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Liberal Cities Are Not Immune to Mounting Attacks on Abortion Rights

An anti-abortion group that pretends to be progressive is targeting liberal cities and terrorizing people at clinics.

Lauren Handy (right) was one of nine anti-abortion activists who were charged on March 30 with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

An anti-abortion group that masquerades as progressive in an attempt to gain a following in liberal cities suddenly surged into mainstream news headlines this spring after the Washington Metro Police Department recovered five fetuses from the apartment of anti-abortion activist Lauren Handy.

Handy is a member of the group “Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising” (PAAU), which announced its formation in September 2021. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing anti-abortion tradition.

After a few months of invading clinics and harassing patients at clinic entrances on the East Coast and West Coast with little press coverage, PAAU received national attention in late March after the fetuses were found at Handy’s apartment. Handy was one of nine anti-abortion activists who were charged on March 30 with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, for an incident in October 2020 wherein the activists chained themselves to the entrance of a D.C. abortion clinic. The police investigated Handy’s apartment after receiving a tip about potential biohazard materials being stored there, according to their statement.

At a press conference to address the findings, PAAU appeared alongside Randall Terry, the founder of the notorious anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Operation Rescue has been linked to the murder of abortion providers such as George Tiller. Terry called on “cowardly Christians” to act against what he described as the “violence” of abortion. Terry is one of many non-progressive allies that PAAU has aligned with in its short existence.

Before this gruesome and shocking story made headlines, we were well-aware of Lauren Handy and PAAU. We’re members of NYC for Abortion Rights, a group of socialist feminist organizers who are building a grassroots movement for free abortion on demand. As a part of that work, we regularly defend clinics in our area from a range of anti-abortion groups, most recently PAAU. PAAU’s leadership reflexively claims to be “atheist” and liberal,” and they employ terminology like “Abortion Industrial Complex” and “Big Abortion.” They use the language of abolition and social justice to talk about abortion, casting fetuses as “the unborn,” which they frame as a marginalized group. Unlike many other anti-abortion organizations, PAAU is only active in liberal cities and states, where counterprotests against abortion are more likely to take place. These are also the cities and states that might be safe havens for abortion access if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Shortly before news broke of Handy’s arrest, we encountered PAAU outside Manhattan’s Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street. Members were beating on bucket drums and chanting, “We are clinic invaders and yours is next!”

Terrisa Bukovinac (left), is the founder and executive director of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing, anti-abortion tradition.
Terrisa Bukovinac (left), is the founder and executive director of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing, anti-abortion tradition.

When we talk about PAAU and similar threats with other New Yorkers, we hear the same refrain: “Wow, I didn’t know this happened in New York.” There’s a great deal of complacency — an assumption that abortion rights in liberal cities like New York City will forever be enshrined in law, and that the threat to reproductive justice and autonomy only exists in red states. What this complacency fails to take into account is that the “pro-life” movement is extensive and well-funded. Many of its activists are perfectly fine with breaking the law and risking arrest in order to prevent pregnant people from accessing safe abortions; they have the infrastructure, funding and organization to take those risks, and face little consequences from law enforcement.

Those who are somewhat acquainted with the history of abortion in the U.S. will recall the bad old days of the 1980s and ‘90s, when opponents of abortion access would attempt to physically storm clinics to prevent patients from entering — and clinic defenders would link arms to stop them (not to mention the murder and stalking of abortion doctors and the bombing of clinics). The passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) act in 1994, which made it a felony to obstruct the entrance of a medical clinic or impede its operations, put a temporary damper on this type of aggression. But it’s coming back.

Some might imagine the police will protect abortion seekers. However, trusting in the New York City Police Department to enforce abortion rights is a losing strategy. We have never once seen cops help patients enter the clinic safely or even enforce the FACE Act as anti-abortion activists congregate right in front of the clinic doors. In fact, when asked why they aren’t enforcing the FACE Act, police often say they don’t know what it is. We have often witnessed police simply escorting the anti-abortion activists as they lead their march to harass patients.

PAAU isn’t the only anti-abortion organization active in major cities. Love Life is a far right evangelical organization dedicated primarily to overthrowing reproductive rights. Founded in North Carolina by the sons of Flip Benham — a notorious anti-abortion figure with a record of stalking abortion doctors — the well-funded nonprofit has opened offices in New York City, specifically with the view of combating what it describes as “the abortion capital of the world.”

