Six women flank the sidewalk outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Jefferson Street. Two hold rosaries. One prays over the beads in silence while the other whispers her invocations quietly under her breath. The rest pace silently. They hold navy blue signs reading “abortion kills babies” and “reza por el fin del aborto [pray for the end of abortion]” in white, block letters.
A young woman approaches the entrance – it’s unclear if she’s an employee or a patient – and immediately expresses her displeasure at the presence of these women. “I barely have time to deal with my own sh**. How does anybody have time to spend doing this?” she says before going inside.
Behind the demonstrators stand two males. They’re sporting neon pink vests and baseball caps, and they explain they’re here as volunteer escorts for Planned Parenthood. They greet patients entering and exiting the clinic who may otherwise feel uncomfortable wading through the small- to medium-size crowds that gather outside the facility in protest of Planned Parenthood.
Though opposition to the women’s health organization — or the abortion provider, depending on who you ask — is stiff year round, it becomes especially public during the twice-annual protests organized by 40 Days for Life. We’re in the midst of one right now.
Started in Bryan, Texas, the 40 Days for Life organization was founded in 2007 with the purpose of ending abortion and closing clinics that provide the service. Its origin is unabashedly religious, and it uses prayer and churches as the first touch points to galvanize followers. The website calls for “people of faith and conscience” to join together for “prayer and fasting,” which, it says, are the actions the Bible offers to drive out “demons.”
40 Days for Life ‘vigils’
40 Days for Life advocates an end to abortion year-round in various ways, but its flagship demonstration are these 40-days-long campaigns. They take place twice a year, once before Catholic Easter and again before Election Day in November. During this time, participants gather outside Planned Parenthood locations and other women’s health clinics around the world calling for an end to abortion.
They carry signs, sometimes including graphic images, and engage in various forms of prayer like rosary beads, singing hymns and chanting. Members of the group will occasionally try to engage patients coming and going from the clinics, handing out informational brochures about abstinence and abortion statistics, for example, and suggesting they go elsewhere for treatment.
40 Days leadership insists these protests are peaceful. However, Gloria Martinez, chief of staff for Planned Parenthood Northern California, says there have been a number of documented “protester interactions” that were considered threatening.
According to internal reports, which aren’t filed with the legal system, patients and employees in Napa have been verbally harassed, grabbed, or blockaded.
Martinez and her team anticipated “an uptick in hostile activity” due to this being election year and the wave of restrictive abortion laws introduced in various states.
Though the public perception of California is as a bastion of progressivism, 40 Days for Life has a strong presence here. There are 51 demonstration sites — what the organization calls vigils — occurring daily around the state right now, according to the group’s website. Howard Haupt, the 40 Days coordinator in Napa, says the prevalence of abortion statewide makes their work essential and energizes those who want it to end.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research firm that attempts to track all abortions nationally, California provided 132,680 abortions in 2017, the most recent year reliable data’s available, a 5% decrease from 2014. The number of facilities in the state providing abortion shrank in the same time period from 512 to 419.
Haupt says many people treat the campaigns as an annual exercise. He blasts an email list-serve of about 400 people a few weeks before demonstrations start to alert them sign-ups have opened. Some churches, he says, will volunteer to cover an entire day’s worth of shifts, he says.
Haupt describes the group as historically a “very Catholic” population, but adds that “now there are a whole lot of evangelicals who are joining in.” He attributes that to the current political climate, developments in ultrasound technologies and high profile legal battles that have reignited the debate.
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Northern California supports Haupt’s assertion that most the protesters she sees are Catholic, but she also notes that a large number are Latino. At noon on a recent weekday, a quick drive-by showed almost all the demonstrators outside the Napa clinic at that time were, in fact, Latino.
The irony, according to Planned Parenthood, is that Latino and other minority populations make up a large portion of the patients they serve, as their services are often the only that these families can afford.
This year’s first 40 Days campaign kicked off on Feb. 26.
Around 30 people gathered in front of Planned Parenthood. Martinez said their presence was disruptive, obstructed the entrance and intimidated patients. A staff member reported the situation to local law enforcement.
“The complaint was based on concern or possible violations of sidewalk access and the size of handheld signs,” Lt. Chase Haag of the Napa Police Department said in an email. He said a report was taken from both sides, but that it “does not appear there were any law violations.”
Haag described the demonstrations — which continued after Napa PD departed — as a “First Amendment speech campaign.”
