It’s a Saturday morning in October, and about 50 pro-life protesters are gathered outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Some are wearing masks, others aren’t. Many are standing within a foot of each other. They are a mix of nuns, priests, monks and lay people. Some protesters stand right in front of the clinic, while others are across the street. Some socialize, some pray, and most join in the chants. As patients circumvent them to duck into the brick building, men in clerical garb holding wooden cross figurines and portraits of Jesus Christ lead the group in singing “Ave Maria.”
Across the city that morning, similar scenes play out. In the Bronx, clinic volunteers say mask-less protesters come within a foot of clinic volunteers, shouting at them. They also lean on patient’s car doors, preventing women from going to their appointments. In Queens, clinic staff say, unmasked protesters approach patients and scream, “You’re going to burn in hell!”
Pro-life protests outside of reproductive clinics in New York City are a familiar sight. But since the pandemic, some demonstrators are violating health protocols, as they attempt to block entrances and persuade women to avoid abortions.
In response, reproductive-rights advocates are citing laws that criminalize behavior when it endangers patients’ safety. In September, the New York Civil Liberties Union put out a memo that described ways in which protesters may be violating the law by ignoring COVID-19 health codes.
“We saw a lull in protester activity at the beginning of the pandemic, but a few months in, that shifted, and shifted pretty quickly. We were seeing aggressive behavior.” said Katharine Bodde, an NYCLU lawyer, in an interview. “Measures that people were trying to take, like social distancing and wearing masks, were not being followed by various people outside of reproductive clinics who oppose abortion.”
The right to protest is guaranteed in the First Amendment. But federal and state laws protect clinic access. These laws were written to ensure that protesters do not put patients, staff or volunteers at risk for their health or safety.
Protesters are required to stay 15 feet away from patients, staff, volunteers and the clinic building — but they were closer than that at the Oct. 3 protest on Bleecker Street. Some also didn’t follow guidelines around mask-wearing and social distancing.
Sydney Hayes, 21, went to the Bleecker Street clinic last September because her menstrual cycle had stalled, and she needed medication. “The protesters weren’t wearing masks at all. There were only a few when I got there, but by the time I was out of my appointment, there were near 40…. They were shouting about how I shouldn’t be killing my baby.”
Hayes is similar to many other Planned Parenthood patients. While the protests focus on abortions, the clinics offer a number of other services, including pap smears, birth control, pre-natal care and cancer screenings. According to a recent Planned Parenthood report, there were 91,409 visits to the organization’s five health clinics across New York City in 2018. They administered 92,644 tests for sexual transmitted infections, 19,747 abortions, 5,452 pap tests screening for cervical cancer, and 4,907 pregnancy tests.
Proponents of the pro-life movement cite their duty to continue protesting abortions, which were deemed essential medical services by state health officials at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Early on, as businesses were being shut down, we grew concerned because abortion facilities were considered essential businesses,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. “We didn’t want to see more women under the pressure of economic and healthcare worries considering abortion. We didn’t want abortion facilities operating without offering the pro-life message.”
Scheidler said members of his organization held a conference early in the pandemic to discuss how they could safely protest and reach out to people entering clinics, he said.
“We’ve been accused of not caring about life, because we send people to an abortion facility during a pandemic,” said Scheidler. “But we do it precisely because we do care about life. All life. Especially an unborn fetus.”
Scheidler said his league doesn’t require protesters to wear masks. “It’s virtually impossible to get COVID outside,” he claimed. “The wind and the sun are very helpful to preventing the disease, so it isn’t as much of a concern. But there’s also the public perception, so several counselors wear it around their neck and pull it up to talk to people.”
Moira Ariev is coordinator of volunteers at Clinic Escorts for NYC, which services Bronx Abortion, an independent clinic. The volunteers are members of a program in partnership with the Einstein College of Medicine Students for Choice. On Saturdays, members go to the clinic and serve as escorts, guiding patients past protesters, said Ariev.
When the epidemic hit in March, “We stopped escorting after a long conversation,” she said. “We decided it wasn’t worth the risk in terms of safety to the escorts. We did send observers to the clinic and saw that there were still anti-abortion protesters and so-called ‘sidewalk counselors’ who approached patients, often without wearing a mask. At our clinic, the anti-abortion protesters come very close to the patient. They get right in the patient’s face.”
The protests stopped in April, said Ariev, but resumed later in the spring. As protesters returned, the escorts started their services again, following health guidelines.
Ariev said protesters are now violating health codes more frequently, sometimes stepping in front of patients or leaning on car doors to block patients from exiting: “That puts the patient and anybody accompanying a patient essentially a captive audience to that protester’s speech.”
Last weekend, she said, an unmasked protester circled her and backed her up against a wall. “She was speaking in tongues.” Ariev said, “We had to get the police to come out to back the protesters up 15 feet… We waited two hours before the police came.”
Ariev said escorts will soon start wearing N-95 masks and face shields. “It’s a calculation. …The circumstances in front of the clinic are extreme, and patients are forced to circumvent scary circumstances to get inside.