Illustration by Julia Kuo

How an Extremist Anti-Abortion Protest Resulted in a Safe Haven for Women

In 2015, a radical anti-abortion group tried to establish a headquarters in a vacant house next door to the only remaining abortion clinic in Montgomery, Alabama. Their plan backfired—and the building is now a safe haven for patients and pro-choice...

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Oct 24 2016, 7:10pm

Illustration by Julia Kuo

In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100-year anniversary, we're taking an in-depth look at the history and future of reproductive rights. Read more of our coverage here.

For a few years now, Alexandria "Xandi" Andersen has been a clinic escort at Reproductive Health Services of Montgomery, one of the five remaining abortion clinics in Alabama. Along with a group of other volunteers dressed in bright orange "Pro-Choice" vests and armed with rainbow umbrellas, she shields women from the barrage of harassment, shaming, and cruelty that religious protesters hurl at them as they walk from the parking lot to the clinic's front door.

Andersen knows firsthand how intimidating the protesters that swarm the clinic can be: Before she joined the RHS clinic escort squad, she got an abortion there herself. She was in an abusive relationship at the time, and put herself at risk of further abuse by choosing to have the procedure. In her case, the anti-abortion zealots outside didn't just exacerbate what was already a trying situation—they also posed a serious threat to her safety.

Andersen's abusive ex didn't know that she was pregnant, nor did he know that she'd planned to get an abortion. "I told my abuser I had to go to work early, dressed for work, and went to the clinic," she said. "David Day, our regular protester, was there when I showed up. He shouted at me and tried to take my picture. Thankfully, there were escorts there with umbrellas, because if David had been able to post my photo to Facebook like he does, and my abuser had seen it, I don't know whether I would still be alive today."

Read more: What Women Do When They Can't Afford an Abortion

Today, clinic escorts for Reproductive Health Services have their own safe haven: the POWER House, a rainbow flag-flanked antebellum home located on 821 South Perry Street, which shares a parking lot with the provider. Here, a boisterous group of reproductive rights activists gather to hold meetings, plan campaigns, marshal their resources, screen documentaries, make crafts, and organize campaigns to protect women's reproductive rights in Alabama.

While POWER House is now a needed and useful resource for women in the state, it wasn't always this way: In fact, in 2015, it nearly became the home base for some of the most violent and extreme anti-abortion activists in the country.

In 2015, Operation Save America picked Montgomery as the site of their 2015 national event, an annual protest that calls on antis from across the country to descend on one town, one abortion clinic, and spend a week camped out front—spouting vitriol into megaphones, raining down judgment, waving gruesome signs, and doing everything they can to shame and condemn women. OSA is an extremist, fundamentalist Christian organization that "unashamedly takes up the cause of preborn children in the name of Jesus Christ." Initially called Operation Rescue, it was founded by anti-abortion activist Randall Terry in 1986 to protest purported "death clinics." The organization and its ilk have mobilized tens of thousands of people over the past few decades to form blockades. They use their masses to swarm clinic sidewalks, scream at women, wave crucifixes, and obstruct their path to care.

OSA is part of a constellation of related and overlapping right-wing militant groups—including the Army of God, Missionaries for the Preborn, and Abolish Human Abortion—that consider abortion "the American holocaust." According to a spokesperson at the National Abortion Federation, the organization has recently radicalized and tightened its ties with Army of God, which promotes the doctrine of justifiable homicide, meaning they consider it their God-given right to destroy and kill anyone who would "willingly slaughter innocent children." This faction has been linked to most of the violent attacks—including bombings and shootings—against abortion clinics and providers over the past 40 years.

In their eyes, abortion is murder and women should be punished and put to death for that.

"These groups represent the most extreme organized anti-abortion element in the country," said duVergne Gaines, director of the National Clinic Access Project at the Feminist Majority Foundation. "They are the worst of the worst. In their eyes, abortion is murder and women should be punished and put to death for that."

When OSA announced that its 2015 national event would be held in Montgomery, the house at 821 South Perry Street—which previously served as a frat house and an autism advocacy agency—had been standing vacant for three months. The clinic staff and volunteers had thought nothing of it until a few months before OSA's anticipated "Crimson Tide"—but then they learned that a local OSA supporter was angling to turn the house into a base of operations for the protest.

This prospect was alarming for a number of reasons. "The house is so close to the clinic parking lot, if [OSA] were to get the house, they could stand right there on the house property, two feet away and basically at people's front bumpers, and yell at them," said Mia Raven, the founder and current president of POWER House. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this can't happen.'"

As luck would have it, the owner (who remains anonymous) was disposed to the pro-choice cause. He agreed to rent the house to the Montgomery Area Reproductive Justice Coalition for three months, with the option to extend the lease.

