Analysis Abortion

STOKING FIRE: Anti-Choicers Bring Harassment to Wyoming and Get Frosty Reception

Eleanor J. Bader

It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Any time anti-abortion activists are told that they can’t harass people, they scream that their First Amendment rights have been violated. Now, Rev. Mark Holick, OSA head Flip Benham, and longtime co-conspirators Chet Gallagher and Rusty Thomas are at it again, this time in Jackson, Wyoming.

It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Any time anti-abortion activists are told that they can’t disrupt worship services, harass people entering or leaving reproductive healthcare facilities, or stand in front of schools with graphic placards and signs, they scream that their First Amendment rights have been violated. This claim has oft-times proved winning, simultaneously filling the anti’s coffers and boosting their morale.

Take the city of Wichita, Kansas as an example. Yes, the very same city in which Dr. George Tiller worked–and where he was assassinated–awarded Operation Save America’s Rev. Mark Holick $11,700 in 2009 after conceding that his right to free speech had been thwarted when he was arrested at a Gay Pride parade and festival two years earlier. To hear Holick tell it, he was simply trying to “communicate the gospel” to festival-goers, not badger them by predicting that they’d burn in hell for the sin of sodomy.

Now, Holick, OSA head Flip Benham, and longtime co-conspirators Chet Gallagher and Rusty Thomas are at it again, this time in Jackson, Wyoming. The foursome filed a petition in Wyoming Supreme Court in November, alleging that their rights had been infringed upon by a restraining order meant to keep them and their signs at least two blocks away from last May’s 44th annual Elkfest, an antler auction and community party organized by local Boy Scouts to raise money for habitat enrichment and winter feeding programs for the area’s large elk population.

The OSA posse landed in Jackson several days before Elkfest and shortly after declaring that they intend to make the “Equality State”—so named because it was the first in the U.S. to grant women the right to vote—wholly “abortion free.” Their primary target is Dr. Brent Blue of Emerg-A-Care, a physician who has worked in Jackson since 1984.

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“We’re a family practice that does terminations,” Blue begins. “Although less than one percent of our patients come in for them, I believe that as a family physician, abortion should be part of our practice, along with flu shots, STD screenings, dispensing birth control, and general examinations.”

Blue says that he got on the anti-abortion group’s radar a little more than a year ago when he ran for County Coroner. “I’m a Democrat,” he continues. “The guy I was up against ran as a Right-to-Life candidate. That’s when the antis began to target me and when they first started claiming that that they were going to make Wyoming abortion-free.”

Things at Emerg-A-Care had been quiet, Blue continues, since a September 1995 firebombing—part of Richard Thomas Anderson’s three-year arson spree at clinics throughout the West—temporarily shuttered the health center. In the 16 years since this incident, Blue says that he has felt fully supported by Jackson’s townspeople and save for several middle-of-the-night phone calls calling him a murderer and an occasional Saturday picketer, no one at Emerg-A-Care has felt much anti-abortion pressure.

“The ethos in Wyoming is that you may have your own ideas, but you don’t tell your neighbors what to do,” said Blue.

The OSA people came here, to Teton County, and six or eight of them picketed in front of the health center. We’re in a shopping mall, which is private property, so they had to stand on the sidewalk, which is public. As far as I know everyone hated their offensive photoshopped signs, their two-by-three foot and taller pictures, and even the anti-choice people in town kept their distance. Hundreds of people signed a petition I created that said, ‘We support your offering choice to women in Jackson Hole.’ Only one church, the Mountainview Independent Baptists, gave OSA any support.

OSA’s website grudgingly acknowledges this, noting the frosty welcome and lamenting the fact that nine of the area’s ten evangelical churches rebuffed their appeals for solidarity. “The Tea Party people have let Jeremy and Felice Augenbaugh, the only faithful family to carry on the work in Jackson, know that the Tea Party does not want to touch social issues like abortion or gay rights,” Flip Benham reports.

Furthermore, the website notes that the people of Jackson “seemed very far from God…Dick Cheney, Harrison Ford, and Sylvester Stallone live there. Rich people move to Jackson to get away from everyone. We never received so many gestures thrown at us or so many cars trying to hit us, but God protected us throughout it all.”

