(VIDEOS) A Good Friday: Vigil and Solidarity Show Two Sides To Highland Park Clinic Event

Robin Marty

A prayer vigil and march for solidarity show two very different faces to Good Friday at the Highland Park Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, MN.

As I ride my connecting bus to the clinic in St. Paul, I realize I’m a little nervous.   I haven’t been at a clinic since my heyday as an activist at the Womyn’s Action Group in college in the late nineties, and I wonder how much the atmosphere has changed in the last decade.  But after all, this is Minnesota.  Not that Iowans are so “fire and brimstone,” but I have to assume that our anti-choice protesting will have a little more “Minnesota nice,’ right?  I wasn’t there to protest, simply to observe, but I was already feeling tense.

The bus drops me off right by the clinic just before 9 a.m.  It was easy to find with the protesters from both sides walking in their separate circles on each side of the entrance, with a space open in the center for patients to enter and exit.  The pro-choice activists were closer to the intersection, dressed in bright colors, smiling and waving at the cars who honked back at them.  The anti-choice protesters are more numerous, quiet and subdued.    A group of monks are chanting together in front of the circle of silent, marching protesters.  The crowd is made up of mostly older people, especially older women, with a handful of college age boys and young children.  So far the signs are low key, non-graphic. 

I’m told it’s still early.

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The archbishop of St. Paul is expected to arrive soon, which may change the temper of the crowd on both sides.  Escorts wait for patients to arrive.  Police, looking somewhat bored, wait for possible trouble.  One tells me to step down from the retaining wall where I am taking pictures.  Then he smiles, as if that’s as much conflict as he expects today.

The archbishop arrives and holds a prayer service for the anti-choice attendees.  He reminds the protesters that today is a day of peace and prayer.   The liturgy is very calm and respectful, as is the call and response.  I catch myself occasionally answering as well, thanks to Catholic inlaws who bring me to church on holidays.  It’s amazing how much of a reflex that can be. 

More and more families with children arrive, and the anti-choice crowd swells. Still, the cars driving by hold off on sounding their horns until they arrive in front of the pro-choice supporters, when they then begin to honk away.  The supporters cheer back as if they are having their own version of call and response.

By noon, both sides have large crowds in attendance, and both sides have held religious services for their supporters.  As the day progresses, the anti-choice protesters have their barrier moved back to allow them more room to spread out.    The silent, prayerful walking continues, broken only once, earlier, by a fiery sermon comparing the clinic workers to Pilate.  Little children follow their parents, some carrying homemade signs, others assembling their own crosses made out of the branches that they have broken from the trees lining the sidewalks.

A protester, identified to me as a regular at this clinic, talks to people approaching the doors.   He speaks with two younger, African American men who are trying to get to the door, begging them not to throw in with the “evil” people inside.   The men look frustrated and start to verbally engage, but then break off and go inside.    Later they come back outside, and begin walking the solidarity circle with the prochoice supporters.

The anti-choice protesters are mostly quiet, respectful, and interested more in prayer than conversion or conversation.  One woman tells me that she is here to join in prayer with the other worshipers, and that human life is of intrinsic value and should be defended.  She also is against birth control, as human life begins in the womb.  Another tells me she is recent Catholic convert, and that her religion says that the murder of any life is wrong.  She corrects me when I call what they are doing a protest, informing me that they consider it an event of prayer.

Meanwhile, the prochoice marchers continue their songs and their cheers as more and more cars come by.  Someone has written alternate lyrics to “Amazing Grace” that involve a woman’s right to bodily sovereignty, and they sing it with relish, a stark contrast to the slower, mournful version of the song sung in the other circle.  It’s a joy-filled celebration, especially when they realize that by noon their “Pledge a Protester” drive has raised almost $17,000 – nearly two thousand more than their goal.  The food drive containers are overflowing as well, and need to be emptied yet again and more and more supporters come bringing food and goods to donate.

It is exactly noon when the rain begins.

