In late May, a North Side Chicago Planned Parenthood (PP) clinic was the target of property destruction for two nights in a row. Clinic staff arrived at work to find smashed windows and a shattered glass door. Large, round metal projectiles were found inside. During the writing of this piece, the clinic was targeted for a third time. Without a doubt, these vandalizations were meant to intimidate both clinic patients and staff, and they made everyone seeking an abortion in Chicago less safe.
These acts of violence came as a shock to Chicago residents who are proud to live in a city known to be an abortion access hub for the entire midwest. Local abortion activists and community members acted swiftly by calling an emergency response rally, which drew one hundred people with less than twenty-four hours notice.
Planned Parenthood staff welcomed this significant showing of public support, however Planned Parenthood leadership publicly conveyed their reservations about a grassroots mobilization near the clinic.
The Need for Clinic Defense
It is critical to recognize the severity of the violence that took place. In the context of rising right-wing anti-abortion fervor and open attacks on transgender rights, broken windows at any clinic providing abortion and gender affirming health care cannot be taken lightly.
Activists with Chicago for Abortion Rights, Chicago Feminist Action, Chicago DSA, and 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice called for a public response because we recognized the urgent need to expose right-wing violence for what it is: a direct threat to our reproductive freedom that can’t be ignored away.
In response to our rally, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois Jennifer Welch ultimately thanked community members for taking action to support staff and for choosing to hold our event outside of operating hours. However, she also stated on social media for the event that “we know protests can confuse and alarm patients who are coming in for care. Some patients turn away at the site of any crowd at our health center, assuming the worst. This is true even of a supportive crowd.” Instead of protesting near the clinic, Welch urged supporters to send positive messages to staff, donate to PP, and sign up for PP alerts to call and email politicians.
Welch’s response was a disappointment to rally organizers who would have welcomed her presence at the rally in defense of her own organization. The response from PP leaders is connected to an enduring debate within the movement for abortion rights today—what strategy will successfully stop the attacks on our clinics?
The question of clinic defense, a militant set of tactics to oppose the presence of right-wing demonstrators at clinics, has long divided the abortion movement. Some advocates of abortion rights who oppose clinic defense argue that the best way we can resist clinic violence is to ignore it to avoid giving more attention to the activities of the far right. This argument implies that by counter-protesting against the right, we risk provoking even more right-wing violence.
On its face, this view seems to hold some truth. By mobilizing our forces to counter the bigots, aren’t we also also giving them more publicity? However, the history of clinic defense as an organized response to the far-right anti-abortion movement shows otherwise. Defending our clinics is a crucial strategy that turned back an ugly wave of violence in the 1980s and ’90s.
In 1986, ex-salesmen turned anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry launched Operation Rescue, a national call for a “religious crusade” in the interest of “saving unborn children.” By the early 1990s, OR was mobilizing large and destructive anti-abortion demonstrations at clinics. Terry’s “rescuers” blockaded clinic doors, sometimes entering clinics and destroying medical equipment.
As today, the abortion rights movement was divided in their response. National organizations including NOW and Planned Parenthood prioritized a legal approach, calling for injunctions that would limit OR’s access to sidewalks and clinic entrances. Similar “buffer zone” laws are still enforceable today, allowing clinic escorts to protect the safe entry of clinic patients.
The reality on the ground was that legal action alone did not completely stop OR’s violent presence at clinics, with antis willing to take arrests and police often dragging their feet to arrest them. Terry himself suggested that OR members must be prepared to sacrifice everything in their holy war against abortion, stating that a federal judge ordering him to pay a $50,000 fine was “like asking civil rights leaders to pay money to the KKK.”
