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‘A Coordinated Backlash’: Anti-Choice Protests Explode as State Lawmakers Protect Abortion Rights

Auditi Guha

Pushback against efforts to safeguard abortion rights has ramped up in 2019, with White House officials joining anti-choice activists in equating abortion with infanticide.

Giving testimony at the Rhode Island state house in support of abortion rights protections was “unnerving and unsettling” for Jamie Hagen, a post-doctoral fellow in Providence.

A volunteer abortion clinic escort, Hagen told Rewire.News she feels people don’t understand how at risk access to reproductive rights is in Rhode Island as lawmakers there pressure Democratic leadership to allow votes on Reproductive Health Care Act, which would enshrine Roe protections into state law.

From church members handing out anti-choice t-shirts outside the state house to the same folks taking up most of the seats and waving anti-abortion signs in the chamber during her public testimony in favor of a bill to protect abortions rights, Hagen said she was surprised by the atmosphere.

“The antis must have been able to get in there to fill up the room before those of us who were in support of the Reproductive Health Care Act could so they had anti-abortion signs behind me that you can see on camera during my testimony,” she said. “The tone of the room was very hostile, and it did not feel friendly to those who were speaking in support of basic health care for women. I was not prepared for that. It did feel a little bit like a grilling and like I was going out there on a limb to say something as basic as abortion should be protected.”

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From New York to California, clinics this year have recorded a surge in anti-choice protesting that’s unnerved many. Merle Hoffman, founder and president of one of the first abortion clinics in the country, the Choices Women’s Medical Center, said people are being attacked with anti-choice laws and lies from coast to coast, even in states like New York that passed Roe protections in January.

The group Focus on the Family, for example, has a billboard campaign with images of an ultrasound of a third-trimester fetus that will culminate at a May 4 “Alive From New York” rally in Times Square. Organizers have described the campaign as a pushback against New York Democrats’ move to safeguard abortion rights while GOP-dominated legislatures push near total abortion bans toward the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

“Our demonstrators are more emboldened,” Hoffman said of the activity outside the Queens clinic, which often has to notify police to control protesters harassing and barricading patients. “We continue to underestimate the creativity, relentlessness, and moral rectitude of our opponents.”

Last July, Choices lost a court battle to prevent anti-choice protesters from demonstrating outside at Saturday protests that have become routine since 2012.

Meanwhile, anti-choice clinics that don’t have health professionals on staff have mushroomed in recent years. There are an estimated 4,000 so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) across the United States and more than 100 in New York. Many of these anti-choice clinics are funded and legitimized by the Trump administration, which has parroted anti-choice activists in accusing pro-choice lawmakers of supporting infanticide.

There’s no doubt an anti-choice administration is waging war on Roe v. Wade and fundamental rights, Amanda Thayer, deputy national communications director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. 

“Let’s be clear: When you criminalize abortion, women’s lives are on the line. Gutting Roe means we go back to a reality where abortion is illegal in our country. History shows us that when abortion is criminalized, the number of abortions does not go down, but the number of deaths and injuries to women does go up,” she said.

“The modern-day GOP is engaged in a coherent, consistent, and intentional strategy aimed at the ultimate goal of criminalizing abortion and punishing women. And for them, if the collateral damage happens to be the actual lives, health, and well-being of women and families, so be it.”

Anti-Choice Legislations Under Anti-Choice Administration

The hostility is evident from the sheer number of bills to suppress abortion rights in the first quarter of 2019, especially extreme Republican legislation like six-week abortion bans, which amount to near total abortion bans.

After the passage of the Reproductive Health Act codifying abortion protections, New York saw an uptick of amped-up anti-choice activity in out-of-state phone calls and letters to elected officials and social media statements in a “coordinated backlash,” Robin Chappelle Golston, president and CEO at Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, told Rewire.News.

“They have been going so far out in talking about this bill in really disingenuous ways, like abortions after birth, and playing into the fake news rhetoric in a way that’s really damaging and dangerous, pushing to the extreme, when we really codified the Roe v. Wade protections we had nationally,” she said. “I think they were really able to prepare for this in a way to really shame New York state and to try to influence other states from passing protective laws for abortion rights. They were using us obviously as a national example of the wrath that you would face if you tried to protect a women’s right to choose.”

The attacks were statewide, including some personal threats against lawmakers who voted for the pro-choice bills, she added.

“It reminds us as we make progress that there is always those who try to keep us from moving forward. The tactics were very aggressive and I think reflects on where we are in this country in the age of Trump where people just go to the extremes instantly,” she said. “The things they were saying about what this bill did were just straight-up lies, not even remotely true.”

