Since the earliest days of the Trump administration, a group of Planned Parenthood supporters has gathered outside the organization’s downtown Manhattan clinic to counter-protest the anti-abortion activists who station themselves there to heckle and dissuade women seeking care. The counter-protesters are supporters of Planned Parenthood, they’d like to make that very clear, but the organization does not want them there. The supporters know this, and yet they continue to gather outside the clinic. The two parties, ostensibly on the same side, fighting for the same goals, are at a stalemate.
The counter-protest group, New Yorkers For Abortion Rights (NYCFAR), refers dismissively to Planned Parenthood as a “mainstream reproductive rights organization,” on its website. “It’s very obviously a controversial thing, but if you could, make sure that it’s clear that Planned Parenthood is not who we’re trying to fight?” Kate Castle, one of the counter-protest organizers, told Jezebel.
Castle and the other activists who make up the group believe that the extreme political moment requires progressives and advocates to rethink the civil tactics that allowed us to reach this point. As Planned Parenthood’s internal struggle becomes more apparent, with the firing of its president Leana Wen, its future has become blurred. The tension between the counter-protesters and clinic leaders is a microcosm of the organization’s larger struggle: caught between embracing radical political action, befitting the country’s most well known abortion provider, or retreating into a more neutral, neutered role as a healthcare provider. Since Trump won the election, many who oppose his values and policies have become more active and resorted to new, more aggressive tactics in their activism. It’s understandable that frustration is rising, along with a sense of helplessness and desperation, two emotions that prime a person for radicalization.
Even though the clinic already has its own security, as well as clinic escorts—volunteers who are trained by Planned Parenthood to help patients get past protesters and in the door so they can access the care that they need—NYCFAR believes their organization is achieving an entirely new goal: reclaiming the space in front of clinics from the anti-abortion extremists who have long occupied it as their own.
The recent spate of counter-protests outside abortion clinics seems to have its roots in larger organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), International Socialist Organization, and various Occupy movements, and came on the scene as early as pre-inauguration 2017. The activists use the term “clinic defense,” but the tactics they employ are standard protest and rally behavior—signs, chanting, etc.
While their tactics might seem disruptive, Castle says their strategy is geared at shielding the clinic and its patients from the anti-abortion protesters, who, after an attempt to maintain a 16-foot buffer zone failed in a New York federal court last year, are allowed to get as close to clinic entrances as they please. The counter-protesters occupy a sidewalk across the street from the clinic, where the anti-abortion protesters want to gather. The presence of the counter-protesters has pushed the antis around the corner, onto a side street farther away from the clinic entrance. Some of the anti-abortion protesters are involved with a church group that originates from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral a few blocks down Mulberry Street, and NYCFAR starts their action outside the church, walking backward and blocking the street “so that we can delay them getting to the clinic.”
“We’ve been really successful,” Castle said. “We’ve delayed them an hour and a half before.” That’s an hour and a half during which patients could access care unbothered, she added.
Planned Parenthood is firm in their opposition to the counter-protesters’ actions in front of the clinic, but Castle believes her group has done their best not to be a disruptive or chaotic presence. When she had a conference call with PPNYC higher-ups who told her the chanting was too loud, Castle said, NYCFAR switched to singing civil rights songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Only two or three NYCFAR protesters go near the clinic entrance, according to Castle, and they only do so to hold up signs that read “fake counselor,” pointing to the anti-abortion protesters who stand outside the doors in an effort to lure patients away from the clinic and to a “crisis pregnancy center,” where they can be talked out of obtaining an abortion. “One of them used to wear a pink vest to make [patients] think he was an [clinic] escort,” Castle said.
The other side isn’t playing by the rules. So why should they? What has being polite and well-behaved and working through proper political channels done for them so far?
