Commentary Law and Policy

It’s Up to Us to Defend Abortion Rights

Mary Lou Greenberg

As someone who has worked with abortion providers and defended clinics for many years, I have learned that the only way to prevent anti-abortion protesters (or, "antis") from physically interfering with women (and their accompanying partners, relatives or friends) going into a clinic is by relying on our own efforts – and not laws.

Cross-posted with permission from On The Issues Magazine.

The action starts at 7 a.m. every Saturday when volunteers start arriving, women and men, some who get up at 5 a.m. and travel far on the subway to be there, donning white lab coats and positioning themselves on the sidewalk. They come to help escort women patients through the gauntlet of physical and mental harassment outside into Choices Women’s Medical Center, so they can get the abortions, birth control, pre-natal exams or routine gynecological exams offered by Choices to about 40,000 patients a year.

After being evicted from its two prior locations, in April 2012 Choices moved to Jamaica, Queens into an all-new 1800-square-foot facility. As soon as it opened, Christian fundamentalists from a Biblical literalist church in Brooklyn began showing up every Saturday morning, the busiest day for appointments. They wear pink or blue vests (yes, women in pink, men in blue), with the words “Unborn Baby Advocate” printed on them. Some prop up big signs (3’x5′ or larger) with enlarged, full color photos of supposed fetal parts, bloody and gruesome, and the word “Choice.” Others, unencumbered by the big placards, are poised ready to pounce on everyone—especially women—who dares weave their way to the clinic entrance through the signs and insistent shouting. 

Shortly after the protesters appeared, Choices began working with NOW NYC to recruit volunteer escorts. NOW has sent volunteers to escort at clinics in Brooklyn and the Bronx in the past and still does. But when the chapter heard of the critical need for escorts at Choices—to counter at least 15-25 protestors every Saturday—it put out a special call for volunteers to go to Jamaica. Generally, there are anywhere from 6 to 12 escorts on site, mostly young and very passionate about women’s rights.

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As someone who has worked with abortion providers and defended clinics for many years, I have learned that the only way to prevent anti-abortion protesters (or, “antis”) from physically interfering with women (and their accompanying partners, relatives or friends) going into a clinic is by relying on our own efforts—and not laws which may or, more frequently, as in the case with Choices and many other clinics, may not be enforced and which in any case are disregarded by the antis. 

At Choices, where the antis have the legal “right” to roam the public sidewalk leading to the entrance, photograph people entering and leaving the clinic, and accost women—including those with small children who come for appointments, our protocol for escorting women is to form a protective “cocoon” around them, with several escorts physically walking on each side and taking them to the clinic door, acting as a barrier between them and the protesters. 

We spent some time figuring out how to differentiate ourselves from the antis. Women coming for appointments just want to get inside the clinic—they don’t want to stop and talk to anyone. That’s where the lab coats come in. We have the escorts wear white lab coats and big round buttons (four inches diameter) that say, in large letters, “Choices Clinic Escort.” The white lab coats can be seen from a distance, and when patients make Saturday appointments they are told to look for the people in white who will walk with them to the entrance. 

The lab coats for the escorts were a new tactic after an experience I had when I approached a woman outside the entrance to Choices last summer. She vehemently told me to “get the f*** out of my way,” and strode determinedly to the door. When she later realized I was with Choices, she apologized profusely and said she thought I was with the people with the signs. 

I told her not to feel bad—her reaction was fine. More women should respond loudly and angrily to anyone who is trying to bully them away from having an abortion or other needed healthcare. And while there are, indeed, more than a few women who do just that, for others the signs, the accusations that they are “murdering” their “baby,” and the intrusion on their privacy—especially in the present climate when abortion has become so stigmatized—is, understandably, upsetting. 

This is precisely what the antis want. A notorious anti-abortion figure, Joseph Scheidler, known by some as the “father of the right-to-life movement,” once bragged in his book, Closed/99 Ways to Stop Abortion, that the complications rate during abortions (in actuality, extremely low, as having a legal abortion in sanitary conditions is statistically safer by far than carrying a pregnancy to term) goes up when loud “sidewalk counseling” is going on outside. Whether or not there was any truth to this, the antis’ words, lies and aggressive actions are designed to create upset and anxiety which Choices’ social workers and trained counselors must take time to address when counseling women on Saturdays. (Every woman is counseled before any abortion procedure.) It is noteworthy that the antis outside Choices recently handed out literature from Scheidler’s organization, the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action Network (also known as Pro-Life Action League). 

