Keeping a clinic open in Milwaukee

April 5, 2016

Dayna Long and Kate Christopherson report on a pro-choice counterprotest against opponents of abortion in Milwaukee on Good Friday.

WISCONSIN PRO-CHOICE activists scored a win on March 25, blocking members of the anti-choice group Pro-Life Wisconsin from assembling in front of a Milwaukee abortion clinic on Good Friday.

Affiliated Medical Services, which is one of just three abortion clinics remaining in Wisconsin, is the target of anti-choice harassment and obstruction throughout the year, but especially during Lent, when Pro-Life Wisconsin partners with religious leaders and parishioners of several Milwaukee churches to make regular protests at the clinic's front doors.

The pro-choice clinic defense action on March 25 was organized by Focus on Jobs, Not Vaginas, a feminist organization based in Milwaukee, with support from activists in the Madison chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Madison branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin.

The action brought together about 50 people to defend reproductive rights at a site that is frequently the focus of abortion opponents. Pro-choice activists arrived early, assembled along the city sidewalk and held that space for several hours.

Milwaukee supporters of reproductive rights confront the anti-abortionists
Milwaukee supporters of reproductive rights confront the anti-abortionists (Not Vaginas, Focus on Jobs)

Anti-choice protesters paraded down the street to take up their usual Good Friday place in front of the clinic but were obstructed by the young women and men, trans folk, grandmothers and pro-choice religious leaders who made up the pro-choice front. The anti-choice protesters were relegated to a space down the block, where they prayed for half an hour before retreating.

LIKE MANY clinics located in a city center, one of the challenges that Affiliated Medical Services faces is a lack of private parking. This means that patients can only get to the clinic's entrance by crossing public city sidewalks, where anti-choice protesters regularly gather. On Good Friday, three men shouted at any woman who approached the clinic, bellowing, "Think of your baby!" and trying to pass out anti-abortion literature.

Five or six clinic escorts provided a barrier between patients entering the abortion clinic and the anti-abortion protesters outside. The escorts, clad in bright red vests with rainbow badges, are on a first-name basis with the virulent protesters and make lighthearted jabs and jokes at their expense. The goal of the escorts is to maintain an atmosphere of calm for the sake of Affiliated's patients.

More than one escort at Affiliated Medical Services has been subject to dubious legal action brought by anti-choice protesters. While the service clinic escorts have become a necessary part of reproductive health care in some places, it's labor performed by volunteers.

Some of the escorts at Affiliated Medical Services on Good Friday have been giving their time since the 1990s. The sustainability of the service seems tenuous, as escorts explain that they need more volunteers.

Despite the pro-life movement's well-known history of terrorism at abortion clinics, including a recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, escorts said that they don't feel the Milwaukee police department is responsive to their concerns. Instead, the police are more likely to come at the request of anti-choice protesters, who are uncomfortable with being countered.

Anti-choice protesters didn't restrict their hate speech and harassment to patients and pro-choice supporters--they also attacked the LGBTQ community. This highlights the overlap between the fights for reproductive rights and trans rights. One of the anti-choice protesters brought a large marquee-style sign that blared, "Gay marriage is a sin!" and shouted homophobic and transphobic slurs against trans celebrity Caitlin Jenner and a trans man who is a fixture among supporters of Affiliated Medical Services.

He, along with other trans folk, stood side by side with other pro-choice activists. Milwaukee activist Janet Teska Veum handed out pink headbands featuring the women's symbol to pro-choice activists as they arrived at the event, but said she is planning to change it to the trans symbol next year.

WHILE THE anti-choice faction was mainly older men, the pro-choice activists were a diverse group--young women and men, trans folk, grandmothers and pro-choice religious leaders. Members of NOW, NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the ISO were all represented.

"I am here to fight for women's reproductive rights," said Lavada Luening, a Milwaukee activist with the Southeast Wisconsin She-Thinkers. I am here to support my fellow activists, and I am here to provide a presence that counters these people who are so eager to take away women's right to do with their own bodies as they see fit because of their religion."

Luening arrived at the event dressed in a Godzilla costume holding a sign proclaiming "Godzilla Is Pro-Choice," bringing some humor to the otherwise tense atmosphere.

For Madison NOW member Dace Zeps, control over one's body was reason enough to attend. "[The reproductive choice debate] is about control. Nobody has the right to tell you how to conduct your life. By forcing's slavery."

She also addressed ongoing debates over organized demonstration versus the more conventional methods of creating change advocated by the Democratic Party and more conservative feminist groups. "[Voting] isn't enough and will never be enough until we have a system that doesn't support the oligarchy," said Zeps.

Universalist Unitarian Minister Suzelle Lynch said her pro-choice stance comes from her Christian roots. "Jesus is the man who loved all and would be there for all persons, particularly those who are most marginalized," she said. "Access to safe, legal reproductive health services is in support, definitely of, women and children who are marginalized."

Overall, the action was a success, and it was a modest but meaningful win for pro-choice activists in a state that has seen dramatic losses in reproductive rights in recent years, including the passage of a 20-week abortion ban in 2015.

Organizers are considering larger, long-term clinic defense goals as a mechanism for rebuilding the reproductive rights movement in a state where it is desperately needed. Changing minds around the topic of anti-choice clinic demonstrations is an ambitious but winnable campaign, and has the potential to build coalitions and momentum.

"I say all the time it's not about who you're talking to, it's about who's listening," said Luening. "These people driving and walking by, and even some of the Christians who are pro-life, listen and they hear the things that we say. They take that with them, and it's a little seed that gets planted."

Organizers hope that by creating opportunities for people to win smaller fights through direct action, the greater struggle to regain reproductive rights can be pushed forward.

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