By HEATHER BRADFORD
While some people prefer to spend the fall season carving pumpkins, thousands of anti-choice activists across the United States prefer to spend it trying to carve away reproductive rights. In over 500 cities, from Marietta, Ga., to Bismarck, N.D., anti-choice protesters have once again mobilized for the annual fall campaign, 40 Days for Life. Beginning Sept. 25 and ending Nov. 3, reproductive health clinics are again inundated with demonstrators from dawn until dusk during the 40-day vigil. In the wake of aggressive abortion restrictions passed last spring and summer and over 40 years of attacks on abortion rights, it is critical that pro-choice activists take action against this campaign.
What is the 40 Days for Life?
For those unfamiliar with these events, the 40 Days for Life is an international campaign that urges participants to use prayer, fasting, education, and vigils to stop abortion. On the surface, these may sound benign compared to arson, murder, acid attacks, or other less kindly tactics used by the anti-choice movement in the past. Participants must even sign an agreement that they will obey the law and conduct themselves with non-violence. Nevertheless, these tactics constitute harassment of patients who utilize reproductive health services.
If it were truly a matter of religious fasting and prayer, this could be done in the privacy of home or in churches, rather than at hundreds of reproductive health clinics across the country. While the actions are framed as vigils, these “vigils” are held outside of clinics, sometimes for over 12 hours a day, for the entire 40 days. Participants carry signs that say “Pray to End Abortion,” and they “witness” or engage with staff, patients, and pedestrians.
The religious language of vigil obscures the reality that it is a picket line, and “witnessing” often amounts to harassment. For instance, at the WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minn., a few of these picketers have prayed loudly, played religious music, skirted the property, and entered the physical space of patients and counter-protesters. Indeed, it is a movement to end abortion not through the imagined power of the spiritual realm, but in the very real public arena through picketing and marshaling anti-choice activists into action. While there may be some praying involved, appearing at clinics amounts to preying upon patients.
The 40 Days for Life initially grew out of anti-choice activism in Texas. David Bereit, the founder of the group and former pharmaceutical sales representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb, began his activist career organizing against the 1998 expansion of a Planned Parenthood in College Station, Texas. Planned Parenthood had operated in College Station for 24 years, but sought to build a stand-alone facility to provide abortions. In response to this, Bereit founded the Coalition for Life, which protested the Planned Parenthood on abortion days.
Over the years, Bereit saw decreased engagement in this organizing. Looking for fresh tactics, he envisioned the 40 Days for Life as a shorter, more targeted campaign. In the fall of 2004, the first 40 Days for Life recruited 1000 volunteers to picket in the public rightaway of the College Station Planned Parenthood. The campaign drew support from local churches and Knights of Columbus, who covered daily shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The following year, a second 40 Days for Life was launched in Dallas to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and quickly expanded to Seattle, Houston, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Owing to the swift success of the campaign, Bereit went on to work for the American Life League, a national organization opposed to euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research, and all forms of contraceptives.
The first nationally coordinated 40 days for Life began in 2007 in 89 cities and 33 states (Bereit, Carney, and Lambert, 2017). The campaign has since spread to 61 countries, has amassed 1 million participants, is supported by 19,000 churches, and claims to have closed over 104 abortion clinics (Saving lives and ending abortion, 2019).
It is a certainly a bold claim to say they have closed 104 abortion clinics. But, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of clinics across the country. For instance, in 1992 Kentucky had eight abortion facilities, but as of 2018 had one. In 1992, Louisiana had 17 abortion facilities and as of 2018 had three. In Missouri, there were 12 abortion facilities, but in 2018, it was down to one.
Many of these closures are due to TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Facilities. TRAP laws are among the 1100 restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade and target clinics by forcing them to comply with unnecessary regulations such as admitting privileges, minimum room and doorway sizes, and meeting the requirements of ambulatory surgical centers. The Supreme Court struck down TRAP laws in Texas in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (Arons, n.d.). However, the decision came too late for many clinics.
In 2013, prior to the passage of TRAP Laws under House Bill 2, there were over 40 abortion clinics in Texas. This number was halved by the time the Supreme Court decision was made in 2016 and it is unlikely that many of the clinics will reopen (Ura, Murphy, Daniel, and Carbonell, 2016). The 40 Days for Life is not specifically related to TRAP laws, but it is part of a continuum of tactics used by the anti-choice movement. With fewer clinics operating across the country, it is easier for anti-choice forces to concentrate their protests on what few remain.