Martinez describes more nefarious methods campaigners use to discourage patients from entering that she says go beyond free speech, like creating physical blockades near the doorway, occupying the already limited parking spots, obstructing the sidewalk and shouting obscenities or harassing people trying to enter. Even if there’s no threat of physical harm, the emotional pain of public ridicule and insult can damage patients, Martinez said.
These actions, she says, are rarely cited because they’re hard to prove after the fact and the clinic hasn’t “experienced consistent enforcement when protestors are breaking the law.” She says this “emboldens protesting behavior.”
For that reason, Planned Parenthood is calling for the creation of a safety ordinance around the clinic in Napa, a process that’s been used in other cities to help guarantee the safety and comfort of those using the facility. In San Francisco, for example, local government gave the health center a 25-foot buffer zone, and fewer confrontations have been reported since, Martinez said.
“They’re still able to stand outside and around that zone, and they do, but at least it doesn’t impact the patient coming in and out safely and without someone in their face,” she said.
On the second day of the campaign this year, drivers on busy Jefferson Street regularly voiced their opinions, adding to a feeling that, at any moment, you could be judged simply for being present.
“Screw you, you a**holes!,” shouted a man from the front seat of his pickup truck, sticking his hand out the window to flash his middle finger. A few minutes later another car drives by, and the driver honks his horn. Another after that.
Who exactly their distaste is directed towards is unclear, but the two male volunteers present at the time said they’re taught to prioritize de-escalation, and tend to respond to any kind of encounter with silence and the occasional smile.
The two men are part of Planned Parenthood’s escort program, an initiative started 25 years ago as a direct response to “growing hostility” encountered by patients at health centers, Martinez said.
Local police departments had what Martinez described as “limited capacity” to monitor activity, so escorts were intended to provide support for those entering and exiting clinics amidst opposition. Then and now, volunteers work two-hour shifts walking patients into and out of the facility should they want an added layer of support in the face of protesters.
Most escorts work during the twice-annual 40 Days for Life campaigns, since that’s when the health centers tend to see the largest spike in turnout and tension. However, Martinez noted that if there’s a consistently large group of demonstrators for any given reason or an “increase in incidents,” Planned Parenthood will deploy an escort accordingly outside the 40-days periods.
Three new volunteers gathered at New Tech High School on an evening in February, just days before the start of this year’s 40 Days push. A Planned Parenthood staffer was present to outline basic information about the program, the services provided to women by the organization and the importance of the escort program.
Escorts sport bright pink vests and fanny packs while on duty. They approach anyone coming down the sidewalk towards the clinic, ask if they’re headed to Planned Parenthood and offer their accompaniment to the door. Sometimes, they’ll literally place themselves between a patient and a demonstrator in order to keep distance between the two and guarantee personal safety, and they’ll often start small talk about the weather or their morning, for example.
They’re also carefully instructed to follow strict rules of engagement to avoid confrontation with demonstrators and to guarantee the patient’s comfort. They aren’t allowed to speak to protesters, launch counter demonstrations of their own or answer any questions from the media. They’re also instructed to not ask the patient questions about her visit or make any physical contact.
In the event of any confrontation, escorts are instructed to first call a Planned Parenthood staffer who is trained in safety and reporting protocol. They hope to limit calls to law enforcement for the most serious situations.
Haupt says his team takes a similar approach and that they work closely with the police department to ensure safety. “It gets dicey sometimes, and we try to keep that to a minimum. We try to hold that down because that’s not our purpose,” Haupt said, who frames the group’s perspective as “apolitical.”
“A lot of people look at this as a political issue, but not to us. We’re apolitical. It’s a moral issue to us. It’s the taking of an unborn life,” he said.
When asked about how the group squares its apolitical mission with the choice to host an annual campaign right before Election Day, Haupt said he “hadn’t thought of that.”
“That is a good point. But we don’t look at it that way; whether the public does, that’s another thing — they might,” he said.
Women’s health or abortion?
Napa Planned Parenthood provides services ranging from basic health care like mammograms and annual check-ups to sexual education, contraception and basic prevention against disease transmission.
The local clinic’s website says it offers services including: birth control, HIV testing and treatment, men and women’s health care, LGBTQ+ specific care, emergency contraception, vaccination and other STD screening. According to Martinez, around 6,000 patients visit annually, 92% of whom report incomes below the federal poverty level.
A common refrain from Planned Parenthood representatives during the 40 Days for Life campaigns has been that the clinic doesn’t provide abortion, rendering the protests themselves ill-guided.