By 1:30 it is much grayer and darker.  The prochoice protesters have to exchange their sodden, ripping signs for new, fresh versions.  One woman jokes that she hopes the volunteers are taking the old signs in to be blow-dried and returned to the marchers so they can recycle.  The horns are nearly continuous now, as are the cheers from the protesters in response. 

In the other circle, a shift change appears to have occurred.  Although I still recognize some faces from the morning shift, a new set of anti-choicers have arrived.  There are many more children now, many more signs.  The signs are also less sedate.  More “Planned Parenthood Lies” and genocide signs.  Two women march with “I Regret My Abortion” signs, although when I ask them if they would like to do an interview and talk about it they tell me “absolutely not.” 

More people are joining the prochoice side as well, although many are leaving too, because of the rain.   Tiffany Campbell arrives, driving all morning from her home in Nebraska.  “It’s imperative that we take the opportunity to show our support for Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights,” she explains when I ask her why she drove so far to attend.  There were no events in Nebraska today. Volunteers from the South Dakota clinic come as well, showing support for the doctors who come out once a week to their clinic to provide services to the women in the state.    A few in the crowd are wearing white coats, medical students who are advocating for reproductive health and demanding that abortion procedures be included as a part of a doctor’s training.  “Even if abortion is legal and it’s supported, if there aren’t any providers for abortion, that doesn’t mean anything,” one tells me.

I hang out under the overhang by the side of the building, trying to avoid the rain for a bit. A taxi pulls into the parking lot, and an escort leads a small family to the cab.  I had seen the man walking with the toddler earlier, the child stumbling up and down the sidewalk with the steps of one new to walking.  Now they are with a younger woman, and the three climb into the vehicle together and pull slowly away from the building, avoiding the protesters on both sides.

I ask Kathi Di Nicola, the Media Relations Director of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota,  how many people actually come in for services on this Good Friday, and she tells me only ten.  “We let them know what to expect before we set the appointment,” she tells me.  “Most of the ones who still come just don’t have any other choice.”

Soon I decide to head home.  The anti-choice group is beginning to thin out a bit, not as able to use their speaker system due to the rain and now lightening that is coming in flashes.  The more determined continue in the circle, a group of children working together to carry a large cross, a nun here and there among the crowd.  By this point the Knights of Columbus, who lead some of the previous prayers and songs are packing up.  The crowd is still sober, melancholy, and decidedly quiet.  This appears to be as much about mourning the death of Jesus as the death of “innocent life” and the event gives them a chance to focus that sorrow as they head into Easter.

But as I walk away from the clinic, heading back to my bus stop, I am amazed by how long I can continue to hear the horns honking, the cheers of support that is filling the street and following me home.  If the anti-choice prayer vigil was about solemn focus on death and loss, then the pro-choice solidarity march epitomized the joy and celebration that always comes with spring.

News Law and Policy

Regulate Abortion Clinics Like Sex Offenders? Alabama GOP Says Yes

Teddy Wilson

The bill targets a Huntsville-area abortion clinic that was forced by GOP legislators three years ago to relocate across the street from an empty school, which was later renovated and is now the Academy for Academics and Arts.

A bill to regulate abortion clinics in the same manner as sex offenders has gained traction in the Alabama state legislature.

SB 205, sponsored by state Sen. Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville), would prohibit the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing a health center license to an abortion clinic or reproductive health center located within 2,000 feet of a public school, regulating abortion clinics in the same manner as registered sex offenders.

“I’m just trying to protect young, impressionable children and not have them walk past a facility like this on a regular basis, frankly,” Sanford told the Montgomery Advertiser. “If it’s not appropriate for a liquor store to be within earshot, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for an abortion clinic to be in earshot of an elementary school, either.”

State senate Republicans passed the bill Tuesday in a 27-6 vote along party lines.

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The bill targets a Huntsville-area abortion clinic that was forced by GOP legislators three years ago to relocate across the street from an empty school, which was later renovated and is now the Academy for Academics and Arts.

The Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives, one of five clinics in the state providing abortion care, reportedly spent $550,000 on relocating to comply with a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed in 2013.

