A fight over a parking spot outside a reproductive health clinic in Illinois has become even more bitter, as the mayor of the city overturned the city council’s decision to revoke a parking permit for a mobile ultrasound van that has been trying to coax women inside when they go to the clinic for abortions.
After the meeting, however, Mayor Larry Morrissey said he planned to give the protesters what they want despite the City Council’s vote. …. Morrissey said he would have to consult with staffers about whether the next permit issued to TLC would be a one-day permit, as it was last week, or for a longer time.
“Two things,” he said. “I’m going to issue a permit, and this issue will be back before council. I guarantee it.”
The group has been seeking the parking permit, complaining that without it, clinic staff take the parking spaces outside the clinic, forcing them to not be able to park their mobile home in front or protest on the streets outside. Local businesses and commuters, meanwhile, have voiced concerns that the large mobile home blocks visibility to businesses and makes traveling hazardous to vehicle operators.
The virulently anti-choice, anti-gay Operation Save America spent a week in Alabama last month for its "Let Justice Roll" event. But local feminists met the invasion with calls for justice of their own.
Despite temperature warnings of over 90 degrees with unbearable humidity on the horizon, the group Operation Save America (OSA) descended last month on Montgomery, Alabama, bringing hundreds of anti-choice, anti-gay activists of all ages to the state’s capital city. Opening the “Let Justice Roll” week-long event was Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who warned the crowd—commonly inflated in mainstream media to be more than 300 people, though on-the-ground activists only witnessed about 100—that “America is under attack.”
From what, you might ask? Abortion rights and marriage equality, of course.
“Well, are you prepared for the consequences?” Moore asked the crowd at Fresh Anointing House of Worship on July 11. “There will be consequences.”
Yes, there are and will continue to be consequences, as Alabama politicians and anti-choice activists remain determined to undermine the rights of fully formed people. But some of these consequences are perhaps not the ones Moore envisions. Indeed, as Operation Save America and its ilk pursue their agenda in a state hospitable to their own, feminists and pro-choice activists are pursuing reproductive freedom at every turn.
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Let’s back up to discuss what happened in Alabama during the OSA inundation.
Operation Save America Invades
OSA activists spent a week in mid-July protesting in front of clinics in Montgomery and Huntsville, as well as outside of the statehouse, Huntsville city hall, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has renewed its ethics complaint against Moore and identified several organizations affiliated with OSA as “hate groups.” But local activists—including Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates (ARRA), for which I am coalition liaison—were prepared for the onslaught of anti-choicers.
In Montgomery, pro-choice activists rented the house next door to the local clinicto help protect the facility, providers, staff, and patients. While OSA members chanted, prayed, yelled, held signs featuring gruesome and inaccurate images of aborted zygotes that one clinic defender called “fetal porn,” and more, advocates sang, observed, and of course, escorted. Because yes, clinics remained open the entire week. In Huntsville, where anti-choice activists have a history of violence, OSA affiliates and supporters gathered a crowd of approximately 100 adults and 75 children over the day. There, they too were met with about 40 pro-choice clinic defenders. Not only did these activists escort patients, they also parked moving vans draped with signs reading “Team Dalton” (for the clinic owner) and quoting rock singer Tom Petty: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” No one from OSA could see the clinic or anyone seeking its services.
These strategies speak to the power of clinic defenders to maintain both order and safety under siege. And they weren’t alone—the actions of the feminists and pro-choice activists throughout OSA’s event show Alabaman advocates’ potential power to push back against these growing threats to bodily autonomy.
In fine—and fun!—feminist form, ARRA turned the weeklong OSA event into a fundraiser. About a month prior to the OSA action, ARRA launched an “adopt-an-anti” campaign online, wherein people could “Let Reproductive Justice Roll!” and sponsor a particular protester or adopt people for a day or the entire week. This online fundraiser depended on ARRA members counting anti-choice activists every day to account for 5-, 10-, or 25-cent donations. One participant donated a dollar for every child present and $10 for every child outside at an OSA event when the temperatures were over 90 degrees. When it was all said and done, ARRA raised more than $3,100—all of which went to help women in Alabama obtain an abortion even when finances stand in their way. Local artist Pamela JoAnn Willis also used her talent—as well as a pair of handcuffs delivered anonymously to the Huntsville clinic—and auctioned off this painting as a fundraiser for ARRA, raising another $550. Using art and online activism, ARRA turned OSA into a lot of money to help Alabama women obtain abortions.
But it is more than using OSA’s presence to further pro-choice causes. Upon the conclusion of the anti-choice organization’s weeklong visit, seven executive board members of ARRA filed an ethics complaint against Moore for his involvement with the event. In this complaint, which will be taken up by the Judicial Ethics Commission, ARRA charged, “By aligning himself with these domestic terrorists, Judge Moore is guilty of domestic treason by association, conflict of interest, misconduct, collusion and consorting with the enemy.” Indeed, known clinic bomber John Brockhoeft as well as sex offender Howard Scott Heldreth were both in the area during the week—and Judge Moore praised this “radical for God” organization openly, with both his words and his presence.
