Last Saturday, two groups gathered outside the Margaret Sanger Health Center, Manhattan’s branch of Planned Parenthood, at the corner of Bleecker and Mott. It was a national day of action organized by ProtestPP, a coalition of over 60 pro-life groups, to demand that the federal government withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood. About 30 abortion opponents showed up. At least ten times as many pro-choice counter-protesters met them onsite. The counter-protesters had signs, marched, and chanted: “Abortion is a human right, not just for the rich and white!”
“We prefer it if they don’t chant,” sighed Christina Chang, vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City, who watched both groups from across the street.
ProtestPP held dozens of rallies around the country, virtually all outside of clinics, but Planned Parenthood requested that pro-choice activists not counter-protest in the same locations, continuing its long-standing policy of “non-engagement.” In New York, it recommended that supporters attend a rally in Washington Square Park instead. While hundreds did just that, the group that chose to counter-protest outside the Manhattan clinic expressed concerned that Planned Parenthood’s “non-engagement” strategy has given abortion opponents tacit permission to dominate the space outside of clinics. Indeed, when I asked Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League and one of the national co-directors of ProtestPP, why they chose clinics as the location for their protests, he responded simply, “That’s where our people are used to being.”
According to Anne Rumberger, an organizer of the counter-protest, Planned Parenthood’s policy of non-engagement is a “defeatist strategy.” Between 2011 and 2014, state legislatures enacted a whopping 231 abortion restrictions. In the last six years, 162 abortion providers have closed their doors or stopped offering the procedure. The new presidential administration and the majority party in both houses of Congress are vehemently opposed to reproductive rights and are poised to wage a devastating offensive. If there’s a time to try a different tactic, it might be now.
Chang cited the emotional distress a crowd could cause patients and suggested that some patients might stay home—missing time-sensitive appointments—to avoid protests. “We want to make sure patients don’t get scared,” Chang told me before the action. However, the distinction between intrusive protesters and fragile patients is tenuous. Nearly all counter-protesters I spoke with have been patients at Planned Parenthood. As Jen Roesch, an organizer and patient, put it, “The people most affected aren’t victims. We’re the ones who should be fighting and we’re capable of fighting.”
“I’m showing solidarity with the women who use these services,” said Delicia Jones, a counter-protester and social worker who lives in the Bronx. “These are women from my community, women like me. I respectfully disagree with Planned Parenthood’s decision that this is not a good strategy.”