UPDATE, March 30, 2020, 10:10 a.m.: Four people from the anti-choice group Love Life, including founder Justin Reeder, were arrested Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina, for protesting outside an abortion clinic in violation of the city’s stay-at-home order, the News & Record reported.
For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.
Abortion clinic staffers and patient escorts watched in horror last weekend as anti-abortion protesters in North Carolina continued to gather in large numbers, hold hands, invade others’ physical space, and—in at least one instance I witnessed—joke about spreading the coronavirus while the government pleaded with people to do what they can to stop the spread of COVID-19.
And even now, they don’t plan to stay home.
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The Triangle Abortion Access Coalition in Raleigh, North Carolina, met and continued our normal clinic defense and escorting services on Saturday, March 14, even though the realities and concerns of the rapidly developing COVID-19 outbreak were on our minds. We took extra precautions, such as sanitizing the vests and equipment we share.
We arrived to smaller numbers of protesters, took our normal positions, and began the morning as usual.
Many of the regular protesters began to arrive, and our hopes for physical distance began to diminish. A protester whom I’ll call Sally took a position by the clinic driveway, a spot allowing her to wave away cars. While this might seem like a minor disruption, rerouting patients from entering our private parking lot allows other anti-abortion protesters to confront the parked car and pass along a pamphlet or “blessing bag,” a gift bag filled with scripture, brochures for local anti-choice clinics, and often a single diaper, described by our protesters as a “diaper of remembrance.”
We often station a volunteer on that corner (but not in the protester’s immediate space), and task them with showing cars where to safely park to avoid anti-abortion harassment. This particular morning, a newer volunteer who can handle the direct harassment took the spot and stood stoically, ignoring the protesters and hoping to provide support and guidance to patients navigating a chaotic scene. Protesters will often move their bodies as close as possible to our volunteers, crying foul about their personal space being violated. Our volunteer was ignoring the taunts and holding ground as he has a right to do, especially when standing on clinic property.
I watched in shock as Sally pressed closer to this volunteer, a man in his late 60s or early 70s. The poster she carried was pressed against his arm, leaving her face eight to ten inches away from his face. Sally began to cough without covering her mouth in the direction of this volunteer, whose space she had already invaded.
“Would be a shame if I was sick,” she said, before coughing a few more times in the direction of a man who is clearly in the at-risk groups you hear about in the news.
It was 8:15 a.m. and already I was witnessing an unthinkable scenario: A “pro-life” protester was either making jokes about spreading COVID-19 or, even worse, was possibly trying to get us sick. While I’d like to say I was surprised by these actions, anti-choice protesters were once again demonstrating the true nature of their beliefs.
The morning had just begun and already we were facing an uncertain danger, one we had no guidance or advice on how to handle. We knew the worst was yet to come. Later that morning, a “prayer march” that often numbers between 50 and 100 people was expected to arrive. This group has turned out in large numbers in terrible weather, heat waves, and more. “Love Life,” as this protest movement calls itself, would be at our doorstep before we knew it.
Clinic escort groups across North Carolina faced the same problem. While Raleigh has a robust showing for the “Love Life” prayer marches, this is not a local movement. Love Life has roots in Charlotte, North Carolina, where their prayer marches have happened for years, often in ways that shut down physical access to the clinic. The protests have become so abusive they resulted in the city drafting a new sound ordinance to cut down on the disturbances created by these protests. Love Life expanded to Greensboro and Raleigh in 2018, and began organizing mass prayer marches across the state in 2019.
As our morning went on in Raleigh, escorts in Charlotte and Greensboro faced their own uncertainty created by anti-abortion protesters and the Love Life prayer marches.
In Charlotte, clinics were open as usual, and clinic escort groups were volunteering as usual.
Angela Anders, director of Charlotte for Choice Clinic Escorts, told Rewire.News she counted the anti-abortion group at well more than 100 people at its peak, and that the group was in no way practicing physical distancing: She said they were holding hands, forming prayer circles, and engaging in other forms of bodily contact (Love Life did not respond to Rewire.News‘ request for comment.)
Anders said the clinic escorts in Charlotte regularly witnessed people with symptoms of illness (sniffling, running noses, coughs) handing out pamphlets and sticking their hands and heads into stopped cars in an effort to “counsel” patients about their options and to share stigma and shame around abortion.
An hour away from Raleigh and two hours from Charlotte, another major metropolitan area was facing a similar reality. Greensboro has only one clinic regularly hounded by protesters. With a particularly rough clinic setup due to neighboring businesses allowing protests to occur on their property, protesters often divert and stop cars, shoving unwanted pamphlets and gift sacks into confused patients’ hands.
