Energized by successes in Texas and Michigan, activists opposed to abortion are expanding aggressive campaigns against a favorite target — the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Activists hope the tactics that delayed construction of a new Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin, Texas, and helped shut down a clinic in Houghton, Mich., can be replicated across the country.
And, as the nation marks the 31st anniversary Thursday of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, opponents of the procedure want to convince more state and local governments to cut off public funding that subsidizes some of Planned Parenthood’s services for low-income clients.
“Our message is to fight them at the local level,” said Jim Sedlak, executive director of STOPP International, a wing of the American Life League. His group is distributing a detailed memorandum advising supporters how to assist its mission of combating Planned Parenthood.
“If you’re talking about waging the war on them in Congress, they have a big advantage — we’re not going to compete at the dollar level,” Sedlak said. “But when you’re talking about waging the war in the streets of any community — at the school board level, with local builders — we take that advantage away.”
Planned Parenthood has been a polarizing organization ever since its precursor — a clinic in Brooklyn — was founded in 1916 by pioneering birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. In recent years, it has been a lightning rod for protests because of its familiar name and two unswerving policies — support for abortion rights and a belief that adolescents, as well as adults, have a right to contraceptives and candid, confidential information about sex.
“We’ve stuck our neck out on these issues, and that makes us a large, easy target,” said Peter Durkin, head of Planned Parenthood’s Houston affiliate. “Our critics see us as the McDonald’s of reproductive health care. They’ve demonized us because we’re nationwide.”
A dramatic, although temporary, victory for the protesters occurred in November when the general contractor overseeing construction of the Austin clinic withdrew because a boycott campaign dissuaded most potential subcontractors from participating.
“We were just reeling,” said Danielle Tierney, spokeswoman for the Austin-area Planned Parenthood affiliate. “To think of small businesses becoming targets of anti-choice hard-liners’ intimidation — it’s immoral, it’s outrageous.”
Since then, Tierney said the affiliate has been flooded with cash donations and supportive messages. Without fanfare or press announcements, construction of the clinic resumed two weeks ago; Tierney said the names of individuals and firms working on the project will remain confidential to protect their safety.
Though Planned Parenthood is the country’s largest single provider of abortions, performing more than 200,000 annually, only 193 of its 860 clinics provide abortions. The clinics treat more than 2.5 million people a year, offering contraceptives, pregnancy and breast cancer tests, gynecological exams and other services.
Security measures tightened
Planned Parenthood’s president, Gloria Feldt, described her organization’s foes as “guerrilla fighters” who resent changes that have given women more choices about sex and childbearing.
The protests tend to motivate Planned Parenthood employees, not intimidate them, Feldt said. However, clinics have tightened security measures, including careful handling of incoming mail, and Feldt said the ceaseless opposition can be wearing.
“It feels like those little bugs that bite you when you’re out camping,” she said. “You just want to kick them away once and for all, but they never go away.”
Such persistence contributed to the closure of Planned Parenthood’s health center in Houghton, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, last year after it was subjected to constant picketing since opening in 2001. Planned Parenthood described the closure as a “business decision,” but one official said potential clients likely were deterred by protesters carrying graphic posters of aborted fetuses.
A similar protest campaign has been waged in Bryan, Texas, since a new Planned Parenthood clinic opened there in 1999, offering legal abortions for the first time to Bryan and nearby Texas A&M University.
“Every day, they’re out there (at the new clinic), videotaping the staff, trying to talk to clients,” said Durkin. “They call it sidewalk counseling; I call it sidewalk harassment.”
Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, said her group’s supporters were buoyed by the Austin boycott and legislative approval of a measure — currently stalled by a lawsuit — that would halt state funding to Planned Parenthood.
“The victories have given people resolve to stand for their principles,” she said. “I’d like to see the boycott copied in other areas, to keep Planned Parenthood from coming into a community in the first place.”