Dalton Johnson, administrator of the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives, told the Montgomery Advertiser that he had retained legal counsel should the bill become law, and accused legislators of targeting his clinic.

“They know they are going to be challenged, they know they are going to be unconstitutional,” Johnson said. “That money could be spent on so many things. They only care about their agendas.”

Sanford said that bill is justified because of the anti-choice protesters that frequently demonstrate outside the clinic.

“There’s a lot of commotion that tends to pop up on certain days of the week when the clinic’s in operation. A lot of commotion, a lot of signs,” Sanford said, reported the Montgomery Advertiser.

Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) sponsored a similar bill last year that was passed by the GOP-dominated house but failed to pass the state senate. The Rev. James Henderson, an anti-choice activist who regularly organizes prayer vigils outside of the Huntsville clinic, told AL.com in 2015 the legislation was drafted by the Christian Coalition of Alabama with the purpose of forcing the Alabama Women’s Center to close.

Henderson had resigned as executive director of the organization to lobby the state’s Republican majority to pass anti-choice legislation.

Henderson is once again supporting the legislation that regulates abortion clinics like convicted sex offenders. “It’s just a terrible situation because of the conflicts and the controversy that goes along with an abortion clinic. It just should not be across the street from public school,” Henderson told WAAY.

The bill has been transferred to the Alabama house, where Republicans hold a 72-33 majority. The measure has been referred to the House Committee on Health, where it awaits further action.

Investigations Abortion

Abortion Foes Use Misleading Videos to Pressure Planned Parenthood Contractors

Sofia Resnick

Sitting in the shadows of CMP’s high-profile video campaign is a lesser-known strategy abortion opponents have employed for decades—to cut off access to abortion directly at the source by trying to shut down existing Planned Parenthood abortion clinics and prevent new ones from opening.

See more of our coverage on the effects of the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Sweat streaming into his cropped beard, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney stood alone on the steps of the United States Capitol on a recent Monday, beneath the sun’s noontime blaze, and livestreamed himself praying to God that the U.S. Senate would, later that day, vote to discontinue all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

Prompted by a series of surreptitiously recorded videos produced by the California-based Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and deceptively edited to suggest that Planned Parenthood illegally harvests and sells aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, the vote failed. But Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister and longtime opponent of abortion rights, told Rewire that he believes this video series will continue to influence the abortion debate at the national level, and hopes it will devastate Planned Parenthood’s reputation.

Meanwhile, Mahoney is leading a much more direct, grassroots campaign against the nonprofit network of reproductive-health centers, by trying to halt construction of a new Planned Parenthood facility in Washington, D.C.

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Sitting in the shadows of CMP’s high-profile video campaign is a lesser-known strategy abortion opponents have employed for decades—to cut off access to abortion directly at the source by trying to shut down existing Planned Parenthood abortion clinics and prevent new ones from opening. It’s just one element of the multipronged effort to curb abortion access and ultimately criminalize the procedure.

And the new videos represent a powerful messaging tool for grassroots campaigns like Mahoney’s.

“Certainly the videos give us more information to give out to the community and to press on why we wouldn’t want a Planned Parenthood in our neighborhoods and in our city,” said Mahoney, who is close friends with the leaders of CMP and who has been working to impede abortion access for nearly four decades.

A former national media director of the controversial anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, Mahoney now directs the Christian Defense Coalition and is the lead pastor of Church on the Hill D.C., a Christian activist group headquartered across the street from the Capitol. Last month, he helped launch a campaign called Abortion-Free DC after learning of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s plans to erect a new health center that will provide abortions in addition to other reproductive and sexual health services. The Planned Parenthood affiliate shuttered an older clinic (which did not provide abortions) last year and sold its 40-year-old downtown clinic in July as part of its plans to center its services at a larger, revamped facility.

