Anti-Choice Activists Say Abortion Isn’t ‘Essential,’ but Clinic Protests Are

While the rest of us stay at home, anti-choice protesters will keep performing their "vital service" outside abortion clinics during the COVID-19 outbreak.

[Photo: A group of demonstrators display signs during a pro-life rally outside an abortion clinic.]
According to anti-choice activists, abortion clinics should close during the coronavirus outbreak because they don’t provide essential health-care services, but group protests of those clinics should continue because those protests do provide essential services. Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

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More than 200 million people in the United States have been ordered to stay at home by state and local officials desperate to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Governors and public health officials have asked businesses not deemed “essential” to temporarily close for the same reason.

Our country’s health-care system is on the brink of being overwhelmed by this virus and the Trump administration’s anemic and utterly disastrous response to it.

Conservative estimates show as many as 200,000 people in the United States may die from COVID-19, with some estimates suggesting much higher death rates. But amid this unprecedented public health crisis, anti-choice activists are urging protesters to disregard stay-at-home orders and continue targeting clinics for protest to prevent abortion rights advocates from “exploiting a crisis.”

That’s what Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler told supporters in a conference call Friday. Joined by other anti-choice activists, the call was intended to address how the anti-choice movement would continue clinic protesting in the time of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I think it is particularly important that pro-lifers are respectful of the request we’ve gotten from President Trump to keep groups at ten or below,” Scheidler said on the call. “It’s impossible to deny that President Trump has come through for us on numerous policy points. Stripping Planned Parenthood of Title X funding. Appointing excellent judges across the federal judiciary.”

“It’s a bad look and not responsible for us to be ignoring those guidelines from a president who has done so much for the pro-life movement,” he continued.

Scheidler urged supporters to adjust their protest tactics to comply with COVID-19 recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Trump administration, but he and others made it clear that, in their opinion, a public health crisis was no time to suspend clinic protests.

“Being able to be outside—outside of an abortion facility or anywhere else. That is salutary and allowed under every order we have seen,” said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the anti-choice litigation firm Thomas More Society. He told call participants that there was no reason for them to suspend clinic protests even in the face of local and state stay-at-home orders, before noting that outside activity should conform to social-distancing requirements.

“If you have some sort of a more permanent ministry where you are more regularly out there, or certainly if you are going to have more than one person, you would want to have hand sanitizer and obey the other provisions, like don’t cough on each other, that sort of thing,” Breen advised callers.

Breen, who represents convicted anti-choice activist David Daleiden, also told call participants that their protests could be considered “necessary” and “essential” services.

“Going deeper into some of these orders, we are of the opinion, based on the necessary services or essential services that are being defined in these orders, that we also qualify,” Breen said. “If you are providing information about local pregnancy centers trying to connect pregnant women going into an abortion facility or any patient going to an abortion facility with more life-affirming alternatives, you are connecting them to reproductive health services. Or you are connecting them to health care generally.”

That’s right. Breen said protesting abortion clinics is a necessary business function that is allowed by various stay-at-home orders. That’s because, according to Breen, anti-choice clinic protests are designed to connect patients to reproductive health care, not obstruct it. That makes them essential and necessary, especially in states that have affirmatively protected abortion care from orders suspending “elective” medical procedures.

Let me get this straight. Abortion rights advocates are “exploiting a crisis” by making sure patients who need abortion care can access it, but abortion rights opponents are providing “necessary” services by protesting clinics amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to anti-choice activists, abortion clinics should close during the coronavirus outbreak because they don’t provide essential health-care services, but group protests of those clinics should continue because those protests do provide essential services.

This is not the first time I’ve gotten rhetorical whiplash parsing anti-choice arguments, but this might be my most severe case yet.

And how about the part where Scheidler said anti-choice advocates should continue to protest clinics, but with some minor modifications, to show thanks to Trump for stacking the federal courts full of ideologues hostile to abortion rights? If there’s one thing electing Trump has done, it’s inspired conservative activists to say the quiet parts out loud like Scheidler did Friday. Evangelicals will remain loyal to a philandering, blasphemous Trump—loyal enough to risk their health and maybe even their lives—because he’s delivered them the federal courts.

To that end it makes complete sense that Scheidler, Been, and other anti-choice activists are ordering their foot soldiers into harm’s way to continue clinic protests. What better situation for them to martyr themselves than as thanks to Trump for appointing hundreds of ideologues determined to reverse Roe v. Wade and recriminalize abortion?