Buffers against the fanatics?

February 20, 2014

With the Supreme Court due to decide on the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law, Madeline Burrows looks at clinic "buffer zones" and the fight for reproductive rights.

"IT'S A slaughterhouse in there! You'll regret this all your life!"

A group of anti-abortion activists are huddled outside of Planned Parenthood. Some are praying. Others are approaching women as they enter the clinic.

"Don't be the mother of a dead baby."

A busload of high school students from a nearby Catholic high school stand nearby, holding signs that read, "Women do regret abortion."

Then, as if the preceding statements weren't traumatic enough, a priest yells out at a woman entering the clinic "Happy Mother's Day!"

This is a typical day outside an abortion clinic in 2014. As clinic escort and pro-choice activist Paul Valette describes, "Many sidewalk counselors will continue to shout at patients who have entered the private property, until they enter the building, and sometimes continue to shout at the closed doors."

Valette has volunteered as a clinic escort since he retired from the U.S. Army in the mid-1990s. While the more aggressive era of anti-abortion tactics--like blockading clinic entrances, gluing locks and chaining themselves to doors--was largely over when he began volunteering at the Washington, D.C., area clinic nearly 20 years ago, the chaotic, intimidating and emotionally manipulative environment created by anti-abortion protesters remains the same.

Anti-abortion protesters stand outside a women's health clinic
Anti-abortion protesters stand outside a women's health clinic

He described the scene:

When patients arrive by car, [anti-abortion protesters] will often stand next to the car, making it difficult for the patient to exit the vehicle. On one occasion, a female anti-abortion protester--about 70 years old, but tall and sturdy-looking--stood in a position where it was impossible for the patient to open the door. And they routinely attempt to slide leaflets into the car through the windows.

Sometimes, protesters go even further.

"On one occasion, a patient arrived by cab. She opened the door, then leaned back away from the door, still inside the cab, to pay the drivers," Valette said. An elderly male anti-abortion protester then "entered the cab and began talking to the woman," pleading with her not to go inside for her scheduled procedure.

ABORTION CLINICS have been in the news in recent weeks, but the political climate as clinic escorts, staff and patients experience it is rarely depicted.

The focus of discussion is a case before the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of Massachusetts "buffer zones," a 35-foot area outside of Planned Parenthood Boston which restricts anyone--except patients, clinic staff and pedestrians--from gathering.

While the law aims to protect patient safety and access to health care in a climate of intense anti-abortion intimidation, harassment and violence, you wouldn't know it if you read most mainstream news coverage of the case.

Instead, most news outlets focus on a sympathetic character study of the case's lead plaintiff, 77-year-old Operation Rescue member Eleanor McCullen. NPR's Nina Totenberg describes McCullen as a "typical cheery grandmother" who "keeps photos of all of the babies she says she has saved."

The New York Times emphasizes McCullen's non-threatening physicality: "'I am 5 feet 1 inch tall...My body type can be described as 'plump.' I am a mother and grandmother.'"

This coverage exemplifies the anti-abortion movement's most recent strategy--to co-opt feminist language and disingenuously portray themselves as defenders of women's health care. Just like the anti-abortion movement deliberately adopted the term "pro-life" in the 1980s as a way to appear sympathetic in the wake of a vibrant feminist movement, today crisis pregnancy centers--which deceptively pose as reproductive health care clinics--describe themselves as "pregnancy resource centers."

In the pages of the New York Times, anti-abortion protesters like McCullen become "sidewalk counselors" who merely want to engage patients in polite conversations, and give women facing unplanned pregnancies their full range of choices.

USA Today's Mary Ann Glendon, for example, portrayed McCullen as a compassionate victim of an outrageous attack on free speech:

Unfortunately, Massachusetts has relegated McCullen to the margins. She is now often forced to call out her compassionate and loving message from behind lines painted on the ground, like a child put in the corner for bad behavior...Moreover, the lines suggest to incoming women that McCullen and persons like her are somehow dangerous or suspicious.

In Glendon's view, it is the faint yellow lines of a buffer zone and not anti-abortion protesters themselves who create a sense of danger outside of abortion clinics.

LET'S REVIEW some history, beginning with "cheery grandmother" Eleanor McCullen's group, Operation Rescue. McCullen describes Operation Rescue's activities this way: "They offer "housing, medical help, even baby showers to help women who decide not to have an abortion."

But make no mistake: This is the same Operation Rescue that as recently as 2011 called for the creation of a list of abortion providers' personal contact information as a means to escalate the culture of stalking and outright violence against abortion providers.

