The “right to life” movement — along with American racism, misogyny, xenophobia and jingoism — are among the forces that both led to Donald Trump’s election and that have been bolstered by the president’s rise. Even in liberal bastions like New York, the future legality of abortion isn’t as assured as it once was. But a growing grassroots campaign on the part of women and their allies intends to preserve women’s unfettered access to reproductive health care against the rising tide of reaction.
On Saturday, March 3, at the corner of Mott and Bleecker Streets in Lower Manhattan, the two opposing sides in America’s abortion conflict squared off. On one end of the street, a group of more than 40 anti-abortion protesters marched from the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral a block and a half away and rallied behind police barricades in front of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Health Center. In front of the clinic, a group of approximately two dozen activists from New York City for Abortion Rights (NYC4AR) held signs reading “Stop Harassing Women” and “Free Abortion on Demand.” Nearby stood Planned Parenthood staff in pink and blue vests, ready to escort any would-be visitors through the clinic’s doors.
“They lead a march to Planned Parenthood every first Saturday of the month where they stand outside and pray in front,” said Kate Castle, a member of NYC4AR, explaining the presence so-called “right-to-lifers.”
“We’re targeting them in their spaces,” Castle said. “Oftentimes, they target us in ours, so now we’re trying to reclaim space. If they’re going to Planned Parenthood, so are we.”
NYC4AR formed soon after Trump’s election in 2016. Responding to the president’s threat to defund Planned Parenthood and his pledge to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court (something he has already done with Neil Gorsuch’s arrival on the bench), activists mobilized. The threat is clear and present. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, has a long trajectory as an anti-choice advocate. In a speech in Nashville last week, he suggested abortion could end “in our time.”
Activists with NY4AR believe it is time to go on the offensive, to demand equal access to health care and for women to possess full decision-making power over their bodies. In addition to rallies, the group also hosts film screenings, teaching-ins and bi-weekly organizing meetings.
“Pro-life, that’s a lie!” the activists chanted at the anti-abortion crusaders on Saturday. “You don’t care if women die.”
Across the street, their opponents, some of them dressed in priestly garments, recited the rosary. A man in a jacket reading “Bikers for Life” took part. One demonstrator carried a painting of the Virgin Mary. Another, a placard that said “Babies can feel joy while in the womb.”
At one point, men from anti-abortion crowd broke away to stand beside the door of the clinic, giving away pamphlets to dissuade people from going in.
These types of confrontations between “pro-life” and women’s rights advocates can sometimes create emotional distress for potential Planned Parenthood patients, Adrienne Verrilli, the organization’s associate vice president of public affairs in New York, told The Indypendent.
“We want to make sure that when people come into the clinic, it’s peaceful and quiet — a safe space,” she said. Citing instances at Planned Parenthood clinics in California, at which she said pro-choice demonstrators have sent patients crying out the back door, Verrilli insisted that the presence of both groups “wasn’t helpful.”
The women’s rights protesters disagreed.
“Planned Parenthood thinks that what they have been doing in the last 20 years has been working,” said one NY4AR activist who received a warning from the police for standing too close to the “pro-life” demonstrators. “It hasn’t. Their political strategy has failed.” She insisted that the women’s health care provider has been too timid in the face of growing right-wing pressure.
A few of the women entering the clinic on Saturday tried to avoid contact with both groups of protesters as they sped up to get inside. But Megan Baran, an activist with NYC4AR, told The Indy that if anti-abortion groups are “left to just have a presence without opposition” in front of the clinic “then it ultimately curtails people’s right to an abortion.”
By 11 a.m., the anti-abortion ralliers lowered their signs and began to head back to St. Patrick’s. Members of NY4AR waited for every one of them to leave.
Photo: Women on dueling sides of the abortion conflict stand next to one another near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Manhattan on March 3. Credit Erin Sheridan.