Sometimes Choices only has a small number of escorts compared to the number of antis, and when that happens the antis are emboldened to be even more vicious and aggressive. But no matter how many escorts are “on duty,” they provide necessary protection and support for the patients.

Laws on Paper, Harassment in Reality

Despite Federal and New York City laws that legally prohibit harassing people seeking to enter women’s health facilities or obstructing the entrance, this is a “gray area,” according to some lawyers, and some laws have not been tested in courts. Protesters often stand with their big posters only a few feet from Choices’ entrance, try to force literature into women’s hands and turn them away from the door, while shouting “Don’t kill your baby,” “children are precious” and other things that deliberately and wrongly equate fetuses with babies and are aimed at making women feel guilty. Black women also are accused of committing “genocide” if they have an abortion, and I was admonished by the pastor of the anti-choice church that I, with the last name “Greenberg,” should understand “the connection between abortion and the Holocaust.” Supposedly, if people say they don’t want to talk, protesters are supposed to stop. But this does not happen.

I’ve actively supported and defended abortion providers and clinics for decades, since the first attacks by the organized anti-abortion forces in the mid-eighties. It’s bad enough reading the statistics about how difficult obtaining abortions has become, 40 years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal throughout the United States. But to see in person the cruelty and guilt inflicted on women coming to clinics is chilling—and even more infuriating. 

Although the law has been slow to protect women’s rights to enter a clinic unharrassed, it has been quick to make access to abortion more difficult. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research organization, restrictive laws have been passed in nearly every state, with a record number (92) in 2011 and another 43 states last year, 2012 (yes, both during the Obama years). These laws cause tremendous hardship and suffering. And the fact that women entering clinics have to experience such hostility from protesters even in New York, one of the few states with very few restrictive laws and where abortion is available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy—as it is at Choices Women’s Medical Center—should be a slap in the face for anyone who supports abortion or “choice” but somehow doesn’t think that this fundamental and essential right is seriously threatened. 

The antis propagate fear-inducing lies about abortion that play on totally unscientific notions and misconceptions that exist far too widely in society. The antis claim—in complete opposition to scientific studies—that abortion causes women to have “emotional distress” and to “likely engage in self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, drinking, eating disorders, suicide, etc.” This in addition to equating fetuses with children and abortion with “murder.” (After the horrible murders of young children at the Connecticut school, one of the sidewalk preachers equated that with women coming to get abortions!) To counter these lies, Choices developed material with the real facts about abortion and has copies readily available in the waiting rooms.

Overall the Escort Program has made it very difficult for the fundamentalist patriarchs (both male and female) to force their anti-woman lies on clients. Their accusatory voices still boom about hellfire, but they are prevented from physically accosting women. Every escort who’s come has made a difference in a woman’s life, as well as themselves getting a vivid education in just how fragile access to abortion really is. And how keeping it depends on US

With bold words, determined actions, and an uncompromising spirit, women and men need to defend abortion providers and clinics under attack and protect women going into the clinics from harassment and assault, verbal or physical. People need to be in the streets protesting abortion restrictions and confronting politicians and others who spout ridiculous and harmful lies and who counsel compromise instead of firm opposition to everyone and every institution that would ban or limit abortion and intimidate women who refuse to be incubators. And all people who want to protect women’s right and ability to access abortion need to speak up and ACT, with conviction and not a hint of apology. And that’s the point of this article. Protecting the fundamental right and access to abortion is up to us!

Why I Am A Clinic Escort

“I am a recent graduate from the University of Utah with a BA in theater studies and a BA in gender studies. I have always been a feminist but it wasn’t until I truly started to learn about feminism in college that I really began to see how women are objectified, belittled and demeaned every day and in every way in our society. One of the reasons why I moved to New York in August was to follow my dreams of being an activist for women’s rights. I had learned about NOW in my classes and wanted to get involved. 

