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Defend Your Clinics

It’s time for an abortion rights movement that’s not directed from the top-down by the Democratic Party and big nonprofits. Clinic defense is a crucial part of that mass, democratic, and militant movement.

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters gather in front of the US Supreme Court building during the Right To Life March, on January 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Here at the close of a very bad decade for abortion access, it’s hard to overstate how much worse it’s going to get, and how quickly. In Texas, a bill that would have made women subject to the death penalty for having an abortion got a committee hearing. In Georgia, which recently passed a six-week abortion ban, a white supremacist militia leader stood on the steps of the state capitol with an AR-15 and threatened violence against abortion providers. In Alabama, a bill which would make abortion punishable by up to ninety-nine years in prison has been signed into law.

With Gorsuch and Kavanaugh sitting comfortably on the Supreme Court, other states across the South and Midwest such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, and Kentucky — where accessing abortion is already onerous — are rushing to set gestational limits that are well before most people even realize that they’re gestating. These measures are moving at a rate which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Within a year or two, the Supreme Court will likely decide that one of these unconstitutional laws is constitutional, and that will be the end of legal abortion in large swaths of the United States.

Politicians and the Movement

One longtime reproductive rights activist argued that getting to that point of crisis will, perversely, be a good thing. “I Am an Abortion Rights Activist. I Hope the Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade” reads the headline of a recent Politico article by Robin Marty, author of Handbook for a Post-Roe America.

In the article, Marty acknowledges that the people who are most likely to die or be imprisoned in a post-Roe world are poor and black — the ones who are already suffering most, in regions where abortion is already de facto illegal. Yet she argues that more of such suffering, plus the threat of white women suffering, is necessary to rally Democratic politicians and moderate Republican women in defense of abortion rights.

“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the decision will finally force the ideological zeal typical of a political opposition — the force that has long powered the anti-abortion movement — onto the abortion rights movement,” she writes. “And liberal complacency on the issue of abortion could end for good.”

Marty was quickly criticized for playing politics with the lives of people of color, and she’s since apologized. My intent isn’t to pile on; we share a common cause, and the point that she says she was trying to make  —that preserving Roe alone would be inadequate — is inarguable. But in the spirit of offering hot takes, here’s one of my own: the abortion rights movement that the article refers to doesn’t exist.

If most supporters of the movement lack “ideological zeal,” it’s not because the situation just hasn’t gotten bad enough yet, as she suggests. By her own admission, it’s been very, very bad for a long time. And if “high-ranking, agenda-setting Democrats” have been happy to use abortion “as a bargaining chip,” it’s unclear why they will suddenly stop doing so, in Marty’s analysis, other than the goodness of their own hearts.

So why do we still not have a fighting mass movement for abortion rights? It’s because while the Right has been organizing themselves and fighting like hell in the streets for decades, the abortion rights establishment has been telling supporters to donate to Planned Parenthood, elect Democrats, and let the ACLU handle it in the courts. This has been profoundly demobilizing, and it bears no resemblance to the movement that won legal abortion in the first place.

The movement that won Roe looked nothing like the uneasy alliance of self-interested Democrats and large national nonprofits like Planned Parenthood and NARAL that has sucked up most of the abortion-rights energy and dollars for the past few decades. It was a mass revolt that managed to snatch Roe from the hands of a majority-conservative Supreme Court and a Nixon presidency. The deaths of women from back-alley abortions didn’t shock the ruling class out of their complacency; the mass revolt did.

Why would the ruling class today be any less happy to watch poor women of color face prison and death than they have already shown themselves to be? Their complacency or lack of complacency is immaterial. As with any movement that’s ever won anything, what matters is our ability to build enough power from below to extract what we need: free abortion on demand. But we’re not even close yet.

Case in point: On May 4, when right-wing hate group Focus on the Family broadcast a live 4D ultrasound of a third-trimester pregnancy in Times Square, Planned Parenthood bought a competing ad on a Times Square billboard that failed to mention abortion at all. The ad simply read “Planned Parenthood is health care.”

Who is this ad for? It’s not for anyone who would ever get an abortion, who surely need actual money to pay for their abortions more than they need an expensive neon-pink reminder that Planned Parenthood is a health care provider. It’s not for abortion rights opponents, who have never been fooled by Planned Parenthood’s defensive rhetoric that minimizes abortion. Who can it be for other than Planned Parenthood executives themselves, and the elected officials they’re beholden to, who have failed us?

None of this implicates the small, indispensable nonprofits who continue to make abortion access possible in the most oppressive conditions. But critical health care provision and mutual aid must come hand in hand with mass dissent against the conditions that have made their work necessary.

A good example of how the abortion rights establishment has stifled grassroots organizing and direct action, and of how we can build a more militant movement capable of winning, is clinic defense.

