It was right to confront the anti-choice bigots

February 13, 2017

Elizabeth Schulte rounds up reports from around the country as supporters of reproductive rights made it clear they are ready to stand up to the right-wing assault.

ALL OVER the country, thousands turned out at Planned Parenthood clinics to show their support for women's right to choose and to counter anti-abortion groups who called a February 11 day of action in support of the federal government defunding the women's health care provider.

Whether it was the huge crowd in Minnesota, where thousands gathered to face off against anti-abortion fanatics, or the counterprotesters in places you might not have guessed--the 200 people in Peoria, Illinois, the hundreds in Reno, Nevada, the dozens in Evansville, Indiana--the opposition to the anti-choice bigots on February 11 showed the huge support for a woman's right to choose around the country.

But not only that. The mobilizations showed people's willingness--eagerness, really--to take on the anti-abortion right.

When abortion opponents called for actions on February 11, Planned Parenthood itself told supporters not to counterprotest and to keep their demonstrations of support for women's rights away from the clinics.

Confronting the anti-choice bigots outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City
Confronting the anti-choice bigots outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City

Some supporters whose first instinct was to defend the clinics against the right canceled their actions in the face of intense pressure from Planned Parenthood. But others didn't--arguing that if anti-abortion forces were going to show up at clinics, there needed to be a pro-choice presence to counter them.

The outpouring of opposition to the right dwarfed the anti-abortion forces--and vindicated those who believe supporters of a women's right to choose are ready to mobilize to defend our rights.

IN NEW York City, more than 300 people came out Saturday to defend the Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood clinic at Bleecker and Mott Streets in a protest organized by NYC for Abortion Rights, a group that came together a week before the anti-choice protest.

Supporters of reproductive rights decisively drowned out anti-choice forces, showing that the best way to keep bigots from protesting at clinics is to be larger--and louder--than they are.

The counterprotesters formed a picket line, marching and chanting, "Abortion is health care, and health care is a right," "Pro-life, your name's a lie, you don't care if women die" and "Pray, you'll need it. Your cause has been defeated." Passersby cheered them on, and some joined in. They easily dwarfed the anti-abortion protests.

A New York Times reporter interviewed protesters from both sides of the debate, and the video went viral, as millions tuned in to watch SW contributor Jen Roesch trounce an anti-abortion activist in a debate.

The New York City organizers faced a lot of pressure from Planned Parenthood and organizations that echoed its line. Cosmopolitan magazine published an article condemning the planned protest at the clinic, claiming that demonstrators were "intent less on listening and defending abortion, and more intent on making a scene." An alternative protest organized at the same time a quarter-mile away in Washington Square Park drew more than a thousand people.

But this campaign didn't stop many abortion rights supporters--who have respect for the health care providers at Planned Parenthood, but disagreed fundamentally with allowing right-wingers to bring their hateful anti-women message outside their clinic unopposed.

During a speak-out, women described their experiences with abortion services, including the obstacles faced by oppressed and working-class communities in obtaining safe reproductive health care.

"I used to work at a women's health clinic, and every day I would pass protesters that would accuse me of being a criminal and a murderer," said one speaker. "Their actions normalized the violence and intimidation that comes with policing women's bodies. As a result, over half of the clinics in Texas have been shut down, and there are 20-week abortion bans in 13 states."

Some of the millions of people who participated in the Women's Marches on Inauguration Weekend were out in the streets on February 11 to show that they are ready to defend their rights. Delicia Jones, a Bronx resident who was part of organizing for the event, said:

It's an incredible accomplishment that within a week, we were able to organize this successful action, despite Planned Parenthood's opposition to direct confrontation with the anti-woman right. I believe this is the beginning of a reinvigorated women's movement that can push for demands that fight to defend the gains won in the past and push forward even more.

SIMILAR THEMES were sounded at other protests around the country.

In San Francisco, pro-choice advocates, holding signs of defiance reading "My body. My choice." and "Reproductive rights are human rights," overwhelmed the anti-choice demonstrators at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Valencia Street on February 11.

"You have legal or unsafe abortions--there's no such thing as no abortions," said Savannah, who attended the counterprotest. "I feel proud to be standing on the right side of history."

Kim, a teacher and member of United Educators of San Francisco, said Planned Parenthood was there to help when she was undecided about having her child. "I changed my mind, but I had that choice. I had the chance to make the choice that was right for me."