The Planned Parenthood that served College Station, where the 40 Days for Life began, itself closed in 2013. The clinic, along with three other Planned Parenthoods, closed their doors the same day Texas governor Rick Perry announced the passage of House Bill 2. However, the clinic cited that loss of funding after the 2011 legislative session was the reason for the closure (Brown, 2013). The closure of the clinic was made more appalling by the fact that the facility subsequently went on to become a crisis pregnancy center called Hope Pregnancy Center and a headquarters for the 40 Days for Life (CCM News, 2015). Crisis Pregnancy Centers are yet another tactic used by the anti-choice movement. These fake clinics have proliferated across the United States, using the guise of reproductive health care to spread false information and lure abortion seekers away from actual clinics.
The 40 Days for Life campaign today
This year in Minnesota, there are seven registered 40 Days for Life campaigns. The number of campaigns outnumber the actual number abortion clinics in the state, which is five. According to UnRestrict MN, three of five of these clinics are located within the Minneapolis and St. Paul area (2019). Wisconsin is hosting seven 40 Days for Life vigils this year, but only has three abortion clinics in the state. Many of these pickets are located at Planned Parenthoods, which often do not provide abortions. For instance, although Planned Parenthoods in Mankato, Minn., and St. Cloud, Minn., are not abortion providers they are locations for the 40 Days for Life campaign. The campaign therefore targets cancer screening, STI tests, birth control, transgender health services, and other health care.
Make no mistake, they want to end Planned Parenthood. Even communities without reproductive health providers are hosting campaigns. Although Walker, Minn., has a population of less than 1000 and is two hours away from the nearest abortion clinics in either direction, it is home to a 40 Days for Life campaign. The remote town was even visited by Dr. Haywood Robinson, the director of the campaign’s medical affairs and education. Robinson was once an abortion provider, who now describes abortion as genocide and was a founding member of the 40 Days for Life when it first launched in Texas (40 Days for Life’ speaker comes to Walker, 2019).
The passage of restrictive abortion laws this past year has only increased the numbers of anti-choice demonstrators at clinics this fall. The Red River Clinic of Fargo, N.D., the only abortion clinic in the state, reported a larger than usual number of protesters during this year’s 40 Days for Life. Earlier this year, North Dakota passed a law that would require doctors to provide inaccurate information that drug-induced abortion can be reversed. A lawsuit against the restriction has been filed by the Red River Clinic and American Medical Association and the law was recently blocked by a federal judge (Hyatt, 2019).
In Alabama, where the Human Life Protection Act was passed in May, protesters have reportedly increased in numbers in the subsequent months. The ban, which sought to make abortion a felony offense for doctors and outlawed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is being legally challenged by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery Ala., one of three clinics in the state, has braced itself for more demonstrators, who have purchased a nearby parking lot for their operations. Their activities include a mobile ultrasound machine called “Life on Wheels,” which offers ultrasounds to abortion seekers in an attempt to sway their decision. A local pro-choice organization called Power House provides housing for abortion seekers and escorts them to their appointment by shielding them with an umbrella and navigating the crowds of harassers (Crain, 2019).
As a whole, there has been a substantial uptick in anti-choice activities at abortion clinics over the last several years. The number of protesters outside of clinics was 21,175 in 2015 and by 2018 had risen to 99,409. Incidents of obstruction at clinics has also increased, from 242 instances in 2015 to 3038 instances in 2018. One example is Red Rose Rescue, wherein anti-choice activists trespass into health clinics to harass patients under the guise of giving them a red rose. Abortion clinics reported 15,773 instances of internet harassment and hate mail in 2017, which increased to 21, 252 in 2018. Instances of hate mail and phone harassment increased by 1000 since 2015 (National Abortion Federation, 2018).
This increased activity has many causes, and no doubt, the election of Donald Trump has emboldened many reactionary elements of society. Further, anti-choice activists may be on the move because their movement has been given new life by their many successes passing abortion restrictions, expanding crisis pregnancy centers, and limiting funding to reproductive health services (such as Planned Parenthood’s loss of Title X funding).
The need for a 40 Days for Choice
There are modest, but valiant efforts across the country to counter the 40 Days for Life. In 2014, the Feminist Justice League in Duluth, Minn., began counter protesting the 40 Days for Life and have continued this effort each fall, picketing once a week. The group has also organized “Chalk for Choice” once a week. This event entails creating positive messages and images on the plaza of the Building for Women. The Building for Women is home to the WE Health Clinic, one of the five abortion clinics in Minnesota. The clinic plays an important role in providing abortion to the northern and central parts of the state as well as Northern Wisconsin and Michigan.
Locally, the 40 Days for Choice has grown, as Feminist Action Collective, founded after the election of Donald Trump, has also sponsored a once a week counter protest during the 40 Days for Life. H.O.T.D.I.S.H. (Hands of the Decision, It’s Healthcare) Militia, an abortion fund also located in Duluth, has also joined the 40 Days for Choice, and last year hosted one night a week of protest and also organizes an abortion fundraiser during the 40 Days. Other Duluth events for the 40 Days for Choice this year included an educational presentation on the constitutional history of reproductive rights, a launch party for the 40 Days for Choice, and an upcoming poetry night that celebrates body autonomy.