Abortion-Free DC is a loose network of local activists (Mahoney said about 10 to 15 people have been showing up to planning meetings) who are currently employing a range of tactics to stall the construction of the new facility, from praying and staging protests in front of the building site, to using the new CMP videos to try to convince construction workers to abandon their posts. They’re mining D.C.’s building and zoning codebook, hoping to find Planned Parenthood in violation of any regulations. Mahoney said the group intends to carry out these actions “prayerfully, peacefully, and publicly.” On August 22, they are planning a prayer vigil at the building site, and starting September 23, the group says it intends to stage 40 days and nights of prayer and protest in front of the building site as part of the national 40 Days for Life campaign that targets abortion clinics.

While the efforts of Abortion-Free DC are local in scale, the use of these strategies and techniques are national.

At the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans last month, Saint John’s Seminary theology professor Angela Franks, a socially conservative author and activist, outlined the strategies that she used to stymie the construction of a new Planned Parenthood facility in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 2005. Upon learning of the plans for the new clinic, Franks also formed a local coalition—which she dubbed Planned Parenthood Hurts Girls—to help orchestrate boycotts and breed hostility against Planned Parenthood. Franks’ conference session was called “Fighting Goliath: How to Take Aim at Planned Parenthood.”

More recently, abortion opponents in New Orleans successfully stalled a new Planned Parenthood facility. In addition to frequent protests by abortion foes, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond threatened contractors working with Planned Parenthood that the Archdiocese of New Orleans would deny them future building contracts for churches and schools. And the Louisiana state health department initially denied Planned Parenthood’s operating license application based on a new law targeting abortion clinics. On appeal, the state recently cleared the way for Planned Parenthood to begin construction. (Soon after, someone not yet identified attempted to set the construction site on fire.)

In D.C., Mahoney’s group is attempting to use many of the same techniques to stop the construction of the new clinic.

As in Louisiana, Mahoney’s group is seeking help from the Catholic Church. Abortion-Free DC has asked the Catholic Archdiocese of Arlington to lean on a general contractor working on the site who also sits on a Catholic high school board in Arlington. Mahoney said the group is preparing to send an open letter this week asking the archdiocese to threaten to deny future contracts with anyone building the health center. When contacted, the contractor did not respond to our questions or confirm these details. Archdiocese spokeswoman Elise Italiano would not confirm these discussions with Abortion-Free DC or the contractor in question, but said in an email said that “the diocese is always disappointed to learn that any business has partnered with Planned Parenthood.”

“Because we remain committed to the protection of all life, we oppose all efforts that undermine that principle; instead, we support programs which offer a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy the medical, financial, and material resources she needs during her pregnancy and after her child’s birth,” Italiano said.

The protesters are also trying to sway public opinion by painting Planned Parenthood as insensitive to the needs of schoolchildren. The new facility is located in a commercial and residential neighborhood in Northeast D.C., next door to Two Rivers Public Charter School’s elementary campus and across the street from Two Rivers’ middle-school campus.

“They know that people demonstrate, that people come out there with signs,” said Mahoney. “Why would Planned Parenthood be so insensitive to create this kind of turmoil in a neighborhood?”

Those “people” turn out to include Mahoney himself: Prayerful demonstration is something in which the reverend takes considerable pride. When asked to provide Rewire with a picture to accompany this story, Mahoney supplied an image of himself getting arrested in June 2010, after he trespassed at the former Planned Parenthood site in Northwest D.C. He was arrested (but not prosecuted) after praying on the clinic’s sidewalk entryway, shortly after the center had erected a short fence in front of the clinic to keep activists at bay.

(Source: Rev. Patrick Mahoney)

(Source: Rev. Patrick Mahoney)

This was not the only time Mahoney has been arrested in his three decades of protesting at that facility, but he noted that his form of protest is to pray and that he himself has never held signs in front of an abortion clinic. In fact, he said he tries to discourage activists from using graphic signs.

Indeed, Dr. Laura Meyers, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., said she was very familiar with the frequent protesters—including Mahoney—at the old center.

“The irony is stunning,” she told Rewire in an interview, when told that Mahoney had criticized Planned Parenthood for potentially subjecting school children to protesters at the new facility.

