As Coronavirus Rages On, So Does Anti-Abortion Harassment and Extremism

In clinics in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kentucky, anti-choice protesters have continued to show up at clinics that provide abortion services, refusing to comply with the pressure for people to practice social distancing and shelter-in-place.

Witnesses have reported protesters gathering in front of clinic doors, walking up to patients, and even “shoving unwanted pamphlets and gift sacks into confused patients’ hands” and through car windows—blatantly ignoring public health recommendations for people to stand six feet apart from one other.

Anti-Abortion Harassment Continues Throughout The Country

Ms. reached out to reproductive healthcare providers and experts across the country to receive a more accurate picture of protesters continuing to push anti-choice agendas in spite of the pandemic.

North Carolina and Florida

Kelsea McLain of Rewire.News published a first-person account on March 20 about her experience as an escort last weekend in North Carolina. Even though the clinic escort program—the Triangle Abortion Access Coalition in Raleigh, North Carolina, of which McLain is a member—took extra precautions, like sanitizing equipment and vests, she was concerned for the well-being of the volunteers.

In one horrifying example, McLain recounted seeing a woman protester cough onto a clinic volunteer in his late 60s or early 70s and say, “Would be a shame if I was sick”—her face just inches away from his.

Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy and operations for A Woman’s Choice (AWC)—with clinics in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as Jacksonville, Florida—detailed the measures they’re taking to stop the spread of the virus without suspending abortion access.

A Woman’s Choice is taking precautions to protect patients from the spread of the coronavirus. Dealing with anti-abortion protesters puts patients further at risk. (Wendi Kent)

“The safety and health of our patients and staff remains AWC’s priority,” she said. “We’ve moved to a staggered schedule to limit the number of patients in the clinic at one time; rearranged waiting areas for distancing between patients; and require companions to wait in cars. Our staff remains thorough and diligent in sanitizing and taking preventive measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.”

Gavin expressed gratitude to patients, AWC staff members and volunteer escorts who—just like the protesters—continue to show up.

“Generally, patients have been understanding and flexible. … We’re grateful for the escorts that continue to put themselves between our patients and the protesters,” she said. “Our staff has remained nimble and vigilant. They are heroes.”

On March 14—a time when COVID-19 was prevalent in the U.S. and social distancing was immediately encouraged to flatten the curve or spread of the virus—North Carolina’s governor issued an order prohibiting mass gatherings of 100 people or more, while the president recommended public gatherings be limited to 50 people, soon followed by an order of no more than 10 people.

Yet, Gavin explained, these decrees didn’t deter anti-choice protesters. For the first two weekends in March, protesters from groups such as Love Life and crisis pregnancy centers continued to show up en masse throughout the state during their “40 Days for Life” campaign.

“As of March 22, 40 Days for Life has canceled their campaign due to the coronavirus—but we’re not sure if the announcement will actually dissuade their followers from showing up,” Gavin said. (American Life League)

“At our Greensboro clinic, our clinic escorts counted nearly 100 protesters in the first two weekends in March,” Gavin said. “The protesters completely disregarded social distancing recommendations and were negligent in actively working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

She continued, “As recently as March 21, there were about 50 protesters at our Greensboro clinic and some tried to flag down cars and push pamphlets into the windows of patients.”

“These people claim they are pro-life,” Gavin told Ms. “Their actions are monstrous, absolutely abhorrent. As of March 22, 40 Days for Life has canceled their campaign due to the coronavirus—but the cancellation comes too late. We’re not sure if the announcement will actually dissuade their followers from showing up.”

Wisconsin

Leslie Fillingham—clinic escort leader of Affiliated Medical Services, an abortion provider in Wisconsin—sent Ms. a collection of her and other escorts’ experiences with protesters over the past few days.

Affiliated Medical Services in Wisconsin has reported the continued presence of anti-abortion protesters during the coronavirus pandemic. (Talking Points Memo)

On March 18, Fillingham reported:

“Several of us escorted yesterday and were dismayed to see that the [anti-abortion protesters] paid little or no attention to the concept of social distancing.

“I think every individual has to make risk decisions for themselves. I can tell you that we intend to stay open unless forced to close, that the anti’s will probably still be out there, and that your presence is incredibly appreciated. So as long as people are willing to come, and are wearing masks, I would love for the escorts to continue to be present for the patients.”

On Friday, March 20, Fillingham recounted:

“The zealots were out in full force today, practicing full frontal attacks. I made a point of telling them to keep a distance from the patients as we’ve been directed by health officials.

“I said, ‘They can hear you from 6 feet away, just like you can hear me now.’

“The usual reply: ‘They’re killing babies in there.  I’ll do whatever I can to stop it.'”

On March 21, Fillingham reported seeing 17 anti-abortion protesters, “including a family with four small children, the littlest of whom cried the whole time.”

Kentucky 

One such expert is Meg Sasse Stern—support fund director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network—who spoke to Ms. about the need for the continued availability of abortion providers and reproductive health services for women seeking essential care. The Kentucky Health Justice Network provides case management, funding, transportation, lodging, childcare assistance and language interpretation to callers who are facing barriers to abortion access.

“The number of callers to our Support Fund hotline has remained consistent, with around 25 calls per week so far,” said Sasse Stern. “We know, however, that following periods of social isolation—such as a snow event that closes down a city or winter holiday breaks—we see a rise in [unplanned pregnancies and] abortions.”

In times of social isolation, access to a safe abortion must be particularly protected, Sasse Stern argued, as rates of domestic violence are likely to increase during these times.

Suspension of Escort Services

Now, clinic escort programs, like Fillingham’s, are being forced to modify or outright cancel their operations as a result of the coronavirus—devastating to many women who currently or in the next few months will need safe access to care. 

Many clinic escort programs–volunteers at an abortion clinic to help guide patients and staff into and out of the building—have been suspended, leaving patients further at risk. (Lorie Shaull)

In states like Kentucky and Wisconsin, patients seeking care from reproductive healthcare providers will now be forced to be in closer proximity with anti-choice protesters.

Sasse Stern told Ms. her network also had to make the tough decision to suspend long-distance transportation with their volunteer drivers indefinitely—making the barrier of traveling to a distant clinic especially difficult for someone who does not have a supportive companion to drive them to and from their appointment.

“In a place like rural Kentucky, where even birth control is hard to access, the stigma around abortion creates a barrier that our volunteers support folks in overcoming,” Sasse Stern told Ms. “We are still providing gas money and other support to our callers, but this is a sudden and frightening reality that we anticipate being a long term challenge.”

Sasse Stern’s Kentucky Health Justice Network is still offering shorter rides to those seeking an abortion in the Louisville area and is working with those who may need to stay overnight before returning home—providing local transport volunteers with masks, gloves and sanitation supplies for their vehicles.

Wisconsin’s Affiliated Medical Services had to make a similar decision for their clinic escorts. Fillingham understands and supports the order but is “heartbroken.”

On the Importance of Coming Together—and Staying Open

No matter the heartbreaking reality of the suspension of escort services, healthcare providers are adamant that clinics stay open.

“Our clinics are open, safe and proudly continuing to provide exceptional abortion care to our patients,” said Gavin. “We are seeing a demand for immediate appointments from patients who are fearful that our doors will be forced closed by state governments. But abortions are essential, time-sensitive care and we will do whatever it takes to keep our doors open and continue to serve our patients.”


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

Micaela Brinsley is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a senior studying Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.