The Struggle for Bodily Autonomy Continues
“Let Justice Roll” came and went, but a month later, anti-choicers’ beat goes on.
Three weeks after OSA left the area, a woman known as Jane Doe sought an abortion—something well within her legal rights in the state as a person pregnant for less than 20 weeks. Of course, in addition to the time restriction, abortion is already difficult to obtain in Alabama: 48-hour mandatory waiting period, two clinic visits, and cost of travel, time, and procedure. But Jane Doe’s choice was exacerbated by the fact that she is imprisoned in the Lauderdale County jail. The state ACLU sought to get her a temporary furlough to travel 75 miles to the Huntsville clinic; ARRA agreed to lend financial support if Doe was able to obtain the procedure but lacked financial resources to do so. However, the Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly refused to let her go, citing the 2013 criminal endangerment act under which she is currently charged, and instead sought to appoint an attorney for the fetus. He also stated that if the court approved her petition to obtain an abortion, he would have her parental rights terminated—while she is still pregnant. These legal machinations effectively threatened to turn Jane Doe into a reproductive vessel, not a woman with rights to determine what could happen to her own body.
Doe has since decided not to have an abortion and instead will carry her fetus to term. No one knows for certain if she was coerced into this decision—she signed an affidavit that she was not—but it is easy to see how few choices she actually has as someone imprisoned and pregnant. She also still faces the potential loss of her parental rights because of the criminal endangerment charge.
Beyond this particular—and particularly horrifying—case, the state legislature is in special session and using this time to push through devastating anti-choice bills. Governor Robert Bentley had to call a special session, which convened on Monday, August 3, because the legislature did not pass a budget during regular session. The focus of the special session must be on the budget, but the legislature passed a Budget Isolation Resolution allowing it to take up “emergency measures.”
Two such measures include SB 44, sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile), which prohibits the exchange of money or anything of value for fetal tissue. Of course, this bill is related to the attack videos that have had forced-birthers pushing to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level for the last two weeks. Meanwhile, SB 26, a bill Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) proposed, would set up the state to charge a woman who has an abortion with homicide. As the bill is worded, it would revise the definition of criminal homicide to include abortion, even if the woman consents. The Alabama legislature is poised, once again, to challenge the very foundation of Roe v. Wade and subsequent legal precedent that affirms a woman’s right to abortion. In so doing, it undermines the reality that women are fully formed human beings. If SB 26 is successful—and history shows that in the Alabama legislature, anything is possible—the consequences for any person who can and does get pregnant are very real. To cap all of it off, last week, Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley announced that he was cutting off state funding to Planned Parenthood. Getting Radical for Reproductive Rights
Forced-birth activists in Alabama and around the country will be protesting Planned Parenthood agencies later this month. ARRA and clinic defenders will greet them and anyone who needs clinic services with more goodwill toward patients and providers, and a firm commitment to women’s human rights. And we will continue to work in the courts, in the statehouse, at the clinics, and alongside each other.
Now that Gov. Bentley has decided to defund Planned Parenthood, pro-choice activists are donating money in honor of (and more than one activist, “in memory of”) Bentley and his administration. Monday, August 10 was a “storm the statehouse” day, in which people around the state protested, among other things, the governor’s cuts to the organization. And on August 22, the day identified as a national day of protest against Planned Parenthood, ARRA will counter-protest those activists. We, along with other advocates, will be working in coalition with local, state, and national organizations to launch lawsuits, file ethics complaints, and stop abusive legislation that undoes women’s human rights. Alabama feminists and pro-choice activists are poised to get radical for reproductive rights.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the waiting period in Alabama.
The fight to open a Planned Parenthood health-care clinic in El Centro, California, shows that national anti-choice groups are intent on rolling back reproductive health care gains in even the most progressive parts of the country.
California may be traditionally progressive with a history of protecting reproductive rights, but Imperial County has become a new front in the anti-choice movement’s effort to erode abortion access well outside the confines of GOP-controlled red states.
Imperial County sits on California’s southeastern corner, bordering Arizona and Mexico. Go west and you’ll hit San Diego; north, and you’ll hit Palm Springs. About 80 percent of the county’s households identify as Latino and 65 percent speak predominately Spanish at home, according to the last census.
Despite its desert landscape, Imperial County has wide swaths of farmland thanks to irrigation fields fed by the Colorado River on its eastern border and the Hoover Dam. Jobs in agriculture account for about a quarter of all employment in the county, and even though the state is in a historic drought, water for the area is all but guaranteed because of local politics.
The same cannot be said for reproductive health care, as national anti-choice activists have focused their attentions on a Planned Parenthood health-care facility opening in the valley’s El Centro, California.
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“Imperial Valley statistically is now rated fourth highest in the state for teen births,” Tracy Skadden, general counsel for Planned Parenthood of Pacific Southwest, told Rewire in an interview. “It has one of the highest rates of unemployment in California; the high schools sometimes have day care centers.”
Skadden said Planned Parenthood agency members spent about five years on the ground in Imperial Valley meeting with members of the community and local organizations to get an understanding of the area’s unique health-care needs before putting together the effort required to open a new facility.
