Reports from Alabama: Protecting Providers, Preserving Access


Operation Save America (OSA), led by Flip Benham, descended on Birmingham, Alabama this week to attempt to close the city's two abortion clinics. OSA traditionally hosts these week-long events each summer in a different city in the United States. Anti-abortion extremists come from across the country to protest at clinics, federal government buildings, busy intersections, churches they perceive as liberal and adult book and video stores. In recent years their message has been not only anti-abortion but anti-gay and anti-Muslim. They host mock "funerals" for fetuses, parade through town with large, graphic signs, and burn copies of Supreme Court decisions. However, their most disruptive and troubling activity is intimidating women and clinic staff at the targeted clinics. They use bullhorns to preach and yell at women. They approach women entering the clinics and try to intimidate them from going in. In many instances, they have physically blocked the entrances. Many of the protesters have long arrest records for crimes such as criminal trespass, obstructing traffic, blockading, disobeying police orders, disorderly conduct, and even careless burning. Benham himself has been arrested over a dozen times.

This summer in Birmingham, OSA has been protesting at Planned Parenthood and the New Woman, All Women clinic. New Woman, All Women was the clinic that was bombed by convicted murderer Eric Robert Rudolph in 1998. An off duty police officer, employed as a security guard, was killed and a nurse, Emily Lyons, was brutally and permanently injured. This year the protestors also traveled approximately 60 miles to target the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa. West Alabama Women's Center has also dealt with anti-abortion extremists in the past. In January 2006, a local man drove his car through the clinic's entrance. He was convicted of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits someone from using "force, threat of force or physical obstruction" to prevent someone from providing or receiving reproductive health services.

A staff member from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) is on the ground in Birmingham this week working with law enforcement and clinic staff in order to ensure that patients have safe access to abortion care and that services are unimpeded. Here is her account of Monday's events:

About 15 people demonstrated at Planned Parenthood, while about 100 gathered at the New Woman, All Women clinic. Protesters carried graphic signs and shouted at clinic staff and law enforcement. Trucks, also bearing graphic signs, drove throughout the city, provoking numerous calls from concerned citizens who complained about the trucks. The group then gathered in the Five Points neighborhood and held a rally and signing of an "emancipation proclamation for the unborn children of our land." There was a visible law enforcement presence at all the venues. Despite the disruption, both clinics remained open and cared for their patients.

Clinics and their national organizations work before and during these protests to ensure the safety of their staffs and patients. Despite the intimidation and harassment they face during these protests, clinic staff continue to come to work and patients continue to seek the health care services they need. We work closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to ensure that they have the intelligence information that they need to prepare for and respond to the protests and to ensure that their community stays safe.

Even with a law enforcement presence, the protestors have still intimidated women and trespassed onto clinic property. OSA traveled to Tuscaloosa on Tuesday with approximately 100 protestors — many of whom were children and teenagers. Our staff member spent the day monitoring the situation and assisting the clinic:

The protesters trespassed onto clinic property, placed fliers containing the doctor's name and photograph on cars in the parking lots of the clinic and the surrounding buildings, and harassed and grabbed patients entering the clinic. In addition, two protesters even pretended to be patients and entered the clinic in order to further intimidate patients. The protesters were eventually moved to the public sidewalk where they continued their demonstration for about two to three hours, despite not having a required permit.

Although media coverage of the protest claimed the protesters "weren't allowed on the private property surrounding the Women's Center" and that they had a permit for Tuesday's demonstration, the protesters were in fact breaking the law in Tuscaloosa. While the protesters were not allowed on private property, that did not stop approximately 100 protesters from storming the clinic parking lot and positioning themselves on the clinic steps where they yelled and grabbed women in an attempt to stop them from entering the clinic. While the protesters had a permit for a protest on Wednesday, they did not have a valid permit to hold their demonstration in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday. Despite their clear violations of the law, no protesters were arrested. These facts were also not included in the news coverage of the events, which failed to present an accurate portrayal of the turbulent scene surrounding the clinic.

Many of the protesters on the clinic steps of the West Alabama Women's Center were children coached by their parents to break the law and trespass on private property in order to yell and intimidate women entering the clinic. Children are often used in protests because it is assumed that police will not arrest a child, or even if they are arrested, the penalties will be less severe for minors.

OSA is certainly proud of their "child warriors." Their website is full of pictures of children protesting in Birmingham and participating in religious rallies. It is disturbing to see so many children spreading a message of hate that they likely do not fully understand. Our experience with clinic violence and disruption has made it clear that there is nothing responsible or acceptable about teaching your children to intimidate women making private health care decisions or that violence against abortion providers is justifiable.

Fortunately, the number of participants in these types of anti-abortion events is decreasing. When Operation Rescue started in the 1980s, they were known for large-scale sieges of clinics. These blockades spurred hundreds of arrests. Today these types of events like the one being held in Birmingham only draw 100-125 people. The very visible prosecution and conviction of anti-abortion extremists like Rudolph along with the enforcement of the FACE Act have led to a decrease in major acts of violence against abortion providers in recent years. However, abortion providers still often face intimidation, threats, and picketing — sometimes even at their homes or churches. Last year our members reported 548 incidences of hate mail/harassing calls, 336 incidences of trespassing, and 13,505 incidences of picketing.

Even though major acts of violence have decreased in recent years, many anti-abortion extremists still believe that it is justifiable to murder doctors because they provide women with safe and legal abortion care. Abortion providers and clinic staff continue to face threats and potential violence every day. For more information about the types of threats they face and the frequency of incidences, visit NAF's violence statistics.

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