An Abortion Rights Movement for All

The reproductive rights movement is in crisis, and it’s looking for new tactics to break out of the impasse. That’s why there’s renewed interest in clinic defense — but the tactic deserves scrutiny.

A group of demonstrators gather during a pro-life rally outside Planned Parenthood on June 4, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)

On Mother’s Day this year, Alabama legislators passed the most draconian anti-abortion law in the United States since Roe v. Wade established the legal right to abortion. The Alabama law bans abortion in all but the most extreme cases to save a woman’s life, and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. Many states have recently passed similar “heartbeat” laws, including Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi, banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected around six to eight weeks. These bans are widely seen as the basis for test cases for the ultimate goal of the anti-abortion religious right — the overturning of Roe at the Supreme Court level.

Roe has been suffering a death by a thousand cuts for many years, but the rise of Trumpism has deeply emboldened the reactionary right. Tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists listened to Trump himself speak at the 2018 and 2019 March for Life rallies on the National Mall — the first president to do so since the March for Life began in 1974. Despite consistently high public support for abortion rights, the anti-abortion lobby has steadily gained ideological ground with a single-minded focus on abolishing abortion at any cost. This has included a consistent protester presence outside abortion clinics throughout the country, where dozens to hundreds of anti-abortion activists aggressively berate, film, and sometimes physically block patients from entering the clinic doors.

The feminist left, desperate for a response and with limited resources compared to the deep coffers of mainstream organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood’s political arm, has increasingly supported counter-protesting at abortion clinics. This is often referred to as “clinic defense.” Leftist proponents of this tactic have argued that reclaiming physical and political space outside clinics is an effective way to radically confront the religious right. For example, Christine Pardue recently wrote in Jacobin that, “[t]he goal [of clinic defense] is to take back the primary space that antis use for mobilization and violence, build a radical display of support for free abortion on demand that politicians couldn’t afford to ignore, and keep clinics safe.”

But there is reason to question the tactic of counter-protesting — both on its own terms, and claims that it can fuel a newly mass, militant abortion rights movement. The Left does need a new strategy for winning true abortion rights in the United States; and that strategy can’t be dominated by established nonprofits. But that new path doesn’t necessarily run through clinic defense.

An Ideological Proxy War Between Liberal and Leftist Feminism

Pardue argues that the exclusion of clinic defense from the pro-choice repertoire is a symptom of the monopoly the Democratic Party and nonprofit professionals have over the abortion rights movement. This monopoly certainly exists. But that doesn’t mean that every tactic they advocate is invalid. And the Left needs to be careful not to alienate the mass base of these organizations in our frustration with its leadership.

Despite significant ideological and strategic differences between liberal and socialist feminists, there are many shared beliefs to consider. Both want abortion to be legal, safe, and easily accessible to everyone who needs it. Both believe that the right to an abortion is a crucial component to bodily autonomy and gender equality. Both also fundamentally believe that abortion is only one part of the fight for reproductive justice — that we should be able to choose how and when to have children, and that we should be able to raise children who are safe, cared for, and loved.

The relationship between these two tendencies has soured as the pro-choice movement has continued to fail. The fact that NARAL and Planned Parenthood have only doubled down on their same old strategy of court challenges, calling legislators, and fundraising even on the brink of catastrophic defeat, has spurred a growing sense that something has to change. Feminists, especially on the far left, are increasingly aware that we need to rethink our strategy. They are also increasingly frustrated at the gatekeeping role the leadership of these big organizations play in that strategy.

As a result an ideological proxy war between liberal and leftist feminism is being waged via a debate on clinic defense. Some socialist feminists see clinic escorting programs, which almost universally adhere to non-engagement tactics with clinic protesters, through the lens of liberal organizations’ broader weakness in the face of the Right’s attacks. Such non-engagement, they argue, is ineffectual and weak in the face of increased anti-abortion protest activity.

But conflating tactical concerns such as clinic defense with the liberal ideologies of NARAL and Planned Parenthood alienates potential allies who could be moved to more effective action. There are many volunteer escorts who are not part of the professional class that directs these organizations, but who would view counter-protesters with distrust.

I’m a socialist and a clinic escort, and what I see is that the gains of beating back protesters for an hour or so are varied and anecdotal. Patients have thanked our team for shielding them on their way to appointments — while ignoring protesters. Meanwhile, there is an uptick in patients not showing up for their appointments reported across the country when protests of any ideological stripe are larger or louder outside clinics.