Volunteers in Greensboro had already been anxious about the effect of these intrusions on patients’ emotional health, but now these one-on-one interactions could spread a dangerous virus. Greensboro volunteers reported the anti-abortion group grew as large as 80 people this past Saturday, down from 400 the previous weekend. Despite the smaller numbers, volunteers said protesters were still shoving pamphlets into car windows and making direct contact with patients and their companions.
After our shift concluded this past Saturday, I checked out chatter from Love Life and other protester groups on their public social media accounts. What I found was not comforting. While I had been watching a protester in Raleigh cough in a clinic escort’s face, the leaders of Love Life were outside the Charlotte clinic, broadcasting on Facebook Live under the heading, “Bold Christians Witness despite coronavirus.”
In the Facebook Live video that morning, Love Life founder Justin Reeder asked one of the leaders of the Charlotte’s clinic protest movement, Daniel Parks, to speak to supporters who could not attend because they were sick or in an at-risk category. “With the fears of the virus, we have to use wisdom; we get that,” Parks said. But then he reminded them that they are “called as believers in Jesus to lay our lives down … and that involves risk.” He told listeners, “We have to look past the fear,” said protests would continue as long as the clinics remain open.
While I hoped Love Life might reconsider as the week went on, in a video posted to Facebook the morning of Thursday, March 19, Love Life confirmed they will continue to host prayer walks and “sidewalk outreach” as long as abortion providers remain open. Reeder, the Love Life founder, explained that this should be considered “essential and vital work,” not a social gathering.
“The ministry must go on,” he said, though he clarified that they planned to operate under the CDC recommendations, would split into “very small groups” to gather, and had spoken to the local police departments. And while Reeder told supporters to practice physical distancing, he also encouraged people to do “prayer walks” outside hospitals and nursing homes to pray for people vulnerable to COVID-19.
Our concerns are not only rooted in the risks these groups present to patients, staff, and volunteers at clinics but also to the risks they pose in their own communities—especially to the children that often get dragged along to the protests and are forced to share close quarters with people outside their immediate family, exposing them to COVID-19. And then there are the risks these folks bring back into their immediate communities. When sharing my frustrations with my friend and fellow volunteer Raquel, she said something that has stuck with me: “It speaks volumes about how not pro-life our protesters actually are when they still choose to come out in large numbers, despite all warnings and guidance from local and federal officials, endangering everyone in their own communities without a single moment of consideration.”
One of the most important roles we have as clinic escorts is doing what is needed for our most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Clinic escort groups are being faced with decisions they often don’t feel prepared to make. As the week progressed, we learned of more restrictions being put into place by our local and state governments, had emergency virtual meetings, and met with clinic staff.
Thankfully, the clinics are doing everything they can to support us. Clinics are stepping up and offering training in how to use protective gear like gloves and masks, offering sterilizing wipes and sprays to escorts to help keep common areas as clean as possible, and responding quickly when volunteer groups have questions or concerns. Despite all of this, some clinics have suspended escort services, and some clinic escort groups have suspended services on their own.
Anders in Charlotte and the volunteers in Greensboro said they’re taking many of the same steps we’re taking to stop the spread of COVID-19: monitoring the size and risks presented by our protester groups, increasing our own awareness around sanitizing shared equipment and shared vests, and encouraging volunteers who are at risk or folks who have had potential exposure to stay home. As a leader in the Raleigh clinic escort group, I scheduled a virtual check-in after our shift last Saturday and asked our clinics, which have the ear of local government and local law enforcement, to reach out to find out what can be done if protesters continue to gather in groups large enough to violate the statewide executive order banning gatherings of more than 100 people.
While we wait to learn more about what, if anything, can be done, it’s hard to ignore the anger and frustration that many of us who do this work are left with. We want to stay home. We want to keep our communities safe. We want to keep our families safe. We also want to keep ourselves healthy. I have no idea what this coming weekend will look like for our clinic escort team in Raleigh; I heard much the same from the organizers across the state. We are planning to operate on a skeleton crew, avoiding any spaces where protesters can get close enough to cause problems, and hoping our limited presence will be enough to keep the most abusive anti-abortion protester behavior at bay.
Over the coming weeks, our volunteer group may be preparing to head out into the world, or we may be sitting at home, anxious about what patients will face that day. No matter what, we hope abortion clinics stay open.