Keeping Dr. Emily's open

Hannah Wolfe reports on efforts by New York City activists to defend a Bronx clinic that has been a target of anti-abortion bigots.

Pro-choice activists act as clinic escorts at the Dr. Emily Women's Health Center (Hannah Wolfe | SW)Pro-choice activists act as clinic escorts at the Dr. Emily Women's Health Center (Hannah Wolfe | SW)

NEW YORK--A group of right-wing religious fanatics have targeted the Dr. Emily Women's Health Center, a South Bronx clinic that provides abortions, as part of a national campaign to deter women from seeking abortion services.

But pro-choice forces are mobilizing to oppose them. Spurred to action by the murder of late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller earlier this year and New York Times coverage of the anti-choice campaign against Dr. Emily's, an ad-hoc coalition of outraged and concerned individuals and groups took shape at the beginning of the summer.

The battle over a women's right to choose abortion in New York comes as right-wing groups are preparing for a 40 Days for Life campaign from September 23 to November 1.

The anti-choice activists claim to have a goal of "putting an end to abortion" through "prayer and fasting" vigils outside clinics. In reality, these groups use intimidation, harassment and outright deception targeted at clinic patients--as the ugly protests by groups that will participate in the 40 Days for Life against the Dr. Emily clinic shows.

What you can do

Pro-choice supporters in the New York City area can participate in the clinic defnese at the Dr. Emily Women's Health Center in the Bronix on Saturday, September 26. Meet at 560 Southern Blvd. (take the 6 train to 149th Street) at 8 a.m. E-mail [email protected] for more information.

But the right-wingers aren't going unopposed. A pro-choice group, New York City Abortion Clinic Defense (NYCACD), has mobilized to defend the Dr. Emily clinic each Saturday over the summer. Groups involved so far have included the YaYa Network, Lucha and the International Socialist Organization. High school and college students have been active in the clinic defense efforts.

Similar grassroots pro-choice coalitions have sprung up in other cities in response to the "40 Days for Life" campaign.

Over the summer, NYCAD was able to prevent the anti-abortion crusaders from harassing--and in many cases, from even speaking to--anyone by simply blocking them, and accompanying clients seeking services to the door.

The first day of the defense, as we grouped on the corner with our pro-choice signs and red T-shirts saying "clinic escort," a young Black woman approached us. "Are you pro-choice?" she asked. We told her that yes. "Well," she said, "it's about time you showed up here. Those crazy people have been out here. Last year, I had to come to this clinic for an abortion. They were out here...I say, who are they to tell me what I should do?"

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DR. EMILY'S is a full-service women's health center that has served primarily low-income and poor women of color for the past five years. They assist women with no insurance in getting emergency Medicaid funding if they are unable to pay. The staff has been especially overextended after one of their medical providers died last year.

Three years ago, when the onslaught by anti-choice forces began, the center was forced to install buzzers on the doors and hire security guards. As one staff member described, the anti-choice forces "use scare tactics, they molest people coming here. They show them the little fetus doll in a box." The staff posted signs at the clinic entrances, informing patients that they have the right to "tell anti-abortion protesters to mind their own business. This is America."

Two years ago, when the anti-abortion groups held a rally at the clinic, "it was chaos," said the staff member. "There was a whole lot of them. They had the whole street blocked off. They outnumbered us about 15 to 1. There were just too many of them. Most of them come from out of state, except the monastery and church groups. No one should tell women what to do. Women should do what they want with their lives."

Another medical staff member at Dr. Emily's described protesters' tactics: "They're incredibly cruel. They promise [patients] the world, but in reality, they don't do anything. They give somebody a guilt trip to do something that they really can't handle...They physically get in front of people, they get in their personal space. "

When women seek services from the Dr. Emily's, often an anti-choice activist (typically a young woman) will yell out or perhaps quietly approach them. "You don't have to do this. You have choices," they say. Or, rubbing an apparently pregnant belly, they ask, "Do you want to see how your baby looks? We have free sonograms!"

The anti-choice campaign has an RV stationed near the clinic entrance, fully equipped with a state-of-the-art sonogram machine. But as one Dr. Emily's staff member explained, the group has "no medical staff. If it's a negative sonogram, they don't give any kind of medical advice, but patients think they're getting medical advice. The patients...[can] wind up having a hysterectomy because no one told them it was an ectopic pregnancy."

The job of those on the sidewalk is to lure women into the van, show them "the baby," and then persuade them that it is a sin not only to have an abortion, but to have a child out of wedlock or rely on the state for any benefits. There are reports from staff that anti-abortion protesters will stoop so low on their "mission to save the unborn" as to threaten immigrants with deportation.

Recently, the anti-choice protesters have been joined by several monks from a local monastery. In grey full-length tunics with rope belts, wearing Tevas and brandishing hand-carved wooden crosses and rosaries, the monks have been among the most aggressive in their efforts to deter women from entering the clinic. At a recent defense, two monks attempted to block the doors of cabs or cars dropping women off at the center.

One young woman, initially hesitant to talk, said the monks harassed her daily. "I'm going to work in the morning," she said, "and they keep showing me these mangled baby pictures and telling me Jesus loves me. I don't need that in the morning."

When pro-choice activists intervened in the monks' efforts to continue harassing her, the woman, apparently emboldened, told the monks, "You don't know me. I was raped when I was 15." She went on to explain that she had been told by someone "in a clinic, or center, but now I wonder what it was" that she was six months pregnant, and that it was too late for an abortion. She continued with the pregnancy, and later found that, in fact, she had been only three months pregnant.

Having a baby at age 16 meant she was unable to achieve her goals of finishing high school and going on to college. "Now, I have this job that means I make too much for Medicaid, but I don't have health care. I'm 25, and I have a 10-year-old child. These people say they'll help you, but that's a lie."

On another occasion, a young woman who was holding a toddler by the hand and pushing an infant in a carriage approached the center. The anti-abortion protesters yelled out "Don't do it! You have choices! Think about the babies!"

She was silent, while pro-choice forces yelled out, equally loudly, "You don't need to listen to them. It's your life, it's your decision." Upon leaving the clinic, the young woman yelled out to the anti-choice protesters, "Who are you to tell me what to do? I don't see you paying my bills!"

In the face of such attacks on women's right to an abortion, it's clear that we need to rebuild a grassroots movement, which unapologetically and unconditionally demands the right to safe, legal and accessible abortion--free from harassment.