This church harasses women

February 8, 2018

Maria Silvestri reports from New York City on a mobilization to defend a women's health clinic from anti-choice protesters assembled by St. Patrick's Basilica.

MORE THAN 40 pro-choice activists gathered early on February 3 to demonstrate outside a church whose members regularly harass women entering a nearby abortion clinic.

Once a month, St. Patrick's Basilica in New York City interrupts its service to march parishioners three blocks down the street to the Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Center. The group then accosts patients entering the clinic, before returning to the church to celebrate with coffee and doughnuts.

On February 3, the anti-woman churchgoers were staging their 40 Days for Life spring kickoff march--so NYC for Abortion Rights decided to meet them in their space, in front of the church gates. Our group decided that we would not let them continue to claim the ground in front of our clinics unopposed--and that we would go on the offensive.

NYC for Abortion Rights has been organizing since last year's 40 Days for Life campaign, and today, this work feels more urgent than ever, with both Democrats and Republicans fighting against women's basic health care. The anti-choice right has been emboldened in the absence of a force standing against them.

Speaking out for reproductive justice in New York City
Speaking out for reproductive justice in New York City

The tide is not turning solely in their favor, though. This year, many people who support abortion rights have found their voices against sexual violence and gender oppression and grasped their power in movements like #MeToo and actions like the Women's March.

Defending clinics and advancing demands for women's health care can also be an opportunity to develop our collective power further.

IN THE lead-up to the action, members of NYC for Abortion Rights and patients of the clinic reached out multiple times to the church, asking them to call off their march.

With no response, our group voted to meet them at the church before their march. Since they try to shame patients entering clinics, we decided to shame them at their churches--letting others attending the service and locals know what they do to intimidate patients.

Dozens of us--from NYC For Abortion Rights, the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America and National Women's Liberation--gathered in the frigid morning air at the church's gates, with the aim of stopping them before they could even get within earshot of the clinic.

We set up a moving picket in front of the church's entrance carrying signs that read "Abortion is health care, and health care is a right" and "This church harasses pregnant people."

Our boisterous chat of "This church harasses women" was intended to give the church and those attending it some idea of what they inflict on women exercising their rights to control their own bodies. Visitors entering the church had to march through our picket, and many exhibited clear frustration at the disruption.

NYC for Abortion Rights delayed the right-wingers' march by more than 20 minutes, cutting down their time in front of the clinic by more than a third (and delaying their self-congratulatory doughnut party). With a stronger mobilized group, it would be easy to imagine us stopping them from reaching the clinic altogether and calling off their marches in order to avoid such unwanted attention.

As we tried to block them from moving towards the clinic, we positioned our positive and bright signs with slogans like "Proud Planned Parenthood patient" and "I <3 abortion providers" to cover their gruesome fake photos, crosses and pious imagery, so no patient was forced to see them.

It was a good thing that we followed them to the clinic, because they far outnumbered the two escorts Planned Parenthood was able to send out. Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood escorts are not allowed to confront or de-escalate situations when anti-choicers speak to patients and physically grab them.

Our numbers and lack of formal affiliation meant we were able to intervene when the church tried to send patients to a fake clinic and confuse them with misinformation.

After an hour, they shuffled back to their church to chants of "Bigots, go home!"

As was the case during our 1992 fight against Operation Rescue, showing up in large numbers wherever they go demoralizes the right and stops them from being able to attack clinic patients, escorts and doctors. When we can outnumber them, they shrink back.

The moral high ground is not theirs to claim, and we will not let them have it any longer. The fight does not get to be on their terms, and theirs will not be the only voice. And we will continue to return to their space when they repeat their processions.

Emily Brooks contributed to this article.

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