CHARLOTTE, North Carolina ― Just four weeks since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, a number of states have become increasingly more hostile to abortion rights. Texas will soon mandate the burial or cremation of aborted or miscarried fetuses, and the state’s politicians have also introduced legislation that would ban abortion after 20 weeks, even in the case of severe fetal abnormalities. An Indiana politician announced in November that he plans to propose a total abortion ban in the state next month. Pennsylvania Republicans tried to pass legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks.
A Trump/Pence administration is looking bad for women. The president-elect once said that women ought to be “punished” for having abortions, and the incoming vice president has advocated for the same fetal tissue burial or cremation procedure as the one that Texas will enact on Dec. 19.
But the women and men on the ground who are protecting reproductive health care access have not been deterred ― even in the face of tremendous obstacles.
On Saturday, employees and volunteers at A Preferred Women’s Health Center Charlotte demonstrated the unwavering strength of the pro-choice movement.
The presence of nationally known anti-abortion protesters like the Flip Benham cohort is a common occurrence at APWHC Charlotte, as are the mobile crisis pregnancy centers that park up the road from the clinic. But on this particular day, there were also upward of 2,000 people marching and praying in front of the clinic with Love Life Charlotte, an organization made up of over 40 local churches.
Still, the clinic administrators and local volunteers managed to make their patients a priority, despite being at the center of a chaotic anti-abortion protest.
The prayer march ― marking the culmination of Love Life Charlotte’s 40-Week Journey of Hope prayer march events ― was expected to include 4,000 people. About half that number showed up.
“We definitely have had instances of [big] protester turnout in the past, but 4,000 is definitely the largest we’ve ever heard of,” APWHC administrator Calla Hales told The Huffington Post.
While she is accustomed to seeing 100 or so protesters on the street, the 2,000 who turned out on Saturday was unheard of, she said.
“As much as I hate to admit it, their presence will impact patients,” Hales said.
And while the event was advertised as a “peaceful” one, meaning church members were not meant to protest or speak to anyone at the clinic, it did not turn out as such.
The sheer volume of marchers resulted in an overflow of participants on the street, blocking and slowing down traffic into the clinic. Some members also yelled aggressively within earshot of the center’s waiting room, and anti-abortion protesters of the Flip Benham variety ― many of whom are also members of some of the churches represented in the march ― were emboldened by the new audience, as evident from video of the event.
Just up the street from the clinic entrance sat two family-size RVs ― portable crisis pregnancy centers ― offering free services like sonograms and pre- or post-abortion counseling.
Erin Forsythe, the executive director of Pregnancy Resource Center of Charlotte, told HuffPost that her center’s services, including the mobile CPCs which are parked outside APWHC six days a week, are “all about acknowledging that this is about [a woman’s] choice.” PRC is its own nonprofit organization, existing separately from the churches that protest, though Forsythe did say it was a Christian organization and “appreciative of other Christian pro-life groups.”
Another PRC staff member, Jill, shared the same sentiments. Jill said the group was “not here to take away a woman’s choice.”
In a brief tour of the mobile center, she called it a “condemnation- and judgement-free” space. The PRC staff is remarkably friendly and the mobile clinic is clean, warm and welcoming, with a small waiting area, a restroom, and a sonogram station in the back of the trailer. Staff members follow federal HIPAA privacy standards and offer confidential services ― and all sonograms are performed by licensed professionals, she said.
The PRC trailer is especially welcoming considering the shouting protesters down the road ― but volunteer clinic escorts and pro-choice protesters claim the center engages in some unethical behavior to manipulate women into declining an abortion.
“Patients have been told that their pregnancy wasn’t ‘attached properly’ and that they would miscarry, so they should cancel their [abortion] appointment,” one volunteer clinic escort, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost. “Another was told that her pregnancy was too far along for an abortion, and that she should cancel, too, even though it wasn’t” the person said. Some clinic escorts have also said that PRC staff members have falsely offered to check women into their APWHC appointments ― which causes the women to miss their appointments altogether and have to wait a week or so to reschedule.
Forsythe told HuffPost on Monday that “each client served is given honest, accurate, and truthful information.”
“In the instance of a suspected miscarriage,” she said, “a client is referred to her doctor for confirmation, diagnosis and recommended next steps.” Forsythe also said that gestation “is dated via repeated measurements per industry standards,” and that all of her staff are trained to practice honest and open methods of communication.
While there is no evidence to back up claims on the specific practices at PRC Charlotte, crisis pregnancy centers overall have a well-documented history of misleading behavior.
In January, a NARAL study reported that CPCs purposefully present themselves as health care providers to obtain new clients and push their own anti-abortion agenda (something that states like California are beginning to pick up on).
“Their misleading practices may include questionable advertising tactics, providing dishonest or evasive answers when women call to inquire about their services or even selecting confusing locations or names that obscure their true agenda,” the NARAL report found. This includes false promises of miscarriage, lies about the abortion procedure and its effects and lies about how far along in her pregnancy a patient is.
The trailers are strategically placed on the way to the clinic entrance, which clinic staff says causes immense confusion for the patients. Because of this, pro-choice protesters and volunteer clinic escorts often arrive early, around 6:45am on Saturdays, to station themselves on the street and direct drivers to the actual clinic.
The physical obstacles seem to be lined up in every direction ― in addition to North Carolina’s already restrictive abortion laws.
Women must receive discouraging abortion counseling and wait 72 hours after their initial consultation before they can have the procedure. If a patient is under the age of 18, a parent must consent to the abortion ― plus, there is only public funding in the case of rape or incest, and all women must have a sonogram whether they want one or not.
Despite the thousands of people ― church members and nonprofits ― working against it, APWHC Charlotte has managed to maintain its quality services, with the help of members of the Charlotte community volunteering their time to support the clinic. On Saturday afternoon, there were two dozen pro-choice protesters on site, up from the usual three or four. There were also a significant number of new clinic escorts. Shelley, one of the clinic escort leaders, said that close to 20 volunteers signed up specifically to serve on Saturday.
“With these large-scale events,” Hales said, “you really feel like you’re under siege. I can’t tell you the last time I actually felt safe.”
Hales also acknowledged the added hostility from the anti-abortion rhetoric of the presidential election and impending Trump/Pence Administration. She told HuffPost that the clinic has seen a higher volume of protesters over the last year, and that their behavior and rhetoric has become more hostile.
“I’ve even seen a man pace the sidewalk with rope while screaming about sinners hanging like strange fruit,’” she said. “A friend compared it once to constantly feeling like you’re under siege ― I’m finding that comparison to be scarily accurate.”
But ultimately, pro-choice staff and volunteers held their own against the protesters.
When one anti-abortion protester called clinic escorts “bullies,” they began offering hugs and showering each other with affection. When one anti-abortion man took the microphone to call members of the pro-choice movement “swine,” a chorus of car alarms went off to muffle the sound of his voice. All of the volunteers who’d parked outside the clinic had turned on their car alarms simultaneously, winking at one another. There were cupcakes and kazoos, witty posters and McMuffins, hugs and high-fives.
After all, this is a fight that women are used to fighting.
One protester with Pro-Choice Charlotte said that she’d been protesting since before the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade.
“I’m 54 years old,” said another. “I’m sick of this shit.”
And yet there she stood.
Catherine Pearson contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with additional comment from PRC Charlotte.