SF confronts the right's "40 Days for Life"

Emma Wilde Botta and Bruno Ruviaro report on a pro-choice counterprotest against the "40 Days for Life" campaign when it made a stop in San Francisco.

Women's rights activists confront the right wing's "40 Days for Life" campaign (International Socialist Organization-Northern California)Women's rights activists confront the right wing's "40 Days for Life" campaign (International Socialist Organization-Northern California)

ABORTION RIGHTS supporters turned out in San Francisco February 26 to confront anti-choice forces as they kicked off their "40 Days for Life" campaign of holding prayer vigils and rallies in front of women's health clinics.

The 40 Days for Life is a national campaign of religious anti-choice activists who target women's clinics like Planned Parenthood that provide abortion services during the period of Lent in the spring, and again in the fall. Though 40 Days for Life says it is non-denominational, all the directors, employees and key volunteers are Christians, according to its website.

The group formed in 2004 out of an anti-choice coalition that opposed the opening of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan/College Station, Texas, in 1998. Since then, it has expanded its prayer vigils to target clinics around the country. The Bryan/College Station clinic closed down in 2013, and according to the 40 Days website, it now serves as the organization's headquarters.

The 40 Days campaigners say they have vigils planned this year in more 340 locations across the U.S. and 29 other countries.

Anti-choice protests like these have helped create a climate that puts women's fundamental right to choose what she does with her body into question. They work hand in hand with legislative attacks that further limit women's ability to get the health care services, including abortion, they need.

Texas is an excellent example, where a raft of laws placing restrictions on clinics providing abortions passed in 2013, and forced badly needed clinics to shut down, including the Bryan/College Station clinic.

The decision to have or not have a child is up to the woman and woman alone--not her family, a church, a politician and certainly not anti-abortion protesters gathered in front of a clinic.

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IN RESPONSE to the anti-choice action in San Francisco, the International Socialist Organization called for a counterprotest at the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Mission neighborhood.

Some 50 people turned out to defend reproductive rights, outnumbering the opponents of women's right to choose. About 25 anti-choicers gathered for a religious ceremony that included prayers for the "unborn innocents" and for the souls of abortion providers and women who have had abortions.

Two weeks earlier, the same Planned Parenthood was the site a louder and more confrontational picket of anti-choice bigots. Some 300 pro-choice supporters turned out on February 11 to counterprotest those anti-abortion forces who assembled as part of a national day of action to defund Planned Parenthood.

While the numbers were smaller at the hastily organized February 26 protest, the effect of outnumbering and demoralizing the "right to lifers" was similar.

Clinic defenders established a walking picket in front of the clinic on February 26, and eventually, our numbers spilled out over half of the street. Chants like "Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate" and "Pro-life, that's a lie. You don't care if women die" could be heard alongside continuous honking of cars in response to our prominent "Honk for Choice" sign.

The counterprotest successfully blocked the anti-choicers in sight and sound. At the protest, some 30 people signed up for a reproductive rights rapid response network, which will alert people of upcoming actions to defend women's right to choose.

The anti-choice group was forced to end its action an hour earlier than advertised. Pro-choice supporters celebrated the victory with a speak-out in which people from the crowd talked about why they were there.

Silvia is a health care worker who joined the counterprotest when she saw it as she and a friend were driving by. "If the bigots really cared about human life," she said, "they should be working to welcome more refugees into this country, and not focusing on harassing women."

"It's my body, it's my choice," said Ursula, another counterprotester who explained that she has become more politically active since Trump's election. "We should get more and more people active, and show that most people in the U.S. need and rely on abortions and women's health, and that we need to be able to make our own choices. That's makes the best sense."

Another protester said, "I came here because it's so important for us to stand up for all Americans right now, and ensure we all have access to same health care that the 1 Percent has. I'm very concerned, especially for vulnerable folks right now, so we all have to show up and protect each other, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors."

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THIS IS the kind of solidarity that will be key if we are going to push back the right, which has become emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. Immigrants, women, Muslims and all working-class people have a stake in defending one another against the right-wing assault.

Abortion rights supporters were right to organize this counterprotest. We should counter anti-abortion bigots whenever and wherever they appear in order to demoralize them and prevent their side from growing.

At the same time, each of these successful counterprotests can help us rebuild a strong, unapologetic women's rights movement that doesn't allow the bigots to harass women and clinic workers at the clinic door.

San Francisco is only one of the many stops on the 40 Day's bigoted anti-woman campaign which continues through April 9. Supporters of reproductive justice should find out when they're coming to their city and help organize a counterprotest.

We have a message to send the anti-choice bigots: We won't go back.

Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.