Meredith, who lives in Noe Valley, said she pays over $180 for birth control, underlining the importance of Planned Parenthood at a time when health care costs leave a growing number of people with few options.

"We are at a crucial political moment," said Ryan Moore, a member of Democratic Socialists of America. "We need to keep the momentum on our side and not cede it back to the right wing."

In Seattle, at an action called by Seattle Clinic Defense, 400 people rallied and then marched to Planned Parenthood, which is closed on Saturdays, but was still targeted for the national day of action to defund Planned Parenthood. Despite the fact that the clinic was closed, and therefore no patients were seen, Planned Parenthood called for there to be no counterprotests.

Rally speakers focused on the importance of Planned Parenthood's services. "Following the passage of House Bill 2 in Texas, their rate of maternal deaths rose by 28 percent, and Texas now has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world," said Seattle Clinic Defense organizer Jessi Murray.

ISO member Leela Yellesetty discussed the need for building solidarity between causes, arguing, "I'm of the opinion that the more we connect the dots, the broader and more inclusive our movement is, the more powerful we can become."

When the counterprotest crested the hill on the way to the clinic, demonstrators met roughly 15 to 20 anti-choicers from St. Stephen's Respect Life Committee, many of whom left after the arrival of the pro-choice protest. By the end of the hour, there were about six anti-choice demonstrators left.

In Boston, some 60 pro-choice activists mobilized for the first clinic defense in years in in this city.

Our side might have been much larger--as demonstrated by the number for people who signed up to attend on social media when the counterprotest was initially called--but Planned Parenthood argued with activists to cancel the demonstrations, demobilizing hundreds of people who are tired of seeing control over their own bodies legislated away.

Lisa, an activist who nevertheless attended the protest, said that her first clinic defense in Boston was in 1989:

I am unbelievably tired of the fact that I've been protesting for the right to choose since 1989 or before, and I'm sure that before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, it was even worse. I'll keep protesting until the day I die if I have to. No one should have to walk through the gauntlet of those disgusting so-called people. All my friends and my friends kids who need this service--I'm not going to let them become second-class citizens.

In Redwood City, California, 200 turned out for the counterprotest called by Together We Will Public Action South Bay. They easily outnumber the 30 anti-choicers.

In San Diego, 50 people came out in a counterprotest organized by the San Diego Reproductive Justice Defenders, which was formed by activists from the ISO, MEChA, Visionary Feminists, Democratic Socialists of America and the Green Party.

"I am here to show my support for women," said first-time protester Tanya. "We as women should have the choice to manage our bodies however we want. An abortion is a health care procedure just like any other. We have to fight the bigoted ideas of the right that say that women should have no say over their futures. And that is why we came out today."

In Aurora, Illinois, outside Chicago, some 30 counterprotesters made the hour's drive from Chicago to show the Pro-Life Action League that they could not go unprotested. About 150 anti-choicers were there, including PLAL leader and Aurora resident Eric Scheidler. Protesters kept up loud chants, and several clinic escorts who regularly protect this clinic joined in.

"Planned Parenthood's instruction to not counterprotest gave me pause, but today I saw that a small vocal group can make a difference," said a pro-choice protester named Lauren. "I was inspired by the group's solidarity. Even the escorts thanked us for coming, which made me feel good. I wish Planned Parenthood hadn't discouraged people from coming today because then our group could've been bigger and safer."

In Pittsburgh, a dozen pro-choice protesters turned out to counter the bigots, after facing a deluge of opposition from Planned Parenthood. They were outnumbered by anti-choice forces, but held their ground.

The actions on February 11 show the potential for mobilizing against the anti-choice right, which has been invigorated by Trump's election. In this light, the debates about tactics on our side must continue. As Jen Roesch, an organizer of the New York City protest, said:

Prior to the counterprotest, Planned Parenthood and some supporters expressed fear that this action could be confusing to or make things more distressing for patients. But once we were out there in the hundreds, and drove the handful of bigots from their usual real estate across from the clinic door, it was obvious exactly who we were and what we stood for.

As one chant put it, "New York is a pro-choice town"--and there was no denying it. Patients smiled and gave us thumbs-up as they went in, and people walking by stopped to join us. There was a real feeling of excitement as we all were reminded that we are the majority and we can win.

Kate Christopherson, Bora Erden, Michelle Farber, Timothy Gaughan, Matthew Gordon, Josh McDuffie, Alpana Mehta and Luke Pickrell contributed to this article.

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