In the early ’90s, anarchists and other feminists defended clinics with our bodies and taught each other how to do abortion techniques such as menstrual extraction safely. As the Christian Right bombed hundreds of clinics, killed health care providers and patients, and mobilized its base to swarm clinics and shut them down, grassroots reproductive freedom activists stood against this terror, building a powerful and exciting movement. But liberal feminist nonprofits rejected this grassroots mass movement, choosing to rely on the police and courts for protection. Since then, the Christian Right has continued to attack and harass people at clinics, mobilizing its own grassroots activists to shame people getting health care and shut down clinics one by one. Their local, bottom-up strategy took the long view and is now winning at the highest levels of government. If today’s movement for reproductive freedom is to win, it must return to the grassroots.
The militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue was founded in 1986 to mobilize thousands of people to physically block and shut down clinics across the country. This well-funded and well-staffed organization presented an image of the Christian Right as peaceful activists guided by a deep moral outrage, although some of its leaders had signed a pledge defending the assassination of abortion providers and were active in the right-wing militia movement. Reproductive freedom activists, led by people with the capacity to get pregnant, mobilized to protect clinics with our bodies. On the ground, Operation Rescue was aggressive, and sometimes the space in front of clinics erupted into hand-to-hand combat as anti-abortion activists shoved people and tried to crawl through their legs.
Clinic Defense: Using Our Bodies to Protect Our Lifesaving Spaces
I did clinic defense a few times, when I was 18 and 19. As a student at Antioch College in 1992, I went to Columbus, Ohio with some friends on a few Saturdays. We’d wake up super early and stand in formation in front of the clinic with dozens of others to protect it. We saw these health centers as precious places. People going through trauma after sexual assault and through abusive relationships, very young people, and married women trying to keep their lives from getting unmanageable were taking control of their health despite their vulnerability in those moments. As protectors we took our role seriously and we bonded with each other as we stood against the enemy. This was the source of the passion that grew a powerful movement from below.
My dear friend Kathy became a legend at Antioch one day for her response to a vile Christian Right protester who harassed her for hours outside the clinic. Kathy was a hot butch lesbian who grew up on a farm and didn’t take shit, although she was quiet most of the time. This man kept telling her, “You should be married and having children,” until finally, she pulled out her bloody pad, put it in his hand and said, “Put this in your petri dish and grow it!”
This was the vibe at clinic defense. We were taking back our power and control of our bodies, and the energy this ignited in us as a collective body grew exponentially. There’s something about being there when your life-giving space is under attack, being able to defend it successfully, and doing it together. Using our bodies to defend our bodily autonomy.
Operation Rescue targeted my hometown of Philadelphia during the summer of 1993. With at least a hundred people on our side—maybe hundreds—we kept the clinic open. Operation Rescue had about half as many people and stood on the sidewalk across the street. I remember following a crew of badass anarchist lesbians whom I admired around the corner and a few blocks away as they chased a male leader of Operation Rescue, yelling at him and surrounding him. They got in his face, and he cowered. Our power took a visible, audible, unstoppable form: Get out of our town.
Back outside the clinic, I saw a friend on the other side of the street, with the anti-abortion activists. She had been the first to welcome me to my new school when I’d moved to Philly. I felt my face get hot and looked away. I almost felt remorse for the confrontation along with my disappointment. Should I pretend I didn’t see her?
I decided to cross the street and say hi. Sheepishly but warmly, she returned my friendly greeting. It looked like she was there with a church group. A woman standing next to her cast me some snide vibes, saying, “Shouldn’t you be over there?” My friend and I ran out of things to say and I went back, but I felt better knowing she hadn’t rejected me. Decades later, we reconnected on social media, and she is living happily as a lesbian with a wife and kids.
Thinking of that day reminds me of the value of my brilliant, late comrade Joel Olson’s favorite saying, “Peace to the villages—war to the palaces.” A little kindness goes a long way with people we can win over, but we can’t let politeness and decorum get in the way of wielding our power against those who would take our power away.
A Betrayal: Liberal Feminist Nonprofits Tell Defenders to Go Home
In 1995, I moved to New York City and joined Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. In the August/September issue of our national newspaper that year, Laura from Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR), wrote:
Fight Back Network members from BACORR, Refuse & Resist Minneapolis, and Love and Rage went to LA May 25th-28th to try to keep the clinics open and to blast OR’s efforts to define themselves in the media as non-violent-peaceful-baby-lovin’-Christians. BACORR had been in touch with WAC LA (Women’s Action Coalition) and a Southern California NOW chapter that welcomed our support and involvement.
Unfortunately, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, a national nonprofit, was in charge at the scene. As reported by Laura, the Fund had put a lot of resources into electing Bill Clinton as president and lobbying for a law that passed in 1994 to make it a federal crime to block clinic doors. The Fund had decided to let Operation Rescue and a group calling themselves Missionaries for the Pre-Born shut down the clinics in LA that day, in order to bring the FACE law into the courts as a test case. Laura continued:
Saturday, the day of the hit, hundreds of pro-choicers were at the clinics around LA. Many had followed the OR caravan from its church meeting-point earlier in the morning. The Fund’s “official leaders” made it clear from the get go that they would offer no resistance to OR if they rushed the door, and were depending on the police to move the anti’s away and level federal charges.
