5.17.22 3:47 pm: An earlier version of this article failed to identify Planned Parenthood as a local clinic that provides medication abortions. We also incorrectly identified an individual as being a board member of Women’s Health Specialists. We have corrected both mistakes.
Anti-abortion activism at Women’s Health Specialists clinic last Wednesday drew increased patrols from the Redding Police Department and strong responses from clinic leaders and local abortion-access defenders. An activist from outside the area said he was there to help locals learn to more aggressively intervene to start conversations with clinic clients that might lead women to change their minds about getting an abortion.
Women’s Health Specialists, off Victor Avenue in Redding, is the only clinic in Shasta County where women can access surgical abortions, although medication abortions are available at Planned Parenthood. Limited clinic sites and procedure days are among many barriers to reproductive healthcare in California’s North State. Those barriers also include active social opposition to abortion, often expressed by vocal protestors who show up at the clinic site.
Last Wednesday, as staff inside the clinic provided reproductive health services for clients, outside, about 35 activists held signs, attempted to stop approaching vehicles, climbed ladders to yell over the clinic fence, and chanted prayers.
Their protest was vocally countered by abortion rights defender Heather Jones, who showed up at the clinic Wednesday with a bullhorn to protect abortion rights and help women feel safe going to the doctor. She said her actions Wednesday were motivated by her own experiences as a 16 year old, seeking healthcare on the other side of the clinic fence and being scared by the yells of anti-abortion activists. “(Women) shouldn’t be harassed and bombarded and yelled at any time they need to go to the clinic,” she said.
Women’s Health Specialist’s Executive Director, Katrina Cantrell, said she’s concerned about an increase in local anti-abortion activism at the clinic that correlates with current national threats to abortion access. Writing to Shasta Scout Saturday, Cantrell called on “civic leaders, friends, family and those we serve to come together and demand an environment free from harassment, intimidation and violence at clinic sites.”
Since its founding in 1971, the local clinic has been the site of repeated demonstrations against abortion that have included trespassing and arson. The independent, nonprofit clinic offers a range of reproductive health services in addition to abortions, including access to contraceptives, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and urinary tract infections, pregnancy testing, annual exams, sexual education and adoption services.
Recently, ongoing social tensions about women’s legal right to access reproductive healthcare have sharply increased in the wake of the recent leak of a draft Supreme Court decision, indicating that the end of federally legalized abortion access may be in sight.
But local organizer Jayme Murray, who described himself as a “dad and a churchman,” said that leak did not inspire Wednesday’s action at the clinic. Murray said he reached out to Tennessee-based, full time anti-abortion activist Scott Hord in January, long before the Supreme Court leak, to obtain more training on how to best to intervene to reduce abortions in Shasta County.
He explained that Hord’s approach to activism appeals to him because it “counters destructive forces in the community” by offering truth and compassion through conversation. Murray says he rejects violence or property destruction as part of anti-abortion activism, explaining that he and others on site have “great respect for righteous laws” including respect for private property, law enforcement and for not physically harming others.
No single network or church organized the activity at the clinic, Murray said, referring to the connections that brought people there as a “vague association” of various individuals who communicate on Signal to schedule anti-abortion activism. Some individuals at the clinic who spoke to Shasta Scout had traveled to the area from southern Oregon for the event while others, including Shasta County Board of Supervisors candidate, Frank LoBue, were local.
Hord, who travelled to the area from Tennessee to provide training to local activists, said he came to Shasta County to equip local anti-abortion activists through classroom training, strategizing, and on-site experiences and advice. Wednesday’s event at the clinic was both a training and an intervention, Hord said, describing what was happening inside the clinic as “killing children.”
“It’s a real world experience. I’ll observe and try to understand the environment, what’s the most effective and loving way to engage these people,” he explained. Describing a three-area strategy for engagement, he pointed out groups of people massed on the street-facing corner, some mid-street closer to the clinic and others near the clinic fence. Close to the clinic fence, he said, the strategy was conversation. “If we can get in the conversation then we can change their minds,” he said.
Those attempts at conversation are where Hord uses more aggressive tactics than some other activists might, including running up to approaching cars and using ladders to peer over the clinic’s corrugated metal fence and yell towards clients and staff on the other side. Asked about privacy concerns, Hord said the need for ladders was created by the clinic’s choice to put up the fence. “All we’re doing is elevating the conversation,” he said.
Anti-abortion activist Connie Petersen agreed, saying invasive tactics like ladders and yelling are legitimized by her concerns about abortion. “It’s rather urgent,” she said, “there’s bloodshed happening in there and that’s very upsetting to us, and we want to stop that. We want people to kind of wake up so we can say ‘look we can find another option for you.’ ”
Petersen was among several anti-abortion activists on site who referred to themselves as “abolitionists,” saying their work is intended to abolish abortion. While some anti-abortion activists and politicians believe enslavement and abortion similarly dehumanize populations, abortion advocates call that a false, or even backwards, equivalency. That’s in part because the history of legalized enslavement in America includes coerced reproduction that utilized enslaved women’s abilities to reproduce as a means of accumulating more human property.
Anti-abortion activism is protected by constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, as both Hord and Murray pointed out. But there are legal limits to how anti-abortion activists engage with women seeking reproductive health services. In 1994, after a wave blockades and violence by anti-abortion extremists targeting reproductive health providers, Congress passed a law making it a federal crime to use force, violence or obstruct property to interfere with abortion services. Murray said he he will not prevent women from accessing abortions and explained that he carefully examined the Redding municipal code prior to coming to the clinic to ensure that he and other activists did not accidentally trespass onto clinic property.
