Liberal Cities Are Not Immune to Mounting Attacks on Abortion Rights

After five fetuses were found in the Washington Metro Police Department apartment of Lauren Handy, an anti-abortion group masquerading as progressive to gain a following in liberal areas, the group surged into mainstream news coverage this spring.

Handy is a member of the group “Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising” (PAAU), which announced its formation in September 2021. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing anti-abortion tradition.

After a few months of invading clinics and harassing patients at clinic entrances on the East Coast and West Coast with little press coverage, PAAU received national attention in late March after the fetuses were found at Handy’s apartment. Handy was one of nine activists against abortion who were arrested for violating Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) Act. The act involved a chaining incident that occurred in October 2020, where the activists pinned themselves to the entrance of an abortion clinic in D.C. The police investigated Handy’s apartment after receiving a tip about potential biohazard materials being stored there, according to their statement.

PAAU and Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, were present at a press conference. Operation Rescue is linked to the assassination of George Tiller, an abortion provider. Terry called on “cowardly Christians” to act against what he described as the “violence” of abortion. Terry is one among many non-progressive allies PAAU has joined in its short existence.

Before this horrifying and shocking story became the news, we were already well-aware Lauren Handy (PAAU) and their work. We’re members of NYC for Abortion Rights, a group of socialist feminist organizers who are building a grassroots movement for free abortion on demand. We regularly defend clinics in our region from a variety anti-abortion group, most recently PAAU. PAAU’s leadership reflexively claims to be “atheist” and liberal,” and they employ terminology like “Abortion Industrial Complex” and “Big Abortion.” They use the language of abolition and social justice to talk about abortion, casting fetuses as “the unborn,” which they frame as a marginalized group. PAAU is not like other anti-abortion groups. It only operates in liberal states and cities where there are more chances of abortion protests. These are the states and cities that may be safe havens to access abortion access, if Roe v. WadeIt has been overturned.

Shortly before news broke of Handy’s arrest, we encountered PAAU outside Manhattan’s Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street. Members were beating on bucket drums and chanting, “We are clinic invaders and yours is next!”

Terrisa Bukovinac (left), is the founder and executive director of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing, anti-abortion tradition.
Terrisa Bulkovinac (left) is the founder of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising and its executive director. The group claims to be “pro-BIPOC” and “pro-LGBTQ,” but in practice, the group’s actions align with a violent, right-wing, anti-abortion tradition.

When we talk about PAAU and similar threats with other New Yorkers, we hear the same refrain: “Wow, I didn’t know this happened in New York.” There’s a great deal of complacency — an assumption that abortion rights in liberal cities like New York City will forever be enshrined in law, and that the threat to reproductive justice and autonomy only exists in red states. What this complacency fails to take into account is that the “pro-life” movement is extensive and well-funded. Many of its activists are happy to break the law and risk arrest to prevent pregnant women accessing safe abortions. They have all the resources, funding, and organization to take these risks and face minimal consequences from law enforcement.

Those who are somewhat acquainted with the history of abortion in the U.S. will recall the bad old days of the 1980s and ‘90s, when opponents of abortion access would attempt to physically storm clinics to prevent patients from entering — and clinic defenders would link arms to stop them (not to mention the murder and stalking of abortion doctors and the bombing of clinics). The 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act (FACE) put an end to this kind of aggression temporarily. It made it a felony to block the entry of a medical facility or impede its operations. But it’s coming back.

Some people might believe that the police will protect abortive women. Trusting the New York City Police Department with enforcement of abortion rights is a losing strategy. As anti-abortion activists gather right in front of clinic doors, we have never seen police officers help patients get into the clinic safely. In fact, when asked why they aren’t enforcing the FACE Act, police often say they don’t know what it is. We have seen police simply escorting anti-abortion activists on their march to harass patients.

PAAU isn’t the only anti-abortion organization active in major cities. Love Life is an evangelical far-right group that is dedicated to destroying reproductive rights. Founded in North Carolina by the sons of Flip Benham — a notorious anti-abortion figure with a record of stalking abortion doctors — the well-funded nonprofit has opened offices in New York City, specifically with the view of combating what it describes as “the abortion capital of the world.”

Here’s what members of Love Life said to their viewers on a livestream from outside Manhattan’s Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood: “People ask us, ‘why don’t you stay in church and pray?’ Because we are called as Christians to go to where the heart of the evil is — where abortion takes place.”

