Extremists Disrupt Abortion Rights AND Communities

In the new issue of Ms.magazine, we describe the tactics that anti-abortion extremists such as Operation Rescue have been using in an attempt to shut down the South Wind Women’s Center—the full-service women’s health clinic in Wichita, Ks., that replaced the one that Dr. George Tiller ran before his murder by anti-abortion extremist, Scott Roeder. Now, Operation Rescue-led extremists are trying to have Wichita’s City Council rezone South Wind’s neighborhood as a “non-business” area so that the clinic will be forced to shut down.

The activists cite gun violence that has occurred around the clinic, graphic images (held up by anti-abortion protesters) that are “inappropriate” for children to see and the tense relationship between workers at the clinic and protesters—even though the anti-abortion forces are the ones responsible for all of these. Diane Wahto, a volunteer for the South Wind clinic, said:

The anti-choice protesters’ claim that the clinic is the cause of the disruption is ludicrous. They have been the ones who, in the past, have yelled, often through megaphones … They get in the way of those trying to drive into the clinics. At times, parents told their small children to lie in the driveway in front of incoming cars.

It looks unlikely that Wichita’s City Council will decide to rezone, however. It already refused the petition of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life back in February to rezone the area surrounding the clinic, citing potential court challenges.

Disruptive behavior by anti-abortion protesters undeniably have an effect on communities—especially on women seeking legal abortions. Local businesses, too, feel the effects: Last Monday, Mike Fink, owner of a popular deli in Portland, Maine, said that he will be closing down his restaurant—located on the same street as a Planned Parenthood—because he was tired of having to deal with anti-choice protesters. Said Fink,

I decided kids holding signs of dead babies isn’t good for business. I’m disappointed and tired of being upset.

Fink openly supported Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to access abortion services and helped organize an abortion rights rally in January. He also started holding counter-protests against anti-choice activists and gave free sandwiches to people who supported the women going to Planned Parenthood. But he was worn down by anti-abortion protestors yelling at him and his customers.

Fink’s experience is not unusual. Doctors who preform abortions often face harassment that can go as far as death threats, culminating in the murders of nine abortion providers and clinic workers since 1993. Women who seek out abortions also face verbal harassment and more: In 2012, the father of a woman who was going to a Planned Parenthood clinic that did not provide abortions was stabbed by an anti-choice protester.

One of the ways to lessen the harassment women face is enforcing buffer zones around abortion clinics. In November 2012, the Harrisburg, Penn., city council created a 20-foot buffer zone around clinics in the city, keeping protesters out of that area. Portland’s City Council is considering a similar measure, although their buffer zone would be 35 feet (Fink is an avid supporter).

Whether or not buffer zones exist around clinics, law enforcement needs to step up and protect women seeking reproductive services as well as the courageous doctors and health-care workers who provide this critical care. It’s not enough to keep abortion legal; it has to be accessible as well.

Picture of a pro-Planned Parenthood rally in Asheville, N.C., from Flickr user David Plunkett under license from Creative Commons 2.0