Abortion clinic is facing protest spike; Why, no one knows

By Mary Reinholz

Just one day after thousands of demonstrators massed in Washington, D.C., to voice their opposition to Roe v Wade — the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal 37 years ago — four Roman Catholic anti-abortion advocates stood in twos a block apart on Bleecker St., displaying crucifixes and oval pictures of the Virgin Mary pinned to their clothing.

All were women well past the traditional reproductive years. Bundled up against the biting cold, they eyed a steady stream of young females who walked briskly toward the Margaret Sanger Center clinic, housed in a brick building on the corner of Mott and Bleecker Sts. It’s one of three clinics in New York operated by Planned Parenthood of New York City that together terminated some 17,000 unwanted pregnancies in 2008. Clients come from all over the country. 

New York State, which had relaxed laws on abortion before Roe v Wade, leads the nation in providing abortions to teenagers — 26,690 in 2005 for teens between ages 15 and 19, said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that released a study on abortion last week.

One of the anti-abortion activists offered the clients and their male companions free rosaries wrapped in cellophane and literature that claimed, without substantiation, that abortion was dangerous and could lead to varied complications, ranging from “perforation of the uterus” to a host of emotional ills, including depression and “thoughts of suicide.”

A black woman brusquely refused the material, but the activist, a middle-aged white who described herself as single and a lay member of a nearby Catholic congregation, kept smiling. 

“We’ve had turnarounds,” she said to a reporter, declining to give her name. “We had one girl who didn’t even go in. She joined us for coffee. No one is beyond conversion. As long as there’s breath in the person’s nostrils, they can be reached spiritually.

“We’re not protesters,” she noted. “Protesters are people who hold signs and yell, ‘Abortion will kill your baby.’ We just pass out rosaries and literature that provides women with alternatives to abortion.”

She seemed determined to distance herself from another Catholic activist on the east side of Mott St., an older woman who had driven from Queens in a weather-beaten blue Chevrolet and stood holding a sign showing photographs of aborted fetuses with printed statements claiming that abortionists “torture” the unborn and also sell their “body parts.”

It was around 9 o’clock on Saturday morning. The day before, Scott Roeder, the confessed killer of late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, went on trial in Wichita, Kan. (and was found guilty of murder by a jury on Jan. 29).

Two security guards from Planned Parenthood and a young woman “usher” stood not far from the aging activists, ready to escort clients into the clinic for abortions up to 24 weeks and other services, including H.I.V. screening, gynecological exams, emergency contraception, adoption referrals and birth control products, like pills, condoms, the patch and the NuvaRing. Most clients are under 25 and pay with Medicaid. But there are free programs, and no one is turned away, staffers said. 

A 36-year-old African-American female from Jamaica, Queens, who identified herself only as Sharaya, stopped to talk to the activists on the street, explaining she was going to the Margaret Sanger Center clinic for a “different reason” than getting an abortion. Asked by The Villager whether she would ever consider having an abortion, Sharaya replied: “I don’t know how to put it, but I think everybody has gotta do their thing. I can’t say no. But I guess the circumstances would have to be something traumatic, like if I was raped.”

Such scenarios repeat themselves on Saturdays in front of the brick building, with large demonstrations generally staged on the first Saturday of the month. That’s when nuns from an order called Sisters of Life, founded in 1991 by the late John Cardinal O’Connor, often show up with a big picture of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and pray the rosary. 

“We believe that abortion is the ultimate violence against women,” said Sister Lucy Aquinas during a telephone conversation from her convent.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, said that both the archdiocese and the Catholic Church across the country have never condoned violence at anti-abortion protests, adding, “and in fact they have condemned it at every turn.”

Zwilling noted that Cardinal O’Connor successfully encouraged New York City abortion clinic bomber Dennis J. Malvasi to turn himself in during a 1987 television appeal. 

Others opposed to abortion made similar claims and said that the protests were often “ecumenical,” representing members of many faiths. 

“We don’t harass anyone,” claimed 77-year-old Liz Costanzo, a Catholic right-to-life activist interviewed before she attended a Jan. 22 rally to mark the 37th anniversary of Roe v Wade at an “abortion mill” in Westchester. She is a member of the Right to Life Party in Westchester and an interfaith council on abortion. Costanzo believes her activism is helpful to women “in a dire condition. We offer them help that other people wouldn’t tell them about,” she said. “But we are hindering a lucrative business.”

As for the killer of Dr. Tiller in Wichita, Costanzo admitted there were “kooks” in the right-to-life movement — adding, “And we can’t account for them.”

But right-to-life activists on Bleecker St. sometimes “cross the line” from exercising their rights to free speech and harass patients, said Dana Czuczka, associate vice president of government affairs for Planned Parenthood, New York City. Czuczka noted that there had been an increased number of anti-abortion protests aimed at Planned Parenthood’s center on 26 Bleecker St. since this summer — and “not by any one group.”

The protests, she said in a telephone conversation, are varied, and they “run the gamut from peaceful, all the way through to people screaming and following folks” from the street into the clinic. “There have been instances where protesters have crossed the line and blocked access and there have been arrests,” she said.

Czuczka, who praised the New York Police Department’s cooperation, particularly at the Ninth Precinct, said there has never been any advance warning when protests will occur. 

“Quite frankly, we’re always on high alert,” she said. “We take security very seriously. Our main concern is the health and safety of our clients and our staff, and we’re always prepared in case there are protests. We see clients from all over the country, and we’re not sure what has triggered the increase in protesters.”

Sonia Ossorio, executive director of NOW-NYC of the National Organization for Women, said that street theater from anti-abortion activists showing grisly photographs of fetuses was nothing new. 

“A campaign of misinformation and scare tactics has been a main strategy of the right-to-life movement,” she said. “They have to be louder and have a campaign based on scare tactics because they are small in number. Surveys show the majority of Americans are pro-choice.”

Ossorio noted that the “entire reproductive rights community” worked to get a New York City law passed last year that gives the police more authority to deal with protesters “who are making it difficult for patients to get into clinics.” Clinic Access Bill No. 826 was introduced as a resolution by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, passed 39 to 8 by the Council, and signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg on April 20, 2009. Violators under arrest face misdemeanor charges. 

Paul Browne, the Police Department’s top spokesperson, did not respond to an e-mail requesting statistics on arrests at abortion clinics. But Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, after speaking at the New York Press Club on Jan. 19, made it clear that the N.Y.P.D. maintained “intelligence” on abortion clinics and said there would be “the usual coverage” on the anniversary of Roe v Wade three days later.