Love Life has repeatedly conducted “sidewalk counseling,” or harassment of abortion patients, outside the Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood.

These types of actions are not led by a fringe. The Archdiocese of New York has organized “prayer walks” to abortion clinics and sidewalk counseling for the past several years. These are often led and organized by Father Fidelis Molinski. Moscinski is a leading figure in a national network of “Red Rose Rescuers” — a campaign of clinic invasion where participants trespass into abortion clinics, harass abortion patients, and refuse to leave.

Moscinski has been arrested in several cities doing this — though not in New York, yet. In a recent video, Moscinski and a fellow anti-abortion activist reminisced fondly about the days when activists would chain themselves to clinic entrances — and urged viewers to consider risking arrest to participate in Red Rose Rescues. They call this “civil disobedience.”

Two summers ago, NYC For Abortion Rights members literally teamed up with Planned Parenthood volunteers in front of the Bleecker St clinic. As anti-abortion activists tried to storm the doors, the NYC for Abortion Rights group was attempting to take over the Bleecker Street clinic. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” one of the volunteers said. “This hasn’t happened since the ‘90s.” PAAU has been replicating these tactics, engaging in “Pink Rose Rescues” in many cities.

If Roe falls — which seems More likely — we can’t just blithely assume that reproductive rights will be unassailable in cities like New York City. There is also an anti-abortion group. We need to be prepared for the anti-abortion movement to escalate the tactics it is engaging in already — bussing and flying demonstrators here to harass patients and blockade clinic entrances. Instead of 50 anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic, be prepared for hundreds.

Although limited research has been done on the topic, evidence suggests clinic harassment is harmful to both patients and providers. A 2013 study published by the journal Contraception Patients who had more difficulty deciding whether to have an abortion were more likely to encounter protestors. As clinic harassment has ramped up post-Trump, a more recent study conducted with Louisiana abortion patients found that anti-abortion protesters often physically block clinic access and cause anxiety, though they have a minimal effect on the decision to get an abortion by patients who’ve decided to undergo the procedure.

Clinic harassment taxes are a significant expense for providers. They have limited resources to protect their patients and employees from anti-abortion protestors. Clinics are often required by law to employ security personnel and work with local police departments. This can create stress for both patients as well as providers. In the same 2013 study, researchers surveyed a sample of clinics across the U.S. and found that 83 percent of clinics that reported the presence of protesters reported that their staff have to regularly comfort patients who encounter protesters, and the remaining 17 percent occasionally provide comfort to patients who’ve encountered protesters. Clinic resources already under strain by this emotional labor of clinic staff. According to a 2020 report by Abortion Care NetworkThe number of independent abortion clinics has declined by 34 percent in the U.S. since 2012. Nikki Madsen is the executive director of Abortion Network. attributed clinic closuresDue to the increasing cost of security to keep the clinic safe from protesters, and the difficulty of hiring staff due safety concerns.

The fight against abortion access has been gaining strength in courts and state legislatures. It has intensified on ground. According to the National Abortion Federation’s Violence and Disruption Statistics for 2020According to abortion providers, there was an increase in the aggressive behavior of protesters. In 2020, providers reported 115,517 picketing incidents, which was down from 2019’s record 123,228 reported incidents. We are worried that anti-abortion extremists will make the fight for abortion safe havens in the coasts if they succeed in banning abortion in conservative countries. We must be ready to fight these extremists if we want to ensure abortion access in liberal states.

There is much debate over whether or not street-based clinic defense can be useful, even among supporters for abortion rights. These tactics have been essential in our work. We stop the marching anti-abortion protestors, preventing them from reaching the clinic. We also disrupt livestreaming in front the clinic, which many organizations rely on to build their base. But most importantly, we resist anti-abortion activists’ attempts to shame and intimidate abortion patients through symbolically claiming the streets as well as the bodies of pregnant people. We resist them directly because we don’t want to lose our bodily autonomy.

Insisting that abortion can be defended only by the courts and upheld legally by law enforcement. RoeAll options that leave abortion up to the States are losing strategies. People in blue states that are interested in protecting reproductive rights must form a grassroots movement. The anti-abortion movement already knows that ground-level action works; it’s time we learned it too.