However, though it doesn’t provide any surgical abortions, the clinic does provide chemical abortions in the form of RU486. The oral medication is FDA-approved and considered to be widely effective in terminating a pregnancy safely with just a 0.4% risk of health complications to the mother, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The World Health Organization says it should be “widely available and affordable.” The same Guttmacher report found medical abortion is increasingly becoming the more common way women seek to terminate a pregnancy, up to 39% of the total in 2017 from 29% in 2014.
However, the “abortion pill,” as its commonly known, has sparked outrage in many “pro-life” activists. The National Right to Life website says the pill makes abortion easier and more common, threatens women with painful side affects like “heavy bleeding” and “nausea,” and initiates a complicated, time-consuming medical process that doesn’t always work.
Haupt argues that in addition to the RU486 pill, there’s a straight line from an intake appointment at the Napa location to a surgical abortion elsewhere. “They do refer for surgical abortions; they refer people from this one here over to Fairfield or Vallejo. We feel that it starts here ... they represent the industry so that’s where we ought to be out here praying,” he said.
Though there’s only a small number of new escorts at the February training, the volunteer pool is much larger. The spokesperson leading the session, who refers to President Trump as the “current occupant of the White House,” says there’s been an uptick in interest, which means she doesn’t have to recruit as many new escorts.
Much of that surge in interest is thanks to the current political environment, but another influence is Rise Up Napa, an organization created by four working moms in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s election. When it came to picking areas to leverage their influence, Planned Parenthood was personal, said Leslie Lew, one of the organizations co-founders.
“We all used Planned Parenthood or something like it when we were young, and it helped us have the life we have,” Lew said.
The evening’s training leader seconded this trend: that many involved today are women who sought healthcare services through the organization when they were younger, but now feel more empowered to speak out on its behalf.
Napa’s Planned Parenthood clinic has long been one of the more protest-impacted locations in all of Northern California. Located on Jefferson Street, a busy thoroughfare in central Napa, the building’s surrounded by sidewalks and roadways protected by public easement. Legally protected by the First Amendment, any person, including 40 Days campaigners, can occupy public space, which gives the clinic a very small buffer.
Napa’s facility has no private parking lot, no private driveway and no private sidewalk, which makes it especially vulnerable to crowds that could gather during high levels of 40 Days-related turnout.
The California FACE Act provides some respite, specifically forbidding anyone from blocking access to the entrance of a clinic that provides reproductive health services using their bodily presence or physical force, threats or intimidation.
Haupt, who says 40 Days works with law enforcement to stay “squeaky clean,” claims any alleged violations are unintentional. “When we have so very many people, there’s not always adequate room on the sidewalk. Sometimes they like to stop and chat, and it looks like they’re blocking the right of way, which isn’t true,” he said.
The FACE Act also prohibits disruption of healthcare services –playing music too loudly, for example – and talking to any person who explicitly asks to be left alone. Haupt says campaigners don’t initiate contact with passerby, except for the trained street sidewalk counselor they occasionally have on site.
City code regulations prohibit staking signs – like the kind you see for political candidates – into the ground outside Planned Parenthood, though they’re free to put flyers and brochures under car windshield wipers or pass them out to folks on the public sidewalk. Haupt said they regularly employ this canvassing tactic, handing “scientifically-backed literature” in pamphlets about STD exposure and birth control, available in both Spanish and English.
“We are healthcare, first and foremost,” the spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Northern California said. “A lot of people think that if you work or volunteer for Planned Parenthood, you stand for egregious things. This can be really hurtful.”
The 40-day period is intense, and it leaves its mark on just about everyone. Planned Parenthood staff are the subject of sneers and snide comments. Escort volunteers create a physical barrier between clients and demonstrators, opening themselves up to ridicule and potential bodily contact. And patients get so intimidated, some even stop coming, opting not to receive health care because of the scene that occasionally forms outside the clinic, Martinez says.
But Haupt says his 40 Days team is the subject of misplaced anger, too. “When we’re called protesters or demonstrators, that hurts me a little bit. They’re just words, but it carries the perception that we are activists ... It’s the public’s perception that we’re a bunch of religious nuts, and it’s so far from the truth,” he says.
“The negative doesn’t really bother me because a lot of people in this world are angry and a lot of them don’t know what they’re angry about. We’re sort of a group that can be targeted ... that comes with the territory.”
The ongoing 40 Days for Life Campaign is scheduled to end April 5. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from last summer found that public support for abortion in “all or most cases” is the highest it’s been since the seminal 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, despite the efforts of numerous states seeking to pass laws that restrict the application of the case.
You may reach Carly Graf at firstname.lastname@example.org; 713-817-4692; or via Twitter @carlykgraf.