More than 1,000 abortion opponents descended on a Charlotte, North Carolina, clinic last Friday to protest. But even pro-lifers are beginning to wonder how effective they are.
In 2014 I walked through a sea of over 100 protesters standing in the pouring rain, lining both sides of a sidewalk leading up to an abortion clinic in Louisville, Kentucky. On January 21, 2017, I watched 200 abortion opponents march on the abortion clinic in McAllen, Texas, attempting to surround it as part of the city churches’ Roe v. Wade anniversary action (which failed, due to about 150 clinic defenders that protected the clinic, ensuring all entrances could remain accessible). From nine-foot-tall graphic abortion placards to shofar-blowing Bible-thumpers, I sort of pride myself on having experienced pretty much every sort of abortion protest out there, and I am very, very hard to shock.
But when I saw the thousands of teal-shirted anti-abortion activists heading in a line nearly a mile long down the street, filling the right lane of traffic as they swarmed on A Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, even I had to admit I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was as if a chunk of the annual March for Life parade in D.C. had decided to detour and head not to the Supreme Court but instead to a small cul de sac housing a clinic full of patients trying to end their unwanted pregnancies.
When I wrote about the event afterward for Rewire, one thing that abortion opponents focused on was the fact that there are usually 80 scheduled appointments on Saturdays, yet on this day less than 30 patients actually showed up for terminations. “#protestswork” tweeted Jill Stanek, an anti-abortion activist and national campaign chair for the Susan B. Anthony List.
I can see why those who oppose abortions were jubilant at the news, but “protests work” is just a little too simplistic of a message for them to take away from Love Life Charlotte’s massive “prayer walk” finale. The truth is, protesting a clinic is a double-edged sword for those who really want to end abortion for good, in some cases offering a one-day victory in exchange for a long term loss.
The no-shows on clinic day on Saturday is only a small part of the story, and in some ways was only moderately impacted by the thousands that marched past the clinic entrance. A Preferred Women’s Health, like most clinics, tends to book more appointments than usually show up on procedure day, assuming that some patients will be no shows due to illness, lost transportation, not being able to get funding together, losing childcare, being called into work, a partner unable to come or any of the myriad sorts of last-second reasons that might come up—and yes, that includes those who change their minds before their appointments, or who come to the clinic and either change their minds before walking through the door, or who see abortion opponents in front of the clinic and are too nervous, intimidated, or ashamed to come inside.
Because of the event planned in Charlotte—and in an attempt to have patients arrive before the march was expected to clog the street, jamming traffic, and confusing patients arriving for services—the clinic only scheduled 50 patients for the day. Of course, that’s still more than 20 no-shows, and the march itself definitely had an impact even if the marchers themselves were not on the scene until long after the patients were inside. The milelong path of traffic cones and hazard sawhorses, the more than a dozen police officers on the route or gathered in front of the clinic, the metal barriers dividing the street in front of the clinic and the large sound system piled on the corner of the clinic’s driveway had their own onerous message of danger and intimidation, even if there were only about 10 abortion protesters standing on the sidewalk prior to the parade’s start. The marchers never needed to come. It was the preparation for the parade that likely caused these patients to not show up for their appointments—either driving by without stopping in or never even leaving for the clinic at all.
Is this a “win” or a “save” for abortion opponents in Charlotte, or just delaying the inevitable? That’s a question I thought long and hard about after talking to Brice Griffin, a pro-life activist and director for Stanton Healthcare Charlotte, the local affiliate of the Stanton Healthcare network, whose mission is to become a non-abortion, non-hormonal birth control replacement for Planned Parenthood. When I mentioned only 28 patients came in for abortions, Griffin questioned how many of those patients would just come in on a different day and still end their pregnancies, and if the parade actually caused a missed opportunity to talk to those pregnant people and help them decide to give birth instead.
“How many of the no-shows will return today or tomorrow, or next Saturday?” Griffin said later via email. “If these walks are effective, why aren’t we there every single day? Is there an opportunity to speak to clients and offer them assistance when we are such a huge presence, or do our numbers scare away potential saves?”
Griffin made it clear that she believes the prayer marches or other large events like the one put on by Love Life Charlotte are always a good thing. They engage the pro-life community, she says, bringing them into organizations that will provide support for pregnant people who do decide not to have an abortion, growing their ability to offer support and resources for these new clients. And she’s no doubt right: If even a mere 5 percent of those who attended the march then joined up for further action, that’s at least 100 new activists ready to help out financially and otherwise in the Charlotte area.
But will they get that 5 percent? Do activists on either side of the abortion divide who attend rallies and marches then commit themselves to more work on that cause? Or does it tend to energize and recommit primarily the ones who were already dedicated to that issue?
Meanwhile, if those patients do return on a different day to get their abortions, will they even hear the voice of an anti-abortion activist offering them reasons not to terminate the pregnancy? Or did the experience of seeing police, barricades, and loudspeakers shut them down permanently, now making them completely unreachable for an abortion opponent?
When it comes to a march like this, they simply cannot happen every day. For anti-abortion activists then, that begs the question of whether the pros of a large march – the media coverage, the camaraderie, the possibility of swelling their ranks – outweighs the cons – the loss of one-on-one interaction with patients, the ability to access the clinics themselves, and the possible loss of government and public support in pro-life communities if they are seen to cross a line from peaceful to intimidating.
As anti-abortion activists often tell me, making abortion illegal or inaccessible won’t end the problem. Abortion will not end until it is unthinkable, too, so that no one sees it as an option they want to consider, be it legal or not. A massive protest like this not only doesn’t forward that goal, it may actually take it a step backward.
And when there are a few thousand people involved, well, that’s definitely a whole lot of steps back.
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