Confident and strategic clinic defense was needed to ensure that injunctions were enforced. Abortion activists around the country organized local clinic defense networks to counter OR, showing up early in the morning before the antis arrived and outnumbering them on clinic grounds. A 1990 training document created by the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force described their strategy this way:
OR presents a very tangible threat to our rights to safe, legal abortions and birth control. This is one place where abortion rights activists can make an immediate difference by defending women’s rights directly at the clinics. The goals of Project Stand Up for Women NOW are to secure access to abortion and to shut down Operation Rescue. To accomplish our goals, we use a variety of tactics, from confronting the bullies directly at the clinics to political organizing and litigation. Our presence at the clinics is designed to keep clinics open, to offer support to clinic patients and staff and to deliver a strong, positive message: we are the majority, we are mobilized and we will not be pushed backwards by bullies who try to use fear and intimidation to take our reproductive freedom away from us.
Clinic defense reflects the need for our side to confidently and publicly oppose the far right and to expose their violence as deeply unpopular and unacceptable for the majority of Americans who support legal abortion today. The necessity of this tactic has been too easily dismissed by clinic managers and those who sit on the boards of service organizations such as Planned Parenthood.
During our rally in response to the recent attacks, a clinic staff member spoke out about the significance of seeing so many community members standing with them in support, stating that, “It feels like you are here defending my life.” The attack on Planned Parenthood made Chicago’s abortion providers and patients less safe. The community rally in response made us all safer.
Forty Years of Setbacks
So how did we get to the point that the bigot(s) felt empowered enough to launch a spate of attacks on a clinic in Chicago, a pro-choice stronghold?
In the four decades since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, our side has been steadily losing ground to the far-right anti-abortion movement. This has put abortion rights activists on the defensive, where rather than advancing demands to increase abortion access, we are constantly fighting to preserve what little we have left. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion right has waged a tireless war aimed at restricting reproductive rights at the state level.
The sustained backlash on abortion has had devastating consequences for working-class people seeking access to safe and affordable abortion. From 2012 to 2019, at least 166 abortion clinics across the country closed. An estimated 11 million people seeking abortion in the US now live more than one hour’s drive from an abortion clinic.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers, fake abortion clinics run by anti-abortion groups, now outnumber actual abortion clinics. According to Guttmacher Institute, CPCs regularly mislead and misinform teens about the “dangers of abortion,” yet they continue to recieve millions of dollars in federal funding.
The violence of the anti-abortion movement is not incidental to their legal attacks on abortion. Clinic violence and intimidation targeting abortion providers has been a driving force of the political backlash for decades. In order for the abortion rights movement to finally go on the offensive, we can’t limit our strategy to the courts and ballot boxes. We have to defeat the far-right bigots in the streets and outside clinic doors.
Building the Abortion Movement We Need
In the context of ever-increasing setbacks, some abortion activists have already been preparing to lose Roe. In countless cities, abortion access has been limited to the point that it feels like we are already living in a post-Roe America. But our side can’t continue to sit back and accept defeat. As bad as things are now, they stand to get much worse if Roe were to be overturned.
Activists in the United States have a lot to learn from two recent breakthroughs in the global struggle for abortion rights. In late 2020, feminists in Argentina won their decades-long fight to legalize abortion. In 2018, Ireland’s victorious movement to repeal the 8th amendment led to a historic referendum vote that marked an enormous shift in public support for safe, legal abortion. What these two movements have in common is that activists took matters into their own hands to move abortion from the sidelines and into the mainstream of public consciousness. In both Ireland and Argentina, abortion activists refused to give up any ground to the the religious right by declaring that there can be no democracy without full bodily autonomy.
This fall, the Supreme Court is expected to hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization regarding a 2018 Mississippi abortion restriction. With the addition of Trump’s miserable appointees, the Supreme Court now has a conservative majority. Our side has a significant opportunity to rebuild a fighting movement for abortion rights—or we face the disaster of losing the protection of Roe at the federal level.
We can’t hold our breath hoping that the Biden administration or local elected officials will defend abortion for us. We have to get organized in every community and every workplace to demand that abortion rights and reproductive justice become priorities for everyone. Through organizing ourselves to defend our clinics now, we can start to bring together the forces we will need to take on the Supreme Court this fall and to ultimately win abortion access and reproductive freedom for all.
Join Chicago For Abortion Rights at their next meeting on June 22nd. Click here for more info.