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Anti-abortion activists demonstrate next to the Metropolitan Medical Associates abortion clinic in Englewood

AP Photo/Mike Derer

One City’s 6 Month Quest To Take Its Sidewalks Back From Anti-Abortion Protesters

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"One City’s 6 Month Quest To Take Its Sidewalks Back From Anti-Abortion Protesters"

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“There’s life in your womb, ma’am! There’s life in your womb!”

“They are getting paid to murder your baby!”

“Mom! Mom! Don’t kill me! Please mommy, don’t kill your baby!”

“Ma’am, we’re God’s people! We are here to help you!”

“This is what it’s like to walk into an abortion clinic in the pro-choice state of New Jersey,” writes reproductive rights activist and clinic escort Lauren Rankin on her Tumblr page, posting a 23 second long video of a sidewalk filled with protesters, signs and shouting. “Imagine walking through this, just to access safe and legal healthcare.”

Metropolitan Medical Associates in Englewood, New Jersey, has been a longtime target for abortion opponents both locally and nationally. Anti-abortion activists point to clinic closures in 1993 and 2007 as signs of safety issues, although in both cases the clinic was inspected and reopened after any code violations were addressed.

By 2011, the Englewood clinic was back in the spotlight, after a “sting” conducted by cohorts of anti-abortion activist Lila Rose’s group LiveAction revealed a New Jersey Planned Parenthood employee suggesting Metropolitan Medical as a location where pregnant minors could obtain abortions with fewer reporting requirements. Metropolitan Medical denied the accusations, and although the clinic was investigated by the state, no evidence was found that the allegations were true.

Unlike in red or rural areas, where clinics tend to be targeted by anti-abortion protesters because they’re the only provider within a 50 or 100 mile radius, there are many local clinics for activists to choose from in New Jersey. In fact, Metropolitan Medical isn’t even the only clinic in the city of Englewood. However, Metropolitan Medical has become the local clinic of choice for Saturday “counseling” and sidewalk preaching, and the interactions between protesters and the clinic have also grown increasingly heated — at a very rapid pace.

The New “Militant Activists”

In November of 2013, The Bergen Record reported on a surge of “militant activists” who had infiltrated what, prior to that fall, had been a mostly peaceful, prayer-based sidewalk presence outside of Metropolitan Medical Associates. Instead of rosaries and Hail Marys, these protesters were armed with amplified recordings of babies crying. Rather than offer pamphlets with pregnancy options, they handed out chocolates, hoping a patient would eat it and be unable to have an abortion because they wouldn’t show up at the office with empty stomachs.

The more aggressive activities being engaged in at the clinic were linked by many to the arrival of a new ministry called Bread of Life Fellowship. Their pastor, Father Joseph LoSardo, told reporter Rebecca Baker that abortion clinic presence became “an official outreach from the church” earlier that fall.

Father LoSardo may call it “outreach,” but local police officers called it instigation. “Some of the things that they say are certainly more inflammatory and accusatory than what the normal protesters engage in,” Englewood Police Chief Arthur O’Keefe told Baker. “This [Saturday] group is looking, apparently, to incite people, to create a problem.”

The Record’s article didn’t sit well with the protesters, who took offense to being construed as “militant.” “The definition of militant: combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods,” wrote Joe Caruso, one of the activists mentioned in Baker’s piece, on his personal site. “None of the protesters that go there are in favor of extreme, violent methods. No one who protests and speaks for the babies in Englewood are violent.”

In fact, Caruso believes their entire ministry was purposefully misrepresented by both the clinic and the officer interviewed for the article, and that it is the activists themselves who are being harassed. “A few weeks ago in Englewood, I was immediately approached when I turned on a recording of babies crying,” continued Caruso. “It was not a nuisance. It was only audible to whoever was standing next to me. One must take into consideration that this building is in a loud, commercial zone. It is hard to be heard on this busy street over loud buses, trucks and cars. But this issue is more than amplification, because there have been times we have been threatened with arrest for merely using our voice.”

An Escort Program is Born

The report of clinic activities in the paper didn’t just fire up a response from the protesters themselves; it also inspired action from supporters of reproductive rights. “I kept seeing it on social media,” Ashley, a former New Jersey resident who is now living in New York, said about The Record article. “I saw it maybe five or six times in one day and I kept ignoring it. I didn’t want to read it because I knew how upset it was going to make me.”

Eventually, Ashley read the article, and realized she wanted to offer her help to the clinic. “I decided to just call up the clinic directly and say ‘How can I help?’ I asked them if they had an escort program and they said no. So I asked if I could set one up for them.”

Ashley had never escorted before, but after getting advice from veteran escorts familiar with clinic defense, she was ready to go. She and other escorts trained, and were able to hit the sidewalks to help patients navigate their way to the clinic doors with the least amount of harassment and protester interaction possible.

From the moment she began escorting, Ashley noticed one thing immediately: how close abortion protesters would get to her and the patients and their companions. “I was surprised by how close they could get, and how bothered they were by our presence,” said Ashley. “I was a little surprised by how they engaged with us, and how aggressive they were with us, when we weren’t trying to make the situation worse — we were just trying to help people get into the clinic safely.”

Now, three months after the escorting program first launched, the clinic has as many as 12 escorts at a time on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, as the number of escorts swelled, the number of anti-abortion protesters, prayers, and “counselors” grew, too.

“We have three loose groups,” explained escort Lauren Rankin. One group Rankin described as a Catholic, and the members located themselves across the street, praying silently. According to Rankin, they do not interact with patients or even leave their side of the street, which is fine with clinic supporters. “I don’t have a problem with them,” said Rankin. “Nobody does.”

