As Anti-Choice Violence Erupted in US, Abortion Clinic Escort Maintained Records About Protesters

Anti-choice protest tactics are on trial in New York amid a marked uptick in violence against abortion providers and clinics.

[Photo: Anti-choice protesters gather outside of a clinic with signs to keep abortion illegal. A woman walks by the protesters.]
Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortion counseling and other health-care services have long dealt with anti-abortion activist activity that have ranged from smear campaigns to bomb threats. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

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A couple walked toward Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, when they were approached by an anti-choice protester who held out leaflets and said, “You don’t need to murder your baby.”

“My baby died. Why are you doing this?” the distraught man said to the protester. 

When the abortion rights foe didn’t stop, the man picked up some rocks and chased away the protester.

The woman coming in wasn’t there for abortion care; she had had a miscarriage and was there for miscarriage management, said Pearl Brady, choking up on the second day of her testimony in the N.Y. v. Griepp hearing at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. 

“That just broke my heart,” she said, pausing to collect herself.

A former volunteer and escort leader at the Choices Women’s Medical Center, Brady has been stoic throughout the preliminary injunction hearing held this week. But she lost her composure Tuesday evening when she described the incident. Inside the clinic, she said, the patient was leaning on the wall and sobbing as her companion looked up with bloodshot eyes. The situation distressed her so much that she had to find a quiet place to sit and cry for a bit, she said, something she rarely did in the two-plus years she worked at Choices.

This was one of several incidents brought up in court to describe protester behavior at the clinic in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens. Photos, videos, and written observations from escorts showed much more. Large posters depicted bloodied fetuses or dismembered body parts pictured beside a quarter with slogans like, “Killing a baby is no way to plan parenthood” and “The body inside your body is not your body.” Protesters preaching loudly, accosting patients, calling the volunteers “death escorts,” using signs to block access, and telling children, “Don’t let your mother go in there, they kill children in there.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought the lawsuit this year and described the situation at Choices as a five-year “barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies about the clinic’s hours and its services.

The two sides have tussled from the get-go, arguing about what constitutes harassment versus what is protected speech, as the Courthouse News Service reportedAnd that’s what the defense attorney Steve Crampton focused on when he cross examined Brady on Wednesday.

Special counsel to the Thomas More Society, which is known for backing anti-abortion causes, Crampton questioned Brady’s decision to maintain a dossier on the aggressive protesters, outlining their affiliations, family members, social media accounts, and license plates.

Brady testified that it was her idea to gather and maintain an internal Google document since early 2016. She noted where they studied or worked; took photos of them, their cars, and license plates; and created a fake Facebook account to befriend them and other anti-choice groups “to see what was going on.”

Besides asking her if she would’ve been OK with the protesters gathering such personal information on the escorts, neither delved into the real reason Brady went to such lengths to maintain a detailed dossier. Brady began volunteering at the clinic in the spring of 2015, a few months before a mass shooting killed three and injured nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Admitted killer Robert Lewis Dear Jr. has so far been found not competent to stand trial. 

Dear proclaimed himself a “warrior” for “babies” and reportedly shouted “no more baby parts” when he was arrested, echoing the deceptively edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal tissue for profit. Those videos were part of a propaganda campaign carried out by an anti-choice front group called the Center for Medical Progress, which has worked closely with Republican lawmakers on the state and federal levels. 

Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortion counseling and other health-care services have long dealt with anti-abortion activist activity that has ranged from smear campaigns to bomb threats. In 2015, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) first documented statistics showing a marked uptick in violence against abortion providers and clinics. Eleven murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 185 arsons, and thousands more incidents of criminal behavior were directed at abortion providers between 1977 and 2015. NAF officials recorded 94 threats of direct harm in 2015 as compared to one in 2014.

Its online monitoring work led NAF to identify an anti-choice radical who advocated setting clinics on fire: “One person setting fire to an abortion clinic will not do anything but thousands setting fire to an abortion clinic will speak volumes.” Within three months of that post, clinics in Washington state, Louisiana, California, and Illinois were victims of arson.

NAF found 2016 saw an increase in intimidation tactics at abortion clinics, including vandalism, burglary, and bomb threats. The escalation in hate speech and internet harassment intensified after the November 2016 election. In 2016, clinics across the United States reported nearly 43,000 incidents of hate mail and internet harassment compared to nearly 26,000 incidents in 2015, according to another NAF report. Clinics reported around 62,000 instances of picketing, compared to 22,000 instances the year prior, and reported nine bomb threats in 2016, compared to four in 2015.

Increasing anti-choice protests led to evacuations in late April at a Falls Church clinic in Virginia. Protesters had gathered outside the facility for years, clinic staff noted.

As the hearing continues in Brooklyn, advocates are watching to see what happens.

“Our greatest hope is that this suit will lead to greater enforcement of city, state, and federal clinic access laws,” Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC and executive director of Women’s Justice NOW, said in a statement. “All women have a basic right to be able to get to the door of their doctor’s office without being subjected to hostile taunts and harassment.”

The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994 and the New York State Clinic Access Act give patients and staff the right to be free from force, threats, or physical obstruction when trying to access or provide reproductive health care. Yet neither of these laws have kept the anti-choice protesters from blocking the door and sidewalk or from harassing patients coming into Choices, as photos and videos displayed in the courtroom have shown.