Tactics and Vision

I am a member of a group called NYC for Abortion Rights, which has put forward a vision of what a mass movement centered around clinic defense could look like. It views clinic defense is a powerful method for retaking physical — as well as ideological — ground, after decades of losses.

In this vision, clinic escorts and defenders have complementary roles. Both aim to mitigate the impact that anti-abortion clinic protesters have on patients. But while escorts focus on ushering patients into the clinic, defenders directly oppose the shame and stigma that “antis” impose, de-normalizing their presence and reclaiming the space in front of clinics.

Specific tactics for clinic defense will look different everywhere, depending on the space and the context. Clinic defenders can force antis farther away from the clinic entrance by taking up sidewalk space (without blocking the paths of patients), block the graphic propaganda of antis with feminist banners, distract antis from targeting their vitriol at patients, sing feminist songs to drown out the noise of antis, hold up signs to call out so-called “sidewalk counselors” as harassers, and confront antis in their own spaces, such as churches, where they gather before descending on clinics.

The goal is to take back the primary space that antis use for mobilization and violence, build a radical display of support for free abortion on demand that politicians couldn’t afford to ignore, and keep clinics safe — because we know that we can’t rely on cops or the courts to do so.

Grassroots clinic defenses kept clinics open in the early 1990s, when anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue were shutting them down with invasions and blockades across the country. But the tactic is officially discouraged by Planned Parenthood, even during the “40 Days for Life,” a twice-yearly onslaught of anti-abortion protesters on clinics across the country.

When NYC for Abortion Rights joined a call for a national day of action to on April 6, seeking to defend clinics against the 40 Days for Life, the backlash from some corners of the reproductive rights community was swift. The backlash is familiar to us; our group began when Planned Parenthood condemned our efforts to counterprotest a day of clinic protests calling to defund Planned Parenthood after the election. After a lot of debate, we decided to hold a defense and a speak-out in front of a clinic in Manhattan anyway, and we’ve been organizing clinic defenses, as well as other direct actions and fundraisers for the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, ever since.

By calling for clinic defense, we’re not interested in simply shoring up the system of abortion clinics as it exists today, with abortion legal but inaccessible and abortion care siloed into stigmatized and increasingly rare spaces. We want to build the power to make transforming that system possible.

We want abortion clinics to be well-funded, uncontested, ordinary mainstays of communities everywhere; we want abortion to be integrated into medicine and made available over the counter, on college campuses, at hospitals, via telemedicine, at full-spectrum reproductive health care clinics; we want Medicare for All with abortion baked in.

This is why we keep bringing up clinic defense as a tactic, aside from our sincere belief in its effectiveness and in fighting the Right wherever they mobilize. We want to force out into the open this question of why these goals are seen as pipe dreams, instead of demands.

Marty correctly diagnoses one half of the problem in her article: Democratic politicians have sold us out. But the second half of the problem is that the most visible, powerful, well-funded organizations professing to fight for abortion rights have banked their political strategy on Democrats instead of grassroots mobilization, tactics, and demands.

This is always the thrust of our advocacy of clinic defense, such as Lichi D’Amelio’s “Why We Counter-Protest” in Jacobin and Jen Roesch’s “The Lessons of Our Counter-Protests” in Socialist Worker. But it gets elided in the backlash, which usually goes like this: 1. Planned Parenthood disapproves, 2. we must put patients first — the implication being that clinic defense never does, and 3. advocates of clinic defense are separate from those who have experience accessing and working at clinics, who would never support the tactic.

Regarding the first two points: Since abortion care and political strategy have become intertwined in the single entity of Planned Parenthood, it’s become difficult or maybe impossible to assess them independently of one another. Clinic defense is not a call to discredit Planned Parenthood as a medical provider. It is a call to acknowledge the failures of the centrist strategy that has emphasized electing Democratic politicians over grassroots mobilization for decades.

It’s hard to see how this status quo has put patients first. Putting patients first would mean Planned Parenthood throwing its weight behind Medicare for All, not actively opposing it as they did in California. Putting patients first means building solidarity with global reproductive justice struggles, not NARAL leadership speaking at AIPAC. Putting patients first means clinic workers building power in their workplaces, not Planned Parenthood busting unions or dictating political strategy from the top down. Putting patients first means questioning why the imperative of confronting the Right in the streets has taken hold in the struggle against ICE and white supremacy, but not against the anti-abortion movement, which has been a vanguard of right-wing violence for much of my lifetime, and is inextricable from white supremacy and its rising birthrate panic.

