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.

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

News Law and Policy

Federal Judge Guts Florida GOP’s Omnibus Anti-Choice Law

Teddy Wilson

"For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” said Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away."

A federal judge on Thursday permanently blocked two provisions of a Florida omnibus anti-choice law that banned Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds and required annual inspections of all clinics that provide abortion services, reported the Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order in June to delay implementation of the law.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that a government cannot prohibit indirectly—by withholding otherwise-available public funds—conduct that the government could not constitutionally prohibit directly,” Hinkle wrote in the 25-page ruling.  

Thursday’s decision came after Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration decided not to pursue further legal action to defend the law, and filed a joint motion to end the litigation.

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Hinkle issued a three page decision making the injunction permanent.

HB 1411, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton (R-Lakeland), was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in March.

The judge’s ruling nixed provisions in the law that banned state funding of abortion care and required yearly clinic inspections. Other provisions of the law that remain in effect include additional reporting requirements for abortion providers, redefining “third trimester,” and revising the care of fetal remains.

The GOP-backed anti-choice law has already had a damaging effect in Palm Beach County, where Planned Parenthood was forced to end a program that focused on teen dropout prevention.

Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement that the ruling was a “victory for thousands of Floridians” who rely on the organization for reproductive health care.

“For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” Zdravecky said. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away.”

A spokesperson for Scott told Reuters that the administration is “reviewing” the decision.

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