While some states restrict abortion care due to the coronavirus outbreak, Portland’s Lovejoy Surgicenter implements procedural changes to remain open—and unbothered protestors self- identify as exempt from stay-at-home orders.
Each workday, an employee at Portland’s flagship abortion clinic, who prefers to remain anonymous, knows that it might be the day she’s exposed to the coronavirus.
“I think by opting into a career in healthcare, it was kind of like: I guess I’m making an agreement with myself that there’s a potential for exposure to anything,” she said.
On any given Saturday, the risk of exposure begins before she even steps foot in Lovejoy Surgicenter, embodied by protesters approaching both employees and patients with pro-life signs and scripture—despite Portland’s “stay-at-home” order that’s been in effect since March 23.
“As an employee, you get to the point where you expect that you’re going to have to walk by some protesters,” said the clinic worker.
Before the lockdown, she said, it wasn’t rare to be confronted by protestors every day the clinic’s doors were open. “But it really is hard for the patients because they didn’t sign up for that. They’re just trying to take care of themselves.”
In response to Governor Kate Brown’s executive order requiring essential businesses to facilitate social distancing measures, the clinic has restricted patients from bringing others to the clinic for support.
The Lovejoy employee said that, while this necessary measure “limits the number of people inside one building,” the new rule is “obviously going to impact patients when they’re already potentially feeling very vulnerable.”
Cascade Abortion Support, a group that provides volunteer escorts to accompany patients from their car to the door, has also stopped sending escorts to the clinic.
Arriving patients are left with no greeting besides “men yelling at you as you go in the door, telling you that you’re murdering babies,” describes the employee. “It’s pretty extreme.”
In the unprecedented weeks since the lockdown orders began taking effect, lawmakers in states like Ohio and Texas have ruled abortions as “elective” procedures—categorizing clinics among countless other businesses prohibited from staying open during the outbreak.
In response to these policies, Planned Parenthood Acting President Alexis McGill Johnson has condemned politicians like Gov. Abbott of Texas, claiming they are capitalizing on citizens’ fear of the virus in order move the dial towards suspending abortion care.
“Don’t be fooled: Gov. Abbott’s use of his executive order to ban abortion has nothing to do with health or safety,” said McGill in a late-March statement. “We will not cower before politicians who insist on exploiting a global pandemic to score political points.”
In the states where abortions have been ruled essential, there have still been waves of changes to facilities keeping their doors open.
A volunteer at a Planned Parenthood in Portland—who wishes to remain anonymous—said that clinics have ceased all volunteer programs to minimize risk of spreading the coronavirus. Planned Parenthood is also handling all of the consultation aspects of the appointment by phone, prior to patients stepping foot inside the clinic.
On most weekdays since the Kate Brown’s order, the sidewalks surrounding Lovejoy Surgicenter have been quieter, as the majority of protestors have elected to stay home.
The strategy of one international pro-life campaign that frequented Lovejoy before the order—called 40 Days for Life—is a “non-stop, round-the-clock prayer vigil,” according to the campaign’s website. Since the lockdown, though, a bold alert banner atop their Portland regional page announces, “Vigils suspended due to coronavirus outbreak. Sign up to pray from home.”
Not everybody is as cautious though, says the Lovejoy employee: “That one guy on Saturdays is considerably more aggressive than the protestors that I usually see.”
Unbothered by the clinic’s adapting policies, some pro-life protestors from Beaverton Grace Bible Church don’t expect the stay-at home orders to affect their Saturday sidewalk protests.
On April 4, Chuck O’Neal—a “reformed pastor” and Marine according to his Twitter bio—broadcasted warnings of condemnation into the clinic with a Bluetooth speaker, as he does on most Saturdays.
“Today is the day you must see your lust, and your lies, and your sexual immorality, and your murderous heart … All your sin has led to this day.”
Last Saturday, he was gathered with three members of the Beaverton church, where he is a pastor.
Unlike the firm legislative regulations that clinics are beholden to, the reasons that O’Neal and company still protest despite stay-at-home orders are self-imposed.
“If the taking of the life of unborn children is justified under the threat of coronavirus,” said O’Neal, “then trying to rescue unborn children is a justified activity under the threat of the coronavirus.”