University of Minnesota Duluth’s Student Advocates for Choice have also collaborated on community events for the 40 Days for Choice, including participation in the H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia abortion fundraiser and hosting their own protests of the Women’s Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center located across the street from the WE Health Clinic. The statewide UnRestrict Minnesota campaign has sponsored some of these events and sought to involve AFSCME in reproductive rights organizing. The collaboration of multiple groups for the 40 Days for Choice offers an organizing template of what might be possible elsewhere in the country.
Other events are also being organized. Since 2015, the Guild of Silly Heathens in Missouri has hosted a variety of pro-choice events for a 40 Days for Choice at Planned Parenthood in Columbia, Mo. Like many Planned Parenthoods, the Columbia location does not provide abortions but is still a hotspot for anti-choice protest. The sole abortion provider in Missouri is in St. Louis (Woods, 2018). Missouri is one of six states with only one abortion clinic, a clinic which was almost closed this past summer in the wake of new restrictions. The Movement for Abortion Defense in Cincinnati has also counter protested the 40 Days for Life last spring. Madison Wisconsin Abortion Defense held a counter protest against the 40 Days for Life last March. Unfortunately, there is no nationally coordinated effort to organize the 40 Days for Life, so these actions are taken by individual groups or small networks of groups in collaboration.
Abortion does not have to be a controversial issue. It is health care that should be available free, readily, safely, on demand, and without stigma. Beyond health care, it is vital to the equality, inclusion, and empowerment of women and abortion seekers who are trans and non-binary. Forced pregnancy is degrading, inhumane, and dangerous.
There is a lot of work to be done to fight back against the onslaught of restrictions and barriers that have been passed since Roe v. Wade. One piece of this work should be a nationally organized campaign against the 40 Days for Life as part of renewed engagement in clinic defense and mass action. The anti-choice movement is coming out in force and all defenders of reproductive justice rise to the occasion in a time when abortion rights are already barely existent in large swaths of the country. While this is a movement that has sworn to non-violence tactics, the consequence of illegal abortion is anything but.
In a society with widespread sexual assault, domestic violence, economic deprivation, mass incarceration, and marginalization of the oppressed, body autonomy is the leading front in the battleground for liberation.
Arons, J. (n.d.). The Last Clinics Standing. Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/reproductive-freedom/abortion/last-clinics-standing.
Bereit, D., Carney, S., & Lambert, C. (2017). 40 Days for life: discover what God has done … imagine what He can do. Nashville, TN: Cappella Books.
Brown, B. (2013, July 19). Planned Parenthood announces closure of Bryan clinic, two others in Texas. Retrieved from https://www.theeagle.com/news/local/planned-parenthood-announces-closure-of-bryan-clinic-two-others-in/article_f5ded327-fe5a-5694-b5e3-35a759a33ef2.html.
CM News. (2015, November 10). Planned Parenthood Facility Repurposed In Bryan, Texas. Retrieved from https://www.ccmmagazine.com/news/planned-parenthood-facility-repurposed-in-bryan-texas/.
Crain, A. (2019, September 25). 40 Days for Life means more protesters outside Alabama abortion clinic. Retrieved from https://www.al.com/news/2019/09/40-days-for-life-means-more-protesters-outside-alabama-abortion-clinic.html.
How many abortion clinics are there in Minnesota? (2019). Retrieved from https://unrestrictmn.org/faq/abortion-facilities-in-minnesota/.
Hyatt, K. (2019, September 25). Protesters gather outside Fargo abortion clinic on start of 40-day campaign. Retrieved from https://www.westfargopioneer.com/news/4678872-Protesters-gather-outside-Fargo-abortion-clinic-on-start-of-40-day-campaign.
National Abortion Federation. (2018). 2018 Anti-Abortion Violence and Disruption Statistics. (pp. 1–10). Retrieved from https://prochoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-Anti-Abortion-Violence-and-Disruption.pdf
Saving lives & ending abortion. (2019). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.40daysforlife.com/about-results.aspx.
Ura, A., Murphy, R., Daniel, A., & Carbonell, L. (2016, June 28). Here Are the Texas Abortion Clinics That Have Closed Since 2013. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/28/texas-abortion-clinics-have-closed-hb2-passed-2013/.
Woods, E. (2018, January 3). 40 Days for Life: Protesting the Protesters. Retrieved from https://reproaction.org/40-days-for-life-protesting-the-protesters/.
40 Days for Life’ speaker comes to Walker, (2019, October 17). Retrieved from https://www.bluemountaineagle.com/life/national/days-for-life-speaker-comes-to-walker/article_16d52b8a-84c2-567b-b1d9-4815c43db3f8.html.