Commentary Abortion

Agreeing to Disagree: Another Take on What the Abortion Rights Movement Really Can’t Afford

Calla Hales

On the list: writing off the hard work of the many nonprofits that strive to preserve and expand abortion access, and clinic counterprotests that further stress our patients.

Earlier this week, Michelle Farber and Dayna Long published a Rewire.News piece about the history and future of abortion activism as they see it.

The article, “The Abortion Rights Movement Can’t Afford Amnesia—or Nonprofits Leading Our Activism,” drew strong responses from many readers in the reproductive rights and justice communities, including me as a clinic director. Though it was framed as an article critical of movements that don’t learn from past mistakes and of large nonprofits being centered in abortion rights activism, I believe it devolved into a hit piece on a well-respected author; undermined the exceptional and intensive work of existing grassroots organizations; and promoted the questionable practice of mass counterprotests at clinics targeted by abortion opponents.

First, Robin Marty’s book, Handbook for a Post-Roe America, is purely what the title says: a manual on how to focus on the current hostile climate of abortion access and how to move forward as access decreases. There is no deception in its framing. It is not a comprehensive history of abortion in the United States, nor is it a reproductive-justice manifesto. While one chapter provides a basic contextual overview of the legal landscape since Roe v. Wade became law, the book is a practical guide outlining the navigation of abortion services. It’s truly the first of its kind: Not only does it name grassroots organizations that provide financial, political, and/or practical support for abortion access and those who seek it, but it even outlines possible processes of procuring abortion care if it becomes illegal. While no book can please everyone (and a previous Rewire.News review had an entirely different and positive take on Marty’s latest), the mischaracterization in Farber and Long’s piece is a disservice to those seeking the vital information she covers.

Moving past the misguided review of Marty’s work in their commentary, Farber and Long also criticized the large presence of nonprofits in abortion advocacy, claiming that they only promote “donate or vote” schemes and can “require a lifelong commitment to the Democratic Party.”

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Yes, there absolutely are large nonprofits being centered in abortion discussions, organizations that do not represent a majority of advocates. But there are far more diverse organizations—nonprofit and otherwise—dedicated to assisting abortion clinics and their patients. These activist groups are located all over the country, and their aims are varied and impactful. Their outreach includes directing financial assistance to folks seeking abortion care; coordinating practical needs like transportation, lodging, and childcare for patients; escorting patients into their chosen clinic; organizing outreach campaigns that expand abortion access and uplift the reproductive justice framework; and spearheading campaigns to push local governments to protect the remaining abortion clinics in their communities.

The work of these grassroots organizers is essential to abortion providers and their patients, and their hard work should never be ignored.

In their commentary, Farber and Long stated that “a movement that doesn’t reflect on its history, including its failures, has an uncertain and rocky future.” While there is absolute truth in this idea, I also find it incredibly ironic, considering that one of the authors also co-wrote another article published this week at the Socialist Worker, “Why We’re Mobilizing to Defend Our Clinics.” In it, Farber called for mass counterprotesting to anti-choice demonstrations outside abortion clinics during the national 40 Weeks of Life campaign, going on now through mid-April.

The heated issue of counterprotesting is not a new discussion. In February 2017, members of the International Socialist Association (ISO) pushed for mass counterprotests at Planned Parenthood locations in response to a national campaign of “Defund Planned Parenthood” rallies. In response, Planned Parenthood made a statement asking these pro-choice advocates to stay away from their clinics, citing concerns about safety, possible anti-abortion violence, and patient well-being. Despite this, the same issue is rising again: advocates with good intentions placing their need for personal action above the needs and welfare of the clinics and people they claim to support.

In her article for Socialist Worker, Farber specifically mentions the “growing threat of thousands outside of clinics in North Carolina,” citing a 2017 Rewire.News article written by Robin Marty. I can confirm that there is a clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, that deals with large protest crowds daily and that parades there can draw up to 5,000 anti-choice participants. Because I manage it. I can also confirm that these protests are chaotic, harmful to patients and staff alike, and intimidating to all who experience them. I’ve dealt with these hostile circumstances nonstop since 2016. I utilize the assistance of a volunteer organization for escorting and clinic defense (in our case, this means strategically stationed volunteers who hold signs directing clients to the entrance).

I have strongly discouraged counterprotest activities at the clinics I oversee, and I full-heartedly agree with Planned Parenthood’s 2017 denouncement of counterprotests. The addition of opposing activists not only adds to the hostile environment outside of clinics but also creates a larger crowd and a more daunting physical barrier of bodies separating patients from their appointment. As numbers increase, so do confusion and chaos. While some patients and staff members can identify the difference between protesters and counterprotesters, as Farber claims, most are overwhelmed and stressed by the harassment and what looks like a large, undifferentiated mass of angry strangers.

As the director of multiple independent abortion clinics, I have a lot of experience—earned every day at work and when on-the-job harassment seeps into the rest of my life—with protesters and their emotional impacts on clinic staff and patients. I agree with both Farber and Long that advocates must scrutinize ourselves and our movements in hopes of improving and that we must fight against anti-choice agendas. However, I implore activists seeking ways to support abortion access to consider their actions and how they affect others before committing to an action plan. It is impossible to secure abortion rights for the future if we don’t respect those who exercise them now by asking them what they want and need.

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