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The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

A version of this article appears on Socialist Resurgence: https://socialistresurgence.org/2019/10/23/the-struggle-against-the-40-days-for-life/

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

Heather Bradford

10/21/19


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, Georgia to Bismarck, North Dakota, anti-choice protesters have once again mobilized for the annual fall campaign 40 Days for Life. Beginning September 25th and ending November 3rd, 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 forty 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 which 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 was 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 twelve hours a day, for the entire forty days. Participants carry signs which say “Pray to End Abortion” and “witness” or engage with staff, patients, and pedestrians. The religious language of vigil obscures the reality that it is a picket and “witnessing” often amounts to harassment.  For instance, at the WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota 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.  The 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, he saw decreased engagement in this organizing. Looking for fresh tactics, he envisioned the 40 Days for Life as a shorter, more targeted campaign. Held in the fall of 2004, the first 40 Days for Life recruited 1000 volunteers to picket in the public right away of the College Station Planned Parenthood.  The campaign drew support from local churches and Knights of Columbus, who covered daily shifts from 7 am to 3 pm. The following year, a second 40 Days for Life was launched in Dallas, Texas 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 to 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 1,100 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 Parenthood clinics, 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 Parenthood clinics, which often do not provide abortions.  For instance, Planned Parenthoods in Mankato, MN and St. Cloud, MN are not abortion providers, but are locations for the 40 Days for Life campaign. The campaign therefore target 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, Minnesota has a population 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 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 protesters at clinics this fall.  The Red River Clinic of Fargo, North Dakota, 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 which 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 Alabama, 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 3,038 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 increases 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, Minnesota 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 Parenthood clinics, the Columbia location does not provide abortions but is still a hot spot 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, Ohio 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 healthcare that should be available free, readily, safely, on demand, and without stigma.  Beyond healthcare, 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.  prochoice


Sources:

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.

 

Radical Cheerleading Chronicles: Cheer for Choice

Each year, from late September through early November, is the 40 Days for Life.  40 Days for Life is an international pro-life campaign which involves fasting, prayer, and 24 hour vigils outside of Planned Parenthood or abortion providers.  The event has mobilized up to 10,000 participants from 3,500 churches.  It began in 2004 and I have been involved with protesting these events since 2010.  In fact, the Twin Ports Women’s Rights coalition came out of ad hoc pickets against the 40 Days for Life in 2014.  Over the years, the vibe of the vigil has changed.  Sometimes there are a few members of the vigil who are a little pushier about their beliefs and directly engage us, the counter protestors.  This year, those at the vigil have generally kept to themselves and kept their distance from us.  For the most part, the participants tend to be peaceful, elderly men and women.  Their signs are not as graphic or offensive as those that might typically be seen in an anti-abortion protest.

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Nevertheless, despite their peaceful nature there are plenty of reasons to protest them.  For one, it is important to mobilize pro-choicers.  We have seen decades of defeats in terms of waiting periods, mandatory counseling, parental consent, funding, access, abortion bans after 22 weeks, admitting rights for doctors, and a plethora of other laws meant to restrict abortion access.   It is demoralizing to think of the parade of defeats that have occurred over the decades.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that the pro-choice movement mobilize to defend the few clinics that we have left.   Secondly, peaceful pro-life protestors are a very visible part of a culture which shames women for having abortions.  Three in 10 women have had abortions, yet this is taboo to talk about.  Abortion is always framed as something secret, tragic, and shameful.  By protesting the pro-life picketers we are asserting in an very visible way that being pro-choice is something to be proud of and that we support all the choices that women make.  Finally, it is important because it shows the workers at the clinic that we are in solidarity with their work.  They may not have the same freedom to voice their opinions, especially while they are working.  They are underpaid (due to funding challenges for abortion services) and underappreciated.  Of course, there are many other reasons to protest and every activist is different, but these are just a few of the reasons that motivate myself.


With that said, each Friday we have been hosting two counter protests as the Building for Women.  These sometimes attract the attention of pedestrians and drivers.  From time to time, some stop to challenge us.  For the most part, we get many honks and thanks in support.  These pickets are called the 40 days for Choice.   To make these pickets a little bit more fun and to attract new participants some of them have themes.  For instance, last year we did a costume theme around Halloween.  We will do this again this year.  One of our themes this year was “Cheer for Choice.”  The theme involved dressing up as cheerleaders.  It was a way to roll out our Rah Rah Revolutionary radical cheerleading project.  I think that having theme days and costumes is a way to boost morale for our own participants.  Reproductive rights is a serious matter, but if we don’t have fun, we can become burned out as activist.


