Almost exactly three years ago I was shivering on the sidewalk of Louisville, Kentucky. I stood in front of EMW Women’s Surgical Center, drenched to the bone, the rain soaking through my boots as I tried to keep my phone dry while I took pictures and texted myself notes. It was the day before Mother’s Day, and my job was to report on what an abortion clinic looks like when there are no buffer zones to protect patients. McCullen v. Coakley, the Massachusetts buffer-zone case, was expected to be decided soon—the justices unanimously struck the zone down four weeks later.
At the EMW Women's Surgical Center, I was surrounded by nearly 100 abortion opponents—half on the sidewalks around the clinic and half in a praying vigil across the street. There were at least three street preachers, two using loudspeakers, holding up over a dozen seven-foot-tall bloody fetus posters and more Bibles and rosaries than I could count. Around 50 clinic escorts had formed a human hallway that allowed patients to be dropped off directly in front of the building to go straight into the clinic, and while the patients couldn’t avoiding the shouting at least most of the graphic imagery and physical contact was minimized. Only nine patients came in for abortions that day, but every single one of them made it easily into the door.
They made it in thanks to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
But if Louisville is any indication, the FACE Act may be on its last legs.
Because this year, on the day before Mother’s Day, a new batch of abortion opponents decided to make a stop at EMW. Today, EMW is the only clinic in the state—its sister clinic in Lexington was closed for improper licensing in 2016, and an attempt to operate a Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisville lasted only a few months before the state’s extreme right-wing governor had it shuttered for improper licensing, too. EMW isn’t just the only clinic left for the people in Kentucky—it’s often the place where abortion patients from Ohio, Indiana and sometimes even Illinois and West Virginia come when their own clinics are too far away or too busy to see them in time.
EMW has long been known for having some of the most abundant and aggressive protesters harassing their clinic—they often have anywhere from a dozen to over 100 protesters flooding the sidewalk on a day when an abortion is being performed. Because the clinic has no buffer or bubble zone, and no physical wall, fence, or other barrier to keep abortion opponents at bay, protesters are able to nearly jam the sidewalks and even line up within feet of the clinic's front door. But on Saturday, they went even further.
Because violating the FACE Act is a federal crime, clinic blockades disappeared once the FACE Act was in place. But on Saturday, a group of ten protesters—among them, original "rescue" members and their protégés, most of the protesters from out of state—organized by the national anti-abortion group Operation Save America (formerly known as Operation Rescue) trespassed onto private clinic property, and sat solidly in front of EMW’s doors and refuse to move until the Louisville Police Department physically removed them and placed them under arrest. One protester even allegedly was holding a baby in arms.
And EMW thus became the site of the first “rescue” attempt in close to two decades. “Rescues,” usually in the form of clinic blockades, were a popular tactic in the 1980s and ’90s, when the rescue movement was at its height. Missionaries to the Pre-Born, Pro-Life Action League, Operation Rescue, Lambs of Christ—all of these groups—began by blocking clinic entrances ten to 20 years after abortion was made legal. Dozens of protesters would physically sit in front of a clinic entrance, making it impossible for a patient to open a door to enter or a worker to leave. It would require police to arrest and remove them, in some cases, pushing procedures back hours or as in Wichita in the infamous "Summer of Mercy," closing the clinic for days at a time. Patients would have to be sneaked through side entrances, brought in overnight, or in some cases even physically body-surfed over protesters flooding the entryways. Some of them escalated—they might storm a clinic and break equipment or enter an exam room and handcuff themselves to a table or even circle a provider’s car at his home so he’d be unable to leave the driveway and get to work—but for the most part the unifying tactic was to sit in front of and physically block a clinic’s doors. It was a highly effective tactic, and one of the primary reasons that the FACE Act was passed in 1994.
Saturday was a small but significant reminder that those days could be returning. On Saturday, all patients eventually got in through a private entrance of the building. But when OSA returns in July, will that alternative route get blocked too?
“They are risking arrest to rescue their preborn neighbor. In the battle to end abortion, the American holocaust, these Rescuers have counted the cost and are willing to pay the price to protect the lives of their preborn neighbors,” Operation Save America Announced in a press release. “These Rescuers are exercising the Christian doctrine of interposition. Interposition takes place when one stands in the gap between a strong oppressor and a victim in order to rescue the victim from the oppressor's hands.”
The FACE Act is only as strong as the administration that enforces it and we about to see the real impact of a Donald Trump White House. It will be up to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to decide if these protesters who publicly and proudly violated the law should be punished and if so, how severe that punishment should be. The result will make it clear whether the Trump administration is going to continue to uphold the law meant to protect those who want to access safe, legal abortion care, or if the days of clinic blockades are only just beginning again.
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to expect the Trump administration to protect the FACE Act, or clinics at all. In the four months since inauguration, President Trump has filled his cabinet, advisers and other staff with long-time abortion opponents. He appointed an anti-abortion judge to the Supreme Court and pledged the pro-life movement a laundry list of anti-abortion, and anti-Roe promises if he were elected.
Even more dangerous is his recent “Religious Liberty” executive order, which pledges even more protection for anyone who makes a claim that his or her beliefs are being violated. Considering Operation Save America directly refers to their illegal act as “exercising the Christian doctrine of interposition” it is abundantly clear that they intend to argue that blocking the clinic doors is their way of practicing their faith. What are the odds that a Trump White House, which is highly opposed to abortion and overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian, is going to favor federal law over religious belief?
It was the summer of 2013 and my book on laws that would challenge Roe v. Wade had been out for just a few months. Texas had just passed its massive anti-abortion omnibus bill, and everyone was preparing for the shutdown of most of the clinics in the state. Ohio clinics had been closing one by one by one, and Mississippi was open only by the grace of a legal injunction. And still more states were preparing to start the own bills to try to close their clinics once their legislatures began meeting again in the fall. I was speaking at a conference and someone asked me, “What is the endgame for the anti-abortion movement?”
The clinic closures are just the first step, I told them. Once they have the clinics whittled away to just a handful, they won’t bother to try to close them through legislative channels. Instead, they are going to try to focus on each individual clinic. They will gather outside in droves. They will scare patients. They will try to challenge the FACE Act. They will make getting into that clinic so hard that no one will ever be desperate enough to work there or agree to be a patient, and that clinic will no longer be able to operate and will close. And when that one is closed, they’ll move to a new clinic and do it again. They will take out every remaining clinic out, one by one by one.
Well, it is four years later, and it looks like the endgame is finally here.