Student Activist Speaks Out About Defending Orlando Clinics

By Sarah Shanks
Students defend Orlando clinic
Photo courtesy of the author.

When Operation Save America/Operation Rescue (OSA/OR) announced its plans for a “siege” of Orlando abortion clinics (July 16-23,) pro-choice allies did not wait long before taking action. This event drew around 40 anti-choice protesters, and organizations such as Feminist Majority Foundation, NOW, and local student groups came together to ensure the safety of the clinics and patients.

The extent to which these groups will go to intimidate and coerce someone out of even going inside the clinic is astounding. Despite relatively low numbers of OSA/OR supporters, they use aggressive methods. In addition to demonstrating outside clinics, extremists are targeting abortion providers at their private residences or at the homes of their family members. At least five physicians and clinic administrators have been harassed in their homes, but no arrests have been made so far. That tactic has been used before by this group and others. OSA’s leader, Flip Benham, was recently convicted of stalking abortion doctors at their homes in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Antis sometimes shout misinformation into the clinics from outside in hopes of getting  patients to leave. They often play on gender stereotypes and try to feed aggression against patients by telling men accompanying them that they are “inadequate and effeminate” because they are “letting their partner or friend get an abortion when they have the power to stop it.” These people know exactly what buttons to press and they clearly have no moral qualms about pursuing them.

The hate and bullying from these groups has sent inspiration through the Orlando pro-choice community and sparked involvement and action from every corner.  Volunteers have come to Orlando from Brevard County, Tampa, and North Florida. Our largest section of volunteers has come from the University of Central Florida (UCF). The many feminist and progressive groups at UCF (i.e. VOX: Voices For Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, College Democrats, etc.) have a strong basis of volunteers that have committed themselves to help the Feminist Majority Foundation with clinic defense. The community of activists has grown since OSA/OR first announced their plan to come to Orlando. So many people have been energized and recommitted to reproductive justice because they know the weight this movement carries; we know it is up to us as communities, states, and as a country to preserve the right to choose abortion, to maintain women’s health care and reproductive health care, and to keep the government off of our bodies.

While outside of the clinics as defenders, it is our job to be a buffer between these extremist groups and the clinics/patients. We are there at the request of the staff because it can be detrimental to the clinic if there are no defenders or escorts. All of the volunteers know our policy of non-engagement with protesters, and have been adhering to that policy as dictated by FMF and by other organizations in the area. Non-engagement has served us greatly because although we are as passionate about our cause as they are about theirs, we do not harass, intimidate or coerce ANYONE into adhering to our views. The power in clinic defense is not only in the number of volunteers that turn out, but also the solidarity among those who stand with the clinic. The hardest part is just to not laugh at the completely ridiculous things that they say about us, like: “Feminism is about man-hating, lesbianism AND ‘homosexualism,’ and ‘they’ think that they can actually make decisions for themselves and strip all men from their inherent rights given by God!”

The Feminist Majority Foundation, in addition to organizing many of the volunteers and legal observers also worked closely with Orlando law enforcement officers, who  provided the clinic some guarantee of safety. Most of the volunteers had cameras either with them or on their phones just in case an event escalated and needed to be documented. This really helped to keep the protesters in check, although they had cameras themselves and usually went about taking our pictures, and writing down license plate numbers. These factors helped to mobilize volunteers to show patients and onlookers that OSA/OR is not in the majority.

One moment that stuck out to us as defenders at the Orlando Women’s Center was when a medical student came up to us and asked if she could just stand with us in solidarity; she hadn’t heard about OSA/OR coming to town, but once she saw the crowds of protestors she wanted to show her support. This kind of demonstration of unity has been happening a lot at all of the clinics in Orlando. If one clinic is short on volunteers, people move where they are needed to stand up for women. No one person is bigger than the movement; we are all aware that we are the movement and we are all needed to continue it. Clinic defense has recruited new people and brought us all closer together as activists; it has inspired people who might not normally get involved to come out and volunteer, which is one of the best things we could have asked for from this situation.

Our activist base is growing and now these volunteers are willing and ready to help again. If these extremist groups were not outside of the clinic protesting, there would be no need for us to be out there. But because they are, so are we and we will always be when we’re needed. We stand in support of abortion clinics and the choice women have to choose. As Margaret Sanger said, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

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