Being in New York, a state with a left-of-center reputation and laws that generally uphold reproductive rights, the city of Buffalo might not seem a natural fit for anti-abortion extremists.
But “pro-life” activism in the large upstate city is storied. Sixteen years ago, Dr. Barnett Slepian, then an abortion provider at Buffalo Womenservices in New York, was shot dead in his home by an anti-abortion sniper. Six years before Slepian’s murder, almost 200 protesters from around the country descended on the city, picketing and blocking access to abortion clinics, as part of Operation Rescue’s “The Spring of Life.”
During a similar anti-choice effort in the late 1980s, hundreds more were arrested.
“There is this history of hostility in Buffalo,” says Sally Heron, services coordinator and office manager of the Buffalo Womenservices, a health clinic that offers abortion and birthing services, along with other reproductive care, to women and queer people in upstate New York.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly digest.
Decades later, four abortion providers serve the Buffalo area, including Womenservices. And while picketing has subsided over the past decade, Heron says there are still protesters in front of the clinic every day.
“We get this feeling that they own the space, the sidewalk in front of the clinic,” Heron told Rewire. “It’s easy to feel frustrated by them taking up that space every day.”
Supporters of the clinic have wanted to fight back for a long time, but were waiting for a window of opportunity to take a stand. That moment came this week, when clinic staff found out that anti-choice leader Steve Karlen would be traveling to Buffalo to give a speech in front of protesters at the clinic.
Karlen was to arrive on behalf of 40 Days for Life, a nationally coordinated protest event against abortion in which anti-choice activists picket and hold vigils outside abortion clinics across the country. By the time Karlen was set to arrive, the protesters had already been stationed in front of Womenservices for more than three weeks.
Once Heron got word of Karlen’s arrival, she and a friend decided to organize a counter-protest, with the theme “circus disco”—the idea being that a lively protest could drown out the speaker and distract from the negative energy created by the usual picketers.
It worked: The next day, some 100 people streamed in front of Womenservices, dancing with fire poi and hoola hoops and cheering with reproductive rights banners.
Heron also says that the raucous, party-like nature of the protest was meant to create a fun, open, and happy environment around a procedure so often mired in stigma and secrecy. In the vein of glitter-bombing, the circus disco theme of the protest would be a fabulous way to call out the absurdity of anti-choice activists and point to the normalcy of abortion as a medical procedure.
Heron said Womenservices plans to continue the counter-protests. “It was so much fun it’s hard to imagine not doing it again,” she said. “And people were so hungry for it. We’re clearly so hungry to come out and make this point.”
“It really felt like it was an important thing that was happening, like we were reminding them that we are the majority,” she added. “We felt really supported and like we had a whole community that was behind us.”
Womenservices has been doing much more than playing defense against relentless anti-choice activists. On Valentine’s Day, the facility opened a birthing center, becoming the first in the nation to house a birth center alongside an abortion clinic.
Plans are also in the works to create a reproductive justice advocacy nonprofit, to connect the dots between direct service and change.
“We already have a center where people can receive care regardless of the outcome of their pregnancy,” Heron said. “It’s about so much more than providing medical care though. It’s about economic justice, trans care, and prison justice. We’re really on our way to increase access and build community around reproductive justice and rights in Buffalo.”