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Colliding with clinic escorts, blocking access to the sidewalk, and shoving pamphlets at patients: These are some of the aggressive tactics of anti-choice protesters outside the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, as described by a former clinic escort in court Monday.
The protesters, many of whom come from an evangelical Christian congregation called the Church at the Rock in Brooklyn, used “graphic signs” depicting bloody fetuses to block the sidewalk, “screamed very loudly,” and often “walked in front of patients to slow them down,” Pearl Brady, a former volunteer and escort leader at the clinic, said during her testimony before U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought the lawsuit in June after a yearlong investigation into the protests that have become a weekly routine since the clinic moved to Jamaica, Queens, in 2012.
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“The tactics used to harass and menace Choices’ patients, families, volunteers, and staff are not only horrifying–they’re illegal,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The law guarantees women the right to control their own bodies and access the reproductive health care they need, without obstruction. We’ll do what it takes to protect those rights for women across New York.”
An outpatient surgery center that provides a wide range of health services, Choices was founded in 1971, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade case, and is one of the first outpatient abortion centers in the United States, according to court documents.
Assistant Attorney General Nancy Trasande played videos Monday to demonstrate the harassment endured by clinic workers and patients outside Choices. Brady pointed out some of the 14 defendants named in the suit and outlined incidents involving Rev. Kenneth Griepp, Angela Braxton, Patricia Musco, Ronald George, Brian George, and others.
“I’ve seen Ron George collide with people about a half dozen times,” Brady said.
On July 2, 2016, for instance, a patient refused to take some anti-choice material George was trying to hand her. When Brady asked him to back up, he ignored her, she said.
Another time, George collided into a clinic escort and almost made her fall. “She said she felt the full force of him,” Brady said.
After Martin Cannon, an attorney for the defendants, said in January that he found the harassment charges unconstitutionally vague, Judge Amon expressed some concern about the dictionary definition of harassment as meaning to annoy. She noted that leafletting is a form of protected speech and that sidewalks are the “quintessential public forum,” according to a January article in Courthouse News Service.
Amon, who presided over a case 15 years ago involving a couple who pleaded guilty to aiding the killer of an abortion care provider, asked for several clarifications of the incidents and videos on Monday.
Defendants’ attorneys include Roger Gannam of the Liberty Counsel, a group that has been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQ extremism. Gannon made the same “religious freedom” argument that Liberty Counsel has used to defend anti-gay evangelist Scott Lively and Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to sign same-sex marriage licenses—even though it lost both cases.
The defendants are also represented by Cannon, a lawyer with the conservative Thomas More Society—a group that has defended the Iowa Board of Medicine’s rule to ban telemedical abortions, represented a Missouri anti-abortion activist against Planned Parenthood trespassing charges, and represented anti-choice activist David Daleiden, the criminally indicted architect of a smear campaign targeting Planned Parenthood, according to news reports.
Schneiderman, who represented abortion clinics pro bono as a young lawyer, has a long record of defending women’s health care. In 2012, he successfully sued to secure an expanded buffer zone around Planned Parenthood in Utica, and he recently introduced legislation to ensure access to free contraception for New Yorkers even if congressional Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The preliminary injunction hearing continues Tuesday and is expected to last at least seven days.
Sofia Resnick contributed reporting for this story.