Confronting a church that harasses women
writes from New York City about why the struggle to stop anti-choicers harassing women at a clinic is linked to the fight against sexual violence.
ON OCTOBER 6, 70 pro-choice protesters made their way to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the NoHo area of lower Manhattan at 8 a.m., two blocks from the Planned Parenthood health center on Bleecker Street.
It had been an emotional, difficult week as the protesters, along with millions of others, waited to find out whether the Senate would confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. This was neither the first nor the last time activists hit the streets that week.
This time, however, they got to confront bigots who want to take away women’s reproductive freedom in person.
The plan was to counterprotest the anti-abortion bigots on their turf, setting up a picket at their meeting point at the church to prevent them from getting to Planned Parenthood for as long as possible.
Instead of allowing the reactionaries to harass women at their clinic and accepting that as the normal way women experience health care, NYC for Abortion Rights (NYC4AR) took the fight to the right. Despite the fleet of police protecting the anti-abortion side, our mobilization interrupted the church’s procession and prevented it from reaching Planned Parenthood for the better part of an hour.
NYC4AR organizers, students from campuses and activists from several socialist organizations picketed for an hour in front of the church, with chants like “Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate” and “This church harasses women.”
As protesters got wind that the procession was coming out of the back of the church to avoid the crowd, NYC4AR led the group to the nearest cross street on Houston to confront them. The congregation made things even harder on themselves since they ended up farther from the clinic than they had intended.
NYC4AR got in front of more than 100 anti-abortion marchers and moved slowly backward, inch by inch, as the police yelled at them to keep it moving so the church’s procession could continue.
Once they arrived at Planned Parenthood, NYC4AR took the side of the street directly opposite the clinic and forced the anti-abortion congregation to the other side. There, they sang protest songs that they adapted to pro-choice messages about not being turned around by sexism and standing their ground to access health care.
Two people stood next to the fake clinic escorts and sidewalk counselors who harass women in front of the clinic, with signs saying, “Fake Clinic Escort.” As the sidewalk mass for the congregation came to an end, the pro-choice activists followed them back to their church, chanting, “Bigots go home!”
It was one victory for our side that week.
IT WAS ironic that the police protected the anti-abortion procession. On August 4, NYC4AR had picketed in front of Old St. Patrick’s to let the congregation know that their monthly ritual of marching to Planned Parenthood to harass women seeking health care wouldn’t go unchallenged.
The plan was the same, but when the anti-abortion side met up with protesters outside the church, one of them assaulted three members of NYC4AR, causing one person to have to go to the hospital with a concussion.
This brings me to the following point: Violence, both sexual and otherwise, toward women, queer and non-binary people, people of color and their allies isn’t a separate problem from the attempt to control the reproductive lives of pregnant people.
In August, a grand jury released a dossier of evidence showing more than 300 confirmed cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the state of Pennsylvania, dating as far back as the 1960s.
In the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it’s one layer of sedimentary rage and horror in the volcanic eruption of anger as survivors of Kavanaugh’s attacks told their stories. We can’t forget this layer because it is a part of the whole picture.
The Pennsylvania case reveals the hypocrisy of Catholic Church officials claiming they care so deeply about the “sanctity of life” when they spend so much of their clergy’s energy covering up sexual abuse that ruins people’s lives and the lives of their children, and breaks apart families.
A lot of the victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are men, but there are many women, too. The conclusion isn’t that all Catholics endorse this violence. To the contrary, most are probably deeply angry about the abuse, and some are likely relieved that the veil has been lifted on abusive priests.
The point isn’t even that every clergy member covers up assault. The conclusion is that the Church is a hierarchically organized institution that maintains gender conformity and segregation as well as reproductive control at every level, from the Vatican to Old Saint Pat’s.
It’s not unlike a capitalist workplace in the 19th century or a prison in the 21st. At least in today’s workplaces, women can control their reproductive futures, do skilled work and earn professional degrees. At least some have been able to do so anyway.
Others, mostly women of color and working-class women, have experienced forced sterilization abuse and lack of access to abortion due to the Hyde Amendment, which bars women from using Medicaid funds for abortion.
The labor market is still segregated by gender and race, and prisons haven’t changed much. In prison, women are forced to give birth while being cuffed to tables, and trans inmates don’t get adequate access to health care that is appropriate to their gender identity.
THE ABUSES of power that lead to sexual violence aren’t the result of ignorance, repression or teenage confusion. They’re protected by clergy and prep school boys alike.
The thing that the clergy in Pennsylvania have in common with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge is that they carry out abuse with the confidence that they will be shielded by whole networks of powerful people, who will defend them like they are defending themselves. Because they are.
An important part of defending themselves is limiting the control that women have over their bodies. Discrediting survivors is one way that women are kept in their place, and the attempt to push women back into traditional gender roles gains ground.
If it becomes impossible to believe survivors when they say they’ve been assaulted, then it’s difficult to believe that they are fully thinking and responsible human beings who can make decisions to end pregnancies for good reasons.
In any case, ordinary women are definitely not as wise as the clergy, who are presumably trained in both theology and philosophy.
The right doesn’t hate abortion because it cares about life. The right hates abortion because it wants to control women’s bodies. NYC for Abortion Rights demonstrates at Old Saint Pat’s because the group wants to make an unapologetic defense of bodily autonomy and put an end to their normalized routine of harassing women.
Their mottos are “Trust Women” and “We won’t go back.” Indeed. It is time to launch a fight from the ground up.