Hundreds are going. Thousands are interested. It’s difficult to know how many will show to counter anti-choice protesters outside the Planned Parenthood’s Capitol Hill Clinic on Saturday, January 13. Officially, Planned Parenthood disapproves of the counter-action by pro-choicers, asking supporters of bodily autonomy to instead channel their activism into more conventional channels, such as donating and tweeting. Organizers of the pro-choice counter-action — called Seattle Clinic Defense — say they must reclaim the spaces outside clinics that anti-choicers have already politicized, and say their goal is not to protest but to shield patients from harassment.
“The outside of clinics right now is not a politically-neutral zone,” Jessi Murray, a 29-year-old software programmer and co-founder of Seattle Clinic Defense tells CHS. “The anti-choicers have claimed ground that the pro-choice side has ceded for a long time.”
In a month of marching and activism for women’s rights, turnout for the pro-choice action is hoped to be strong.
According to Seattle Clinic Defense’s January 13th event post, “there is a group that protests the Madison St. location of Planned Parenthood once a month, harassing patients and contributing to the stigma of those just trying to get healthcare” —
When we show up as clinic defenders, with supportive smiles for patients and workers, we see a decrease in the amount of yelling and direct confrontation that happens. Our goal is to take back the political space that they have staked out and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable.
There will be an orientation emphasizing de-escalation and creating a supporting environment for patients at 8:45 AM. The defense action begins at 9 AM.
The Defense began in 2011, after a Walk for Choice, says Murray, where another marcher, co-founder Leela Yellesetty, held up a sign that read “Interested In Clinic Defense?” The organization’s first action was an embarrassing failure, she recalls, in which about half a dozen people protested outside a so-called Crisis Pregnancy Center that wasn’t even open. Since that initial blunder, however, Seattle Clinic Defense steadily built up its organizational capacity, says Murray.
Seattle Clinic Defense organizing hit a lull in 2016, says Murray. Then the election of Donald Trump as president shocked constituents into action. “After the election,” recalls Murray, Defense members told one another, “We can’t let this slide… the anti’s are going to be emboldened, we really need to step up.”
Since then, she says, membership has spiked. Time was, attendance at a monthly clinic defense action like the one on January 13 numbered from half a dozen to thirty people. Nowadays, says Murray, 25 people show up on a quiet day, and good days will draw more than 100 supporters.
Michelle Farber, a 28 year old midwife, joined the Defense shortly after its creation in 2011. “People were so sick of the anti-choice presence at our clinics going unchallenged,” says Farber. So a group of about ten people began to “take back the space in front of the clinic, and push back the harassment and intimidation” of patients and staff, says Farber, by anti-choice protesters, who have begun targeting abortion clinics for protest since abortion rights began eroding after Roe v. Wade. Outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Everett, she says, the sidewalk will sometimes be chalked, “Mommy, don’t kill me.”
“I’m a woman,” says Defense organizer Anya Callahan, 27, explaining why she cares about whether evangelicals scream damnation outside clinics. “I have reproductive capabilities. I have used the services at Planned Parenthood before,” she says–for instance, in Tacoma during college. “There were lots of anti-choice people at the clinic, and I remember…feeling scared and uncomfortable, and not wanting to go there alone, and feeling shame and stigmatized,” she says, “just for taking care of myself and my body.”
“If [anti’s] aren’t watched,” says Murray, “they will start yelling at people.”
Women — and other people who choose to abort, or use any of the other sexual health services Planned Parenthood provides — shouldn’t have to withstand the slings and arrows of outraged fundamentalists while they’re walking to and from the doctor, says Callahan. “Having something to do instead of just getting online has been really empowering for me,” she says. Not that there’s anything wrong with online activism — it’s just that, “for me, I’ve grown into a space of comfort” with public political actions, Callahan says. “It’s almost therapeutic for me to be out there, connecting with folks.”
Murray says that when pro-choice activists physically show up outside clinics to contest anti-choice protesters’ symbolic ownership of the space — for instance, using banners to block signs showing pictures of miscarried babies — they’re imperfectly silencing and implicitly intimidating the anti-choice protesters. “The anti-choicers who hang around these clinics tend to be on better behavior,” when pro-choicers are also there, she says. “We’re acting as sort of a buffer” for patients, she says, “as well as a visual [reminder that] this is a pro-choice town.”
Planned Parenthood does not support the counter-protests. Spokesperson Katie Rogers responded to our inquiry about the January 13th Defense action with a written statement:
Our number one focus at Planned Parenthood is our patients and while we know people want to show their support, we also know our patients come see us for high-quality health care, not for a political statement. The privacy and safety of our patients is of utmost importance and we ask people to respect that privacy and avoid giving voice to the opposition by holding counter-protests at our health centers. We would ask folks to take action in other ways by calling legislators, testifying at hearings, and speaking out against bad bills.
“We’ve found that even though that’s the official stance,” says Murray, “…it’s not a stance shared by everyone [at the clinics]…The clinicians and patients and people who are actually there day-to-day, they thank us,” she says, saying things like “It’s so nice to show up to work and have someone smile at me instead of scream at me.”
“Even though I think it would be best for no one [pro- or anti-choice] to be in front of the clinics,” says Murray, “once the anti-choicers have made it a political space, there’s no going back.
“Our goal is to keep [anti-choice protesters] on their best behavior, and essentially demoralize them,” Murray said.
It seems to be working.“Over the past year, fewer of them have been showing up as our clinic defense has been getting bigger. Which is great,” Murray said. “The point is making a more supportive environment for patients.”
UPDATE 1/12/2018: Organizers announced they have decided to change Saturday’s event to move what is expected to be a large crowd away from Planned Parenthood and, instead, march from E Madison to Cal Anderson Park:
While we’re thrilled by the overwhelming excitement of the community for pro-choice activism, our organizational team has talked and does not think that this number of individuals outside the clinic will be conducive to our fundamental goal of making a better experience for patients going in for health care. As such, we are reconceiving this event into a march to Cal Anderson Park, where we will have a speak-out, followed by an organizational meeting to work on next steps.
This is a great problem to have, but still a problem that we do not take lightly. Our normal defenses have 30 or so individuals show up. Having hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of people show up would be hard to translate into a good clinic defense, but is still an amazing base to have for a pro-choice event.
We will be updating the event today with additional details for folks. While we recognize people’s passion for this work, we do ask that you stick to the upcoming agenda and FAQ. Especially with a crowd this size, we do *not* want people escalating with the anti-choicers that may show up.
Thank you for your flexibility and enthusiasm for reproductive justice! As we said, this is a great problem to have, and while we understand if some people are disappointed in the logistics change, we’re excited to show the world that this is a pro-choice city.
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