In a nutshell, the anti’s were permitted to sit down in front of the doors, creating the image of non-violent anti-abortion protest. They kept the clinic shut down for two hours. The Fund’s main office lied to BACORR and to Palm Springs NOW, who they knew was working with BACORR, about OR’s whereabouts—telling us they had lost the caravan and had no idea where it was. … A local reporter told us that she had interviewed pro-choice people who were standing at the door when the hit went down who were told not to stop the anti’s and to move away from the door.
Operation Rescue got their dream media opportunity, and police beat and injured Laura and a friend after Fund staff told police they had nothing to do with the official pro-choice response. The Fund didn’t alert legal support that Laura and her friend had been arrested, and they implied to the media that the two had deserved it. Operation Rescue and Missionaries for the Pre-Born were arrested gently at their sit-in, creating a widely broadcast spectacle of peacefully praying dissent, but they were never even charged under the FACE law.
How the Christian Right Won
While the Fund and other liberal feminist nonprofits ordered clinic defenders to stop protecting clinics and simply hold a “Keep Abortion Legal” sign on the sidelines, the Christian Right supported and honored its grassroots movement. They energized large numbers of people, and they inspired many, many more who followed their actions. While the pro-choice establishment dismantled our movement, grassroots activists of the Christian Right have never stopped protesting outside clinics. Even in major liberal cities, they harass and shame people who are just trying to get health care. This grassroots, on-site shaming campaign has made abortion something people feel like they need to be ashamed of, feel guilty about, and not talk about—in contrast to the first decade after legalization in the U.S., when people interviewed about their abortions mostly talked about how relieved they felt. This grassroots movement in local areas across the country has grown stronger over the past three decades, getting clinics closed one by one, winning at the state level and now at the national level, proving to us on the Left what we already knew: Power comes from below.
Since the 1990s, any time there’s an upsurge in support of abortion access, it’s been brief and felt kind of abstract. Young people need an inspiring, direct-action movement to jump into with all their heart and their bodies—they won’t be inspired by getting told to carry a sign through the biggest street in their town. Maybe once or twice, but then it dies down. It’s hard to build a base when you’re not at the place where harm is being done and able to stop it, or at the place where lives are being saved and able to protect it.
There’s an honest argument to be made that health clinics should never have to be battlegrounds, that patients in moments of vulnerability shouldn’t have to walk through such a war. But they’ve been walking through a gauntlet of shame all these years anyway, because clinic defenders haven’t been there to shield them from the hate. And in the ’90s, clinic defenders used our creativity and joy as a buffer between patients and attackers. The Church Ladies for Choice brought their drag queen brilliance, and our queer kiss-ins outside right-wing churches freaked out the Christian Right activists to the point they would avoid getting near us.
As a strategy, anarchists and other revolutionaries in the reproductive freedom movement have consistently—as in for more than 50 years—demanded the repeal of all abortion laws. Not more state involvement from the police and courts, but a removal of all state power in our reproductive lives. We call it “reproductive freedom” because it’s about more than abortion. it’s about the history of forced and coerced sterilizations of Black, Latinx, and Native American women and other people with the capacity to bear children. It’s about the population control tactics used against poor people and those who use drugs.
People don’t have the ability to “choose” whether to have a kid or not when wages are too low, childcare is not accessible, and the rent is too damn high. Medicaid hasn’t paid for abortions since the Hyde Amendment in 1977. Giving a baby up for adoption—or being adopted—can be deeply traumatizing, especially under our current, unsupportive system. And it’s worse for children of color adopted by white parents. But “choice” has been our battle cry since the 1980s. Why? This “choice” versus “life” debate has allowed the Christian Right to control the narrative and make it about their idea of morality. It’s been a successful wedge strategy from the Right, dividing people who could be united in coalitions.
Can We Still Win Now?
If the Christian Right won by building their grassroots movement and letting its power grow across the decades, so must we. If our power is strongest at the location of our bodily autonomy—in the places where we are able to exercise our reproductive freedom—then we must build our movement there.
Abortion pills and menstrual extraction (which can be done in our homes by trained people who don’t have to be medical professionals) allow us to take care of ourselves on our own territory. This is our strongest position strategically and what the Right fears most. They are using surveillance by state power and vigilantes to track, hunt down, and punish whoever provides and receives these medications and treatments, because they can’t just rely on hospital and doctors’ records. Every home could be an abortion clinic. It’s a scary situation, but it also makes clear our advantage.
So it seems clear that the reproductive freedom movement’s strategy now is to protect these sites of health care and resistance by building powerful, anti-racist and queer-positive coalitions involving hundreds of thousands of people. We need as many people involved as possible in order to keep the most vulnerable safe and also to make this health care accessible. If it’s limited to those in the know—people who are already activists and people who are able to find out about the support networks they need—that will exclude the people who need it most.
Some of these coalitions and support networks need to be underground, and some need to be above ground. Some need to be sharing information with people who need abortions about how to get abortion pills and what to say if they need to go to the emergency room (“I think I’m having a miscarriage”—don’t mention abortion). Some need to be driving people to appointments, providing emotional support, following up and making sure people are OK. Some need to be talking to the media and educating, agitating, and organizing in our communities and workplaces. Some will need to fundraise for legal support and organize demonstrations in solidarity with reproductive freedom’s new political prisoners. This work is direct action, because you’re meeting a basic human need in defiance of those who’d prefer that we die.