As Threats to Autonomy Intensify, Alabama Feminists Fight for Reproductive Freedom

The virulently anti-choice, anti-gay Operation Save America spent a week in Alabama last month for its "Let Justice Roll" event. But local feminists met the invasion with calls for justice of their own.

The virulently anti-choice, anti-gay Operation Save America spent a week in Alabama last month for its "Let Justice Roll" event. But local feminists met the invasion with calls for justice of their own. WVUA 23 / YouTube

Despite temperature warnings of over 90 degrees with unbearable humidity on the horizon, the group Operation Save America (OSA) descended last month on Montgomery, Alabama, bringing hundreds of anti-choice, anti-gay activists of all ages to the state’s capital city. Opening the “Let Justice Roll” week-long event was Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who warned the crowd—commonly inflated in mainstream media to be more than 300 people, though on-the-ground activists only witnessed about 100—that “America is under attack.”

From what, you might ask? Abortion rights and marriage equality, of course.

“Well, are you prepared for the consequences?” Moore asked the crowd at Fresh Anointing House of Worship on July 11. “There will be consequences.”

Yes, there are and will continue to be consequences, as Alabama politicians and anti-choice activists remain determined to undermine the rights of fully formed people. But some of these consequences are perhaps not the ones Moore envisions. Indeed, as Operation Save America and its ilk pursue their agenda in a state hospitable to their own, feminists and pro-choice activists are pursuing reproductive freedom at every turn.

Let’s back up to discuss what happened in Alabama during the OSA inundation.

Operation Save America Invades

OSA activists spent a week in mid-July protesting in front of clinics in Montgomery and Huntsville, as well as outside of the statehouse, Huntsville city hall, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has renewed its ethics complaint against Moore and identified several organizations affiliated with OSA as “hate groups.” But local activists—including Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates (ARRA), for which I am coalition liaison—were prepared for the onslaught of anti-choicers.

In Montgomery, pro-choice activists rented the house next door to the local clinic to help protect the facility, providers, staff, and patients. While OSA members chanted, prayed, yelled, held signs featuring gruesome and inaccurate images of aborted zygotes that one clinic defender called “fetal porn,” and more, advocates sang, observed, and of course, escorted. Because yes, clinics remained open the entire week. In Huntsville, where anti-choice activists have a history of violence, OSA affiliates and supporters gathered a crowd of approximately 100 adults and 75 children over the day. There, they too were met with about 40 pro-choice clinic defenders. Not only did these activists escort patients, they also parked moving vans draped with signs reading “Team Dalton” (for the clinic owner) and quoting rock singer Tom Petty: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” No one from OSA could see the clinic or anyone seeking its services.

These strategies speak to the power of clinic defenders to maintain both order and safety under siege. And they weren’t alone—the actions of the feminists and pro-choice activists throughout OSA’s event show Alabaman advocates’ potential power to push back against these growing threats to bodily autonomy.

In fine—and fun!—feminist form, ARRA turned the weeklong OSA event into a fundraiser. About a month prior to the OSA action, ARRA launched an “adopt-an-anti” campaign online, wherein people could “Let Reproductive Justice Roll!” and sponsor a particular protester or adopt people for a day or the entire week. This online fundraiser depended on ARRA members counting anti-choice activists every day to account for 5-, 10-, or 25-cent donations. One participant donated a dollar for every child present and $10 for every child outside at an OSA event when the temperatures were over 90 degrees. When it was all said and done, ARRA raised more than $3,100—all of which went to help women in Alabama obtain an abortion even when finances stand in their way. Local artist Pamela JoAnn Willis also used her talent—as well as a pair of handcuffs delivered anonymously to the Huntsville clinic—and auctioned off this painting as a fundraiser for ARRA, raising another $550. Using art and online activism, ARRA turned OSA into a lot of money to help Alabama women obtain abortions.

