SOME 75 pro-choice protesters picketed a lecture on May 3 at the University of Washington (UW) titled, “Do women have too many rights?”
The speaker, Abby Johnson, is a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now speaks against women’s right to abortion. According to her website, Johnson has “always had a fierce determination to help women in need,” which is what led her to work at Planned Parenthood—and then leave, following a transformational “pro-life” experience after allegedly witnessing an abortion.
Her platform is a mix of co-opted feminist language regarding “choice” and non-scientific nonsense pieced together from Fox News and Live Action talking points.
Seattle Clinic Defense, a grassroots group dedicated to shame-free, medically accurate reproductive health care, and the Gender Equality Caucus of Occupy Seattle, organized a picket of the event. Seattle Clinic Defense’s actions, to date, have involved counter-picketing anti-choice demonstrators who harass women seeking reproductive health care at Planned Parenthood clinics across the Puget Sound area.
We stepped outside of that model for this action to challenge what we see as the modus operandi of the new anti-choice movement: showcasing young, female activists who portray their driving force as deep compassion for babies and women’s choices, so long as those choices only include parenting or adoption.
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THE EVENING started with UW student activists and pro-choice groups gathering to make signs and put stickers on coat hangers that said, “We won’t go back!” Protesters began a circular picket and chanted slogans such as “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,” “Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate,” and “Back alleys no more, abortion rights for rich and poor.”
After the picket, we moved inside to line the doorways to the event while holding our protest signs. We were met with hostile UW police, who demanded that we put away the coat hangers. As sharp objects, they were supposedly dangerous. That was the point: coat hangers are one of the many common items women have used to unsafely terminate unwanted pregnancies.
It was extremely satisfying to see a look of unease on many as anti-choice faces as they had to face our gauntlet to enter the event. It mirrored one of our most recent counter-pickets in Everett, Wash., in which about 30 anti-choice demonstrators lined the sidewalk on both sides leading to a Planned Parenthood.
We were sending a powerful message to the anti-choice members of the crowd: you are not safe from criticism here. Your tactics are unacceptable. See how uncomfortable it makes you to walk past us? And you’re just going to a lecture!
Inside, ushers handed out note cards for the “question-and-answer session,” making it obvious that only pre-selected, friendly questions would be fielded. The pro-choice audience heckled and shouted corrections to false scientific and historical statements, demanded citations, and booed and hissed appropriately.
For example, one of Johnson’s favorite talking points is that Planned Parenthood is a part of the abortion “industry,” and thus needs to meet a certain quota of abortions. Even more egregious is that Johnson asserts the cornerstone of anti-scientific rhetoric by claiming a fetus, at 13 weeks can not only feel pain, but attempt to “escape” the cannula used to evacuate the fetus from the uterus.
As we challenged the bald-faced, nearly comical lies and rhetoric that emanated from the stage, the anti-choice students asked us all to “be respectful” and “let Abby say her piece.” While some of us agree that the yelling got a little out of hand, the idea that folks should sit quietly with their hands folded and respect the speaker simply because she is speaking is fundamentally flawed.
Not only is what she says untrue, it’s downright offensive to women and health care providers. For too long, mainstream feminist organizations have ceded political space to hate groups that front speakers like Johnson. Free speech does not entitle one to escape challenge, especially when the material that is presented is non-scientific and laced with woman-hating, slut-shaming rhetoric.
Many people who are pro-choice believe that by counter-picketing the anti-choicers at clinics, we encourage higher attendance on their side—therefore, we should just ignore them. But they have created political space in front of a health care facility, and we’ll be damned if they go unchallenged.
The same logic holds true for an event that is titled, “Do women have too many rights?” Abby Johnson is a dangerous pawn in the new strategy of the war on women. In the 1990s, anti-choice groups tried violence; now they kill us with kindness, and the liberal feminist response has been to let them.
The religious extremists have the same end goal; they’re just adapted to a new strategy. We must also adapt and make sure that anti-choice groups and pro-choice sympathizers understand that when they use such language and tactics, it is not the exercise of free speech; the anti-woman minority has created political space in which hate speech can, and must, be challenged.
Originally published at Socialist Worker.