Here’s what members of Love Life said to their viewers on a livestream from outside Manhattan’s Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood: “People ask us, ‘why don’t you stay in church and pray?’ Because we are called as Christians to go to where the heart of the evil is — where abortion takes place.”

Love Life has repeatedly conducted “sidewalk counseling,” or harassment of abortion patients, outside the Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood.

These types of actions are not simply led by a marginal fringe. The Archdiocese of New York has organized “prayer walks” to abortion clinics and sidewalk counseling for the past several years. These are often led by Father Fidelis Moscinski. Moscinski is a leading figure in a national network of “Red Rose Rescuers” — a campaign of clinic invasion where participants trespass into abortion clinics, harass abortion patients, and refuse to leave.

Moscinski has been arrested in several cities doing this — though not in New York, yet. In a recent video, Moscinski and a fellow anti-abortion activist reminisced fondly about the days when activists would chain themselves to clinic entrances — and urged viewers to consider risking arrest to participate in Red Rose Rescues. They call this “civil disobedience.”

Two summers ago, NYC for Abortion Rights members literally linked arms with Planned Parenthood volunteers outside the Bleecker Street clinic as members of an anti-abortion group attempted to storm the doors. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” one of the volunteers said. “This hasn’t happened since the ‘90s.” PAAU has been replicating these tactics, engaging in “Pink Rose Rescues” in many cities.

If Roe falls — which seems increasingly likely — we can’t just blithely assume that reproductive rights will be unassailable in cities like New York City. The anti-abortion movement has established a presence here too. We need to be prepared for the anti-abortion movement to escalate the tactics it is engaging in already — bussing and flying demonstrators here to harass patients and blockade clinic entrances. Instead of 50 anti-abortion activists outside the clinic, we need to be prepared for there to be hundreds of them.

Though there is limited research on the topic, evidence suggests that clinic harassment is harmful for patients and providers alike. A 2013 study published in the journal Contraception found that for patients who had a more difficult time deciding to get an abortion, encountering protesters was especially upsetting. As clinic harassment has ramped up post-Trump, a more recent study conducted with Louisiana abortion patients found that anti-abortion protesters often physically block clinic access and cause anxiety, though they have a minimal effect on the decision to get an abortion by patients who’ve decided to undergo the procedure.

For providers, clinic harassment taxes already limited resources to protect patients and employees from aggressive anti-abortion protesters. Clinics often need to hire security and engage with local police departments, which can stress both patients and providers. In the same 2013 study, researchers surveyed a sample of clinics across the U.S. and found that 83 percent of clinics that reported the presence of protesters reported that their staff have to regularly comfort patients who encounter protesters, and the remaining 17 percent occasionally provide comfort to patients who’ve encountered protesters. This emotional labor from clinic staff puts further strain on already taxed clinic resources. According to a 2020 report by Abortion Care Network, the number of independent abortion clinics in the U.S. has decreased by 34 percent since 2012. Nikki Madsen, the executive director of Abortion Care Network, partially attributed clinic closures to the increasing cost of maintaining security to protect the clinic from protesters and the difficulty in hiring clinic staff due to safety concerns.

As the fight against abortion access has gained strength in the courts and state legislatures, it has intensified on the ground. According to the National Abortion Federation’s Violence and Disruption Statistics for 2020, abortion providers reported an escalation of aggressive behavior from protesters. In 2020, providers reported 115,517 picketing incidents, which was down from 2019’s record 123,228 reported incidents. As anti-abortion extremists succeed in banning abortion in conservative states, we are concerned they will take their fight to abortion safe havens on the coasts. Those of us working to protect abortion access in our liberal states must be prepared to counter these extremists effectively.

There is certainly debate about to what extent street-based clinic defense is useful, even among supporters of abortion rights. However, in our work, these tactics have proven to be essential. We impede the anti-abortion demonstrators as they march, delaying them from reaching the clinic; we disrupt the livestreaming in front of the clinic that many organizations depend on to build their base. But most importantly, we resist anti-abortion activists’ attempts to shame and intimidate abortion patients through symbolically claiming the streets as well as the bodies of pregnant people. Directly resisting them shows that we will not surrender our bodily autonomy so easily.

Insisting that abortion is a solely medical issue with no political valence, insisting that it can be solely defended by the courts and upheld by law enforcement, and insisting that the anti-abortion movement will be content with overturning Roe and leaving abortion up to the states are all losing tactics. People in blue states who are interested in preserving reproductive rights must build a grassroots movement to defend them. The anti-abortion movement already knows that ground-level action works; it’s time we learned it too.

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