Not surprisingly, OSA’s Benham sees this we-don’t-want-you-here reception as a challenge and refuses to throw in the towel or take his roadshow elsewhere. In fact, he and his followers seem energized by the scorn expressed by local residents. This means that while the group’s legal case winds its way through Wyoming’s court system, Benham and his minions will undoubtedly follow-up on their pledge to return to Jackson to “confront the town with the sin of abortion.”

Rest assured, however, that Dr. Blue and the people of Jackson will be ready—elk antlers in hand—to defend reproductive justice and the choice it allows.

Analysis Abortion

Operation Save America Headed to Rochester This Summer

Eleanor J. Bader

OSA and its allies are using their bully pulpit to denounce both New York Gov. Cuomo and the Reproductive Health Act that's been proposed in the state.

Since its founding in 1992, Operation Save America (OSA) has designated particular cities for its annual anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-woman protests. This year OSA members are calling their actions “gospel raids,” and plans include short stopovers in Jackson, Mississippi, Washington, D.C.—where they’ll unveil an “Emancipation Proclamation For the Pre-born Child”—and North and South Dakota.

The centerpiece of OSA’s 2013 summer-to-fall campaign, however, will be a week-long visit to Rochester, New York, home of anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass and next-door neighbor of the National Women’s History Museum in Seneca Falls. The reason for the descent on the Flour City? First there’s pragmatism. OSA has a small base in Rochester, a city of approximately 210,000, and there have been ongoing picket lines at the area’s two Planned Parenthood health centers as well as annual “Life Chains” and protests orchestrated by 40 Days for Life. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has indicated his support for a Women’s Equality Agenda (WEA), a ten-point program that includes the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), legislation that will codify the protections delineated by Roe v. Wade and permanently grant women the statutory right to choose abortion. Furthermore, it will allow abortions after 24 weeks if the woman’s health—and not just her life, as currently stipulated—is endangered by carrying the pregnancy to term.

Needless to say, this reproductive health agenda has sent the antis into a frenzy of activity, and despite humongous anti-choice victories in the Midwest and South, OSA and its allies are taking no chances and are using their bully pulpit to denounce both Cuomo and the RHA. “It’s the worst abortion law ever to be proposed,” the group’s website shrieks. Although the law has not yet passed—in fact, the state legislature may or may not take it up before recessing at the end of June—the fact that it was introduced and has widespread public support is enough to give antis the shivers and shakes.

The group’s doomsday scenario paints a detailed picture of what they see as a looming horror:

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Imagine a world where a teenager who is perfectly healthy and nine months pregnant can walk into an unregulated abortion facility without her parent’s prior knowledge or consent, have her innocent baby brutally killed by an unlicensed abortionist, and she doesn’t pay a dime—her parents’ health insurance covers it. … Not only that, but the local Catholic Hospital is now fined or shut down and the medical practitioners who worked there are stripped of their licenses because they refused to perform abortions.

Forget that the terms “unregulated” and “unlicensed” are blatant misrepresentations, and forget that the RHA keeps existing “conscience” protections in place, allowing hospital workers and others to opt out of providing abortion care to patients. For OSA, the Reproductive Health Act is “the most radical pro-abortion legislation ever to hit a state government, anywhere in the country.” (Not to digress, but I am confident that OSA would also oppose the RHA if the young woman paid for the procedure out-of-pocket, was just ten weeks pregnant, and had the blessing and consent of her family.)

Should the RHA pass during this year’s legislative session, you can bet the farm that OSA will ramp up its protests, risking arrests to derail local providers. But even if the WEA/RHA fails this time around, OSA is not a group to rest on its laurels. The continuous torment of providers is unlikely to cease, especially since those advocating the bills are equally resolute and will not stop until the bills finally become law.

For its part, OSA has named six targets for the July Rochester protests: Planned Parenthood facilities on Ridge Road in nearby Greece and on University Avenue in Rochester; Strong Memorial and Highland Hospitals, both affiliated with the University of Rochester Medical Center; and two private physicians, Dr. David Gandell of Freedom of Choice OB/GYN on Lattimore Road, and Dr. Morris Wortman, founder of the Center for Menstrual Disorders and Reproductive Choice. OSA calls Wortman “the most notorious of all” for his longtime association with Freedom of Choice OB/GYN.