What NYCFAR wants is much, much bigger than an unencumbered walk to an appointment at one Planned Parenthood in New York. They don’t just want abortion to be legal and minimally difficult to access. They want it to be free and unquestioned for anyone who does not want to be a parent. They want to strike down the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from going to abortion, thus prohibiting army service members, federal employees on federal health insurance, and Medicaid users—America’s poorest citizens—from having comprehensive reproductive health coverage under their medical plans. It’s easily a discriminatory amendment, as it makes abortion harder to access for the poorest in our country, and yet it persists. During the fight for the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood and others tried to push for its repeal, but when the ACA passed by the skin of its legislative teeth, abortion rights advocates were left feeling they had to be grateful for what little they’d gotten.
The way Castle and her peers see it, abortion rights advocates have for too long been letting their extremist, right-wing opponents—and even begrudging allies of so-called “moderates” —dictate the terms of the fight. In the current political environment—one in which a pregnant woman is charged with murder after being shot in the stomach and a network of anti-abortion clinics is getting government funding—continuing the meet-in-the-middle tactics employed over the last few decades feels dangerous.
The protesters don’t want to continue settling for scraps that get snatched away. They want to win.
On a recent Saturday morning, as early as 9:30 a.m., the doors of the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Manhattan were barely visible behind knots of protesters and police officers. To access the clinic’s services, a patient would have to pass through 80-odd people simply to get to the doors. Eight cops lined the street, leaning against their scooters, with others scattered around the clinic every few yards. Most of the anti-abortion protesters formed a wall across the street from the clinic, where they prayed in unison behind a police barrier with a sign reading “4 Life.” The counter-protesters clustered one corner over, handing out flyers and chanting and singing about fascism in the direction of the clinic. A few from both sides jockeyed closer to the clinic, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and exchanging barbs and terse words, and holding their own signs. In the thick of those scuffles, clinic escorts in pink vests strained to keep an eye out for patients who might need help getting past the mobs.
That morning, Elyse, 43, a clinic escort who has been volunteering at the downtown Manhattan Planned Parenthood for seven years, said she was distracted by a conversation between two opposing protesters near her—the anti was taunting the pro-choice activist, telling her that the noise and confusion they were creating was exactly what the anti-abortion activists wanted—when a woman walked up and nervously asked Elyse if she knew where Planned Parenthood was.
Elyse realized the woman had been standing hesitantly across the street, watching the scene for some time. She felt awful. “What if she had gotten scared and left and I hadn’t seen her?” she asked.
Elyse thinks the counter-protests aid the protesters by creating chaos that keeps people out of the clinic. It’s also made her job harder, she said. The first several years she volunteered, they had the same, regular protesters every Saturday and had “a good idea of how to keep things calm and keep things moving,” she said. “We got to know who they were and got to know their same regular tactics.”
But the counter-protests have complicated the escorts’ goal of providing patients with “as much calmness and privacy as possible,” Elyse said. “It’s made things louder, more chaotic. It’s harder to see who’s a patient trying to get in versus who’s a protester versus who’s a counter-protester.”
Castle and her cohort aren’t trying to make a volatile situation more chaotic, but they’re frustrated by calls for them to back down, because it feels like just another instance of ceding control of the abortion narrative. “We say ‘heartbeat bill’ because they’re dictating the debate,” Castle explained to me in a phone call, in the calm, using the calm, knowledgeable tone of a health researcher. ”It’s not a heartbeat. It’s a flutter on an ultrasound.” They’re setting the terms, not just in the language, but the space, too. “It’s become very normal that anti-abortion activists can just be outside our clinics,” she told me. So NYCFAR decided to try and roll back some of their physical encroachment “in our spaces, at our clinics.”
Castle uses the collective “our” here, but Planned Parenthood of New York City does not appreciate the counter-protesters claiming even partial ownership of their clinic. PPNYC has long desired for NYCFAR to change the language on their website describing the group as former Planned Parenthood staffers. “We’ve asked them, please don’t use bad info,” Adrienne Verrilli, vice president of communications at PPNYC, told Jezebel. (Castle formerly formerly volunteered as an abortion doula—essentially a midwife for abortion—at the clinic where she now counter-protests. She remembered signing a document that included a non-engagement agreement—essentially that she would not interact with any protesters outside the clinic. When she began counter-protesting, she was told she had to make a choice, so she stopped volunteering.)
