Abortion in NYC: How to Fight the Right

A protestor holding up a sign that reads "Abortion is Essential"
Why has the left ceded civil disobedience to anti-abortionists?

By Anne Rumberger

Photographs by Camilo Fuentealba

Lux Issue 8 explores international approaches to abortion access. Read more dispatches from El Salvador, U.S. prisons, Palestine, and Croatia.

Outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Downtown Brooklyn, a small but noisy band of anti-abortion activists stand in front of the entrance pushing pro-life pamphlets at people walking into the building. The group, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), has traveled from Washington, D.C. to “sidewalk counsel” patients. Those of us there to counter them are on-edge, watching closely to see if they’ll try to enter the clinic, as they have been known to do in other cities. A man walks up, confused about which of us are pro-choice and which are pro-life. The PAAU activists laugh about getting mistaken for abortion supporters. Their signs are perplexing to the uninitiated: “liberal atheist against abortion” and “divest from big abortion now.” One anti-abortion activist with a pin from the abolitionist group Survived and Punished states her opposition to prisons and talks about her fundraising efforts for incarcerated pregnant women — while she was serving prison time for invading an abortion clinic in Michigan.

A man stands in the middle of a street leading a protest

These oddball extremists, who mix seemingly lefty politics with civil disobedience tactics, have carved out a niche for themselves in the anti-abortion ecosystem. Founded in the fall of 2021 with the stated aim of “reclaiming progressivism for life,” PAAU prioritizes direct action and publicity stunts to attract media attention and recruit young activists who feel out of step with mainstream pro-life groups because of their political views or marginalized identities. 

If we continue to let the antis go with no pushback they’re just going to keep going.

With 6,300 followers on Twitter at the time of this writing, 10,300 on Instagram (where the group’s pronouns are listed as they/them/theirs) and just 5,730 on TikTok, the group is a small part of the pro-life movement (Students for Life, for example, has 183,000 followers on Instagram). Still, they show up absolutely everywhere, inserting themselves into coverage of post-Dobbs protests and the FDA loosening restrictions for medication abortion. They made macabre headlines when five fetuses were found in the Washington, D.C. apartment of PAAU activist Lauren Handy; the group claimed it was investigating illegal late-term abortions.

But what makes them so scary for abortion providers, not to mention patients, is their tactic of invading abortion clinics to “rescue” unborn children — a conscious effort to revitalize the right-wing rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which led to mass civil disobedience and arrests and was accompanied by a spike in violence against abortion providers and clinic staff. That the left-wing tactic of civil disobedience is now primarily practiced by anti-abortion activists in this fight is, in a sense, a reminder of how much terrain we’ve ceded, and how many tools we’ve thrown away. 

A color photograph of a protester with NYC
for Abortion Rights marching with their middle finger up in the air.
Protesters with NYC for Abortion Rights march outside the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral

PAAU members clearly relish being ideologically elusive. They make everyone angry. Outlaws from both the right and the left! Mainstream pro-lifers attack them for their support of birth control or their avowed “pro-sex” position or for not taking a strong stand against rape and incest exceptions to state abortion bans. And the left despises them for their commitment to forced pregnancies and their clinic invasions. 

Despite — or because — of the fact that they are the misunderstood teenagers of the anti-abortion movement, they’ve attracted a lot of credulous mainstream media attention. Most of this soft coverage is too bemused by PAAU’s unorthodox views to be critical of their contribution to growing anti-abortion extremism. The country has seen a rise in major incidents like arson, burglaries, death threats, stalking and stalking, and obstructions. There have been sixty invasions and blockades of abortion facilities since 2017, as documented by the National Abortion Federation’s Violence and Disruption Report from 2022. Such fanatic acts rose most in states where abortion access is protected, as anti-abortion activists shifted their focus after dozens of clinics were forced to close in states that banned or restricted abortion.

In a New York Times group profile of “the pro-life generation,” published weeks after the fall of Roe, PAAU’s 20-year-old communications director is described as a feminist, an atheist, and a leftist who started a punk band called EmbryHoez (she has since shared her Catholic conversion story on social media). The Times piece also refers to an arson attempt at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) in Nashville as “part of a rash of vandalism incidents at pregnancy resource centers across the country,” without the additional context that there have been many more acts and threats of violence aimed at abortion clinics than at CPCs. Nor does it mention that Handy, a self-described Catholic anarchist and PAAU’s director of activism, has served jail time for invading clinics in Virginia and Michigan. She’s also one of ten anti-abortion activists indicted last year on federal charges for allegedly using chains and rope to block the entrance to the Washington Surgi-Clinic in October 2020.

Nuns at the YC Abortion Protest

PAAU is proudly tapping into a legacy of extremism. One of Handy’s arrests, in 2017, was part of a “rescue action” coordinated by Monica Migliorino Miller, one of the leaders of the original rescue movement. “Pro-lifers think abortion kills…but don’t wanna act like it,” exclaims a PAAU TikTok, echoing the slogan from the heyday of Operation Rescue, the largest militant anti-abortion group in history: “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” PAAU leaders refer to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry as a mentor and feature historical photos of Operation Rescue campaigns on Instagram with the hashtag #bringbackrescue.

Between 1987 and the early 1990s, Operation Rescue mobilized with apocalyptic rhetoric tens of thousands of people to block clinic entrances in mass acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. There were an estimated 40,000 arrests of anti-abortion activists in over 500 clinic blockades around the country. Violence also increased: More than 200 abortion clinics were firebombed or damaged and seven abortion providers and clinic staff were murdered in the 1990s. 

