A North Carolina clinic under siege

July 19, 2017

Dayna Long reviews a documentary about the fight for access at North Carolina abortion clinics--and asks what it will take to safeguard reproductive freedom.

AS THE right wing escalates its attacks on reproductive health care under Trump, the question of how to fight back against these legislative, ideological and--in many cases--physical assaults on women's right to choose abortion has become more urgent than ever.

The recent documentary Care in Chaos--produced by Rewire, an internet news outlet that focuses on reproductive health care--raises important points for anyone thinking through questions of strategy to preserve abortion access. Ultimately, the futility of relying on the government to preserve that access is exposed.

Care in Chaos chronicles the droves of anti-choice bigots descending on A Preferred Women's Health Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of four clinics that collectively provide care for more than 20,000 patients in the state each year. The allegedly "pro-life" protesters harass and intimidate patients while city officials and law enforcement turn a blind eye.

Over the course of the 20-minute film, viewers are introduced to the busiest abortion clinic in the state of North Carolina. In addition to seeing the most patients, it has been the most heavily targeted by right-wing protesters. At least 15 hard-core protesters can be expected at the clinic on any given day, along with two "ultrasound buses"--recreational vehicles outfitted with ultrasound machines not staffed by medical professionals, that the antis use to try to convince women to not have abortions.

Women stand up for their reproductive rights in North Carolina
Women stand up for their reproductive rights in North Carolina (NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina | Facebook)

On busy days like Fridays and Saturdays, anti-choice protesters can number in the hundreds, standing outside the clinic and using a microphone and speakers to verbally harass women attempting to enter the clinic. Their voices are amplified to such a degree that they can be heard inside the clinic.

THE FILM introduces viewers to clinic administrator Calla Hales, a 27-year-old woman who is still recovering from a November 2015 sexual assault after a date with a man who had previously asked her for information about her job. This horrifying story illustrates one extreme of the routine harassment and violence unleashed on clinic staff by right-wing protesters.

After she refused to go home with him, the man forced Hales into the backseat of a car, choked her with a seatbelt and raped her. "He said things like I should have expected this and that I deserved it," Hales told Cosmopolitan magazine. "He asked how I could live with myself and said I should repent. That I was a jezebel. That I was a murderer. That he was doing no worse to me than I had done to women. He said he would make me remember him."

Review: Documentaries

Care in Chaos, directed by Lindsay Beyerstein and Martyna Starosta. To inquire about viewing and discussion guides, or to contact the film's creators, e-mail [email protected].

Hales' repeated calls to police about protesters violating Charlotte's noise ordinance have proven to be useless. Protesters turn down the volume when police arrive on the scene, and officers willfully ignore this manipulation and other abuses by anti-choice protesters.

If clinic escorts and supporters can get a sound permit before the anti-choice demonstrators, the bigots are effectively blocked from setting up their sound equipment on any particular day.

But the film shows these efforts proving fruitless. The permitting body in Charlotte claims that the sound permit will be issued to the first group to submit a request. Six nights a week, clinic escorts wait until midnight to race the anti-choicers in applying--a race they lose an odds-defying 78 percent of the time.

As Rewire's Jessica Mason Pieklo told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, one goal of the film:

is to show the critical importance in buy-in of local law enforcement in terms of protecting and facilitating a patient's rights to access the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy when they need to, as well as the rights and safety of the doctors and staff and companions who are working with these patients.

The protests in Charlotte are out of control. You have hundreds of people descending on a clinic that is, in Charlotte, sort of off a rural road. It's not easy to get to. They set up fake ultrasound clinics. They approach people at their doors of the cars and talk to them, walk right through...These are people whose singular goal is to recriminalize abortion and who have zero problem jailing women and providers who do terminate pregnancies.

THESE EPISODES in Charlotte are a crushing illustration of the fact that police and city officials are not impartial figures who can be trusted to enforce laws--meaning that laws which are supposed to protect patient access are often rendered useless.

Care in Chaos also attempts to present a more positive view of the role of local police in Fargo, North Dakota, where a young, female police officer is lauded for her impartiality when dealing with protesters outside of Red River Women's Clinic. While she checks on the clinic often, much is made of the fact that she remains neutral to "both sides."

But conditions at the Charlotte clinic make it clear that establishing more rules around who can be at the clinic and what their presence can and can't include--speakers, signs, buses--isn't a solution to safeguarding access to abortion. Not only do police selectively enforce the rules against the bigots, but we see that the rules can be used against pro-choice forces--like when the city denies permits to clinic supporters.

This is an example of the risk we take when we ask the state to take up more control over who can protest, when, where and how.

Buffer zones, permit requirements, or noise ordinances cannot take the place of building a movement to fight for abortion rights and access to reproductive health care.

When they work, such measures make it easier for patients to enter clinics, which is important--but they ultimately do little to stop bigots from showing up at clinics in the first place. And any movement for reproductive justice cannot rely on police as a solution to its problems when policing in the U.S. rests on a legacy of racism and murder.

Instead, we need two things. First, we need a clear and ambitious goal, an idea of what we actually want--a society where, ultimately, any person can get an abortion whenever they need one, uninhibited by cost or distance from a clinic, and not be forced to encounter anti-choice harassment or violence.

Too often, reproductive rights advocates settle for merely preserving things as they are today, a reaction to decades of being hammered by anti-choice legislation and an increasingly aggressive anti-choice movement.

But this attitude has been a disaster, leading mainstream reproductive rights organizations to make terrible strategic decisions that hurt our ability to win gains in the future.

For example, every time a Planned Parenthood official or supporter opposes federal defunding by insisting that money doesn't pay for abortions, they make it harder to get rid of the Hyde Amendment, which does immeasurable damage to the lives of poor people by preventing federal funds from being used for abortion services.

Instead, we should be fighting to save Planned Parenthood and secure federal funding for abortions, with the eventual goal of making abortion care such a seamless part of health care that we no longer need specialized, standalone abortion clinics at all.

In the case of clinic safety and anti-choice protesters, the problematic strategy centers on opposition to counterprotests against the anti-choice bigots. The argument is that counterprotests only make it worse for patients. But patients often feel heartened by seeing the pro-choice side at clinics. And these mobilizations can be a part of rebuilding a fighting movement for abortion rights.

IF WE embrace a wider vision of abortion care, we can start to make decisions about strategy that are based on what we actually want, rather than what we hope to prevent from happening. But to make that happen, we need a new movement--one that's independent from the Democratic Party.

Today, the movement for reproductive rights is disoriented, largely following the lead of NGOs that discourage grassroots resistance while deferring to the Democrats--whose commitment to reproductive freedom is questionable at best and actively harmful at worst. The backsliding on abortion rights continued without pause, even under a Democratic president who could have used his party's majority in both houses of Congress to fight the attacks on abortion rights during his first two years in office.

A Preferred Women's Health Clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, needs to be defended--as do independent abortion clinics around the country.

While the situation in Charlotte is particularly appalling, anyone who has been involved in escort work or in organizing counterprotests will recognize that it is unique only in how large the anti-choice protests are growing, not that they are happening. We must start building coalitions, planning demonstrations, and continuing the excellent work that was started with this year's Women's March and International Women's Day strike.

Rewire is an excellent source of information on reproductive justice struggles and should be commended for producing such an accessible and impactful documentary. The job for activists is to share the video, analyze the lessons it presents, and begin moving forward in our communities for full reproductive justice.

We are not fighting to keep the volume of anti-choice protests under 75 decibels. We are fighting for a world where there are no protesters at abortion clinics and where abortion is freely available to anyone who needs it.

Further Reading

From the archives