances of death threats or threats of harm, 51 clinic blockades and a staggering 61,562 instances of picketing. In 2015, there were just over 21,000 pickets.
In 2017, there were 62 death threats against abortion providers and 104 clinic blockades — both double from the year before. The 78,144 instances of picketing outside of clinics represented a 21 percent increase over 2016.
Not only are the numbers of these events increasing, but the types of tactics being used are escalating. Just before 2017’s 40 Days for Life events, four clinics in different states were invaded, and in Everett, Washington, a man invaded the clinic and assaulted a patient.
The threat posed by anti-choicers is clearly growing by the day. Yet there is a deafening silence among the large women’s rights organizations.
The mobilizations organized by NARAL Pro-Choice America, MoveOn.org and Indivisible in late August to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court were anemic in most cities, boasting a couple hundred attendees at best. These groups put forward no plans for ongoing organizing besides electing Democrats to office come the midterm elections.
It has become increasingly apparent that the status quo of electing Democrats, writing to our senators and donating money to liberal NGOs isn’t enough to save us from this moment.
Some supporters of reproductive rights feel like the writing is on the wall, and we should retreat to organizing underground networks of abortion providers now that medications to induce abortions are widely available.
But many others have decided to fight back against the constant harassment outside our clinics. In mid-August, Teen Vogue advocated for activists not to “calmly accept” Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“If lobbying, marches and rallies do not work,” the magazine wrote, “we may indeed have a collective moral obligation to resist the dystopia of criminalizing pregnancy in ways that break the law.”
Activist defenses of neighborhood clinics are a feature in New York City, in Seattle and in Everett, Tacoma and Lynnwood outside Seattle.
Earlier this month, Seattle Clinic Defense organized more than 100 activists to counter and chase away anti-choicers and members of the Proud Boys.
In New York City in August, activists were successful in stopping members of a church from their ritual harassment of the oldest Planned Parenthood in the country with a grassroots mobilization NYC for Abortion Rights.
Unfortunately, many supporters of reproductive rights have been dissuaded from mounting on-the-ground defenses of abortion clinics by negative messages from Planned Parenthood’s political arm — which continues to ignore the voices of actual patients and providers in favor of a strategy that has normalized an anti-choice presence outside of our clinics and ceded space to the right wing.
But as we also know from the counterprotests against the far right in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in August, it’s clear that the only way to demoralize and send the anti-choice trolls packing is to out-organize and outnumber them.
Ultimately, we need to be able to do this at every abortion clinic that is being harassed and targeted. We won’t have the organization in place to do this everywhere during this fall’s 40 Days for Life, but we can start by rebuilding our networks, showing up early and often and proving that the pro-choice majority is here to win.