Our answer to anti-choice intimidation

February 8, 2017

Clinic defender and former abortion provider Michelle Farber explains why Planned Parenthood's call for pro-choice protesters to stay away is the wrong strategy.

I PULL up to the sidewalk outside my local Planned Parenthood clinic, coffee in hand, and stare out the windows, a light drizzle coming down. I pull on my mittens and meet up with the other defenders, and we unfurl our large banners.

One is bright red and reads "Trust Women." The other, our canary yellow banner, says "Seattle Clinic Defense." Our banners are one of our most trusty tools, used to block the signs of anti-choice forces from view and to announce to passersby that we are defending the clinic, its staff and its patients.

Since its inception in 2011 following the March for Choice here in Seattle, Seattle Clinic Defense has seen its ups and downs, hosted countless clinic defenses and coordinated two Northwest Reproductive Justice Summits.

In this time, I also moved from nursing student to midwifery student to abortion provider. I have been on both sides of a clinic defense, and my experiences defending clinics and taking care of patients inside an abortion clinic have led me to the conclusion that there is no more important place for pro-choice activists to be on February 11 than out in front of their local clinic, which will likely be under attack by anti-choice forces.

Members of Seattle Clinic Defense make a stand for the right to choose
Members of Seattle Clinic Defense make a stand for the right to choose (Leela Yellesetty | SW)

On February 11, Planned Parenthood clinics around the country will be targeted by anti-choice groups trying to get federal money defunded from Planned Parenthood health centers. Currently, the anti-choicers have 187 separate events planned in 44 states.

IN MY year as an abortion provider (I currently do not provide abortions as a clinic-based midwife), I saw hundreds of women through their choice to terminate a pregnancy, and I saw the great damage caused by the intimidation and harassment of anti-choice demonstrators.

Two years ago, when I worked at a reproductive health and abortion clinic, I would prepare women for their abortions by giving them medications beforehand and setting them up with a birth control method for afterward. I sat in a small, windowless room and surveilled the women sitting in front of me. They were all ages and from every walk of life.

One morning, a young woman in University of Washington sweats was hunched in the chair across from me. Tears ran silently down her cheeks.

I moved the little box of tissues closer to her on the table. "Want to tell me what those tears are about?" My neutral opening. Sometimes the answer is no. But today, after heaving a giant sob, the young woman's voice exploded:

I just cannot believe those assholes! I felt totally fine about coming here today, about my decision. I cannot have a baby right now. But seeing them out there, praying, those giant signs...can you tell me, am I really killing a baby? Will it look like those pictures? Will it hurt them?

That day, the clinic I was working in had no pro-choice clinic defenders. Patient after patient came through my doors. Some, already feeling ambivalent about their decision, needed extra time, counseling and reassurance that their decision was the right one.

Some were angry. Some were defeated. Some just cried and didn't want to talk about it. No matter how they expressed it, they were all affected.

A week went by, and I went to work at a different clinic. This clinic has a strong pro-choice defense group--there are two in our area, Seattle Clinic Defense and Tacoma Clinic Defense--and they had come out to support us that day. I would always honk my horn and wave as I pulled into the parking lot, already feeling a sense of solidarity and protection. Our community stands with us.

Inside the clinic, the feeling was electric. All of the staff's moods were elevated. Many of my co-workers talked about ordering the clinic defenders pizza for lunch. Many of us rotated going out on our breaks to thank them for standing up for us and the services we provide. The patients were amazed by the group's dedication.

That day, my conversations with women looked very different. Gone was the fear, intimidation and pain. We talked about plans for the future. I talked to a new mother, a law student, a high school senior picking colleges for the next year.

ACROSS THE country, Planned Parenthood's political arm is asking that the enormous outpouring of support for counter-picketing on February 11 be redirected into fundraisers, volunteering for the organization, and simply utilizing the services. The organization is actively discouraging counterprotests.

In an e-mail from Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaii, we are told that "our patients come see us for high-quality health care, not for a political statement."

Unfortunately, when anti-choice protesters are unopposed, patients are already getting a political statement--one that is directly challenging their reproductive freedom and feelings of safety and security in carrying out those choices.

The right is already emboldened by the victory of Donald Trump. Not opposing anti-choice forces on the ground sends the further message that we will tolerate harassment at our clinics.

When Seattle Clinic Defense first started, the political arm of Planned Parenthood also asked us to stop our counterpickets. Their argument was that it adds to the intimidation patients experience because they cannot tell who is an anti-choice demonstrator and who is there to support them. The group also argues that if we counterpicket, it gives right-wingers ammunition and motivation.

Our experience as clinic defenders was directly opposite to this, however. The multitude of our pro-choice signs and large banners made clear to patients that we were there to support them and the clinic. Many patients even risked further harassment to come closer to us and thank us for being there.

When Seattle Clinic Defense came out, the anti-choice presence was also different. They were not free to harass, yell at or attempt to hand flyers to patients. In order to try and avoid having to deal with us, the anti-choicers even moved their picket time to an earlier hour, when they were less likely to be able to see and harass patients.

AS LONG as there are anti-choice demonstrations in front of clinics, Seattle Clinic Defense will shield patients and staff from harassment. It is unfortunate that Planned Parenthood is actively demobilizing many people who would turn up to support them, and while we have the highest regard for the clinical services Planned Parenthood provides, we respectfully, but sharply disagree with their political strategy.

Discouraging individuals from mobilizing and planning counterpickets cuts off the possibility of a grassroots movement that can be built out of the momentum of the Women's March on Washington and elsewhere around the country, possibly the single largest day of protest in U.S. history.

In order to build a resistance that can weather the storm of the attacks on abortion rights, which we are sure to see, we need an independent, militant abortion rights movement. More importantly, we must not simply build a defensive movement, but present a way forward.

The process of building the new abortion rights movement will look different in every city, and will surely face the same fits and starts that all movements do.

In order to capture the energy of motivated and radicalizing new activists, it is vitally important that we as socialists argue for confronting the anti-choice attack on our clinics and continue to encourage the development of independent organizations that can start us on the path to the new women's movement.

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