Pro-choice voices have to be heard

February 16, 2017

Anti-abortion groups called for a national day of action on February 11 in support of their call to defund Planned Parenthood. But instead of a day of the right protesting at clinic doors, February 11 was a day of action for supporters of women's right to abortion, as thousands of people around the country showed up to counterprotest and make sure that pro-choice, pro-women voices were heard. Here, Josh McDuffie and Alpana Mehta report from Boston about how the pro-choice side got organized.

ACTIVISTS IN Boston mobilized on February 11 to defend abortion rights, and in particular to defend Planned Parenthood from an assault by right-wingers calling for anti-abortion demonstrations in front of clinics across the country.

Anti-women bigots brought hundreds of professionally made signs that remained unused in boxes when their side mobilized only about 50 people throughout the morning.

For more than four hours, pro-choice activists chanted and drowned out the anti-women chants and prayers. We covered their signs and fake photos with our own sign reading "Abortion on Demand and Without Apology."

The most popular chants were "Pray, you'll need it. Your cause will be defeated," "Get up, get down! Boston is a pro-choice town!" and one of the final chants as we outlasted the bigots: "We're younger, we're stronger. We're gonna be here longer!"

Police pens forced both sides behind the same pen, making it easy to directly confront and drown out the bigots as they attempted to harass women and workers going into Planned Parenthood in Boston.

Countering the anti-choice bigots outside a Planned Parenthood clinic
Countering the anti-choice bigots outside a Planned Parenthood clinic

From the start of the protests, it became clear who the police sided with, as they asked us not to use our bullhorns and made sure we stayed behind the pens, while allowing some of the anti-women demonstrators to stand near the entrance to Planned Parenthood, where they harassed women entering the building.

But by consistently challenging the police when they applied their rules unfairly, we were able to get them to not allow a PA system to be set up on the anti-choice side, and officers began to yell at the bigots to stop standing at the entrance, without us even having to ask them to do so.

BETWEEN 50 and 60 pro-choice activists mobilized for the first clinic defense in years in Boston on Saturday, which was organized by COMBAT (Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump), the International Socialist Organization and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Our side could have seen numbers in the thousands like those who stated on social media that they would attend demonstrations to defend Planned Parenthood. However, Planned Parenthood itself organized and argued against activists to cancel demonstrations in Boston and elsewhere.

Their statements demobilized hundreds of new activists and women who are tired of seeing control over their own bodies legislated away over the last few decades. Canceling demonstrations has been a losing strategy that has conceded ground to the right wing without a confrontation.

Lisa, an activist who attended the protest, said that her first clinic defense in Boston was in 1989:

I am unbelievably tired of the fact that I've been protesting for the right to choose since 1989 or before. And I'm sure that before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, it was even worse.

I'll keep protesting until the day I die if I have to, but I am tired of trying to drag this country forward, especially in the light of the last several years. No one should have to walk through the gauntlet of those disgusting so-called people. All my friends and my friends kids who need this service--I'm not going to let them become second-class citizens.

Helen and Jess, best friends who attended the protest, saw a CNN article about the "Defund Planned Parenthood" website in which people mistook "defund" for "defend" and decided to come to the clinic to protest the right wing, not even knowing that others had called a counterprotest. "If we had to protest them on our own, we would have done it," they said.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD personnel at the Commonwealth Avenue site where we demonstrated were split on their attitude toward pro-choice protesters. While one staffer came out several times to argue with us to either leave or not chant, other volunteers and staffers thanked us for attending and handed out hand-warmers as well.

Arguments by the political wing of Planned Parenthood that women couldn't differentiate between our chants and the anti-women chants fell flat in the face of our own experiences as patients who have been harassed by the bigots.

Pedestrians and drivers passing the demonstration were clearly capable of distinguishing between the two sides--most notably, with one car passenger's yelling at the anti-choice demonstrators turning into cheers as the vehicle passed those of us defending a woman's right to choose.

While the clinic defense was an astounding success, the greatest weakness was our numbers. The natural reaction for so many women's rights activists when they first heard about these "Defund Planned Parenthood" protests, especially after the confidence boosting Women's March, was to fight and confront these bigots.

With such a strong push by Planned Parenthood calling for counterprotesters to cancel their demonstrations, many understandably followed its direction and did not attend.

Going forward, it will be our job to share our experiences from the clinic defense to show those who were demobilized that their initial instincts were correct and that to fight off these right-wing attacks on women, we must confront the bigots and demoralize them to the point that they no longer show.

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