Hey, 40 Days: Madison is pro-choice

November 9, 2018

When supporters of abortion rights heard that 40 Days for Life was coming to Madison, they got organized to turn them back, report Dayna Long and Annie Ho.

THERE’S A new line of defense against attacks on abortion rights in Madison, Wisconsin. The Madison Abortion Defense (MAD) coalition formed as a response to both the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and to the biannual action by “40 Days for Life” to swarm local abortion providers.

The anti-choice side has had an upper hand thanks to years of mobilizing without a challenge from supporters of abortion rights — but no longer. MAD formed just two weeks before its first action — a clinic defense — on October 27, but we outnumbered the anti-abortion forces at our local Planned Parenthood.

The clinic was closed for the day, so there were no staff or patients at the clinic; this allowed the Madison Abortion Defense and fellow supporters to get acquainted with the terrain of our clinic.

The tone of our counterprotest fluctuated between playful chants like “Get your rosaries off my ovaries” and “Get your crucifix off my uterus” to more serious calls, such as “Abortion is health care, health care is a right.” We recognize this fight as a fight for all bodily autonomy, and protesters stood in solidarity with our trans and nonbinary siblings by chanting, “Transition health care is a right.”

While planning this first action, MAD organizers learned that the 40 Days for Life’s national leadership planned to host a rally outside the clinic on October 29. Despite the short notice, 65 pro-choice clinic defenders lined the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood in their first weekday action to counterprotest.

Activists defend a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison, Wisconsin
Activists defend a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison, Wisconsin (International Socialist Organization - Madison | Facebook)

Across the street, workers from a local coffee cooperative came outside to watch. As they realized that the crowd in front of the clinic supported abortion rights, they flashed thumbs-up. One worker even shouted, “It’s about time you guys showed up.”

As more anti-choice protesters arrived for their rally, including the president of 40 Days for Life and his cronies in matching 40 Days for Life windbreakers, clinic defenders marched to face the 35-person rally and lined up behind the bed of the pick-up truck that the antis intended to use as a small stage.

Ultimately, the backdrop for their “stage” was our banner reading “Abortion Is Health Care, Health Care Is a Right.” For three hours, clinic defenders chanted and clapped over their rally. One clinic defender even brought his saxophone and played along with the chants. In the end, the pro-choice clinic defense outlasted the anti-choice rally, and said good riddance as the anti-choicers packed up and went home.

Our defense outnumbered the anti-choice turnout in front of their own visiting national leadership. It was an embarrassing show for 40 Days for Life, and it revealed what a tiny minority those who picket abortion clinics actually are in the Madison area, which is reflected nationally in the overwhelming majority of people who want abortion to remain legal.

Before the anti-choicers left the clinic, defenders promised to protest their church the following Sunday after the final “vigil.”

Just two days after the demoralizing embarrassment, Vigil for Life (the Madison offshoot of 40 Days for Life) announced that they were moving their closing prayer vigil from Planned Parenthood back to their Catholic church in town, marking a major victory for pro-choice activists and our new coalition.


THE BIGOTS’ retreat from the abortion clinic showed a clear reluctance to face another mobilization by MAD and end 2018’s 40 Days for Life on a low note.

Some of this early success stems from the fact that the antis were taken completely off-guard by the appearance of pro-choice clinic defenders at the tail-end of their 40 Days. In the spring, it’s unlikely that they will be taken by surprise in the same way again. But with months to prepare, MAD should be able to mount an even stronger defense of our abortion clinic.

This victory also shows that when we mobilize, the numbers are on our side and we can protect our clinic from the bigots’ harassment.

There are currently only three clinics in the state of Wisconsin that provide surgical abortions. All of them are located near the state’s southern border. This means that people who live in the northern part of the state are out of luck unless they have the time and the money to travel to Madison, Milwaukee or even Duluth, Minnesota.

People seeking abortions in Wisconsin are further burdened by the state’s requirement that they obtain an ultrasound at a consultation appointment, followed by a 24-hour waiting period, before they get an abortion.

Additionally, while many working people would probably prefer to have their abortions on Saturday to avoid taking time off of work, only one abortion clinic is open on Saturdays in Wisconsin.

This clinic, Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee, is also the only abortion clinic to perform abortions up to the legal limit in Wisconsin, which is 20 weeks gestation, due to a ban signed into law in 2015.

Affiliated Medical Services has no private entrance or private parking lot, which means that its patients are forced to walk past aggressive anti-choice protesters, who are a regular presence in front of the clinic.

During 40 Days for Life, the number of protesters swells from just a handful of vocal and aggressive individuals to dozens. But even just one protester is too many. No one should have to suffer the indignity of being screamed at while seeking medical care. No one should need an escort to go to the doctor.


FOR YEARS, the fight to defend abortion rights in Wisconsin has largely been limited to the electoral arena, with brief upsurges of struggle around particular anti-choice attacks in the legislature or, most recently, around the Supreme Court confirmation of sexual abuser and anti-choice judge Brett Kavanaugh.

In September, activists from socialist organizations like ISO, Socialist Alternative and YDSA joined with activists from NARAL, National Organization for Women, and Fight 4 Her to mobilize for multiple speak-outs, vigils and a march from University of Wisconsin-Madison to the State Capitol, all to protest Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

It was through this struggle that Madison Abortion Defense began to coalesce. Notably, there is also important overlap between activists coming out to defend our clinic, and the activists who successfully fought to keep the police out of Madison’s Pride parade this past summer.

There is historic precedent for solidarity between the movement for LGBTQ liberation and the fight to defend abortion rights, not just because abortion is an LGBTQ issue, but because of the underlying issues of bodily autonomy and a shared enemy in the religious right.

MAD’s success will depend on its ability to take the seeds of these short-term coalitions and grow them into a community-wide force willing to fight for abortion rights and bodily autonomy in the long term. Our early success in deterring 40 Days for Life from holding their closing prayer vigil at Planned Parenthood shows that when we organize, we can win.

But abortion access in Wisconsin is also tied to a much larger national fight. Wisconsin is one of many states with a pre-Roe abortion ban still on the books, which means that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will be outlawed here. Wisconsin’s ban only makes exceptions for the life — not the health — of the pregnant person.

The clinic defenders and activists of Madison Abortion Defense are counting on abortion rights supporters far beyond Wisconsin to mount a similar militant defense of bodily autonomy and the right to choose an abortion.

With Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, we have a limited amount of time to build up our side before the Supreme Court hears its first case challenging Roe v. Wade. It will take widespread organization on the scale of the Women’s Marches to stop them from dealing a devastating blow.

The clock is ticking. In Wisconsin, we’re fighting to win.

Hayley Archer and Tommy Valtin-Erwin contributed to this article.

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