Safety concerns are also an issue when escalating engagement outside clinics. This is not just for patients, but for clinic workers, escorts, and pro-choice protesters alike, who by and large find themselves on the losing side when the (often anti-choice) police are called by anti-choice protesters, or when a protester escalates to violence. In Chicago, where I have been escorting for seven years, the vast majority of patients at our clinic accessing surgical abortions are working-class black people, and there is an ugly racial undertone to the sight of two groups of mostly white women antagonizing each other, and attempting to reach and politicize patients who have a multitude of experiences and relationships to the abortion rights movement.

Pardue and others argue for clinic defense as a way to radicalize the masses and move them toward a bigger, more militant movement. It is undeniable that building this mass movement will be critical for abortion rights to be secure. It is also clear that we as leftist feminists share the vision that abortion rights must be a central demand of any campaign against the ruling class.

But in some instances, clinic defense can actually be a barrier to reaching a wider base.

As people politicize around abortion rights, clinic escort programs run by liberal abortion rights institutions will continue to be a popular entry point for new activists. These new activists are, universally, deeply passionate about mobilizing for abortion rights, and are a base of people that the Left must win in order to make any headway on a mass socialist-feminist movement.

However, these new activists often start from an apolitical or liberal mindset. They’re unlikely to immediately see or critique the major issues inherent to supporting a nonprofit liberal organization. Running a counter-protesting program as a critique of these liberal organizations will create antagonism not just between liberal and leftist feminist organizations, but between more “radical” leftist organizers and these newly politicizing activists. These newer activists will gladly turn to a well-resourced, respected liberal organization like Planned Parenthood that makes them feel safe and good about their activist work, if they feel caught in the crossfire by clinic counter-protesters.

Our goal as leftist feminists should always be to meet new activists where they are and lead them first toward confrontation with our capitalist and right-wing enemies — not with organizations they perceive as “doing good.” Opposing clinic defense as a tactic is not borne purely out of a desire to play nice with anti-abortion zealots or liberal Democrats — it is a practical concern on the ground; an effort toward opening space for these unpoliticized masses.

Clinic defense can, of course, be very appropriate and effective in some circumstances. Engagement is necessary when anti-choice protesters become violent, break laws, or when there is an easy tactical gain off clinic property. As Pardue writes, New York for Abortion Rights has successfully counter-protested at churches that send out anti-abortion protesters after mass, and delayed the protesters’ arrival outside the clinic. This is a wonderful way to spook a religious right that rarely encounters resistance, and where further efforts should be concentrated. While leftists should always advocate for a variety of effective tactics that fit the circumstances at hand, clinic defense more broadly is not an adequate, one-size-fits-all tactical solution.

A Fight for a Mass Movement

It makes sense why the Left has been attracted to the idea of clinic defense. Without the resources of organizations like Planned Parenthood, and with the intense panic and sorrow surrounding the abridgment of abortion rights in the United States, clinic defense is an affordable and straightforward direct action that feels fulfilling to perform. But it’s flawed to conflate clinic defense with reclaiming ideological space. Expending limited resources on winning an ideological argument about direct action with liberal establishment organizations should not be the cornerstone of a mass pro-abortion movement. It’s putting the cart before the horse to have tactical planning outweigh strategic planning.

As abortion rights are threatened, this has led to leftist frustration with impotent liberal strategies and goals. This frustration sets up a false choice — by rejecting liberal organizations’ non-engagement tactics with protesters, leftists can reject and critique liberal ideology, too. But this threatens to obfuscate rather than illuminate the set of options in front of us.

We need to ask: what has worked in other fights for abortion rights? The fight for public opinion in the United States, and ultimately for the Roe v. Wade decision, contained not just radical single-issue activists, but feminist activists in coalition with doctors and public health specialists who recognized that abortion is also a public health issue. In Argentina in 2018, a law that would have legalized free abortion generated massive protests and strikes, and galvanized feminists across Latin America around related gender issues. Across the world, new militant feminist movements are redefining what constitutes a labor issue, and agitating for general strikes and demands.

Direct action tactics do not by themselves build power, and must be tied to class struggle demands and popular campaigns. The demand for abortion rights, too, must be a fight for a mass movement first. At the end of the day, movements are made up of people, not tactics. The major question the abortion movement faces involves who we are trying to reach, and how. Any tactic, including clinic defense, should be measured against this question.