In accordance with Gov. Brown’s executive order, the anti-abortion extremists usually remain six feet apart.
Adam, O’Neal’s sole cohort on March 28 (who declined to share his last name), said, “We’re maintaining our social distance aren’t we? If people come and approach us over here, I mean, they’re the ones breaking the social distance.”
Shortly thereafter though, Adam walked up to the partially-open window of a white Mercedes, to inform a patient’s waiting partner of his sins: “You’re ex-communicated from the Catholic Church right now. Did you know that?”
The occasional exhortation through a car window or brief speed-walk after both patients and workers are common occurrences on Saturdays, although at any given moment the group is indeed more likely to be standing and waving their signs while maintaining distance from each other.
O’Neal sees their Saturday gatherings as a duty, not a privilege. “Stay home stay alive. I get it. But the police are still out, right?”
As O’Neal projected gospel into the clinic, the other protestors waved photos of babies and bible verses at drivers, including a few police officers.
On the morning of March 28, one officer even stopped by after O’Neal reported the partner of an abortion patient for deliberately coughing on him. The police left after unsuccessfully looking for the man. An officer returned the following Saturday to remind the protestors of social distancing protocol, leaving without issuing any citations.
Just a few days earlier, San Francisco police issued their first misdemeanor for breaking the stay-at-home order to an elderly protestor at a clinic. As of this story’s publication, none have been issued to the protestors at Lovejoy Surgicenter.
“In an apocalyptic, the-world-is-ending scenario,” said O’Neal, “the doctors would still need to do their job, the ambulance workers would still need to do their job… and the Christians would still need to do their job.”
As per usual, the group of protestors are met with mixed reactions from Northwest Portland’s passing pedestrians and drivers. On April 4, a fully denim-clad man strolled down Lovejoy St. with his children, who O’Neal said he’s watched grow up since they were little via their weekly encounters outside the clinic.
The man yelled, “You’re not supposed to be gathering… You better give me six feet when I walk by!”
To which Keenan Berry, a member of Beaverton Grace Bible Church, yelled back, “You think the abortion doctors are doing that right now?”
The family carried on down the hill, habituated to a Saturday morning pastime which points to just a few weeks ago, when NW 23rd—the commercial artery of Portland’s highest-per-capita-income neighborhood—would have been humming with weekend activity.
Berry—a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, and multiple spare bibles in his car just in case somebody needs one—isn’t scared of the virus. “Christians have been murdered throughout the years for preaching. A virus isn’t really gonna stop us I don’t think.”
O’Neal mirrored those sentiments, confidently stating, “My life is secure, I can’t die a moment before god allows it.”
Just like at every remaining un-shuttered Portland business, where patrons are urged to obey social distancing indicators on the floor, O’Neal’s black leather shoes remained planted a few inches behind a painted red line on the clinic’s front sidewalk.
Unlike the stars on the floor at Whole Foods though, the marker that O’Neal won’t cross has been there for many years, and it’s not to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. The purpose of this well-worn border is to protect the clinic’s patients and workers from the death-threats, arsons and other acts of violence that the staff and patients of Oregon’s 49-year-old clinic have historically endured from extremist pro-life groups and individuals.
In response to the recent justification from policy-makers like Amy Acton, the Director of the Ohio Department of Health, claiming abortion restrictions will conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) for procedures taking place at hospitals, the Lovejoy employee said, “The scale is just vastly different.”
She explained that the small clinic’s day-to-day equipment requirements don’t even come close to the bare minimum that hospitals are requiring to handle the epidemic: “The PPE that’s used [at Lovejoy] isn’t like isolation gowns and N-95s. It’s a fairly simple face mask and gloves and scrubs that are reused and washed.”
In order to keep care accessible to all, healthcare employees like the staff at Lovejoy Surgicenter consistently place themselves at an ever-compounding risk of exposure.
Judging by the desertion of nearly every other street corner in Portland, most people have chosen to save lives by following social isolation guidelines from the CDC, PSA’s from countless celebrities and pleas from the healthcare professionals burdened with the responsibility of calming the chaos perpetuated by those refusing to isolate: “Stay home for us.”
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.
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