PPNYC believes the activists’ approach doesn’t consider the mindset of every PPNYC patient. “Some of us feel empowered in certain spaces, and we take for granted [that other people do, too],” Elyse, the clinic escort, pointed out. “But if you show up and you’re not at all expecting it,” she said the chaos can be intimidating and disorienting. “They’re not political martyrs,” Elyse said. “They’re just people coming to see their doctors.”
There’s also the issue of privacy. Castle acknowledged that New York City is “not the hardest-hit place in terms of abortion restrictions.” But the city’s ability to draw “a lot of media attention” furthers the organization’s long term goals. Building “a grassroots movement for abortion access and reproductive justice” might arguably be achieved by pushing their more radical position into the mainstream conversation. But that very outcome, desired by NYCFAR, is a concern for Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a physician at the clinic, who worries about maintaining the privacy of her patients. “Our patients aren’t coming here to make a political statement; they’re just trying to get the healthcare they need.”
“My biggest concern is patients being intimidated by the counter-protesters,” said De-Lin, who has worked at the clinic for six years and says that since the counter-protesters came on the scene in early 2017, “it’s much louder.” A few recent Saturdays got so loud, De Lin said the noise could be heard in the recovery room. Because of the counter-protests, the clinic has purchased noise-cancelling headphones for the recovery room patients.
Castle is skeptical of claims of recovery room noise. “I know people that work in that clinic and they told me that’s not true,” she told me “We literally had 20 people outside that day. We’re not that loud.” She argues that the complaints come from a small slice of Planned Parenthood’s staff. “I think it’s mostly people that don’t provide patient care that are talking with us and telling us what patients need.”
Jezebel spoke with two PPNYC staffers, a doctor and a nurse, who are supportive of the counter-protests (and requested anonymity to avoid endangering their jobs with the organization). “It’s never looked chaotic to me [and] I’ve not heard [complaints] from patients in the clinic—other than on days when the counter-protesters aren’t there, how annoying it is to have protesters in front of the clinic,” the doctor said, but added: “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who have trouble with it.”
The nurse said that the “show rate”—people making it to their appointments, rather than cancelling or rescheduling or just not being there—goes down 30 percent on protest days, “and it’s across the board, not just abortion.”
“I think it’s terrible that the show rate goes down, and I wish it were different,” the nurse said. “But at the same time, I don’t want any of those reactionary clergy or churchgoers to feel that it’s okay to harass people. It should cost them something, the way it costs us something.”
While the nurse doesn’t have a problem with Kate’s group protesting in front of the clinic, she was especially supportive of the protests they do outside the church that the antis come from—not because churchgoers deserve to be bothered, but because she believes it’s important that other members of the church know “what the more reactionary parts of their church are up to.”
“They may not be aware that there’s this group in this church that goes out and yells at women on Saturdays,” she said. Fundamentally, though, she shares the counter-protesters’ frustration and likes that they’re “making sure that [the antis] don’t get to just come up unopposed.” “These groups are emboldened by our current culture and if we don’t fight back at all, they automatically win,” she said. “I don’t see the harm in shouting back.”
NYCFAR formed after the presidential election, around the time that anti-abortion demonstrations were convening around the country. According to Castle, a meeting space was secured by members of several different socialist groups, but no one group was in charge. The purpose was to discuss Planned Parenthood’s disapproval of counter-protests and what to do about it. At the meeting, Castle was surprised to see how many people shared her sense of frustration and anger—both at the anti abortion movement, and Planned Parenthood. Attendees felt that mainstream feminist groups had, for so long, come to the negotiating table already compromising, rather than demanding what they really wanted. The intensity of their opponents’ fervor had no match on the abortion rights side.