It is the same Operation Rescue that posted personal information about Dr. George Tiller, including his phone number, home address and church address, where he was later murdered by Scott Roeder in 2008. It is the same Operation Rescue that, after essentially condoning the murder of Dr. Tiller as justifiable homicide, had the audacity to purchase and attempt to permanently shut down his former clinic after it closed in the wake of his murder.

We need to call Operation Rescue what it is: A domestic terrorist group, with numerous links to murders and attempted murders of abortion providers in its 28-year history.

Operation Rescue's well-known members include senior policy advisor Cheryl Sullenger, who was convicted in 1987 of conspiring to blow up an abortion clinic with a gasoline bomb. Her name and contact information were found on the dashboard of Scott Roeder's car the day he murdered Dr. Tiller.

In the wake of Dr. Tiller's murder, former Operation Rescue director Randall Terry offered this in the way of a condemnation of the murder: Tiller was a "mass murderer" who "sowed death. And then he reaped death in a horrifying way."

And former Operation Rescue director Philip "Flip" Benham was convicted last July of stalking after he created Western-style "Wanted" posters with the images of local abortion providers and posted them around Charlotte, N.C.

The anti-abortion movement may describe themselves as being led by "cheery grandmothers" who want to lend support to women in crisis, but their entire movement is based on principles that deny women's bodily autonomy.

While so-called "sidewalk counselors" like McCullen may focus their activism on handing out medically inaccurate pamphlets wrapped in knitted baby caps, the violent, charged and apocalyptic rhetoric of the mainstream anti-abortion movement normalizes a culture of intimidation and violence against abortion providers, clinic staff, and anyone else caught in the crossfire, including the very patients "pro-lifers" claim to protect.

According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1977, there have been eight murders of abortion providers, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings of abortion clinics, 181 acts of arson, 775 clinic blockades, and 15,479 cases of hate mail and harassing phone calls. And these are conservative numbers based on reported cases.

This violence doesn't just occur in so-called "red states." In fact, the Massachusetts buffer zone came in response to a series of murders by anti-abortion activist John Salvi III in 1994.

After attending a protest against a Boston abortion clinic earlier that day, Salvi entered Planned Parenthood's Brookline, Mass., location with a 22-caliber rifle and opened fire, killing receptionist Shannon Lowney and wounding two others.

He then drove to nearby Pre-Term Health Services and did the same, killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols and wounding three others. A second gun and 700 rounds of ammunition were later found in his possession, indicating that Salvi was prepared to continue his rampage.

IN THE wake of these murders, the buffer zones were an attempt by reproductive health care advocates to protect patient safety amidst a climate of escalating violence that seemed to have no end in sight. So what happens in the event that the Supreme Court strikes down the buffer zones?

Anti-abortion groups are eagerly anticipating the decision as a major victory for their side, and it's very possible that this will embolden anti-choicers to escalate their tactics outside of abortion clinics.

But even if the buffer zones remain intact, our side needs to revisit the history of clinic defense activism that challenged the right and gave confidence to our side.

As Alpana Mehta, who was a clinic escort at Pre-Term Health Services in Boston at the time of the 1994 shooting, said:

What we need are a return to loud, confident clinic defenses both to defend women, but also to defend against a greater erosion of our rights today. It's certainly the case that buffer zones have protected the front doors of the clinic from being barred. But access for women into clinics has always depended on whether there were activists willing to defend the clinic from physical intimidation by anti-choicers.

After all, if our side isn't shaping the climate outside abortion clinics today and challenging the lies and manipulation espoused by anti-choice activists, we leave them to fill a political vacuum.

Buffer zones alone won't protect from the onslaught of anti-abortion legislation which threaten to close clinic doors and systematically gut the legal right to abortion. Bulletproof glass and security guards offer immediate protection, but they alone are not barriers to the political attack on abortion rights.

Laws like HB 2 in Texas--and copycat legislation across the country--are themselves a form of violence that affect women even before they approach a 35-foot buffer zone.

We don't need to start from scratch. One example our side can learn from is the 1992 mobilization to Buffalo, NY, where thousands of pro-choice activists mobilized to counterprotest Operation Rescue.

Operation Rescue had promised to organize four weeks of blockades to shut down clinics in Buffalo, and anticipated an energizing victory for their side. But they didn't get their satisfaction.

Pro-choice activists mobilized in the thousands, bussing activists from around the country to defend abortion rights in Buffalo, outnumbering Operation Rescue, and leading chants like, "Operation Rescue, wherever you go, you'll remember Buffalo!" Demoralized, Operation Rescue ended their mobilization two weeks early and the clinics remained open.

We can't let the anti-choice movement set the terms of the debate and go unchallenged. As the actions in Buffalo, N.Y., show, when the reproductive justice movement mobilizes in the streets, we can win.

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