By Nora Bosworth
“Protesters have a right to speak their minds, but the exercise of the first amendment should never intimidate anyone from accessing medical care,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on Friday, at City Hall.
Speaker Quinn and various Council Members, along with representatives from Planned Parenthood, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and other pro-choice organizations, gathered at City Hall last week to announce their upcoming brainchild, “The Clinic Protection Project”. Under this program Council Members will recruit and coordinate volunteers to accompany women to abortion clinics, fielding them from particularly aggressive protesters.
Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health clinics already have “volunteer-escorts” for their patients, but they say they need more. So Speaker Quinn and others are stepping in.
The need for a supplementary service has increased in the last few years, according to pro-choice officials, because there are more protesters outside clinics, many of whom harass women attempting to use the facilities.
“In the last three years…we’ve gone from two or three protesters on a given Saturday morning, to fifty or sixty,” said CEO and President of Planned Parenthood New York, Joan Malin.
At the press conference for “The Clinic Protection Project”, the project’s engineers showed a disturbing video shot by a volunteer-escort outside the Choices Women’s Medical Clinic in Queens, New York. In the footage several pro-life demonstrators actually pin a woman trying to enter the clinic against a wall, after which she runs away in tears.
The President and CEO of Choices, Merle Hoffman, said in a phone interview that protesters outside her clinic wear vests printed with the words, “Unborn Baby Protector”, and hold signs with photographs of gas chambers from the Holocaust, and of black men being lynched. When African Americans enter the clinic, she said, the demonstrators accuse the women of committing “black genocide”. They also videotape the patients who enter, shaming them. Hoffman said one woman who came for an abortion arrived in a panic, because the picketers outside had told her that the anesthesia used in the operation was deadly.
Hoffman attributes the increase in protesters to the “rise of the radical right,” and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick said that having a pro-choice president in office has ignited the pro-life movement.
Although the details of the program are still being sketched out, Speaker Quinn said that her team will work on the recruitment and management side, and Planned Parenthood will actually train the escorts. Planned Parenthood already trains its own volunteer-escorts, educating them on the importance of utter confidentiality, adhering to a non-engagement policy with the demonstrators, and knowing which protest activities are illegal. Escorts are also taught how to record and report all pertinent unlawful behavior.
Hoffman speaks with both humor and sadness about the level of resistance her clinic has faced: “Going to the doctor has basically become a military maneuver.”
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