When I started receiving emails about volunteering at Choices I knew it was something I would be very much interested in doing. My first time volunteering was in October 2012 when there was the big Catholic protest. I was amazed at how devoted these people were. They went so far as to kneel on the hard concrete to pray for the end of abortion. As baffled as I was by the behavior of the Catholics, nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous freak show that is the [fundamentalist Christians]. It was hard for me to stay silent and try not to engage in conversation with these ignorant people as they preached and waved their absurd literature in the faces of anyone who walked by. To them, women are good for one thing and one thing only: to make babies. According to them, women must accept their place as the bearers of humanity whether they want to or not. 

“I volunteer because I believe in a woman’s fundamental right to do whatever she chooses with her body. I volunteer because I want to make sure that the women who are trying to get into the clinic (whether it be for prenatal or for an abortion) gets in safely with the least amount of verbal harassment possible. I volunteer because I care about women’s bodies, their health and their right to choose whether or not to be a mother. Women do not deserve to be told they are wrong about their choices. Especially not by a bunch of brainwashed screaming zombies standing on a sidewalk with grotesque outdated signs of aborted fetuses. 

“The fact that Choices has had to go so far as to get escorts to help women get into the clinic shows how out of hand and how ludicrous this situation is. Women should not need an escort to see their doctors. And I will keep volunteering and showing up on Saturdays until these preaching bozos realize they can’t win. Which could take a long time. 21 year-old woman, New York City

 

“I volunteer as an escort at CHOICES because I believe that access to reliable healthcare is a basic human right and that women are capable of making their own decisions about their bodies. The “pro-life” protesters who stand outside CHOICES are there to intimidate low-income women and restrict their abiilties to control their lives. While it’s incredibly frustrating that CHOICES needs escorts, it’s rewarding to know that women were able to receive the care they need because we were there to guide them through the chaos the protesters create.” — 23-year-old woman who works in Manhattan

I first started volunteering as an escort at Choices after my own experience with an abortion a year ago. I went into my abortion experience with confidence and knew that it was the right decision for me. This is not the case, however, for a lot of women. When I realized what an ordeal it was for me to even enter the clinic I visited, I could finally sympathize with other women who were going into this procedure with anxiety and grief. I was so angered by the presence of these protest groups at this clinic that, following my own procedure, I set out to figure out a way to make sure other women understand that they are not alone in their experiences and that there are people who believe women should be trusted to make decisions that are best for themselves and for their families. My experience at Choices has been so incredibly meaningful to me because I see it as an act of solidarity. I want to be there not just to escort the individuals entering the clinic, but also to assert myself as a positive presence in these people’s lives, even if it is for just one minute. As volunteers I believe that simply showing up to the clinic is an act of solidarity. Our presence there shows women and men that there are people who are on their side and trust them to make their own decisions.

News Politics

Democratic Party Platform: Repeal Bans on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

When asked this month about the platform’s opposition to Hyde, Hillary Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said that he had not “been informed of that” change to the platform though he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment.”

Democrats voted on their party platform Monday, codifying for the first time the party’s stated commitment to repealing restrictions on federal funding for abortion care.

The platform includes a call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, an appropriations ban on federal funding for abortion reimplemented on a yearly basis. The amendment disproportionately affects people of color and those with low incomes.

“We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured,” states the Democratic Party platform. “We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”

The platform also calls for an end to the Helms Amendment, which ensures that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.”

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Though Helms allows funding for abortion care in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, the Obama administration has failed to enforce those guarantees.

Despite the platform’s opposition to the restrictions on abortion care funding, it makes no mention of how the anti-choice measures would be rolled back.

Both presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have promised to address Hyde and Helms if elected. Clinton has said she would “fix the Helms Amendment.”

Speaking at the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum in January, Clinton said that the Hyde Amendment “is just hard to justify because … certainly the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.” In 2008, Clinton’s campaign told Rewire that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

When asked this month about the platform’s opposition to Hyde, Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said in an interview with the Weekly Standard that he had not “been informed of that” change to the platform though he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

“The Hyde amendment and Helms amendment have prevented countless low-income women from being able to make their own decisions about health, family, and future,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement, addressing an early draft of the platform. “These amendments have ensured that a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion is a right that’s easier to access if you have the resources to afford it. That’s wrong and stands directly in contrast with the Democratic Party’s principles, and we applaud the Party for reaffirming this in the platform.”

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.