The COVID-19 Crisis Hasn’t Stopped Abortion Protests. Now, Clinics Need Backup.

"The anti-abortion leaders are like vultures circling overhead."

[Photo: A group of anti-abortion protesters gather outside an abortion clinic.]
Anti-choice organizations have called on protesters to continue gathering at clinics despite COVID-19 lockdowns, though some groups have issued reminders to follow physical distancing guidelines. Truly/YouTube

For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.  

Shelter-in-place orders have led to the loss of one crucial resource at abortion clinics across the country: clinic escorts, who not only provide physical protection for patients arriving at the clinic but also have institutional knowledge of when and how anti-choice protesters operate.

Anti-choice protesters, meanwhile, are still gathering in large groups, often ignoring physical distancing guidelines, advocates told Rewire.News, prompting abortion rights advocates to raise money so clinics can hire security services to protect patients.

“Just days ago, an extremist associated with the Army of God harassed employees while standing just inches from the main clinic door” at Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), wrote in an urgent fundraising email newsletter this month. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) describes Army of God as a domestic terrorist organization whose members “believe that the use of violence is appropriate and acceptable as a means to end abortion.”

The need for security isn’t isolated to a region or state. According to the FMF, which is fundraising for clinics in need of security, clinics in Milwaukee; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Raleigh, Charlotte, and Greensboro, North Carolina; Westland, Michigan; and Huntsville, Alabama, are raising between $4,500 to $8,000 to hire security guards and additional staff, purchase personal protective equipment, and feed staff who are working additional shifts during this time.

The NAF is also raising money for abortion clinic security as providers “continue to see an increase in harassment, threats, and criminal activity against them.” NAF’s 2018 report on clinic violence showed record numbers of disruptive and violent incidents at abortion clinics, with death threats and threats of harm growing, along with the number of clinic protesters.

“Unfortunately the need [for security] has skyrocketed during this crisis,” duVergne Gaines, director of the FMF’s National Clinic Access Project, told Rewire.News. “What’s happened is there are extremists who have failed to abide by executive orders and in fact double-downed and refused to respect and adhere to the most fundamental guidelines provided by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the states. … Clinic volunteers have been forced to stand down for safety purposes. These extremists have chosen not to.”

Clinic escorts are trained on interacting with patients who may be frightened by anti-choice protesters. Security guards, Gaines said, “would be the next best thing” but could not serve the same role. Escorts inform clinic staff in real time about what’s unfolding outside the facility, flagging staffers when a new protester— who might not observe “the rules of engagement” between protesters and patientsshows up, Gaines said.

In recent weeks, some protesters have used the spread of COVID-19 as a threat against patients and clinic staffers. In March, Kelsea McLain, a clinic escort in North Carolina, told Rewire.News that she had witnessed an anti-choice protester coughing and joking about COVID-19 outside a clinic.

“You have the added horror of people threatening to cough or coughing on patients, which is unconscionable and outrageous,” Gaines said. “These staff members are under tremendous duress.”

The Very Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, NAF’s president and CEO, said patients who drive to a clinic could wait in their car to avoid crowded waiting rooms during the pandemic, though sometimes that isn’t a safe option. “Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a car they can wait in,” Hancock Ragsdale told Rewire.News. “And those who do wait in their cars have found themselves surrounded by shouting protesters who then refuse to allow them space to move safely from their cars back into the clinics.”

Anti-choice organizations have called on protesters to continue gathering at clinics despite COVID-19 lockdowns, though some groups have issued reminders to follow physical distancing guidelines. The Thomas More Society, a right-wing legal group arguing that abortion clinic protesting is an “essential” service, has offered to be “on call in case they’re needed to facilitate cooperation with local police,” a Pro-Life Action League representative told Rewire.News.

Monica Migliorino Miller, director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, described during an anti-choice activism conference call in March how she had spent three and a half hours protesting outside a Detroit abortion clinic, approaching patients and handing out anti-choice literature.

Migliorino Miller, a leader of Red Rose Rescue, a militant anti-abortion group that sends protesters into clinics, said she “tried very hard to observe those social distancing rules,” and that “almost everyone took pamphlets and literature from me. No one said, ‘I don’t want that, it’s full of germs.'”

“If clinics are open, we need to be there,” Miller said during the conference call, which was hosted by Pro-Life Action League. “We cannot be abandoning our posts.”

The Red Rose Rescue movement has been part of a spike in incidents of obstruction at abortion clinics. In 2018, there were more than 3,000 reported attempts to obstruct access to clinics, compared with 242 in 2015, according to NAF data.

Anti-choice leaders on the March conference call, including Mark Harrington, founder and president of the anti-choice organization Created Equal, urged activists to call their governors and demand they classify abortion care as “nonessential” health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Florida, abortion rights opponents have reportedly pressured Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to ban abortion services as part of the state’s response to COVID-19.

Getting even a handful of governors to use the virus to suspend abortion rights, Harrington said, could have widespread impact on people seeking abortion services.

The chaos of the COVID-19 shutdowns presents an opportunity to turn up the pressure on abortion clinics reeling from resource shortages, said Miller, who in 2018 told activists they needed to be “willing to lay down their lives and be there” in protesting clinics. 

“This is not a time to be backing off,” she said on the conference call. “It’s a time to be stepping up, and don’t be afraid.”

Gaines said clinic protesters have been emboldened by the first major abortion rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority, June Medical Services v. Russo, which could result in clinic shutdown laws across the country. The protesters were also ready to seize on the COVID-19 crisis to temporarily end legal abortion, which is why clinics are in dire need of additional security and support.

“Extremists now see we’re a major step closer to Roe going down,” she said. “Now they’ve seen victory overnight with executive orders [banning abortion]. They’re champing at the bit. The anti-abortion leaders are like vultures circling overhead.”