In states like South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio, Republicans are pushing radical measures like six-week abortion bans that are clearly unconstitutional as “part of a deliberate strategy to advance these cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, in hopes that an increasingly conservative Supreme Court will undermine or overturn Roe. In effect, each state-level ban is just as much about abortion rights nationwide as it is about restricting access in any particular state,” a Guttmacher Institute report states.

This push for radical anti-choice legislation is going to continue, said Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher Institute’s senior state issues manager. Last year, near total abortion bans were introduced in seven states; this year, such bans have already been introduced in 15 states.

“Typically we see a mix of restrictions, such as waiting periods, counseling requirements and other abortion limits. But this year, abortion bans, including six-week and 18-week bans along with method and reason bans, are the major trend,” she said. “The action on abortion bans and the inflammatory rhetoric used by abortion opponents makes it even more important that abortion protections be enacted where possible. In addition to New York states such as Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont are all considering and moving legislation to protect abortion rights.”

This has been a topic of discussion and concern among youth in Atlanta, said Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, director of public policy at Advocates for Youth, a group advocating for reproductive health and access.

“This conversation is definitely happening among young people,” she said. “The barriers that adult women facewaiting periods, parental consent, TRAP lawsall impact young people and are exacerbated when young people face barriers to abortion care.”

Spreading Misinformation

Spreading misinformation and fake science is part of anti-choice lawmakers’ agenda to confuse or dupe the public, said Debora McDell-Hernandez, senior community affairs director at Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York.

Proponents of reproductive rights are doubling down to point out problematic anti-choice terms pushed by abortion rights opponents that are shaping pro-choice advocacy, such as “pro-life,” “born alive” bills and “heartbeat bans.”

“It’s a trap. It is no coincidence these bills use language to inaccurately evoke imagery that erases the true, harmful intentions of the politicians behind them. These bills are abortion bans,” Planned Parenthood advocates warned in an email this month.

“Just because certain phrases are written in proposed legislation, it does not make them standard or accepted language to describe what these bills do—which is ban abortion before many women know they’re pregnant. These bills are designed to be misleading. It is a six-week abortion ban—which is effectively a total ban on abortion. There is no other accurate way to say it.”

In the states where anti-choice legislation is being pushed, legislators are not helping to solve the real public health problems their constituents face. For example, Georgia rates the second worst in the country when it comes to maternal mortality; Missouri’s rising maternal mortality rates are 50 percent higher than the rest of the country; and Trump’s Title X gag rule could bar 76,000 low-income Ohioans from accessing birth control and other preventive health care at Planned Parenthood.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF) is among the organizations that have called on anti-choice politicians and extremists to tell the truth.

“Lying as a form of public discourse is not only immoral it is also corrosive to democracy—and we’ve seen it get people killed. It is not OK to accept such tactics as simply the way politics is done,” Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the NAF, said in a statement on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s recent 20-week abortion ban hearing. “It’s time to stand up and insist on discourse and decision-making that are respectful; truthful; and, when it comes to abortion, are grounded in evidence-based science, medical best practices, and reality.”

It’s not just words; anti-choice violence has ranged from stalking to arson to killing. Anti-abortion extremist activity has led to the death of 11 people nationwide since 1993, including doctors, clinic staff, and civilians.

Where anti-abortion extremists were once considered a domestic terrorist threat by the government, the FBI under President Trump has painted pro-choice activists as equally threatening as their anti-choice counterparts.

The latest round of proposed bans has taken advocates by surprise, said Dr. Angeline Ti, a family medicine physician in Georgia and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.

“This is going to be a long game, and there’s no one right way to be involved. There’s also no way for someone to do everything,” Ti said in an interview with Rewire.News. “I think a lot of people initially were feeling, ‘I have to be at the Capitol every day, I have to call every day,’ but I think it’s not sustainable. I think it’s about finding a community, stepping up when you can, and taking the time to take care of yourself when you need to because it is taxing. Hearing the anti-choice rhetoric, even if you’re not really internalizing it, it’s still damaging.”

As a longtime clinic escort, Hagen is no stranger to anti-choice protester activity at clinics in New York and Boston, but she said she had some expectation of neutrality inside the Rhode Island legislature, at a public bill hearing.

Rhode Island legislators have not yet responded to a query about the rules of public hearings and the separation of church and state in Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the nation.

To see “cheers erupting for people speaking against abortion rights” in the chamber was a shock for Hagen. “Even though I knew there was a strong contingency against (abortion rights), it wasn’t until I was standing at the state house and literally feeling my body shaking from all the speakers, the protesters, that I realized what an uphill battle it really is in Providence,” she said. “It’s really bringing out a lot of people and I don’t think the news coverage is necessarily reflecting how undecided of an issue it feels like it is here because it has been neglected for so long.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from NARAL Pro-Choice America. 

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