Pro-life protesters gathering outside of reproductive clinics in New York City is no recent development. But since the pandemic, they’ve continued to demonstrate in large groups, blocking entrances and preventing access.
The protests have become so concerning that reproductive rights advocates are turning to federal laws that criminalize behavior outside of clinics that endangers the safety of individuals seeking care. And with some pro-life protestors disregarding public health statues to reduce the risk of COVID-19, such as wearing face coverings, the New York Civil Liberties Union, a subset of the ACLU, has stepped in.
In September, the NYCLU put out a memo that described the ways in which the Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act is violated by protesters who disregard COVID-19 health codes.
“We saw a lull in protestor activity at the beginning of the pandemic, but a few months in that shifted, and shifted pretty quickly. We were seeing aggressive behavior outside of reproductive healthcare clinics,” said Katharine Bodde, a senior policy lawyer at the NYCLU, who specializes in gender equality and reproductive rights issues. “The various measures that people were trying to take, like social distancing and wearing masks, were not being followed by various people outside of reproductive clinics who oppose abortion.”
There are three main laws that protect clinic access in New York, one federal and two state, respectively: the Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, the New York State version of that bill, and the Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act. In 2009, the laws were amended specifically to provide a greater umbrella of protections to people seeking reproductive health services in New York City.
But protesters are still violating these laws. On October 3, at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Bleecker Street, at least 50 protestors gathered outside the building. Although many of the individuals wore masks, some didn’t, and social distancing guidelines were not followed or enforced. Some of the protestors were standing in front of or near the entrance, violating clinic access laws, which require 15-foot boundaries around facilities to maintain safe access for those entering.
Thousands of women across the city use Planned Parenthood as their primary care provider for their healthcare needs. According to Planned Parenthood’s 2018-2019 Annual Report, there were 91,409 visits to their five health clinics across New York City, including 5,452 pap smear screenings for cervical cancer and 4,907 pregnancy tests.
Sydney Hayes, a 21-year-old Manhattan resident, went to the Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood in September, because her cycle had stalled, and she needed drugs to induce menstruation.
“The protestors weren’t wearing masks at all. There were only a few when I got there, but by the time I was out of my appointment there were near 40,” she said. “They were shouting about how I shouldn’t be killing my baby and sin. It’s clear they were not informed about the services, as I was there for help with my cycle and not getting my period.”
Pro-life proponents said they have a duty to continue protesting outside of clinics, specifically those that offer abortions, which were deemed essential medical facilities by the New York State Department of Health.
“Early on as businesses were being shut down, we grew concerned because abortion facilities were considered essential businesses,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. “We didn’t want to see more women under the pressure of economic and healthcare worries considering abortion.”
Scheidler said members of his organization held a conference early in the pandemic to discuss how they could safely protest and reach individuals entering clinics, encouraging them to pray and offering them help, he said.
“We’ve been accused of not caring about life, because we send people to an abortion facility during a pandemic,” said Scheidler about pro-life protesters. “But we do it precisely because we do care about life. All life, especially an unborn fetus. Its life is in dire straits, moments away from ending through injustice and violence.”
Moira Ariev is the coordinator of volunteers at Clinic Escorts for NYC, an independent health clinic in the Bronx. The volunteers are a part of a grassroots program in partnership with the Einstein College of Medicine Students for Choice. On Saturdays, members of the group go to the clinic and serve as escorts, helping patients walk into the clinic safely past anti-abortion protestors, said Ariev.
“We stopped escorting after a long conversation back in March,” she said. “We decided it wasn’t worth the risk in terms of safety to the escorts. At our clinic, the anti-abortion protestors come very close to the patient. They get right in the patient’s face.”
The protests stopped in April, said Ariev, but resumed later in the spring. As protesters returned to the clinic, the volunteer escorts started their services again, following strict health guidelines, including wearing masks and sanitizing, she said.
Ariev said the actions of protestors violating health codes have been escalating, including stepping in front of patients so they have to “duck and weave” to get around them. And some protesters lean on car doors to block patients from getting out of their vehicles, she said.
Other escort services have popped up at clinics around the city, including Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, Queens. According to its website, Choices is one of the largest and most comprehensive providers of prenatal care, women’s reproductive care and abortion services in the country.
Marylou Greenberg, who works in community outreach for Choices, helped to develop the center’s escort services. Choices established safety protocols based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which require some patients to wait outside before their appointments to maintain social distancing in the waiting room.
“Patients waiting outside made it much easier for the protestors to harass them, some without masks,” said Greenberg. “When protestors are coming up close to patients, not wearing masks and yelling, ‘You’re going to burn in hell’ and ‘If you go in there, you’re going to get Covid,’ that’s automatically threatening,” she said.
Scheidler said Pro-Life Action League doesn’t force their protesters to wear masks.
“Now we know it’s virtually impossible to get Covid outside. The wind and the sun are very helpful to preventing the disease, so it isn’t as much of a concern,” he said. “But there’s also the public perception, so several counselors wear it around their neck and pull it up to talk to people.”
“We don’t know if these protestors are carriers of the disease,” said Greenberg. “And without a mask or social distancing, that increases the risk.”
(Photo by Eli Rallo)