A group of band musicians play music in a circle

The civil disobedience and direct-action tactics that Operation Rescue popularized in the anti-abortion movement were borrowed from the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Terry, a former pastor and used car salesman, made his mark by rebranding what was a left-wing protest tactic into a religiously motivated form of action that his fire-and-brimstone evangelical followers could get behind. Previously, Catholic anti-abortion activists, some of whom were involved in the civil rights, anti-war, and anti-nuclear movements, had organized “sit-ins’’ outside of abortion clinics; some escalated by trespassing and conducting these in waiting rooms or chaining themselves to medical equipment. Terry recognized that the growing base of evangelical abortion opponents in the 1980s wouldn’t go near protests that looked suspiciously like lefty actions from the 1960s. So he named them “rescues” and invoked New Testament reasoning for breaking “unjust laws,” inviting evangelical pastors to bring their congregations to picket or block clinic entrances and gaining support from prominent conservatives like Jerry Falwell.

We have largely forgotten about the mass direct action at the center of our past liberation.

PAAU’s present-day rescue movement claims both Terry’s right-wing evangelical Operation Rescue and the more liberal Catholic forebears of the anti-abortion sit-in movement as their inspiration. They co-opt human rights and social justice rhetoric and present themselves as standing up for the rights of a marginalized group, in this case, the unborn. They fight against the “abortion industrial complex,” and challenge “big abortion” by “fighting for the rights of the most oppressed.” Their signs and slogans feign alignment with feminist and abolitionist values: “Women’s rights begin in the womb” and “Telling women you won’t be free without abortion is misogyny” and “The preborn are us. We keep us safe.” At the same time, the organization offers young militants the chance to put their bodies on the line for the pro-life cause and PAAU’s professed progressive and secular motivations generate buzz for a mostly right-wing, deeply conservative Christian movement. 

Colour photograph of protesters holding umbrellas.
Blocking anti-choice protesters from patients’ view

“A successful rescue is crossing the property line and delegitimizing the abortion industry,” said Handy while instructing activists in rescue tactics in early 2023. Soon after Trump was elected, Monica Miller relaunched the rescue movement with a new twist, inspired by a Canadian anti-abortion activist who started invading clinics and handing patients red roses with pro-life messages tied to them. Activists associated with the red rose rescue movement — primarily Catholics, some of them members of the clergy — have invaded at least 20 abortion clinics since 2017, attempting to dissuade patients from following through with their abortions. PAAU members have participated in these and then started organizing their own, with pink roses, not red, for patients, which they say symbolize the moral rather than religious motivations of the invasions. They also conduct “opportunity rescues,” unplanned invasions where circumstances are right to escalate a regular day of sidewalk counseling or clinic protesting. Many of these invasions are documented on Instagram and Tiktok, showing PAAU activists with pink roses entering clinic waiting rooms or pleading with patients through closed exam room doors, berating clinic escorts by calling them “deathscorts” and “psychos.” According to reproductive rights advocacy organization Endora, there have been 53 successful invasions (red and pink rose rescues), nine attempted invasions, and seven successful blockades (lock and blocks or barring of doors and entryways) since 2017.

"This church harasses patients" written on white chalk on the sidewalk

Why have abortion supporters ceded the tactics of direct action and civil disobedience to PAAU and their ilk? After all, the right to abortion was won in the streets over decades of protest, illegal abortion provision through groups like the Jane Collective, and a passionate feminist movement’s angry confrontations with politicians. The Dobbs decision seems to have given us a collective amnesia, a hazy and incorrect recollection that abortion was simply won through good lawyering and putting some sensible judges on the Court. Today, a dedicated but defanged mainstream feminist movement and an array of D.C.-based pro-choice non-profits seem more committed than ever to electing feckless Democrats and protecting their own limited influence while our direct action muscles atrophy. We have largely forgotten about the mass direct action at the center of our past liberation. 

Many providers and activists are working extremely hard to support those seeking abortion care in the post-Roe era; it’s hard not to be frustrated when organizations with the most power and resources in the repro movement are unwilling to take risks, make bold demands, or embrace the tactics that could help us win them. “We need to organize against a moderate approach to a very extreme crisis,” says Pamela Merritt, founder of ReproAction and Executive Director of Medical Students for Choice. “Every right was won through nonviolent direct action in tandem with legislative strategy. Direct action can be empowering. What we need are states with abortion bans coming together to coordinate direct action and collective demands to make a bigger impact.”

In states where the anti-abortion movement has been well-funded and well-coordinated for decades, mainstream pro-choice groups and many abortion clinic administrators have been reluctant, or even hostile, to abortion supporters interested in using direct action to confront anti-abortion activists outside of clinics. Planned Parenthood has asked pro-choice protesters to avoid confronting anti-abortion activists like those in PAAU, fearing clinic-adjacent drama that would disturb patients. 

A colour photograph of someone holding up a sign that reads "Abortion Saves Lives"

As Derenda Hancock, co-founder of We Engage and a former Pink House clinic defender in Jackson, Mississippi, put it, “If we continue to let the antis go with no pushback they’re just going to keep going; we can’t let them show up and go unopposed. We can at least be out there with signs to let people know what these anti-abortion extremists want, what they’ve accomplished so far, and what they want to do next.”

The tactics being used by faux-progressive anti-abortion extremists have a radical legacy waiting to be reclaimed by the left. To abandon direct action tactics, says Hancock, to not “confront [anti-abortion activists] and stand up against them, it’s just going to get us more of what we’ve already got which is nothing left. I don’t want the rest of the country to become Mississippi.”

Anne Rumberger is a writer and an activist with Chicago for Abortion Rights and NYC for Abortion Rights.

Thank you to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – New York Office and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) for their support of this article.