At the recent Saturday protest, counter-protester Christina Pardue told Jezebel that “keeping this non-confrontational has been a huge failure… Planned Parenthood has been toeing a centrist line for a long time,” said Pardue, 26, who has been working with NYCFAR intermittently since the election. She sees the clinic-presence dispute as a disagreement over whether direct action or legislative reform is the best path forward. In her home state of Georgia recently, a member of the Three Percenters took the statehouse steps with an assault weapon and spoke about “protect[ing] the life of an unborn child.” “This is a new climate that demands a new kind of fight,” Pardue said.
Planned Parenthood CEO Laura McQuade said the organization is “100 percent down with direct action.”“It’s not what they believe, it’s not what they say, it’s not what they do, it’s where they do it,” McQuade told Jezebel. “We just want you to move down the corner. There are other options [for protest sites]. The church is just over there; we support that.” Planned Parenthood’s primary concern is that if there is even a chance that people seeking care could be deterred by more noise, that’s a problem. And it’s not just the counter-protesters—more people means more cops. “The police presence is traumatizing for the populations we serve.” She referenced the grassroots AIDS activist group ACT UP, famous for their direct-action approach in the 1980s, and emphasized, “They didn’t prevent people from getting HIV tests or care.”
Ultimately, neither side can prove whether the counter-protests are making patients feel safer, or perpetuating the antis’ narrative that clinic entrances are political battlegrounds.
NYCFAR wouldn’t be the first well-intentioned protesters to produce results they didn’t intend in the post-Trump era. When the loosely organized group Occupy ICE staged protests outside the immigration court on Varick Street, ICE announced they had “safety concerns” about transporting detainees from detention centers in Bergen and Hudson counties. They claimed that because there were protesters at the back of the building, blocking off the garage, agents couldn’t bring clients to meet their defense attorneys. To this day, ICE is demanding that clients “appear” in front of judges via video conference, even though the protesters stopped their actions when they saw the consequences they’d incurred.
It’s unreasonable to demand anyone—undocumented immigrant or Planned Parenthood patient—take part in a political action simply because they are forced into the middle of the fight. “The more things become political, the more you forget about the actual human beings that you’re really trying to help,” Elyse, the clinic escort, said. “They almost forget that it’s not really a political issue at heart, or it shouldn’t be.”
The thing is, Planned Parenthood is involved in politics. The clinic and health services are separate from its political arm, but the organization is stuck in the same Catch-22 as other service providers who also try to effect political change: It can’t risk pissing off the people who sign off on its funding. (The Times-Union reported earlier this year that Planned Parenthood affiliates in New York receive $20.7 million in contract awards from the state government, amounting to almost half the $44.7 million total allocated to contracts with entities family planning services.) They have to be cognizant of the egos of the politicians on whom they rely for both funding and legislation to protest their very existence. And Elyse pointed out that legislative action has resulted in Democrats finally taking control of the New York State Senate, and the passage of the long-stalled Reproductive Health Act.
But to Castle and her cohort, the RHA wasn’t enough of a victory. They were frustrated that the legislation still includes gestational limits, and disappointed that no legislator is New York is pushing for a more sweeping bill like one in Vermont that is barely two pages long, but powerfully mandates that no law can ever be passed limiting or criminalizing abortion. Why, even with Democratic control, are women in New York still left making concessions?
There are feminist organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) and NARAL, that aren’t also service providers and could be more righteous, more insistent, more aggressive than Planned Parenthood. But they’re not. The dynamic is totally backwards: They behave as though they are reliant on politicians for their survival, when they reverse should be true. Politicians should fear disappointing feminist organizations, lest they lose their elected office. In New York, for instance, NOW seems to spend most of its time pandering to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They endorse him over more progressive female opponents, even days after one of his closest allies is convicted of government corruption. Emily’s List endorsed his hand-picked attorney general without even speaking to any of the other candidates, let alone disseminating any kind of questionnaire to assess the candidates’ relative merits.
This side—women, and those who care about women’s health—are often forced to be grateful for what little they get, as though they’ve grown accustomed to going into political negotiations with compromises already in hand. NYCFAR believes that what’s necessary is a real, intimidating political force that demanded that those who care about women’s rights try their damnedest to get everything, rather than accept the scraps they’re thrown. Planned Parenthood is an excellent service provider, the activists believe, but it isn’t designed as a movement leader for these fractured political times—and shouldn’t be.
