It was a day like any other at the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa. In a nondescript office park, abortion clinic escorts shielded incoming patients from the graphic signs and verbal abuse of anti-choice protesters gathered across the clinic’s private parking lot.
On Tuesday around 8:15 a.m., a Toyota SUV that had been spray-painted black pulled into the lot. There, the driver exchanged words with a volunteer escort before backing the SUV into her side. She yelled at the driver to get away from her. He yelled back, threatening to hit her a second time, then put the car in reverse again to do so. She moved out of the way; the driver swung the vehicle around and left.
Helmi Henkin—chair of the clinic escort group West Alabama Clinic Defenders and Alabama’s only statewide abortion fund, the Yellowhammer Fund—witnessed the incident, called police, and uploaded a picture of the driver’s car to her social media accounts for people to share.
“She is fine now, but we were just really emotionally overwhelmed by the incident,” Henkin told Rewire.News.
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Henkin, who’s grown accustomed to anti-choice rhetoric, said the stressful situation didn’t quite hit her until the victim went to urgent care. “I randomly started crying at the clinic, which almost never happens,” she said.
She recognized the suspect as an anti-choice person who had previously threatened clinic escorts. But Tuscaloosa police did not take their previous reports seriously, Henkin said.
Lt. Teena Richardson, spokesperson for the Tuscaloosa Police Department, told Rewire.News that the incident has been recorded as a hit-and-run involving a vehicle driven by a white male and that investigators are looking into it. Richardson was unable to clarify without a formal public records request filed through the city attorney how many other incidents were reported at the abortion clinic.
Asked if attacks on abortion clinic escorts are taken seriously, she said, “Yes, we do, we take everything.”
The attack comes as Alabama Republicans are trying to pass HB 314, a bill to criminalize abortion providers. Dubbed the “Human Life Protection Act,” the bill passed the GOP-controlled house last Tuesday. Nearly all Democratic house members walked out in protest.
The anti-choice bill would make it a crime for doctors to perform abortions at any stage of pregnancy, unless the person’s life is in danger. A doctor caught performing an abortion would face up to 99 years in prison; attempted abortion would carry a sentence of up to ten years. Patients would not be held responsible.
State Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), who sponsored the legislation, has made it clear that her intent is to overturn Roe v. Wade by establishing fetal “personhood,” the Cullman Times reported.
An Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for HB 314 is scheduled for May 8. If it passes, it would be the most extreme abortion ban in the United States, surpassing fetal “heartbeat” bans, like the one passed recently in Georgia.
Out of Alabama’s three abortion clinics, the Tuscaloosa abortion clinic is the only one open five days a week. It is also the only one offering medication abortion. The latest attack has escorts and clinic staff nervous about access statewide.
“The mood has been tense since the Trump election, and anti-abortion protesters have been increasingly abusive and aggressive in their speech—not necessarily toward the patients, but the clinic escorts, staff, and providers,” said Amanda Reyes, president of the Yellowhammer Fund. Reyes described cases of Tuscaloosa clinic escorts being threatened or doxxed by abortion rights foes.
Candace O’Brien, vice president of health-care access at the fund and a former abortion clinic escort at the West Alabama Women’s Center, told Rewire.News they have faced several incidents of harassment and intimidation from anti-choice protesters there.
Last September, O’Brien was taking photos of a protester’s license plate after he had harassed escorts and patients. As O’Brien was doing so, a man drove up to them on the clinic’s private property and threatened to “beat the hell out of” them. So they called the police and filed a report. But O’Brien said the court magistrate would not issue an arrest warrant—because, as O’Brien put it, “I assume I was not on the right side of the ‘choice aisle.’”
Like Henkin, O’Brien said it takes a lot for them to be affected by anti-choice threats, but found the incident last year “pretty shocking.”
“I couldn’t agree more. I believe we are seeing a new escalation,” Said duVergne Gaines, director of the National Clinic Access Project at the Feminist Majority Foundation.
“I believe that the extremists and protesters feel as though they have control over Congress, or at least the Senate. They have now managed to get a Supreme Court which may overturn Roe v. Wade, and they believe that they can operate with impunity. These acts of violence and threats that we are seeing [are] directly related to what’s happening on a national level, the feverish pitch with which state laws are being passed, and efforts to lay the groundwork to criminalize abortion in many states,” Gaines said. “It’s a very dangerous time for providers across the country.”