"Luckily, OSA can't keep their mouths shut," Raven said, remembering hearing how they posted the news on social media. "Two hours later, we had the house."

Raven took over the lease in June 2015—one month before the OSA event—and kept her proprietorship under wraps so that when OSA invaded, it would be a "complete holy shit" surprise. Raven and Melissa Smith Taylor, a fellow Montgomery activist who co-founded the POWER House with Raven, helped to prepare the house under the cover of night.

"We waited until it got dark and parked in the back because we didn't want people to know we had the house," Raven said. "We were afraid they would come and set it on fire."

Photo courtesy of POWER House.

On July 11, 2015, roughly 200 people from OSA and its fellow right-wing vigilante groups set themselves up in an empty grassy lot across the street from Reproductive Health Services, armed with signs decrying abortion, depicting grisly doctored images of maimed fetuses, and predicting God's wrathful damnation. They hung baby dolls from flag poles, blew into ram's horns, and shrieked at anyone who passed by—whether or not they were headed to the clinic.

The protesters, along with their children, spent whole days sweltering in the 100-degree heat. They stood as close to the clinic as they possibly could without being arrested, spewing graphic verbal abuse at anyone who went into the clinic or supported those who did. Raven said they also filmed women walking into the clinic, deliberately violating their privacy and putting them at risk by posting the videos on social media.

"We were under siege for eight days, and they were probably the most stressful days of my whole life," Raven said. "It was a sight to behold. I had convicted abortion clinic bomber John Brockhoeft standing five feet away from my driveway. That really put me on edge because he has publicly said he has no remorse for what he did."

In addition to Brockhoeft, the OSA event also attracted notorious members of the radical anti-abortion movement, including: Cal Zastrow, co-founder and leader of Personhood USA; OSA's leader Rusty Thomas, who said the September 11th attacks were God's punishment for abortion; Jo Ann Scott, who pled guilty to conspiring to bomb a clinic in San Diego in the 80s;and Matthew Trewhella, the leader of Missionaries to the Preborn who, like Brockhoeft, is a signatory of Army of God's Defensive Action statement, which "declares the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force."

According to RHS director June Ayers, in anticipation of OSA's impending arrival, the local law enforcement community had held a meeting that brought together representatives from the FBI, ATF, Montgomery Police Department, and sheriff's department, among others. They were briefed on what to expect with OSA in town, conducted a security assessment of the clinic, and put protocols and countermeasures in place. Even with all this preparation, an atmosphere of fear prevailed. Every morning, a bomb squad swept the clinic and the house.

They had reason to be anxious: Alabama has a fraught history of violence against abortion providers. In the late 1990s, Eric Robert Rudolph, an Army of God member, bombed abortion clinics in Alabama and Georgia, killing a police officer, security guard, and critically injuring a nurse. Two doctors at the abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida (just across the border from Alabama) were murdered within a year of each other.

But despite the intense stress and fear that OSA's presence inflicted, supporters of the clinic refused to be cowed. "The protesters were so mad that we got the house," Raven said. "We sat out on the porch with cold drinks, cigarettes, and fans while they baked across the street. There is greatness in numbers and you feel a lot less intimidated when you have a lot of people on your side."

"I remember several times when we were laughing over their hateful screams," said Andersen. "We played a lot of music, we sang, and we enjoyed our time together. We hadn't named the house yet at that point, and we were actually calling it The Sanctuary, because that's what it was for us that week."

The POWER House served as a critical buffer zone and rally hub for reproductive justice activists during OSA's national event, but Raven and Smith Taylor realized the need for a place like the POWER House did not end once the week came to a close: The duo saw the opportunity to turn 821 Perry Street into a focal point and common space for progressive activism in the community.

Furthermore, it would prevent the property from falling into the clutches of the opposition. Through her grapevine, Raven heard that an anti-abortion organization Sav-A-Life had designs on turning the house into a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC) if the MARJC couldn't muster the resources to maintain control of the lease. CPCs pose as places where women can learn about their options, but are actually bent on deterring women from accessing abortion care by any means possible. These centers are notorious for lying to women and bombarding them with judgment and guilt in order to try and convince them to continue their pregnancies.

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"There are a lot of abortion facilities around the US that have a CPC right next door, which would have been awful for us," Ayers said. "CPCs blatantly provide misinformation and tell women they do abortion counseling. Then women call me to say they had their first visit and I have to say, 'No darling, you didn't.' The POWER House keeps a CPC away from our door."