It’s the other two groups that interact with the patients, one more aggressively than the other. The first is associated with a right-wing crisis pregnancy center (CPC) across the street, as well as the new arrival on the block, a Save the Storks mobile ultrasound van that now parks in front of Metropolitan Medical. “I’ve never seen anyone go in that van,” said Rankin, but she says that most of the anti-abortion activists associated with CPCs are primarily unaggressive. “A lot of them just stand there and quietly hold signs and don’t say anything. Some say as a patient approaches ‘Would you like shelter? Can I help you?’ but they don’t follow the patients.” The exception, said Rankin, is one woman she has dubbed “The Runner,” who will chase patients up and down the sidewalk asking them to take pamphlets or to look at her box of fetal models.

Then there is the extreme anti-abortion group, which consists of members of Bread of Life Church and other street preacher or “abolitionist” abortion groups. “Some are from the extreme anti-abortion group Abolish Human Abortion — at least they have worn the vests,” said Rankin. “The day that I took the video was the worst day, because they had brought members in from out of state.”

Rankin’s video of the sidewalk in front of Metropolitan Medical, which has been shared hundreds of times on Tumblr, was taken as she walked in front of a clinic patient, protecting the patient from the shouts and, in some cases, cameras of the people claiming they were there to offer her help.

“I wanted to show what it looks like for a patient walking into a clinic, and it helped to buffer her from the screams. But that day, I linked arms with one patient to walk her into the clinic and I saw her crying and shaking, and she said, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’ I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have an answer. I just said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and got her in the door.”

Is Escorting Helping or Hurting?

One of the biggest issues many clinics cite for not wanting clinic defenders is the fear that bringing escorts on may actually encourage anti-abortion protesters to get more aggressive in their own tactics. If protesters bring in more people to counter escorts, then escorts require more volunteers, and the cycle continues.

That, in some ways, has been true even in the short time that the escort program in Englewood has been in place. Still, the clinic considers it successful in its primary goal of lessening the trauma patients face as they enter the building.

“I check in with the clinic every week,” said Ashley, who said she asks the clinic staff weekly for feedback on what they could do better and how effective the escorts are in assisting patients. “Every week, they tell me that our presence increases the amount of protesters, and increases the aggression of the protesters. But the patients are coming in less and less distraught every week. They say that the patients are calmer, that they don’t have as many patients coming in crying or upset over things that have been said to them on the sidewalk.”

The clinic isn’t the only one showing their appreciation for the escorts. City residents reach out and provide support as well. “We always get lots of thanks not just from the patients, but from the community as well,” said Ashley. “Nobody likes to see these patients harassed on a public street, regardless of how they feel about abortion.”

Bringing in a Buffer

Despite the efforts of the escorts, the atmosphere on the sidewalk remained a concern to the city, and one that the city council decided it must address. On Tuesday, the council met and unanimously passed an ordinance requiring an eight-foot buffer zone around all Englewood health care facility’s entrances, exits, and driveways. That buffer is a much smaller distance than the one in place in Massachusetts, which is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court — a factor that buffer supporters hope might allow an Englewood version to stay intact, even if the Massachusetts one ends up being overturned.

Bread of Life Pastor LoSardo told The Record that they will “respect” the new buffer zone policy, just as he says his protesters were adhering to an “informal four by four foot” buffer directly in front of the clinic door.

Also willing to respect the buffer, even if they believe the restriction is unconstitutional, is the Save the Storks mobile unit. Based out of Colorado, Save the Storks only recently shipped a van to Englewood at the request of a local crisis pregnancy center whose own mobile ultrasound van was too big to be parked on the street of the clinic, based on city ordinances.

Although the Stork van would be unlikely to park inside the proposed buffer, keeping those who aren’t patients more than eight feet away from the clinic’s entrances, exits, and driveways could ultimately hamper the group’s ability to reach those who are about to go in for an abortion, according to founder Joe Baker.

“It would definitely have impact,” said Baker. “Buffer zones do tend to do that. But we innovate, and we work with the laws, and it is something we would never break if it were prohibited by law.”

Baker made it clear that his ministry wasn’t interested in the type of aggressive tactics outside the clinic that drew the city council to consider a buffer. “Our ministry is to be as approachable and as gentle as possible,” said Baker. “We are certainly not the ones that have created the need for a buffer law.”

“We don’t see ourselves as picketers or protesters,” said Baker. “We’re really just offering a competitive service to [an abortion clinic]. We are there to be a professional competitor. We’re not there to picket or boycott the place. We are just there really just to reach their customer and to provide that customer with an alternative.”

Baker believes that a buffer could impact that mission, but it would not be Stork’s role to instigate a challenge to the buffer. “I think it is a violation of our right to free speech. If it’s public property it is a violation and it should be taken to court. But we will abide by it. We wouldn’t challenge it, but we would certainly stand with someone who would.”

A Fresh Start on the Streets

The new buffer will be put into effect immediately. Escorts are hopeful that this Saturday, when they help patients enter the clinic, the atmosphere will be more peaceful and less intimidating. They also acknowledge, however, that an eight foot buffer will only do so much to provide space for the patients coming through the door, and their role will still be necessary.

Although Ashley is happy to help, she’s still sad that her presence is still required — especially in an area so many believe is accepting of a person’s right to an abortion.

“I always thought there’d be no need for it here,” said Ashley. “I thought oh, maybe if I move to the south, or to the Midwest. I never thought I’d do it here. I had no idea this sort of thing was happening right here.”

Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women's Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin's articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine,Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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