It is once again the beginning of 40 Days for Life, an anti-choice harassment campaign aimed at protesting abortion clinics day in and day out in an effort to intimidate women out of obtaining abortions. Now in its fifth year, the 40 days will run from September 26th to November 4th, conveniently wrapping just in time for the 2012 election.
Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota, is a key target. As the only abortion provider in the state, Red River is often targeted by an anti-choice movement desperate to close the clinic and to make North Dakota “abortion-free.” This summer, Missionaries to the Preborn also protested at the clinic, as part of Operation Save America’s “States of Refuge” tour. Now, just a few months later, the clinic and its escorts are once again prepared to defend their practice and the women who seek access to safe, legal abortion care.
This year, clinic staff will be taking a few preemptive strikes at the anti-choice protesters who will gather day in and day out on the sidewalks in front of the building. The escorts have provided their own bicycles, which they will be chaining to the lampposts in front of the Red River Clinic, giving the 40 Days followers no place to put their own “bike cams.”
“The ‘bike cams’ are bicycle frames, but without the actual bike,” explains Caitlin, a Red River Women’s Clinic patient escort. “Instead, there is a camera on front and large batteries on the sides to keep it powered. The antis claim it’s to keep them safe, but they keep the cameras pointing at the doors of the clinic, not in the space where they are allowed to be. It’s obviously meant for nothing but intimidation.”
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This hasn’t done much to stop the women who come to the clinic to get an abortion during the 40 Days campaign. According to Caitlin, the women are aware that these harassers will be on site, and they look for escorts to guide them through any potential chaos to the doors of the clinic. Escorts remind patients that they don’t have to speak to the protesters or accept the material that they offer them, but often the patients do anyway. “It’s the Midwest,” Caitlin says. “We tend to be really polite. If someone offers us something, we take it. If someone tries to talk to us, we tend to have a hard time just ignoring them.”
Even when the patients and the protesters do engage, Caitlin says she’s never seen any of the so called “saves” that 40 Days claims happen all the time on the sidewalks of abortion clinics. “I’ve never seen a woman change her mind,” Caitlin says. “She’s decided long before she comes. She’s just frustrated that they are there, and that we can’t do anything about them.”
The community itself is often frustrated by these protests, especially owners of the businesses surrounding the clinic. Many of them see their business drop because of congested sidewalks or graphic posters during the 40 days of protest. But some, such as the restaurant next door, will find a small upswing. Customers think it’s amusing to watch the antis try to intimidate women out of going to their appointments, proselytize about the evils of abortion and those involved in it, or sometimes just pray and sing.
“I once saw a woman bring an old, beat-up silver trumpet, which she obviously did not know how to play,” Caitlin says. “She then turned and blew it in four directions, saying she would make the walls of the clinic come crumbling down.”
The clergy had their own way of making their presence known. “One priest from a few blocks down would tell me about all of the horrors from our clinic,” Caitlin says. “That we gave our aborted fetuses to PepsiCo to make into drinks, or that Chinese abortionists ate fetuses and said they taste like chicken. He also informed me that I was pro-choice because my father didn’t love me enough.”
For the next 40 days, clinic escorts, armed with discount coffee provided by some of the neighboring businesses, will seek to keep the interactions between patients and protesters calm, as the inevitable anti-choice participants try to “counsel” patients out of carrying out their own personal medical decisions. Once, Caitlin was doused with “holy water” by a Roman Catholic priest and has seen nuns in habits tell women that abortion will only leave them the “mother of a dead baby.” Sadly, these interactions have become a too-familiar occurrence at Red River.
The 40 Days for Life protest will take place in front of 317 clinics, according to its website, and will have a presence in every state except Wyoming.