How a potential Alabama anti-abortion headquarters became a reproductive rights asylum
Reproductive Health Services of Montgomery is one of the five remaining abortion clinics in Alabama, and the only clinic offering abortion services in Montgomery. Between the clinic’s parking lot and entrance, religious anti-abortion protesters continue to pose a substantial threat to women seeking abortions, as they hurl triggering insults, take photos to shame women, or even get violent. The harassment has bred abortion escort services by pro-choice advocates, and a small house by the Montgomery clinic now serves as a reproductive rights refuge.
But interestingly enough, POWER house, as the reproductive rights sanctuary is now called, did not always serve this critically important purpose. In 2015, the small building, which shares a parking lot with the Reproductive Health Services clinic, almost housed a swarm of abortion foes linked to Operation Save America (OSA), recognized by many as an extremist Christian group. According to Broadly, the group “use[s] their masses to swarm clinic sidewalks, scream at women, wave crucifixes, and obstruct their path to care,” and every year selects one abortion clinic in the nation to camp out in front of and target. Their protests involve gruesome signs and megaphones to loudly shame and condemn women simply trying to access healthcare.
Occupying the house and transforming it into a refuge for abortion clinic escorts, activists, and patients trying to avoid OSA’s harassment did not immediately occur to Reproductive Health Services staff and current POWER house president and founder Mia Raven until OSA shared its plans to occupy the vacant former frat house on social media. “Luckily, OSA can’t keep their mouths shut. Two hours later, we had the house,” Raven told Broadly’s Rebecca Grant.
“The house is so close to the clinic parking lot, if [OSA] were to get the house, they could stand right there on the house property, two feet away and basically at people’s front bumpers, and yell at them,” Raven explained.
Despite owning the house, according to Raven, the clinic was “under siege” for eight days, which she described as “probably the most stressful days” of her life. Convicted abortion clinic bomber John Brockhoeft was present, along with other terrifying anti-abortion advocates, including OSA’s leader, Rusty Thomas, who has claimed the September 11th attacks were God’s punishment for abortion, and Jo Ann Scott, who pled guilty in the 1980s to planning to bomb a clinic in San Diego.
But today, POWER house, born of one of the largest scale anti-choice protests in recent history, serves as not only a critical buffer zone, but a “rally hub” for reproductive rights advocates, women, and clinic escorts like Alexandria Andersen, who, years ago, faced the degrading abuse of anti-choice protesters as she attempted to get an abortion. In an abusive relationship at the time with a man who did not even know she was pregnant, Andersen recalls how a “regular protester” shouted at her and tried to take her picture. Andersen told Broadly:
“Thankfully, there were escorts there with umbrellas, because if David had been able to post my photo to Facebook like he does, and my abuser had seen it, I don’t know whether I would still be alive today.”
The experience is what inspired her to become a clinic escort, herself. “Every time I go to the clinic to escort now, David asks why I am there,” Andersen said. “I tell him I am there because he yelled at me and because he continues to disrespect women’s lives, and no woman should have to put up with that shit to access healthcare.”
Today, a lot is made of protesters’ freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, but there are frankly too many cases of anti-choice protesters directly threatening public safety, as well as women and providers — and the many cases of domestic terrorism and intimidation tactics against clinics signal the potential for these protests to get violent. And yet, the dangerous nature of protests has, in some cases, only served to work against clinics through Alabama TRAP laws citing the dangers of these protests as justification to close clinics near schools in a bizarre act of punishing clinics rather than the people putting others in danger.
While for many women, the decision to have an abortion is an easy one, for others, cultural stigma and external pressure render the decision difficult enough, and being harassed, threatened, and told they’re murderers outside the doors of clinics doesn’t make it any easier.
There is, obviously, a precarious and uncomfortable line between protecting vulnerable demographics and protecting the right to freedom of speech. Until that line is sorted out, peaceful and supportive groups like that at POWER house, assuring women the choice is theirs and helping them access abortion, remain critically important.