It’s a bright, freezing February morning in Manhattan, and Megan Lessard is standing in the doorway of a Mott Street apartment, locked in conversation with a man who stepped downstairs in a bathrobe to complain about the noise.
It’s just 8 a.m., but New York City for Abortion Rights—a patchwork group of reproductive justice activists for which Lessard is an organizer—is loudly picketing in front of the nearby Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. Congregants, nuns, and clergy members of the church attempt to slip inside unnoticed.
The group has named their action, “This Church Harasses Women.”
“You need to understand that by being here so early you are alienating people who would otherwise support your cause,” says the man, groggy and frustrated, before storming back upstairs.
But Lessard and New York City for Abortion Rights are just getting started. They’ve launched this action and others in defense of a local Planned Parenthood clinic—against the wishes of Planned Parenthood.
“Let me state up front that we would prefer that nobody be in front of an abortion clinic,” explains Lessard. “But we are a group comprised of providers, and people who are former and current Planned Parenthood patients who have expressed a desire to have a presence out there pushing back. The anti-choice presence is constant.”
One example of this anti-choice presence is a monthly anti-abortion action at Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Health Center in the East Village. On the first Saturday of each month, anti-abortion activists gather inside St. Patrick’s before walking several blocks over to the clinic. For hours thereafter, passersby and patients entering the clinic are engulfed by an ongoing recitation of the “Ave Maria,” chanted in quiet unison by fifty to sixty regular participants.
“It is not a march, it’s a religious procession,” says Fidelis Moscinski, a member of the New York-based collective Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a regular participant in the monthly anti-abortion action.
“What do they pray for?” he asks. “For the mothers, fathers, and all those who go to the Planned Parenthood, that all of them would recognize the reality of the unborn child . . . that he or she deserves to be born and not murdered in the womb. That all the staff and volunteers would have their consciences enlightened by the truth and no longer be complicit in mass murder.”
Members of New York City for Abortion Rights are organizing to push back against highly organized anti-choice campaigns like these. “This Church Harrasses Women” was created in response to the 40 Days for Life campaign, a nationwide anti-abortion effort that advocates on-the-ground organizing against clinics and abortion access.
Simply donating to mainstream pro-choice organizations and voting for the right politicians is not enough, the participants argue, pointing out that far-right organizers have made huge strides barring access to essential reproductive health services.
Attempts by state legislatures to restrict abortion access have increased in recent months. In March, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law the nation’s then-most restrictive abortion ban, barring the procedure after fifteen weeks. In April, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed a ban on the “dilation and evacuation” procedure used in second-trimester abortions, effectively barring access to abortion after eleven weeks.
The following month, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a ban on abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected—as early as six weeks, before most women can confirm they are pregnant. In the last week of May, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed a ban on abortion after fifteen weeks that would impose prison sentences of up to two years on those found in violation of the policy.
All of these laws are currently facing challenges in state and federal courts.
The assault on women’s reproductive health is also coming from the top down. On June 1, the Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services announced that it had chosen Diane Foley to head the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Foley is former head of a Christian organization that ran two “crisis pregnancy centers,” also known as fake clinics because they are staffed by anti-choice activists trying to dissuade people from seeking abortion services. Foley’s new position oversees Title X federal family planning funding, which provides reproductive health services to over four million low-income Americans and is the target of new restrictions proposed by the Trump administration.
“We’ve invested so much effort not into defending abortion but into defending the existence of a provider,” Lessard argues. “And let me just say that I absolutely support Planned Parenthood, one hundred percent, in their ability to provide services to people and to do so in an effective, patient-centered way. But I disagree with them about their political strategy. We’ve shied away from the issue of abortion access and abortion rights to the detriment of the reproductive justice movement.”
In the early months of 2017, anti-choice factions emboldened by Trump’s election planned protests across the country, including in front of the Margaret Sanger Center. Kate Castle, a research assistant at the Guttmacher Institute, scoured social media in search of counter-protests. She watched with dismay as the events she found were canceled one by one.
“People were saying, ‘Planned Parenthood doesn’t want us there.’” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘What? Why? This makes no sense.’ I saw one event that popped up a week before—‘come discuss Planned Parenthood tactics and what our response should be.’ I went. Everybody felt frustrated and disempowered and angry at the fact that there was no response [from Planned Parenthood]. That was the beginning formation of New York City for Abortion Rights.”
The group turned out more than 200 participants willing to defend the Sanger clinic against the anti-choice protests. Castle, who at the time volunteered as a doula at Planned Parenthood’s Brooklyn location, says she attempted to coordinate with clinic staff in order to minimize any harm that could be done to patients when entering.
The group sang, attempting to celebrate abortion access in the face of those who wish to bar it. And by setting up across the street from the clinic, the pro-choice group effectively pushed anti-choicers onto the opposite block—clearing the immediate space in front of the clinic entrance.
“We reject the idea that liberal institutions and mainstream feminist organizations are going to fight for us because they’ve proven time and time again that they’re not.”
“We want to take back space, both the physical space in front of clinics and in the discourse surrounding access to abortion,” says Castle. She voices some of the frustration driving their efforts: “The idea is a grassroots movement. We reject the idea that liberal institutions and mainstream feminist organizations are going to fight for us because they’ve proven time and time again that they’re not.”
But in February 2017, Castle was found to be in violation of Planned Parenthood’s “non-engagement” policy and was asked not to return as a volunteer.
“PPNYC appreciates the support and concern of counter protesters,” says Adrienne Verrilli, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Planned Parenthood New York City in a statement. “It is our experience however, that having counter protesters often escalates the situation outside our centers and can contribute to a loud and more hostile environment that can upset both patients and staff.” Each time there is a counter-protest, she explains, it requires an excessive police presence.
