On an average day, even during the pandemic, a handful of anti-abortion protesters line up on the sidewalk outside the Heritage Clinic for Women in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and preach at the women who enter. Their faces are familiar to clinic staff, as are their regular schedules.
But last Wednesday, when the clinic opened in the morning, the staff were startled to find 25 to 30 protesters assembling, many of them holding single red roses. Ignoring the no-trespassing signs, they began swarming the clinic’s parking lot, rushing patients as they got out of their cars.
Some wore masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, but many did not.
Kelly, the clinic administrator who asked to be identified only by her first name, called the police. She immediately recognized the protest as a “red rose rescue,” an aggressive tactic where anti-abortion activists physically enter clinic waiting rooms and refuse to leave.
In normal times, clinic invasions can be disruptive and traumatizing for patients and staff. But during an infectious disease outbreak, this type of scary stunt potentially endangers everyone’s health.
“Our patients were shaken up, scared,” Kelly said. “We haven’t had anything that invasive since the 1980s.” The protesters did not make it inside the facility, she said, but at least one person attempted to enter through the locked security door at the top of a stairwell.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, emboldened pro-life groups have used the public health crisis to try to disrupt access to abortion.
As governors across the country issued emergency orders to halt the spread of the virus, anti-abortion activists pressured officials to close abortion clinics under the guise of preserving personal protective equipment, a strategy that was temporarily successful in some states. Many are also defying stay-at-home orders to demonstrate outside clinics, leading to arrests in multiple states. “Would be a shame if I was sick,” one protester in North Carolina reportedly said while coughing in the face of an elderly clinic volunteer.
Monica Miller, a Michigan-based veteran anti-abortion activist who created the “red rose rescue” movement in 2017, defended the choice to continue protests during the outbreak in an interview with HuffPost.
“We’re rather frustrated, generally speaking in the pro-life movement, that abortion is being treated as an essential medical procedure,” she said. “When the abortion clinics are remaining open, why should we be calling off our defense?”
In the past month, her group has embarked on four protests at clinics in Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Michigan.
“I just don’t think that love and charity and compassion have boundaries,” Miller said. “The boundaries are drawn by the people that are killing the unborn. I don’t think we have any moral ― and I might even be able to argue, legal ― obligation to respect those boundaries.”
While abortion clinics have experienced an increase in harassment since 2015, the pandemic has ushered in increasingly hostile, aggressive and dangerous behavior, according to the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation.
“Surrounding and screaming at patients and making it difficult for them to get into the clinic takes on new weight when we’re trying to social distance,” she said. “It threatens patients and staff lives.”
The ultimate goal of such protests is to scare patients out of obtaining the procedure that day, she added. Potentially exposing them to a contagious virus is a very effective way to get women to vacate the premises.
Clinics are currently taking extreme measures to reduce virus transmission, she said, including screening patients for symptoms before they enter the facility, limiting the number of people inside at any time and having patients fill out paperwork in their cars so they are not waiting indoors. Protesters have been surrounding cars and yelling at patients while they are stuck inside their vehicles, she said.
“While they’re using the same tactics as before, they carry heightened effects right now as we’re already living in such anxiety,” she said.
Anti-abortion groups have been energized by the Trump presidency and are increasingly confident that they will be able to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that effectively legalized abortion nationwide. Currently, the high court is considering a Louisiana case that could have broad implications for abortion’s accessibility across the country.
At the protest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, anti-abortion activists bombarded patients as they got out of their cars, and tried to talk them out of getting the procedure, according to Kelly, the clinic administrator.
“They were very aggressive, in the patients’ faces,” she said.
Two protesters were arrested and three others, including Miller, were cited for trespassing. Miller denied that her group tried to enter the facility, and said they wore masks and practiced social distancing.
Kelly disputed her account.
“The majority of them were unmasked and they were all grouped very close together,” she said. “Their entire goal was to make it so that we were so distracted and disrupted that we stopped services. Luckily, that did not happen.”
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