“We know that they don’t have any reproductive health-care access specifically as it relates to abortion services,” Skadden said. “We know that they have very long waits to get in to see a doctor. A lot of the men and women who come to see us, because they don’t have any insurance coverage they really don’t go to doctors very often.”
“Some of the women in their 30s and 40s who come to see us have never had a pap smear,” she continued. Through the Planned Parenthood facility, “they get wellness checks, they get their cholesterol checked, possibly they get screened for diabetes. We don’t treat those things, but we do refer them to other health-care clinics that can.”
The El Centro facility is the only one to provide abortion care anywhere in Imperial County. Still, despite a chronically underserved population in need of comprehensive reproductive health care, Planned Parenthood faced what Skadden described as opposition that was “unprecedented for California” in opening the new facility in El Centro, the heart of Imperial Valley.
After funds for the new facility had been raised, architectural plans were approved by government officials, and all necessary permits were obtained, Planned Parenthood broke ground and finished building the facility this spring.
Then the protests started.
“The thing that triggered the protesters from the very beginning was our ‘now hiring’ sign that we put up under our logo,” Cita Walsh, vice president of marketing and communication, said in an interview with Rewire. “When we put the sign up we had hundreds of people apply for jobs at our health center.”
While the facility applied for a standard transfer agreement for patients with the city-owned El Centro Regional Medical Center, an area church organized about 500 protesters to come to the hospital’s board meeting and complain that by signing the transfer agreement, local officials were “authorizing abortions to occur in Imperial Valley.”
The city, in response to the anti-choice backlash, agreed to hire a third-party law firm to review the transfer agreement. That law firm told the city council the transfer agreement was legal and there was no reason the center should not open.
Walsh said that harassment escalated after the transfer agreement was complete, with more than 2,000 anti-choice protesters complaining to the El Centro city council about the opening of the health-care center.
“The National Right to Life Movement inserted themselves as outsiders into the Imperial Valley in an attempt to embed Imperial County and ignite the local churches and help them organize,” Walsh said.
National anti-choice activists, from former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) to Alveda King, came to the Valley to raise funds for efforts to stop the clinic’s opening.
“They brought in people from out of state to try and get the Imperial Valley Coalition for Life funded in order to teach them how to use the Texas playbook,” Walsh said. The Texas playbook, as described by Walsh, is centered on pressuring local officials into endorsing TRAP (targeted regulations of abortion providers) measures.
“It starts with you try to stop them with transfer agreements and then you have a lot of protesters,” Walsh said. “It felt a little like Mississippi or Texas, but right here in California.”
Days before the facility was set to open, after city officials had told Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest to invite trained staff in to begin setting up, El Centro city officials denied Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest its occupancy permit on the grounds that the building had been improperly classified and would need significant, additional upgrades before opening.
No other comparable facility in California is subject to the more burdensome requirements city officials want to impose on the El Centro facility.
The decision to reclassify the building just prior to its opening was made by El Centro Fire Chief Kenneth Herbert. Herbert explained to Rewire in an email that architects made the initial occupancy classification, but that “[b]ased upon conditions observed,” he decided the building needed more stringent requirements and denied fire clearance.
Herbert declined to elaborate on what conditions he observed that prompted his decision that the facility needed a more stringent classification. He told Rewire that since the initial permit denial, there have been changes made to the building in an attempt to comply with the “occupancy classification B requirements.” After a five-week delay, the city issued the facility a temporary certificate of occupancy.
In other words, the state-of-the-art health-care facility meets all the health and safety requirements it was required to all along.
In signing the licensing document, however, Herbert put in special conditions for their license to remain in place, Skadden said. One condition provides the fire chief with the authority to revoke the document pending a review of the building code by the state’s Fire Marshall Department. Herbert has requested from the State Fire Marshall’s office “a formal interpretation of the occupancy based on the use of the building.” That process could take up to 90 days.
“We complied with all the building, fire, and safety requirements for licensure, but the City of El Centro fire chief made an arbitrary and unilateral decision to deny our final documentation,” Skadden said. “The dispute is over a California building code. But it was clear this was about our abortion services.”
Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest successfully fought back this round of challenges to providing reproductive health care in Imperial County, but more challenges lie ahead. The Imperial Valley Coalition for Life reported on its Facebook page that “friends” of its organization purchased the property right next to the new Planned Parenthood clinic.
The anti-choice group charged that the property is now “available to our prayer warriors from the 365 days for life to park and to pray and it will be available for sidewalk counseling also.”
Meanwhile, those opposed to legal abortion care continue to protest outside the El Centro facility. “We’ve had some vandalism already, but we are very vigilant with our security and our number-one priority is to the safety of our patients and staff,” Skadden said. “California has a long history of protecting reproductive rights, which, thankfully, we were able to rely on our safety and health codes and our California Constitution and other laws that do protect reproductive health care.”
The hope for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest is that the political fight to provide reproductive health care in Imperial Valley is over. “We intend [to] provide health care in Imperial Valley and to work with the city,” Skadden said. “We all have a mutual goal of increasing the health outcomes of the community in Imperial Valley.”