We were there because they were there. This is what we kept reiterating to those asking us why we would come out to Germantown, Maryland to spend 14-hour days holding signs in the hot sun – it was a necessary response to the presence of Operation Rescue and other anti-choice activists who came with local churches, the Maryland Coalition for Life, Christian Defense Coalition, or just on their own. Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, became notorious among pro-choice activists for calling a pro-choice pregnant woman “bitch.” Several other national anti-choice leaders, such as Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, and Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, attended and spoke at some of their events, though a large portion of the people who turned out for the Summer of Mercy seemed to be local.
Our own campus organizer, Sarah Shanks, headed up the legal observation, where she and other pro-choice volunteers headed into the mass of Summer of Mercy attendees to take video and notes of their actions in an effort to monitor who was there and what was being said so as to keep informed of any potential harassment or violence. There were a few scary moments where mentions of a gun were overheard, and those were promptly reported to the police for further investigation. After the murder of Dr. George Tiller by a man who said he had discussed “justifiable homicide” of abortion doctors with Operation Rescue leaders, and OR’s subsequent targeting of Dr. Carhart, we knew that we couldn’t be too careful as far as being aware of anyone potentially harmful to patients or clinic staff.
Although the antis implied that this week’s numbers would be comparable to those of the first Summer of Mercy, pro-choice activists often outnumbered them throughout the week. They did, however, turn out over 600 people on Sunday for their “Cross 4 Life” event, in which, dressed all in red, they attempted to form a human cross along the side of the road near the clinic, and then had someone fly over it to take an aerial photo. As luck would have it, it began storming just as the helicopter began taking photos, and immediately following, we were witness to hundreds of wet people fleeing the site to get to their cars. The rain could not stop our dedication as we stood, drenched and happy that at least for now, the clinic was safe and harassment-free.
The attendees of Summer of Mercy 2.0 could have been worse; though their numbers were at times in the hundreds, they were kept in check by the hundreds of pro-choice activists that came out for the Summer Celebration of Choice. A large portion of the anti-choice crowd was under the age of 18, as parents would bring out their children to hold signs and pray along with them. Sometimes the most painful thing to see were the young girls who had been brought out to the event to hold anti-abortion signs, girls who would grow up thinking that they did not have the right to choose when they would become mothers, and even thinking that motherhood was the most important role for them, or that it was all they were meant to be.
The religious anti-abortion presence was strong as well, as priests and pastors from churches throughout Maryland came out dressed in full garb, leading prayer sessions each morning and leading flocks of people carrying rosaries down the sidewalk past us at various points throughout the day. “We’ll pray for you” was a common phrase heard by pro-choice activists, as were out-loud prayers and bible passages directed toward us and the passing cars.
And of course, the groups came with overly-amplified signs of photo-shopped “fetuses,” directing the signs towards traffic. Several trucks made their way through the streets as well, with large pictures of both “fetuses” and doctors, accompanied by phrases such as “Tiller the Killer” and “Carhart Kills Babies.” These pictures sometimes worked to our advantage though, as we had numerous people walk by exclaiming that they were on our side simply because they hated that a supposedly pro-child group would hold up such graphic pictures for passing children to see.
Many of us were also bothered by the hypocrisy inherent in the supposed intent to humanize a fetus in order to amass sympathy and garner a stance of seeing abortion as murder. We would ask ourselves, “Why don’t they have pictures of the 11,000 children that die every day of starvation, or the thousands of deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as a direct result of the wars there, so that we may see them as people worthy of caring for?” We could not understand the perspective of a supposed “pro-life” activist who is not also against war, prison, the death penalty, and other aspects of our society that cause actual death against living people. It is so clear that religion and its accompanying strict gender and sexuality constraints are central to the drive for anti-choice activism, and that this absolutely centers around the role of women in economic, social, and political spheres. (See this great article for a more in-depth analysis of the anti-choice hypocrisy, misogyny, and brainwashing inherent in their presence at the clinic.) Conversations about women, sexuality, motherhood, and socioeconomic status were being held ‘round the clock on our small but comfortable space on the north end of the office park – so much so that someone eventually coined the term “Camp Choice,” and it stuck. We left the week feeling good about what we had accomplished; we had turned out a strong presence throughout the week, and had been able to keep the harassment of patients by antis to a minimum by standing with our signs “Welcome” and “This Clinic Stays Open” when patients would drive through. Clinic staff later said that our presence there had made all the difference.
Though we hope that it will be a while before another national anti-choice event comes to this clinic, it’s important to recognize that Germantown Reproductive Health Services and Dr. Carhart have become the target of anti-choice groups, and a concerted effort is being made to shut down his practice. Maryland Coalition for Life has an entire campaign devoted to it, called Kick Carhart Out of Maryland, and has been accompanied by the establishment of a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) just across the office park from Carhart’s clinic. This has allowed the group to have a presence in an otherwise private space, and as all CPCs do, further promotes the misinformation about reproductive health services, particularly abortion, misleading possibly vulnerable women during a time of personal crisis.
The misinformation and anti-abortion aim of CPCs is central to the continuing fight for reproductive rights and access – though churches and organizations are still churning out large numbers of people with signs and slogans to stand outside of clinics and harass patients, they are taking this additional approach that is much less visible but even more dangerous. (See our campus campaign on CPCs for more information.) Many of those who came out for Summer of Mercy were associated with this CPC, and could be seen inside of their office creepily gazing across the small parking lot toward Carhart’s clinic on the evening of the clinic’s reopening. Even with the intended privacy of the clinic’s location inside the private office park, the anti-choice organization had managed to find a way to get as close as possible, allowing it not only to mislead patients heading to Germantown Reproductive Health Services, but also to provide them the right to be present on the property leading up to the clinic.
It is our hope that, although anti-choice extremists continue to harass patients and clinic staff as CPCs continue to pop up all over the country, pro-choice advocates will also continue to come out to clinics to reinforce the need for comprehensive reproductive health clinics, maintain their presence and patient safety, and show community support for the doctors and clinic staff that make abortion access possible.