An Activist's View of Abortion Clinic Defense

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RESISTANCE--I have been on picket lines defending abortion clinics since the 1980s. I remember well the wintry morning in December 1983 when I got a call to come up from Seattle immediately to help support the Feminist Women's Health Center in Everett, Washington, which had been firebombed during the night. The clinic put out the call and dozens of supporters from around the area arrived to stand with the staff in an early morning daze that was dispelled by our anger and concern. That was the first of three bombings the clinic experienced before the cost of rebuilding and escalating insurance premiums finally closed their doors. 

Over decades, I and my Radical Women sisters conducted similar clinic defense work in Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Australia, and other cities. Our Bay Area chapter for many years took the lead in mounting the counter-protest of the annual “Walk for Life” in San Francisco. We built and worked in reproductive justice coalitions and participated in actions, marches, forums, lobbying, conferences and speak-outs. Our work continues today as Planned Parenthood and other providers come under an intensified onslaught. 

Little has changed over the years as far as the stakes involved. Access to abortion is still a lifeline for women who for any number of reasons are unwilling to have a child at a particular time in their lives.
 
Our opponents are just as vicious, moralistic and dangerous today – whether they're launching their attacks through legislative means or outright terrorism.
 
But one thing that has changed is the attitude of some clinic owners and non-profit officers. Where clinic managers used to regularly walk the lines with us and thank us for our efforts, many are now so isolated from the movement that won abortion rights that they deplore the mobilization of community support outside their offices. They want to view reproductive services as a business, a professional apolitical enterprise, like dentistry. In another world this would be true, but it is certainly not the case in today's USA. Wishful thinking can't take the politics out of the struggle for accessible abortion – it is a key bulwark in the larger fights for women's rights, racial justice, economic parity, and the separation of church and state.
 
I was disturbed to see some clinic operators call on their supporters to not show up on February 11 outside Planned Parenthood, where anti-choicers had announced protests. Some clinic managers claimed it would cause stress and fear for staff and clients to encounter a face-off between the two sides. In my opinion, it causes much more stress and fear for clinic users to arrive at a site where only opponents are present. This also intimidates community members who assume they are alone in supporting women's reproductive rights if it appears that misogynists have won the disputed territory.
 
Counter to what some providers claim, reproductive rights defenders are frequently thanked for our presence by community members, staff, and people seeking clinic services. They know we are an important buffer between those who are ready to use any means to undermine their rights. 

Clinic defenders are not the problem. We can keep the volume down when staff let us know procedures are being performed. We are controlled in our face-offs with the fetus fetishizers, because our goal is not to change their cement-hard beliefs but to keep them from trampling on ours. Like clinic managers, we have the needs of clinic users paramount in our minds – not just on a particular day but for years to come.
 
The days for clinic defense are not over. In fact, our presence may be more urgent than ever given the heightening war against women.             

                                                    
(Helen Gilbert is a longtime activist with Radical Women and is Managing Editor of Red Letter Press in Seattle, Washington.)

-cw

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