But it is more than using OSA’s presence to further pro-choice causes. Upon the conclusion of the anti-choice organization’s weeklong visit, seven executive board members of ARRA filed an ethics complaint against Moore for his involvement with the event. In this complaint, which will be taken up by the Judicial Ethics Commission, ARRA charged, “By aligning himself with these domestic terrorists, Judge Moore is guilty of domestic treason by association, conflict of interest, misconduct, collusion and consorting with the enemy.” Indeed, known clinic bomber John Brockhoeft as well as sex offender Howard Scott Heldreth were both in the area during the week—and Judge Moore praised this “radical for God” organization openly, with both his words and his presence.

The Struggle for Bodily Autonomy Continues

“Let Justice Roll” came and went, but a month later, anti-choicers’ beat goes on.

Three weeks after OSA left the area, a woman known as Jane Doe sought an abortion—something well within her legal rights in the state as a person pregnant for less than 20 weeks. Of course, in addition to the time restriction, abortion is already difficult to obtain in Alabama: 48-hour mandatory waiting period, two clinic visits, and cost of travel, time, and procedure. But Jane Doe’s choice was exacerbated by the fact that she is imprisoned in the Lauderdale County jail. The state ACLU sought to get her a temporary furlough to travel 75 miles to the Huntsville clinic; ARRA agreed to lend financial support if Doe was able to obtain the procedure but lacked financial resources to do so. However, the Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly refused to let her go, citing the 2013 criminal endangerment act under which she is currently charged, and instead sought to appoint an attorney for the fetus. He also stated that if the court approved her petition to obtain an abortion, he would have her parental rights terminatedwhile she is still pregnant. These legal machinations effectively threatened to turn Jane Doe into a reproductive vessel, not a woman with rights to determine what could happen to her own body.

Doe has since decided not to have an abortion and instead will carry her fetus to term. No one knows for certain if she was coerced into this decision—she signed an affidavit that she was not—but it is easy to see how few choices she actually has as someone imprisoned and pregnant. She also still faces the potential loss of her parental rights because of the criminal endangerment charge.

Beyond this particular—and particularly horrifying—case, the state legislature is in special session and using this time to push through devastating anti-choice bills. Governor Robert Bentley had to call a special session, which convened on Monday, August 3, because the legislature did not pass a budget during regular session. The focus of the special session must be on the budget, but the legislature passed a Budget Isolation Resolution allowing it to take up “emergency measures.”

Two such measures include SB 44, sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile), which prohibits the exchange of money or anything of value for fetal tissue. Of course, this bill is related to the attack videos that have had forced-birthers pushing to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level for the last two weeks. Meanwhile, SB 26, a bill Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) proposed, would set up the state to charge a woman who has an abortion with homicide. As the bill is worded, it would revise the definition of criminal homicide to include abortion, even if the woman consents. The Alabama legislature is poised, once again, to challenge the very foundation of Roe v. Wade and subsequent legal precedent that affirms a woman’s right to abortion. In so doing, it undermines the reality that women are fully formed human beings. If SB 26 is successful—and history shows that in the Alabama legislature, anything is possible—the consequences for any person who can and does get pregnant are very real.

To cap all of it off, last week, Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley announced that he was cutting off state funding to Planned Parenthood.

Getting Radical for Reproductive Rights

Forced-birth activists in Alabama and around the country will be protesting Planned Parenthood agencies later this month. ARRA and clinic defenders will greet them and anyone who needs clinic services with more goodwill toward patients and providers, and a firm commitment to women’s human rights. And we will continue to work in the courts, in the statehouse, at the clinics, and alongside each other.

Now that Gov. Bentley has decided to defund Planned Parenthood, pro-choice activists are donating money in honor of (and more than one activist, “in memory of”) Bentley and his administration. Monday, August 10 was a “storm the statehouse” day, in which people around the state protested, among other things, the governor’s cuts to the organization. And on August 22, the day identified as a national day of protest against Planned Parenthood, ARRA will counter-protest those activists. We, along with other advocates, will be working in coalition with local, state, and national organizations to launch lawsuits, file ethics complaints, and stop abusive legislation that undoes women’s human rights. Alabama feminists and pro-choice activists are poised to get radical for reproductive rights.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the waiting period in Alabama.