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Political controversies come and go, but anti-choice protesters aren't going anywhere

"We have an anti-choice governor, anti-choice House and an anti-choice Senate. So just making a bill not be voted on is epic."

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In recent months, Planned Parenthood has been under the magnifying glass, with national politics seemingly preoccupied with the topics of abortion and contraception. But not much has changed outside the Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania's Downtown office on Liberty Avenue.

There you'll still find protesters like Margie Kladny, holding out flyers to anyone who will take them.

"I want to be a presence to stop someone from destroying their life and a child's life," said Kladny, of Butler, during a recent vigil.

She is part of the local chapter of 40 Days for Life, a nationwide movement timed with the Christian season of Lent. At least in Pittsburgh, the protest has caused little new tension. The signs being displayed, unlike those wielded by other anti-choice activists, are not graphic: Kladny's simply reads, "Pray to end abortion."

And most passersby — including those entering the clinic — seem to pay little heed.

"I try to meet their eyes and say, ‘Good morning,'" said Nikki Bruni, director of the Pittsburgh 40 Days campaign. "So far they haven't met our gaze."

One of those who have been studiously ignoring the group is Rebecca Cavanaugh. As PPWP's vice president for public affairs, striding through anti-choice demonstrators is just part of Cavanaugh's normal commute. PPWP employees and volunteers have a strict non-engagement rule with the protesters.

"Our number-one priority is patient services and patient safety," Cavanaugh says. "No matter what we go through walking in the door, that's nothing compared to what we're doing inside the door."

"It can be frustrating, sometimes, coming into work and seeing people that are against us or ignorant to what we do," says Phill Cresswell, a PPWP volunteer coordinator and grassroots organizer. "At the same time, it can be a galvanizing thing to make you want to work just that much harder for the cause."

PPWP performs abortions at its Downtown clinic, but the vast majority of Planned Parenthood clients — 97 percent of them — are seeking care other than abortions. Among those services are STD testing, Pap smears, contraception and sexual-education services.

Yet Planned Parenthood has been a target on the streets and in the political debate. For a brief period this winter, Susan G. Komen for the Cure — the country's best-known nonprofit targeting breast cancer — announced it would no longer fund cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood has frequently come under attack from Republican presidential candidates as well. And that's in addition to the constant presence of anti-choice demonstrators on the streets.

"Sometimes it's 10 people on a Saturday, or sometimes it's 50, 80 or 100 people," says Cresswell. Part of Cresswell's job is organizing the "Pittsburgh pro-choice escorts," who guide clients past the protesters and "distract them from the harassment."

The looming presence of conservative legislators, by contrast, tends to be much more consistent. Cavanaugh estimates that Pennsylvania lawmakers spent 30 percent of their time in a six-month period working on anti-abortion laws last year.

One small victory for Cavanaugh's side came last month in the battle over House Bill 1077, or the "Women's Right to Know Act."

The bill would have forced women who wanted to get an abortion to undergo an ultrasound 24 hours before their procedure, so that the fetus' gestational age and heartbeat could be ascertained. While the bill doesn't specify the procedure required, invasive "transvaginal" ultrasounds are frequently necessary in the early months of a pregnancy — when most abortions take place.

During the ultrasound, the screen would have been pointed directly at the woman, although the bill did allow that "the patient is not required to view the screen."

The bill's introductory language insisted that the procedure was necessary because "Many women are unaware of the state of development of their unborn child," and that "the factual information provided by ultrasound tests, including fetal heartbeat, is relevant to any decision regarding a pregnancy."

Planned Parenthood supporters, though, see another agenda at work. Cresswell says the goal was simply to "put obstacles and burdens on women" seeking abortion.

"A lot of the attacks come from the conservatives or conservative media," he adds. "It's mind-boggling to me because a lot of their stance on things is smaller government — [and] at the same time they're trying to legislate into people's bedrooms."

A vote on HB 1077 was delayed after similar bills in other states generated a firestorm of protest. And while Cavanaugh is gratified by the derailing of HB 1077, she says, "I'd much rather be saying, ‘You know, here are extra things for women,' instead of defending basic human rights." Still, she says, "We have an anti-choice governor, anti-choice House and an anti-choice Senate. So just making a bill not be voted on is epic."

But Planned Parenthood is still on the defensive. Last year, the state passed Senate Bill 732, which imposed a slew of new regulations on abortion clinics, some with tenuous connections to patient health. That bill prompted two pro-choice groups, Pennsylvanians for Choice and Raising Women's Voices, to launch We've Had Enough, to counter similar legislation. Cresswell, who coordinates Planned Parenthood's relationship with the effort, says the goal is to "involve [people] in this big Pennsylvania community that are against this bad legislation."

Some, says University of Pittsburgh student and PPWP intern Alyssa Pascaraosa, find the struggle itself energizing. "Just seeing the sheer number and gravity of the attacks on Planned Parenthood right now, it's rewarding knowing that at this time of need, I can do something to try and help the organization and the women who rely on it," Pascarosa says.

But the protesters on the other side of the clinic's doors are motivated as well. The 40 Days for Life campaign, for example, is heralding the March 1 closure of a Planned Parenthood facility in Storm City, Iowa. That facility was targeted by protesters last year, and local campaigners like Bruni take heart from such successes. "Our goal is to end abortion and put it in God's hands," she said during her vigil in Downtown Pittsburgh.

But repeating such a success on Liberty Avenue seems a long way off. Despite Kladny's efforts, the only observer who seemed to be paying much attention to the demonstration was a Pittsburgh police officer, who routinely checked in on the vigil before walking away. In the span of several minutes, 10 passersby walked through the demonstration as if it wasn't there. Only a few even bothered to wave off the flyers. Bruni maintains that when the protesters do get a response "it's about 60 percent positive. Most of the people who get angry at us, it's about our faith, more so than the abortion issue. They want to argue over whether or not God exists."

That's not the argument they'd be getting from Cavanaugh.

"You can't read a paper or turn on the news without hearing about attacks on reproductive health," she says. "Before I work at Planned Parenthood, I'm a woman. Of course I'm offended."

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