Why I Believe It’s Important to Reclaim the Space in Front of Abortion Clinics

Putting my body in the street has raised the stakes for me.

[Photo: Anti-choice protesters walk from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral to Planned Parenthood in Manhattan.]
Every first Saturday of the month, protesters gather inside the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral and then walk to Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger clinic a few blocks away. Maria Silvestri

Before I joined NYC for Abortion Rights (NYC4AR), I didn’t know the location of my nearest abortion clinic, or any abortion clinic at all.

I work in publishing, not health care; I hadn’t been active in any reproductive rights organizing before; and I’ve never needed to go to an abortion clinic for health care. In a way, that made me more like anti-choice activists than other members of NYC4AR. Our members are reproductive health-care workers, clinic escorts, abortion doulas, and patients. Anti-choicers are none of the above. But they can all point to their local abortion clinics on a map; they’ve even compiled an extensive national database. They know, of course, because they’ve made it their business to know by showing up at clinics to systematically harass patients.

Many who believe in abortion rights, meanwhile, have been like me—ideologically correct and physically inert, even as members of the anti-choice movement have effectively claimed the space in front of abortion clinics as their territory.

There’s a good example of this right here in the middle of Manhattan, spitting distance from the Housing Works Bookstore and Whole Foods. Every first Saturday of the month, protesters gather inside the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and then walk to Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger clinic a few blocks away. They line up on the sidewalk in front of the facility, hold mass, and try to dissuade patients from getting to their appointments. According to clinic staff, the church has been doing this for years. Their tactics are different from those of the anti-choice activists on trial right now—pray-and-shame doesn’t look exactly like scream-and-shame or harass-and-shame. But the effect is more or less the same: In both cases, accessing abortion care entails submitting yourself to humiliation from a small contingent who believes that patients have no right to make decisions about their own future.

The most recent monthly anti-abortion mass was on a cold morning in early February. This time, as the sun rose, we began gathering at the gated entrance of the church and formed a walking picket line. If there is any church member who hasn’t thought critically about what it means for a church to protest a women’s health center, we thought, maybe a protest at their own gates would be instructive. Parishioners arrived in ones and twos and picked their way through the line to get to the entrance. Safely behind the gate, some turned and stared or shouted before going inside. One woman fell in with the picket line for a few rounds of a chant (“Pro-life? That’s a lie! You don’t care if women die!”) before she realized her mistake and hurried into the church. A woman walking a dog across the street pumped her fist. “Yes! Thank you!” she shouted.

Just before 9:00 am, the church doors opened. A procession of about 65 priests and parishioners filed into the street and we swarmed to meet them. Walking quickly, we spread out between them, chanting “stop harassing women”; they avoided eye contact. We were outnumbered by nearly two to one, but any moment spent rebuffing us, we thought, was a moment not spent in front of the clinic.

The walk was two short blocks. At Planned Parenthood, they lined up on the sidewalk across the street and we lined up in front of them, face to face, our bodies between them and the clinic like a shield. “They held up large crosses and attempted to ask women passing by … if they were going into Planned Parenthood for services,” Delicia Jones, a founding member of NYC4AR and one of the coordinators of the action, told me afterward. Throughout the mass, recounted Jones, “we used our signs and our bodies to block them from view of patients. They prayed and sang. We held our ground, and the antis left the space.”

This was one morning in front of a clinic that has experienced monthly—sometimes daily—anti-choice harassment for years. We don’t have any delusions that what we did that morning effectively preempted future protests, but I can say this: Attending that action and other clinic defenses with NYC4AR has transformed my relationship to the abortion rights movement. Putting my body in the street has raised the stakes for me. And watching the surprise and distress on the faces of anti-choicers as they realized that clinic harassment would not be so comfortable for them this time has given me a different vision for what the future of abortion access in this country could look like.

For NYC4AR, this is the future of clinic defense—organizing the grassroots and showing up. We show up to vote and to donate and to campaign for legislation, yes, but also to reshape the discourse around abortion in front of clinics every Saturday morning. And a quick word about showing up: This has been the common denominator of the anti-choice movement for years. Whether with rosaries and religious icons or with graphic signs, sound systems, holy water, plastic baby dolls, their own children, and notepads for writing down the license plate numbers of clinic staff, anti-choicers show up. If this were not an effective strategy, we would not have lost so much ground in the fight for abortion access.

Underlying this persistent, pernicious organizing is a belief that the complete criminalization of abortion in this country is actually possible. Anti-choice activists and their allies in Congress and the White House are not wrong about that, of course; that’s why they stole a U.S. Supreme Court seat. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party does not seem to be so sure that their base cares very much about abortion rights anymore, and the New York Times is paying a man to float the idea of just forgetting about abortion rights as a fresh new Democratic electoral strategy. The outrage in response to that David Brooks column was swift, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has effectively voiced the same thing; in his words, supporting anti-abortion candidates is just what it will take to become a “50-state party.”

Our backs are against the wall. We’re too busy updating our count of the number of states with just one remaining clinic (six, as of January) to nourish a bold vision of our own. We can’t imagine a world in which accessing abortion care is exactly like accessing any other health care, where we don’t have to be grateful that protesters are just praying (because at least they’re not dousing patients in holy water or carrying graphic signs or physically blocking the entrance or invading clinics or firebombing clinics or killing doctors).

But I believe a world in which we have accepted that a church can effectively claim clinic entrances as their own is a world in which the groundwork for those more violent acts has been laid.

The strategy of clinic defense reclaims the space outside of clinics, resisting the normalization of the shame and stigma that anti-choicers have brought to this space for years. “We’ve been on the defense for so long,” said Lizzie Stewart, a member of NYC4AR since its first action a year ago and a member of the International Socialist Organization. “The strategy of playing nice and not engaging has given way too much ground to the right. No one should have to put up with organized street harassment when they’re trying to access health care.”

More than that, clinic defense mobilizes the visible grassroots expression of support for abortion rights that makes real political gains possible. We have made this argument again and again.

It’s important to acknowledge that some clinics and reproductive health organizations disagree, preferring a strategy of political advocacy alone and of non-engagement with clinic protesters. We argue that this is a false choice—from SNCC to ACT UP, political engagement and protest have been inextricable in the history of progressive organizing in this country. And we point to the enormous spike in support for Planned Parenthood and the clinic escort program in New York following the 2016 election: NOW’s clinic escort program has nearly 1,000 members, up from a few hundred in 2014. Those numbers speak to an energy to put our bodies between protesters and patients in defense of clinics. By showing up at clinics every time the antis do, as we did on February 3 and will again on March 3, we are manifesting our vision for the world that we want to live in—our clinics, our bodies, our lives in our hands.