While many anti-abortion protestors are peaceful, violence targeting reproductive health facilities and workers has been so severe and ongoing that the FBI includes data about anti-abortion extremist violence in its studies of domestic terrorism threats. According to a report produced by the American Abortion Federation, anti-abortion activists committed 54 cases of battery, 5 attempted arsons, 80 acts of vandalism and made more than 200 threats of violence against reproductive health clinics and workers in 2020. And Women’s Health Specialists Clinic has itself been the target of violent demonstrations including a 1992 incident in which the clinic, which was formerly known Feminist Women’s Health Center, was set on fire by an arsonist, causing an estimated $40,000 in damage.
Even during peaceful demonstrations, that intense history of violence against clinic and healthcare providers may increase feelings of danger for clinic clients, staff and volunteers, in ways that likely reduce access to reproductive healthcare. Reproductive health workers say that they’re aware of the potential for anti-abortion protests to escalate to violence and studies show that awareness can impact their interest and ability to work in reproductive healthcare.
While both federal and state Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) laws forbid using the threat of force to prevent access to reproductive healthcare, the line between the threat of force and the kind of aggressive contact Hord was training locals in, which include running up to cars and yelling over fences, may be hard for some to find.
Hord called his tactics aggressive but non-violent. He says he’s often had the police called while he’s been on-site at abortion clinics, but he’s never been arrested. “I talk to people all the time,” he said, “because how do you define harassment? That’s your perspective that I’m harassing you, but I’m going to talk.” The most “heated” conversations, he said, often result in “rescues.”
And while Hord acknowledged that the language he and others use on-site may cause women seeking reproductive healthcare emotional distress, he justified his actions as done in “true love” to prevent a greater evil. Research indicates that the psychological distress and social isolation many women experience after seeking an abortion is directly connected to social stigma and judgment about abortion.
The distress caused by anti-abortion activists is the reason Women’s Health Specialists staff have trained and deployed volunteer clinic escorts who accompany women from their vehicles into clinic grounds, shielding them from activists who may attempt to stop them, speak with them, or video interactions for social media use. On Wednesday, clinic escorts were active on site, holding umbrellas and wearing orange safety vests. They declined to speak to Shasta Scout on the record, citing client and staff confidentiality and safety.
Despite the sometimes hostile climate surrounding clinics, abortion remains one of the most common and safest medical procedures in the United States. Three in 10 women will have an abortion in their lifetime, according to a 2014 study, and women of all races, faiths, economic classes and ages choose to do so. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center also indicates most Americans believe abortion should be legal.
But barriers to accessing abortion in Shasta County remain high and include a lack of comprehensive sex education in schools, strong social stigma against abortion, a single abortion clinic serving a population of 180,000 for all surgical abortions up to 12 weeks, and the need to travel outside the county for abortions past 12 weeks, among others. Women who choose to give birth also face steep barriers to their ability to care for themselves and their children including limited maternity leave, lack of affordable childcare, and limited access to the mental health supports that are often critical during the postpartum period.
Mental health concerns and lack of access to mental health care were the primary reasons that Tiffany Roll chose to have an abortion. Roll, who held a sign in support of women’s right to access abortion at the clinic Wednesday, said as a teenager in Nebraska without access to safe reproductive healthcare, she took steps on her own at home to ensure she did not remain pregnant. Making abortion illegal “isn’t going to stop abortion,” Roll said, “it’s only going to make (abortions) unsafe and make women turn to options that are more dangerous to their bodies, their health, and their minds.”
While anti-abortion activists on site told Shasta Scout Wednesday that plenty of supports are in place for women and that the church can offer them whatever the government doesn’t, Roll and Jones say they worry that support, should it materialize at all, would come with religious manipulation and pressure.
Local abortion-access advocates are also mobilizing support. Long-time Women’s Health Specialists consultant Laurie O’Connell told Shasta Scout by email that local women and their allies are quickly responding to the threat of a Supreme Court ruling to eliminate federal abortion protections by mobilizing a new coalition.
“Shasta Abortion Coalition began less than a week ago during a community meeting,” O’Connell wrote last week, “The energy in the room was outraged and electric, and we all felt galvanized to act immediately.” The group was responsible for organizing the May 8 “Bans off our Bodies” gathering, which brought together more than 100 women and their allies in downtown Redding just one day after the coalition formed.
O’Connell described the Shasta Abortion Coalition as a grassroots feminist collective of women and allies working to promote, preserve and protect abortion rights in the North State, statewide and nationally, while providing support for local independent clinics. “At this moment of crisis in U.S. history,” O’Connell wrote, “We will be planning more mass actions, clinic defense, direct aid actions for women who travel from other states in need of abortion, information and outreach efforts, and expansion of our social media as we grow.”
Clinic director Cantrell said while the country is clearly at a critical juncture that could leave 35 million women without access to abortion, the threat of legislation and increased anti-abortion activism has only increased her clinic staff’s determination to continue to provide reproductive health services to women in rural Northern California.
“We stand in strength and the long held tradition of self-determination,” Cantrell said. “The decision to control our own bodies, and health care must remain in the hands of the individual.”
Marc Dadigan contributed to this story.
Annelise Pierce is Shasta Scout’s Editor and Community Reporter covering government accountability, civic engagement, and local religious and political movements. You can contact her at [email protected]
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