“We do what we need to do to keep everyone safe 365 days a year,” Karen, the practice manager at Freedom of Choice OB/GYN, told Rewire. (Karen declined to give her last name.) “We’re well aware of what’s been going on nationally and we have been alerted to OSA’s plans by law enforcement.” While neither Karen nor others involved in providing abortion care in Rochester were willing to offer specifics about their security plans for the summer, rest assured they are doing what they can to protect themselves and their patients.

In addition, feminist and reproductive justice groups, including the state National Organization for Women chapter, NARAL Pro-Choice New York, Physicians for Reproductive Health, Family Planning Advocates of New York State, and World Can’t Wait, are gearing up and formulating plans to stave off OSA’s expected provocation.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Harassment and Access to Abortion In Mississippi: An Interview with Dr. Willie Parker

Robin Marty

Jackson Women's Health Organization's Dr. Willie Parker discusses clinic intimidation and the effect it has on women and providers at the state's sole clinic.

Dr. Willie Parker is accustomed to the clinic protesters parading outside of the various facilities where he provides abortion. Like any abortion provider he has unfortunately seen his share of self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” provoking clinic staff and cajoling women to change their minds. But at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last public abortion facility in the state of Mississippi, the sidewalk activities are more tense, the crowd a little louder, and the environment just that much more intimidating.

Clinic protesters are energized by a number of circumstances. The state has only one clinic left and JWHO is in mid-litigation with its fate resting solely in the hands of the courts. And despite their failure to take over the federal government, anti-choice politicians are seeking to eliminate access to abortion—at least in one state.

With all those factors in play, it is no wonder those who oppose abortion are getting noticeably bolder in their tactics.

“They are fairly assertive,” Dr. Parker said diplomatically in a phone interview with Rewire, referring to the recent gathering of Operation Save America post election day. “There were a couple of very animated people. Indirectly, when I talked to patients they had mentioned the protesters were very assertive to them.”

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Mississippi’s clinic is definitely a leader when it comes to attracting highly-determined anti-choice activists, Dr. Parker agreed.

There are episodic periods at other clinics, like the 40 Days, or when people bus in kids, bring in religious youth groups, or have other organized activities where those who don’t normally get the chance to demonstrate their opposition to abortion on a regular basis. But those activists in Mississippi probably feel like they are as close as they have ever been to achieving their goal of shutting down the clinic and making Mississippi an abortion free state. I would say that there is more sense of fervor and sense that victory is just around the corner. In that way, there is a bit more of a targeted effort in Mississippi. But given that there is only one clinic, and people have always been able to target on that one clinic, I think that in other places where there is more than one clinic and people are trying to coordinate activity, in Mississippi there seems to be more of a sense of urgency and a sense of the potential to prevail.

“[Protest activities] had calmed down and become milder but there has definitely been an uptick associated with the political cycle,” said Dr. Parker, who believes that it may be a sense of potential victory egging them on. The more in danger the clinic seems, the more aggressive the protesters may be getting, seeing their own actions as a symbolic, if not direct assistance to the state agencies acting to shut it down.

The protesters are acting under the impression that the closing of the clinic is a done deal. As it gets closer, they are certainly tracking things. They seem to feel that they need to agitate now to push the law forward and that seems to animate them.

Operation Save America admits a bit of personal pride in seeing the clinic in such dire straits. But they dismiss the idea that they, or anti-choice protesters in general, have had some sort of role in the situation in Mississippi. Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, a key leader and organizer for OSA’s “States of Refuge Tour,” told Rewire via email that they are simply the instrument to ending abortion, whereas God will end access once and for all.

“As far as us believing we played a role or would seek to take credit for what is happening in Mississippi, [that] would be tantamount to the donkey thinking the praise was for him as Christ rode into Jerusalem,” said Rev. Thomas. “We believe the Lord has revealed that soon America will experience the first abortion free state. He opened our eyes to see this opportunity. Our duty is to follow and trust God for the results.”

