Three hundred or so rapt but sweating abortion rights opponents gathered beneath a revival-style tent in Central Texas Saturday to celebrate the closure of a small-town abortion clinic, the only one in its rural county.
“You see those gates across the street?” Coalition for Life Executive Director Bobby Reynoso asked the fanning crowd. “They represent the gates of hell!”
These “gates of hell” are in the heart of what’s known as “Aggieland,” comprising the surrounding environs of Texas A&M University, the conservative counter-geography to blue Austin and the University of Texas.
On Saturday, those gates were dotted with colorful flowers, placed by abortion rights opponents who for 15 years have gathered annually to pray safe, legal abortion away from the Brazos Valley. But now that Bryan, Texas’ Planned Parenthood clinic has closed, those gates will likely be the gates of just another medical office with spotty landscaping, trodden down over the years by protesters.
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“We don’t like bullies,” anti-choice activist David Arabie told the crowd. That’s why, he said, he had the original idea for 40 Days for Life, the annual event during which anti-choice protesters spend 24 hours a day for 40 days outside abortion clinics praying at, and ostensibly for, clinic workers, patients, and passersby. Arabie fondly remembered getting “Bryan’s finest” called on him while protesting when he parked his truck outside the clinic in the middle of the night.
Despite the jubilant mood inside the tent—revelers joined in chants of “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!”—Reynoso said that sometimes outside the clinic, he’d been an “angry pro-life guy,” who would harass clinic workers, “hoping to get under their nerves a little bit,” so they “would get uncomfortable” and leave. He said he drew inspiration from a Holocaust memoir, comparing his own perseverance to that of Jewish people imprisoned in Auschwitz, who survived because they recognized the importance of their “role” in history.
Relentless protesters like Reynoso and Arabie may have killed the grass, but it was Texas politicians who ultimately shuttered this Planned Parenthood and four others in the past month, as state funding for family planning is diverted to primary care providers and an omnibus anti-abortion law goes into effect, making it harder than ever for Texans—particularly those who live in rural, underserved areas like the Brazos Valley—to access contraception, cancer screenings, and legal abortion.
This was cause for celebration on Saturday, as Abby Johnson, the professional anti-Planned Parenthood activist who once managed the Bryan clinic before her religious conversion in 2009, returned to the site of her former workplace.
“I never thought I would be friends with any of you,” she told the crowd, describing herself as a “really big sinner” who had been welcomed, reluctantly at first, into the anti-choice community before becoming one of its most celebrated faces. “This is the day I’ve been praying for since October 5, 2009.”
But this is just the beginning, Johnson told the crowd.
“It’s not done,” she said. “It’s not over. We’ve been successful here, and that’s a blessing, but it’s far from over.”