This was our most successful event as the re-launched Rah Rah Revolutionaries.  Five of us dressed up as cheerleaders including myself, Lucas, Alexa, Jenny, Angie, and Juniper.  We had one pedestrian who wanted to cheer with us, but she ended up taking her pompoms and leaving.  So, alas, I have lost a set of pompoms.  In addition to the cheerleaders, there were six participants who did not dress up.  In all, this has one of our most successful years as we have regularly had over ten people at our Friday evening pickets.  Of course, the pro-life vigil members have a 40 day vigil with participants each day.  However, they can draw from a larger number of retirees and have institutional support from churches.  As such, they have a greater capacity to mobilize people for their protest than we do.  Still, I am proud of our efforts and glad that anyone shows up at all!  I am also proud that we kept our cool when a pedestrian became aggressive and spit on one of our participants.  Disgusting!  In the end, the pedestrian apologized and said that he actually agreed with us.

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Anyway, that’s just a brief report about what we’ve been up to.  Here are the cheers we did during the event.     Some of these are a little offensive- which I found amusing when writing them and cheering them.  For instance, rhyming John Locke with offensive cock or stating that the “fetus will not defeat us.”  With that said, they might not be appropriate in all contexts- but we democratically discussed our willingness to do the more racy ones.  I also edited one of the chants as it was not inclusive to all women.


Pro-Choice Chants

We’re here,

To cheer,

For the choices we hold dear!

C,H,O,I,C,E (fast spelling)

That spells

autonomy!

Clap your hands!

Raise your voice!

It’s our body

It’s our choice!

No more shaming

And victim blaming!

No more shaming

And victim blaming!

Defend our clinics

Defend our rights

Come together,

Let’s fight, fight, fight!

Keep your rosaries

Off our ovaries

Your god and cross

Are not my boss!

Hey all you feminists,

Stand up and raise your fists!

Now that we’re feeling proud,

Let’s shout it really loud:

Rah rah, rah rah rah

Rah rah, rah rah rah rah

Now that we’ve got the beat

Sound off, what we’ll defeat:

Patriarchy!

Capitalism!

War!

Hunger!

Racism!

Sexism!

…etc…

For all the women, who live in fear

We come together,

It’s why we’re here.

For all the women, who live in shame,

We fight for you,

We’re all the same!

When women’s rights are under attack,

What do we do?

Stand up,

Fight back!

We’re the feminists,

And we couldn’t be prouder

If you can’t hear us,

We’ll shout a little louder!

Hey hey, ho ho,

Patriarchy has got to go!

Defence, (clap, clap)

Clinic Defence, (clap, clap)

Defence, (clap, clap)

Clinic Defence, (clap, clap)

Tell me why,

In this day and age,

Are women raped and underpaid

The fetus, the fetus

The fetus won’t defeat us.

Rise up!

Rise up!

Rise up, up, up, up

Right to life,

Your names a lie

You don’t care if women die

Back alleys

No more

Abortions for the rich and poor!

It’s my choice

Leave it me,

I can choose a family!

Abortion without apology

No more bogus counseling!

I won’t wait an extra day!

I want my rights without delay

Sixteen years old or forty one!

Abortion rights for everyone!

Get your religion

Out of my decision!

Church and state

Should separate

If you don’t like John Locke

Cover up your offensive cock!

There’s no choice without access!

Without choice there’s no progress!

More clinics!

More funds!

Abortion rights for everyone!

Seven clinics, that’s BS

Driving so far causes distress!

No more waiting,

No more drives,

No more begging for dollar signs!

Three in Ten by 45

Some are single,

Some are wives!

Many drove from far away!

Many waited for a day!
Three in Ten by 45

Let’s keep abortion rights alive!

Safe, legal, everywhere

I don’t want abortion to be rare

I want access

I want funds

Not laws based on your legends!

Hey, hey, feminist friends!

Let’s sound off choices we defend:

Abortion

IUD

Nuvaring

Vasectomy

Condoms

Patch or shot

That list is what we’ve got!

Wait, wait, there’s others too

Child birth

Abstinence

Spermicide

You can even choose to cum outside!

Really, we just don’t care

As long as, choice is there!

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