In addition, the POWER House now helps offset the burdens imposed by state-mandated restrictions meant to create obstacles for women seeking care. Alabama's 48-hour waiting period requires women to visit a clinic in person for state-directed counseling (intended to discourage them from having an abortion) and then wait two days before they return to actually get the procedure. For some women, these requirements can put access to abortion out of their reach—Reproductive Health Services is currently the only clinic between Pensacola and Birmingham, Alabama, which means some women have to drive hundreds of miles, on multiple occasions, to make their appointments.

Traveling can be particularly burdensome for women with limited means, who have job and school schedules to navigate, and/or who have children. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, 93 percent of Alabama counties had no abortion clinic; 59 percent of Alabama women lived in these counties. Additionally, according to 2014 data, 49 percent of abortion patients in the US are living below the federal poverty level and another 26 percent are low income.

An abortion procedure is already costly, and when travel and child-care expenses are added on top, it can be prohibitively expensive. In the 15 months since OSA's protest, the POWER House has provided women with a free place to stay during the waiting period and allowed children to spend time there while their mother is next door.

"I think one of the biggest differences we've made is by being a place where women can bring their kids," Raven said. "Anyone that needs to can come over here. We have toys, DVDs, cribs, playpens, crafts—it's a place where children can play."

While it serves as a refuge, protesters can still get within shouting distance of the POWER House and are not above harassing children. A corner of the POWER House is cracked from where a woman drove her car into the side. Raven said she came to the clinic to receive care and when she was in the parking lot with her kids in the car, a protester yelled that "their mama should go ahead and drown the kids she already had if she was going to have an abortion." She was so upset she accidentally put her car in drive instead of reverse.

Photo of POWER House entrance courtesy of the author.

Today, Raven and Smith Taylor are planning ways to further branch out into the community. In 2015, Montgomery had the highest rate of STDs in America, which is hardly a surprise given that Alabama is an abstinence-only sex education state. The POWER House hands out free condoms, offers pamphlets with accurate, practical information (about human anatomy, safe sex, contraception. etc.), and Raven plans to start offering comprehensive sex education classes early next year if she can secure enough money, through donations and fundraising, to do so.

The POWER House has also become a meeting place for groups like Montgomery Pride United and Montgomery Humanists, which Andersen founded and serves as president of, as well as safe and energizing place for women to meet. Andersen said it has helped expand and strengthen the local feminist community.

"The POWER House has brought so many feminists together, from all over the place," Andersen said. "I made so many friends that week and made real connections with people I've kept in touch with since then. It was really great for me, having just left an abusive relationship, to be able to build those new connections with genuine, caring feminist people."

To take up this cause is to become a target—something Raven is acutely aware of every day. She worries about the possibility of drive-by shootings and covers the license plate on her car because protesters have been known to find out activists' addresses from plate numbers and show up at their homes.

"I carry a gun and I am licensed to do so," Raven said. "I never drive home the same way twice. There is a grocery store I like to go to near an anti's house, and I always circle the block and park across the street before I go in. I avoid very public places and if I want or need to go somewhere public, I wear a wig, and no one pays attention. When someone I don't know walks up to me, I usually think 'this is either going to be very good or very bad.'"

If it's risky for activists, it is downright dangerous for abortion providers. Not one of the three doctors who performs procedures at Reproductive Health Services lives in Montgomery. They live "up North" and fly down to Alabama on a rotating schedule. When they come to the clinic, they enter through the back door to avoid being seen by the protesters perpetually lurking out front. Patients who are minors, or victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse, may also be ushered in the back so as not to be subjected to the protests.

"Having the POWER House there makes a huge difference," Ayers said. "I remember back in the 80s when there were two big 'rescues' down here. Back then, no one had cell phones so I had to drive from the clinic to a hotel to use the pay phone to call the police. The staff and I were surrounded. With the POWER House here, this last experience was so different."

Many of the security measures RHS and the POWER House adhere to are a direct result of last summer. More than a year after OSA's eight-day siege, their legacy remains sharply present, although not in the way they might have hoped. According to Ayes, their presence ended up strengthening the abortion rights movement in Alabama by creating a clear and common enemy and spurring the clinic to improve its security practices.

No woman should have to put up with that shit to access healthcare.

Rather than undercutting women's right to abortion in Montgomery, OSA ended up strengthening it by inspiring people to take action. The local pro-choice community gained momentum as a result, but while the local movement may have grown stronger, it is by no means unsinkable. The survival of both the clinic and the POWER House seem predicated on the continued bravery and commitment of a small group of women (and some men) who are willing to dedicate countless hours, endure torrents of abuse, and put themselves at risk to ensure that Alabamian women maintain access to safe reproductive care.

"Every time I go to the clinic to escort now, David asks why I am there," Andersen said. "I tell him I am there because he yelled at me and because he continues to disrespect women's lives, and no woman should have to put up with that shit to access healthcare."