This is particularly true for the Planned Parenthood affiliates, as the state-specific clinics are known within the greater national organization. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) can, carefully, be an activist force—Cecile Richards made this clear, and the current climate necessitates it, as domestic gag rule, imposed by the Trump administration’s finalized Title X rules, which bars federal funds from family health organizations that refer patients to abortion providers. Wen’s desire for abortion to be apolitical was well-intentioned, idealistic and impractical. After her ouster, conservative news outlets crowed that the organization had shown its true colors, that they never cared about women’s health, and were always just interested in providing abortion. On the New York Times podcast The Daily, Michael Barbaro suggested that the organization had handed a win to their critics, by allowing the issue to be politicized. But that battle was already won, long ago. Abortion has been a political landmine for decades now. The goal has to be to win the greater war, for women’s health, which includes abortion.
The national organization now has very little to lose by taking a more aggressive stance. In states with governments that are supportive of women’s health, such as New York, state funds may still go to abortion-providing or -referring clinics. Affiliates arguably need the unofficial support of groups that can be more radical on their behalf, can make it clear to elected officials that there will be a cost to disappointing women, or endangering Planned Parenthood.
Of course, none of this answers the question of whether the counter-protesters are right to be at the clinic. It’s fair to scoff at the idea that there is a need for counter-protests outside a downtown Manhattan clinic, as opposed to one in Mississippi, where abortion is so restricted, only one clinic remains. I asked Castle if she would consider a silent protest—just the presence of the supporters, blocking the antis’ access to that corner they want, maybe holding supportive signs.
“When I talked to Planned Parenthood, we said that we would be willing to negotiate on those kinds of terms, but they said we just don’t want you here,” Castle said. “And it is kind of nice to have a song to keep you motivated.”
But NYCFAR has plans to extend their tactics beyond “clinic defense.” “We don’t want to be known as just, like, this tiny group that bothers Planned Parenthood,” Castle said. “We’re starting to do some other things, redirect our energy.” They don’t plan to give up their counter-protests, but the ideas they have in store are exciting. One involves challenging how helpful the RHA is by disseminating a certain medication, and reminded me of a pioneering feminist and reproductive rights champion, Emma Goldman, who used to bring back contraception from Europe to give to women in New York. Incidentally, Goldman was a mentor to Margaret Sanger, the namesake of the clinic where the controversial protests and counter-protests take place.
NYCFAR also wants to form a Medicare for All group, so that if or when that becomes the national platform for the Democratic party, “abortion doesn’t get left out.”
“A lot of leftists are willing to give abortion up for things they think are more important,” Castle said.
NYCFAR is just one example of smaller groups and individuals in New York who want to change the status quo that many major feminist organizations seem to uphold. They include Albany’s Sexual Harassment Working Group—women who refuse to be ignored by Cuomo as they try to pass meaningful legislation in this state. Zephyr Teachout, who unfailingly holds Cuomo’s feet to the fire any chance she gets. Liz Krueger, a state senator who has a bill trying to prevent pharmacists from being able to “exercise discretion”—i.e. refuse to hand over—medications they don’t agree with, like the morning-after pill. (Yes, pharmacists are allowed to do this in New York State.) There’s also WHARR, a group that’s trying to get the New York City Council to include abortion funding in the city budget.
Maybe it is radical to say that abortion should be free and on demand—but maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe we became so desperate about the ground crumbling beneath our feet, we stopped thinking about what we really wanted, and just focused on hanging on to what little we have. Maybe it’s a good thing to have people around who want to shake that up.
Molly Osburg contributed reporting.
Danielle Tcholakian is a freelance journalist, currently based in the Midwest. She has written for the New York Times, The Cut, The Daily Beast, The New York Daily News and Longreads, among others.
After publication, Planned Parenthood of New York City reached out to clarify that leadership has met with NYCFAR, and the two organizations have plans to work together.