Verrilli’s statement also emphasized that Castle “was given an opportunity to remain a volunteer and adhere to the policy [after breaking it] or to stop volunteering with us. The person chose to stop volunteering.”
“They made the argument that I am a representative of Planned Parenthood wherever I go, even when I’m off duty,” Castle says. “They were short-staffed and running low on doulas when they fired me. I tried really hard to work with them and offered a bunch of concessions and in the end they decided to blacklist me.”
In late March, New York City for Abortion Rights decides to use “militant tactics” in the form of performance art. At the International Gift of Life Walk, a march organized by the anti-choice group Personhood Education New York (an organization that argues against exceptions for abortion in the case of rape and incest), twenty-seven-year-old comedian Laura Shepard lays on a makeshift gurney underneath a sheet dyed to look like it is covered in blood.
“Pro-life, that’s a lie! You don’t care if women die!” chants the group of around twenty people. They are met by anti-choice activists who attempt to intimidate members of the counter-protest by filming them on their cell phones.
Reverend Clenard H. Childress Jr., who is featured on the website blackgenocide.org, addresses the crowd, calling abortion the genocide of children of color. Also invited to speak at the rally is Moscinski, who was arrested last year alongside other anti-choice activists at an abortion clinic in Alexandria, Virginia on trespassing charges.
“In the 1970s and early ‘80s, organizations like the National Right to Life Committee and Operation Rescue were trying to invade clinics. We literally had to form a human chain of probably seventy-five people and link arms.”
A woman shoves her cell phone camera in the face of pro-choice advocate Emily Brooks, while arguing that medical abortions cause cancer (a claim that has been debunked).
“When abortion was illegal women of color died during abortion procedures at roughly four times the rate of white women,” counters Brooks.
“The eugenics movement was about depriving people of the right to decide whether they wanted to have children or not,” she adds. “The fact that the right uses this language in the service of further depriving people of access to the healthcare that they need to make these decisions for themselves is truly disgusting.”
The march commences, and anti-choice attendees begin moving toward the space where the reproductive justice advocates have gathered, forcing some NYC4AR members to step back from the street.
On a rainy day in Brooklyn, mother-daughter duo Leia and Celia Petty sit on a sofa as Leia’s young daughter molds Play-Dough on the coffee table. The pair has fought together for decades for abortion access. They joined New York City for Abortion Rights in response to the 2016 election.
Celia, a retired union organizer, describes the effectiveness of clinic defense first-hand.
“In the 1970s and early ‘80s, organizations like the National Right to Life Committee and Operation Rescue were trying to invade clinics. We literally had to form a human chain of probably seventy-five people and link arms,” she recounts. “They tried to get through our chain but we kept them out of our clinic, and then set up a regular clinic defense at the Planned Parenthood clinic.”
Just down the street from the Petty’s apartment is Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where a commission established by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has decided to relocate a fiercely contested statue of J. Marion Sims. A 19th century physician and gynecologist, Sims performed medical experiments on slave women. The statue, which is currently in storage, was formerly located in East Harlem and original plans were to re-install it next to Sims’s grave in Brooklyn.
New York City for Abortion Rights members say they will protest should plans be made for the statue to see daylight again.
The preservation of Sims’s legacy illustrates perfectly for Celia the need for a reproductive justice movement. “How much money you have affects your access to abortion and reproductive rights. You should be able to decide to have children, as well as to not have children. You should be able to access birth control and abortion to help make those decisions.”
Ed Bonfanti began working as a clinic escort in the Bronx after joining New York City for Abortion Rights. On his shifts, he sees first-hand the intersections between access to reproductive healthcare, race, and class. “Anti-abortion policies primarily impact the poor and women of color, who are many times the targets of anti-abortion harassment.”
“I’ve seen anti-abortion fanatics harass patients every time I’ve worked,” he adds. “One time, they called the cops on me. We’ve seen them lie to cops. When you do escort work, it makes you even more invested in the issue because you see on the front lines how ‘antis’ treat patients who are going to get a legal medical procedure.”
Moira Ariev of the Bronx Abortion clinic speaks of similar experiences with anti-choice factions.
“Sidewalk counselor tactics include stepping in front of a woman, standing outside the door of her car so that she can’t open the door, and generally telling her things like ‘You don’t have to kill your baby,’‘God doesn’t want you to do this,’ ‘You have choices,’ ‘We can help,’ etc. We’ve seen antis recording video of patients and escorts,” she described in an email.
A pending lawsuit filed on behalf of Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens details similar harassment by pro-lifers endured by patients, clinicians, and escort staff.
“They actually do believe a bunch of people are dying. That’s hard to compete with in terms of compelling people to action.”
But Ariev emphasizes the tension created by more aggressive pro-abortion tactics. “From the immediate perspective of clinics, escorts, and patients, pro-choice counter-protests aren’t helpful and may in fact be problematic,” Ariev says.
Christine Pardue, twenty-five, works as an editorial assistant and writes the New York City for Abortion Rights newsletter on the side. Standing on the street and defending a clinic with your own body, she contends, makes the urgency all the more grounded.
“We don’t treat it as a really visceral, core issue the way in the right does,” she says. “They actually do believe a bunch of people are dying. That’s hard to compete with in terms of compelling people to action.”
“And that was the purpose of the bloody sheet,” she says, referring to the group’s action in March. “To show that lives are on the line. Our lives. And to turn that right back on them.”
Of clinics’ rejection of such tactics, she says, “There’s a way to work together.”
Erin Sheridan is a journalist and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.