Meyers said the affiliate’s board has been planning for years to relocate and expand services at a bigger clinic, and that they purchased the new building two years ago. She said the affiliate is working to complete construction and reopen in the District in early 2016 and that they have discussed plans for the center with the Two Rivers schools and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

“We’re really excited about being embedded in that community, and our goal is to be great community neighbors, for both the charters and others living in the neighborhood,” Meyers said. “We provide preventive health care to thousands of men and women, and we are striving to be great community partners.”

Mahoney said his group is also exploring regulatory avenues to shutter or stall the building’s construction, but an initial strike fell flat.

Last month, activists filed a complaint with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, claiming Planned Parenthood was violating the District’s building rules by not properly displaying a permit sign. However, upon inspecting the property, inspectors determined that Planned Parenthood is complying with all building regulations, the department’s legislative and public affairs director Matt Orlins told Rewire.

Of course, even if Abortion-Free DC were to succeed in stopping the new Planned Parenthood, the District would not actually be “abortion-free,” as there are a few independent abortion providers there.

But for longtime abortion foes, the opportunity to block the Planned Parenthood clinic in D.C. is symbolic.

And the group is leveraging the recent attack videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress, whose co-founder is Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, where Mahoney worked before Newman became president of the organization.

Mahoney said one of the Abortion-Free DC activists has shown some of the videos to construction workers and repeated CMP’s allegations that Planned Parenthood unlawfully sells fetal tissue for profit. None of the unedited videos actually support this allegation, and the numerous state investigations into those accusations have so far returned no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mahoney dismissed criticism of CMP’s work, which he said his friend, Newman, revealed to him two weeks before it launched. He argued that critics’ claims that the videos were deceptively edited are baseless because the group has released the full unedited footage.

But Mahoney admitted that he has not watched most of the unedited videos, save for the first one that was released in mid-July.

“I haven’t bothered looking at any of the other unedited tapes, because it’s just so long and I trust the integrity of David Daleiden,” he said, referring to CMP’s chief executive officer.

Ultimately, though, Mahoney and his fellow Abortion-Free DC activists believe the true power in the videos is not in their accusations that Planned Parenthood might have broken federal law.

After a recent Friday-night strategy meeting, Mahoney and seven of the Abortion-Free DC activists gathered for drinks at the Dubliner, an Irish pub near the Capitol. Many of the activists told Rewire that the aspects of the videos that move them and are likely to sway people who generally support abortion rights are the graphic images of discernible fetal body parts and the seemingly casual manner in which some of the Planned Parenthood doctors and directors talk about fetal remains and the donation thereof.

Clutching her 2-month-old daughter, Michele Hendrickson explained the anger she felt watching the first Planned Parenthood video, wherein Planned Parenthood senior medical director Deborah Nucatola tells undercover CMP operatives that processing fees for fetal-tissue donation range from $30 to $100. In the edited version, though, she appears to be saying that affiliates sell specimens for about $30 to $100 each.

“Two months ago, her liver would be worth $30,” said Hendrickson, referring to her daughter, Lucy. Hendrickson serves as the capital regional coordinator for Students for Life of America, which advocates against abortion on college campuses. “Two months ago her body parts were worth something that were just casually discussed. I’m totally fine with calling that heartless.”

The videos contain no evidence of abortions occurring that close to viability, but rather, of predominantly first- and second-trimester procedures, including for fetuses with fatal anomalies and for victims of sexual assault.

At the end of the day, the Abortion-Free DC activists realize their effort to stop the new Planned Parenthood clinic is “a serious uphill battle,” Mahoney said. But he said they are committed to fighting regardless of what happens.

And Planned Parenthood is too. The D.C. affiliate’s director, Dr. Laura Meyers, said she is not fazed by these dedicated efforts to block construction of the new health center.

“Regardless of what swirls around Planned Parenthood, we continue to see patients; we continue to provide care no matter what,” Meyers said. “And we will build that building.”

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