It’s certainly a fallacy that more bodies in front of a clinic, as many argue, always means more stress for patients. Some clinics bring out more bodies in the form of clinic escorts all the time to form walls of defense against antis. This is a more rigorous form of “clinic escorting,” which isn’t far from what a good clinic defense should be — though clinic defenders have a more explicitly political role to play, to confront and oppose clinic harassment head-on.

More bodies might mean that antis aren’t emboldened to invade the clinic in a “Red Rose Rescue,” where they force their way into clinic waiting rooms to persuade patients to give birth — an Operation Rescue tactic from the worst years of anti-abortion violence that’s on the rise again.

Regarding the third point, it bears mentioning that proponents of clinic defense have skin in the game, too. Members of NYC for Abortion Rights and the other clinic defense groups are patients of Planned Parenthood, abortion-havers, health care providers, clinic workers, and abortion doulas, past and present. We should be able to participate in a conversation about the future of the movement to defend and expand our rights, and the range of tactics that are admissible in it, without being dismissed as ignorant (because we just don’t know what it’s like to access a clinic under attack by antis), self-interested (as if we do clinic defense purely to make us feel good), or both.

Opposition to clinic defense is grounded in a desire to avoid politicizing clinic spaces. But this is as much as fantasy as Planned Parenthood thinking that hiding abortion behind euphemisms like “health care” is a winning message. Is abortion health care? Of course. But while so many abortion rights supporters have been busy providing health care and defending it as such — as a personal choice that a pregnant person makes in consultation with their doctor — the other side has been doing fierce, unyielding politics for decades.

The presence of counter-protesters in front of clinics doesn’t make the space more political than it already is; the absence of them, at this point, is a void that antis are only too happy keep filling until every last clinic is closed. “Choice” is private and toothless, but the cause of our liberation is political, and it’s past time we fight back on those terms, with grassroots activists at the helm.

No More Waiting

It’s apparent that clinic defense has either been ill-defined up until now, or defined in bad faith. I don’t know any proponent of clinic defense who would recommend showing up unprepared, crowding the entrance of the clinic, and screaming at will. NYCFAR does not do this, and nor does any group in our coalition.

Any group considering clinic defense should begin by researching that clinic and its relationship to antis, escorts, and cops. The very first question we ask when planning a clinic defense is, how can we coordinate with the clinic, and does that clinic already have a robust escorting program? Such a program may function very much like a clinic defense would, and in that case it’s absolutely better to support them through the channel they’ve already set up.

Considerations like this have shaped where we choose to hold actions here in New York, for example. We also ask, what sort of antis tend to show up, how many, and when? Who in the group has experience with marshaling direct actions? With speaking to the police? How can we mitigate the noise and confusion that antis bring to clinics rather than compound it? How can we position ourselves to keep antis as far from the clinic entrance as possible?

What works in one context will never work in all contexts. But our strategy in New York is a useful example of what a good clinic defense can look like. We have the perverse good luck of having our antis congregate in the same place and at the same time every month — early in the morning on first Saturdays at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Little Italy — and so we meet them there with a picket line, signs, and chants.

When they exit the church and begin their procession to Planned Parenthood, we position ourselves in front of them and do what we can to slow them down and disrupt them on their way. At a recent action, we delayed their arrival by close to an hour, giving patients that much more time to freely get in the door. Once we arrive at the clinic, we claim the sidewalk across the street from the entrance, forcing the antis to a sidewalk farther away, and we sing instead of chant.

After six or seven times of holding this action, it’s still a little different every time. We’ve been able to delay them for longer and longer, even when greatly outnumbered. One of our members has rewritten the union song “Solidarity Forever” with excellent feminist lyrics, which we sing when we’re near the clinic. We’ve briefly shut down Houston Street; neighbors and patients have begun to join us.

It’s true that NYCFAR is organizing in a context that has a high level of abortion access, relative to other regions of the country. But this just speaks to how low the bar has fallen. In New York City, enjoying a relatively high level of access still means putting up with fifty to a hundred or more antis on a regular basis, led by anti-abortion activists who have made it a habit of invading clinics up and down the East Coast, as recently as December of 2018 in New Jersey — but not in Manhattan, where they’ve come to expect our counter-protest at their church on a regular basis.

Of course, many clinics are under siege and at risk of eviction, and can’t devote scarce resources to coordinating clinic defense. But can a wider movement try?  Do we have the numbers? Do we need to wait until the end of Roe? Is there room in our movement for the sort of bold interventions that can reshape the discourse and build power, as the airport protests in response to the Muslim ban did?

A call for clinic defense is a call to expand the horizon of what a radical reproductive rights movement can look like. Rallies, marches, strikes, civil disobedience, confrontation, refusal, defiance, walk-outs, speak-outs, sit-ins, die-ins, blockades, carefully planned and competently executed clinic defenses: we’re ready, we’re hungry for it, we can’t wait any longer.