Exposing the right's fake clinic in Madison

Mai Lien Dombroe and Dayna Long report from Wisconsin's capital on a protest that shows a way forward for the movement in the state to defend reproductive rights.

Supporters of reproductive rights protest a fake clinic in Madison (ISO-Madison)Supporters of reproductive rights protest a fake clinic in Madison (ISO-Madison)

SUPPORTERS OF reproductive rights mobilized in Madison, Wisconsin, on November 4 to expose a fake clinic in a rally called for by the Madison chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The rally was held outside a Madison-area "crisis pregnancy center," which poses as an abortion provider to lure vulnerable pregnant people through its door and then coerce them into not choosing to have an abortion.

This particular CPC, called Access Women's Health, is purposely located next to the Dane County Health Department to suggest it is a legitimate health care provider. Like other "crisis pregnancy centers," Access Women's Health poses a threat to pregnant women--those who enter are often given blatantly false information about abortions, their risks and their legality, not to mention other issues related to women's reproductive health.

Unlike the clinic defenses that many of the Madison activists had participated in before, the goal of the Expose Fake Clinics rally was to go on the offensive and unmask this CPC as a site of deception and predation that stands in the way of reproductive health care. Several dozen people attended, including members of NOW and the International Socialist Organization, as well as unaffiliated activists.

Some NOW members wore costumes based on The Handmaid's Tale, referencing the similarities between a "clinic" that provides fake health information to women and the future of the The Handmaid's Tale, in which women who can become pregnant are made to be sex slaves for the rich.

During the event, which took place on one of Madison's busiest thoroughfares, numerous people honked their car horns in support of the protesters and gave the thumbs-up. One man walking down the sidewalk tried to engage protesters in debate--when the pro-choice side chanted over him, he tried to pull megaphones from the hands of organizers and shoved some of the protesters.

Despite the disruption, the protest ended strong, with chants such as "Fake clinics, shut them down, no fake clinics in this town" and "Free abortion on demand, can we do it? Yes we can!" The event led to fruitful discussions about the importance of building a movement and how to deal with harassment and security.

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THOUGH PARTICIPANTS felt the protest was successful, it was one of only a handful of mobilizations, including clinic defenses, this year. This is in spite of the fact that Madison was the site of the second largest per capita Women's March on January 21 and a well-attended International Women's Day rally in March.

The attacks on abortion rights, particularly in Wisconsin, have been persistent.

Currently, there are five separate anti-choice bills making their way through the state legislature, with little in the way of vocal opposition from the left.

Three of the bills relate to the disposal of fetal tissue and fetal remains, adding new requirements and fines for failing to comply. All three add to the web of restrictions that already make day-to-day operations difficult for reproductive health care providers, while casting suspicion on all practitioners of reproductive health care as well as pregnant people.

A fourth bill would prevent the Group Insurance Board, which provides insurance coverage for all eligible state employees, from offering plans that include abortion coverage. This bill made national headlines thanks to the shockingly honest commentary of Republican Rep. Scott Allen, who suggested women shouldn't be having abortions at all due to a labor shortage in the state, since "labor force shortages are tied to population declines."

A fifth bill would prevent University of Wisconsin OB-GYN medical students from learning from UW faculty how to perform abortions at any Planned Parenthood clinics.

It is currently illegal for faculty to perform abortions at UW medical facilities because of a law passed in 2011. This makes it nearly impossible for UW OB-GYN residents to learn how to perform abortions without Planned Parenthood--thus, the accreditation of UW's OB-GYN program is threatened.

If the program loses accreditation, it will only worsen an ongoing OB-GYN shortage in Wisconsin--20 of Wisconsin's 72 counties are already without such a specialist.

This last bill has received considerable attention from students, activists and health care professionals. But here, too, organizing has been limited, in part because professional advocacy organizations like Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin (the organization's political arm in the state) encouraged reproductive rights supporters to stay out of the fight.

If activists insisted on being involved, Planned Parenthood recommended that they focus their messaging on the fact that UW's OB-GYN program could lose its accreditation, rather than talking about abortion. A rally scheduled to take place during the bill's first public hearing was called off at the organization's request--it was changed overnight from a speakout on the Capitol lawn to a phone banking day of action.

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THE PEOPLE of Wisconsin have been victims of a devastating war against reproductive rights. The result is that 3 million people of reproductive age who might need an abortion or other reproductive health care live in a state with just three abortion clinics, all of which are located near the state's southern border.

For years now, anti-choice laws have passed easily. Wisconsin is a state in which telemedicine abortion is banned, along with all abortions after 20 weeks gestation, and patients are subjected to state-mandated counseling and a required ultrasound, followed by a 24-hour waiting period before they can have an abortion.

If reproductive rights activists in Wisconsin continue to limit their activities to following the timid lead of one of the most embattled organizations in the state, things will only get worse. Nor should a single organization be setting the agenda for the entire reproductive rights movement in our state.

Everyone who has a stake in making abortion accessible again in Wisconsin should have a say in strategy. We need opportunities for open, democratic planning, where activists can reflect on what hasn't worked and figure out a way forward together.

There's nothing timid about the amount of support for abortion rights in the state of Wisconsin, especially in Madison and Milwaukee.

In addition to the amazing showing at the Madison Women's March and our International Women's Day turnout, people are constantly looking for ways to show up for abortion rights, organizing and attending numerous fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and our local abortion fund since the 2016 election.

People know that abortion rights are in trouble, and they want to help. Their dedication to keeping our clinics open is plain to see. And their opposition to the anti-woman, anti-choice agenda of the right is plain to see, too--in the form of people honking as they drove by our protest of the fake clinic or joining us to defend the city's only abortion clinic against bigots last winter.

We need a movement that reflects that passion and continues to take action, bringing more people into the fold along the way. Whether we're protesting fake clinics, defending our real abortion clinic or organizing to resist the state legislature's ongoing attacks on our rights, the support for a pro-choice agenda already exists--but it needs a winning strategy.