A picture of someone wearing a shirt that says "Pro-Choice Clinic Escort," with anti-abortion protestors around them.

Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons 2.0


Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons 2.0

Clinic Rescues Are Back—And They’re Worse Than Ever

The pro-life movement, which is now infiltrating clinic waiting rooms and holding sit-ins, has more women than we realize—and that's making their tactics even more terrifyingly effective.

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It was Thursday, January 21, 2016 and for the second year in a row I was spending the day before the annual March for Life hanging out outside a D.C. Planned Parenthood with a bunch of anti-abortion movement A-Listers. The sky was graying in preparation for the massive blizzard that would shut down the city in about 24 hours, and my feet were freezing even through the thick rubber soles of my boots. But like many of the others in attendance, I was waiting to see David Daleiden, the self-anointed “investigative journalist” arrested for secretly taping Planned Parenthood employees and abortion providers without their consent. He was expected to be the last speaker in a who’s who of former and current clinic protesters lining the sidewalks of a Planned Parenthood that wouldn’t even open for patients for another few months.

Most of the people who were attending the half-protest/half-rally were activists I had been covering for years. Many were in a cautiously jubilant mood—it was the beginning of an election year that many had been pessimistically assuming would end in a victory for Hillary Clinton, putting a Democrat again in the White House and probably moving the Supreme Court to the left for the foreseeable future. Plus Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt would be argued in just a few months, putting their biggest abortion case in decades into the hands of an uncertain and incomplete court. Yet they also had seen the Planned Parenthood videos infuse their movement with new talking points, more political support from Republican leaders, and a groundswell of interest in their rallies and protests. Their legislative future may be looking bleak, but, they believed, their message was the strongest it had ever been.

The question was, how to capitalize on all of this new energy, especially if they had gone as far as they could at ending abortion through the courts? Monica Miller, and ’80s era Rescue movement leader and current head of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society offered the crowd her answer: Bring back the clinic “rescues.”

“To stop abortion, to be involved with this injustice, to want to see it end, you can’t live a normal life anymore,” she told the freezing crowd. “All that’s gone. All your plans of having, ‘Oh, let’s get married, we’ll have children, we’ll buy the house, this is going to happen next and this is my plan,’ all that’s gone. You’re not going to live a normal life anymore. Are we willing to really allow ourselves to be spent, to allow ourselves to be spent so that others may live? And that means are we willing to allow our property to be taken, our jobs to be lost, our reputations to be lost, are we willing to go to jail, are you willing to die, give up your life for this social justice, moral spiritual cause?”

She added, “On the day that this death mill [the D.C. Planned Parenthood] will open, will there be anybody here, will somebody lay their body in front of the door, will you handcuff yourself to construction equipment? Come on guys, think about it, let’s be creative, what are you willing to do to stop this place from being built? Non-violent action, laying down your life, allowing yourself to absorb the violence without retaliating against it, but laying down your life so that others may live.”

They are going to bring back rescues! I immediately thought to myself, and in that audience it made complete sense. Most of the speakers had at one point been a part of the ’80s and ’90s alliance (or as NOW proclaimed in their lawsuit, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations [RICO] gang) of clinic-blockade groups. Some had entered clinics posing as patients, or blocked doors, one woman, Joan Andrews Bell, had even spent multiple years in prison for destroying equipment in an abortion clinic in Florida. Meanwhile many of the others at the protest were high-school and college-age students, mostly from Catholic schools, who saw these speakers as leaders and even martyrs for the pro-life cause.

Of course, no one actually threw themselves in front of the construction equipment while the clinic was being finished, nor did they block the entrance once it was open. In fact, when a group finally did block the doorways of an abortion clinic almost a year and a half later, it wasn’t anyone who had been there that winter, listening to Miller’s call to arms. It was Operation Save America, a group that would be about as interested in being at the March for Life as they would be attending a Unitarian Universalist church service.

If OSA’s mid-May sit-in opened the doors for the rescue movement, well then Miller decided to walk right on through them. On Friday, September 15, Miller and her allies planned a three-city, coordinated “Red Rose Rescue.” Taking a page from Canadian anti-abortion activist Mary Wagoner, who was recently released from jail for her own clinic trespassing, abortion opponents entered clinic waiting rooms in Virginia, New Mexico, and Michigan, passing out red roses and anti-abortion literature to the patients inside. In Michigan and Virginia, the activists refused to leave when police arrived and were arrested.

An aggressive Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (the FACE Act) challenge has been inevitable since the moment Donald Trump was elected—the question was only how long it would take and how blatant that challenge would be. The FACE Act is sadly only as strong as the administration that prosecutes it and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as the decision-maker on prosecution that makes for a pretty weak federal law. Meanwhile, Trump has both directly—through executive order—and indirectly—through his footsie playing with his Evangelical Advisory Council—made it clear that in Trumpland religious freedom and conscience protection is the get-out-of-jail-free card that crumbles any law that comes between a religious person and pesky secular laws they believe “violate” their faith.

While the Kentucky sit-in was a true test, it didn’t come with the finesse or power that Miller’s challenge offers. The multi-city coordination makes this a definite federal challenge from the start, and the use of priests in the Virginia clinic invasion made it unquestionably about religious freedom. That the vast majority of those who also participated were women also shows that this is meant to be another “gentle plump grandma” attack on FACE, just as the Massachusetts “Grandmas” attacked buffer zones a few years earlier.

Or it could simply be the inevitable results of a movement that has grown increasingly female, despite how often abortion-rights activists argue that the pro-life movement is all about men trying to control women’s bodies. Karissa Haugeberger, author of Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, notes that the pro-life movement started out primarily as a coalition of priests and women. It was the priests who then moved women into the public eye to counter the narrative of a movement dominated by men. But the fiction became real not long after as women joined the movement in droves, focusing their efforts on not just political pressure and clinic actions, but also crisis pregnancy centers and other pro-life outreach, too.  

“We make the mistake of thinking this is a primarily male movement,” Haugeberger told DAME. “Really, when you get into all the different arms of the movement, women far outnumber men.”

That showed explicitly in the Red Rose Rescues, where old school female rescuers like Miller and Joan Andrews Bell worked with a new generation of women such as Lauren Handy of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, Tara Shaver of Abortion Free New Mexico and Abby McIntyre of Stand True Ministries. And their banding together with a number of Catholic priests shows just how full-circle the anti-abortion movement has come.

Miller has announced this won’t be the last of the clinic invasions, and that poses a huge issue for abortion providers. With women leading the charge, it will be that much more difficult for clinic staff to discern patient from protester, and the privacy and safety that patients are supposed to expect from a clinic waiting room (after in many cases passing through groups of protesters just to get inside) is no longer a given.

Whether the FACE Act stands may not in the end be the biggest issue. As long as there are activists—primarily women—willing to break the law regardless of the consequences, the sanctity of a clinic waiting room may soon be breached beyond all repair.



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