If Thomas and OSA’s National Director Flip Benham have their way, there will be a lot of followers in Mississippi to watch this “opportunity” firsthand. The group is imploring abortion opponents who want to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to abandon the annual March for Life in D.C. and come to Jackson instead. In an email to activists, Benham wrote:

We are being destroyed as a nation by an enemy from within.  We are being destroyed by a lie that was birthed in the very pit of hell.  This lie took its physical form in the Roe v. Wade decision issued by the Supreme Court of the United States of America on January 22, 1973.  This is a battle that only God’s Church can win!

So we are headed back to Jackson, Mississippi, this 40th Memorial of Roe v. Wade. We will be there January 20-22, 2013. We will have a memorial service on Tuesday, January 22, 2013, that will end at 12:30 PM. For those of you that are already doing memorial services, for the over 55 million children killed, in your cities at that time please let your local leaders organize that and come join us in Jackson.

See you in Jackson as we again storm the gates of hell – they cannot prevail!

The storm may arrive a little too early, however. Although the state can send a notice of intent to revoke the clinic’s license as early as January 12th, 2013, there are still standard processes involved in actually closing the clinic that should ensure JWHO stays open at least a few weeks longer. Then again, with representatives like Sam Mims asking for immediate inspections when the TRAP law went into effect, and looking for ways to bypass the standard grace period that would apply, nothing can be totally certain.

It would take a great deal of effort on the behalf Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration to revoke JWHO’s license in time for OSA’s memorial services, as tempting as the symbolism of closing on the 40th anniversary of Roe might be to the anti-choice community. Rev. Thomas and the States of Refuge campaign are willing to take what victories they can find, however, especially if it will encourage the movement to do more. OSA is ready to end abortion one state at a time, and change the federal government when the time is right.

With the advent of Obama’s re-election, it is clear Washington D.C. will not receive the Christian/Pro-life message,” Rev. Thomas said. “This current administration is not only the most pro-abortion, but Obama as a state senator voted several times to support infanticide. He voted to allow children to die in a closet gasping for life, if they survived the assault against his/her lives. Thus, we suggest a different strategy is in order. The States of Refuge campaign believes we must first win the battle locally on the state level to prepare the way for the day when Washington D.C. will gladly receive the Christian/Pro-life message as the new law of the land.”

Rev. Thomas doesn’t believe it will take long to change hearts, either. “People are warming up to the States of Refuge campaign. Once they see the potential of the vision, there is a resounding amen.”

It isn’t an “amen” that has foiled the OB-GYNs at JWHO, but a set of hospitals unwilling to offer admitting privileges to the doctors as the new law requires, fearing that they too might get caught in the crossfire of anti-choice zealotry and harassment. Considering the aggression the “activists” have taken verbally against clinicians, patients, and even the trash person, for hospitals to shy away from what they have politely referred to as potential “disruption” is sadly unsurprising.

“There is a tendency of the hospitals to see themselves as apolitical. They don’t want to have that attention,” said Dr. Parker. “Also, hospitals are very dependent on the government, and the fact that they might antagonize the government and they need funding may be factoring in.”

Dr Parker believes it is “risk aversion,” more than anything that has cause the hospitals to turn down requests, surmising that the hospitals “don’t want to make any missteps.”

The way they have framed their reply—that if they are to grant admitting priviliges it would be disruptive to their internal and external operations — says to me that they are very mindful of being perceived as an ally or at least not anti-abortion and that they will receive the same protest activity there as well.

For Dr. Parker, that is the greatest frustration with the TRAP law. Without hospitals willing to take the risk to allow the doctors privileges, the state legislature’s request for them under the guise of “patient safety” could cut off access to safe abortion all together. “If I could truly see that they had the interests of the women at heart, and truly wanted to make sure that they were making abortion safe, then I could just choose to honestly disagree with them,” said Dr. Parker. Yet in reality, it is an unnecessary regulation seeking to solve a non-existent problem. “There is no evidence for perceiving abortion to be dangerous nor any uptick in complications in the state of Mississippi, and certainly not in this clinic, that would warrant these regulations that now threaten to close the clinic.”

There may be no evidence, but that isn’t stopping the legislature from implimenting the new law, the hospitals from rejecting the doctors, or anti-choice protesters from cheering on a victory for which they are obviously responsible.