AMBULATORY'S MANY OBSTACLES
By Eleanor J. Bader, The Brooklyn Rail, May 2005
When Meghan B. was in tenth grade, her best friend Daniella became unintentionally pregnant. Meghan remembers how hard it was for Daniella to weigh her options. Should she drop out of school and have the baby? Or should she have an abortion?
Eventually, Daniella decided to terminate the pregnancy, and Meghan accompanied her to the Ambulatory Surgery Center of Brooklyn. Neither of them expected to be confronted by protesters, screaming that they were murderers and baby killers.
"It was horrific," Meghan recalls. "They were vicious. Daniella had had a hard enough time coming to this decision, without strangers confronting her. Were they going to feed her and the child? Were they going to house them? How was this child supposed to grow up? It was bad, very bad."
But it was not unusual.
The Ambulatory Surgery Center, located on a grimy residential block underneath the Gowanus Expressway, has been in operation since 1971 and provides multilingual treatment for a range of ailments, from gynecology to podiatry to pulmonary difficulties. Since 2001 Ambulatory has offered treatment of HIV and AIDS to more than 400 men and women. Later this year, in an effort to relieve overcrowding at the Lutheran Medical Center's Emergency Room, it will open an Urgent Care Unit for community residents. Small wonder that more than 10,000 patients a year -- approximately 60 percent of them seeking abortions -- walk through its doors.
Ambulatory's Administrator, Francis X. Monck, speaks with pride about the "compassionate care" the center offers. His tone changes, however, as soon as an anti-abortion group called The Helpers of God's Precious Infants [HOGPI] is mentioned.
HOGPI came into being on October 8, 1989, The Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, and Monsignor Philip Reilly, the group's founder, has for 16 years prodded Brooklyn's 1.8 million Catholics to be "present at the spot where lives are being taken." He pulls no punches: "This is war . . . The victims don't have faces that you can put on TV. They depend on others to stand for them."
The group boasts chapters in dozens of U.S. cities as well as internationally, and activists say they "maintain a peaceful, loving and prayerful presence outside abortion clinics." They stand aside Exhibits for Life, pictures of bloody fetal parts with messages such as "Face It, Abortion Kills," "Matar No Es La Solucion," and "Mommy, Know I Love You No Matter What," on 43rd Street near Third Avenue. Plastic models of fetal life at four to 18 weeks gestation are displayed as protesters -- ranging from a handful to hundreds, depending on the day -- hold daily prayer vigils and offer "sidewalk counseling" to every woman entering the facility.
To hear the Helpers tell it, their efforts are always respectful of patients and their families. "I do this for God, for the sake of the babies, to save them from being aborted," says Robert, a 56-year-old retired Department of Environmental Protection worker. "I pray that I can save one child from being murdered."
Rose, the 59-year-old mainstay of the group at Ambulatory, is at the clinic every Saturday and on Holy Days. "Women need to know there are consequences to their actions," she says. "Unless they're dead, their abortion will always be part of their lives. We remember our first kiss, so of course we'll remember a horrible experience like abortion. It will always be there. The country says women have freedom to choose but we pray it's a decision she can live with."
While HOGPI members believe they are providing needed information to women who don't know the long-term implications of their actions, Francis Monck and patient escorts from the Brooklyn Pro-Choice Network [BPCN] see things differently.
Monck got his first taste of HOGPI tactics shortly after arriving at the clinic in June, 1997. "As soon as I started I was greeted with hostility," he recalls. "They let me know that they knew personal aspects of my life, that my children went to private school, for example. It was rather unnerving."
That summer, Monck's family began receiving harassing phone calls on their home line; the countless calls lasted for several months, until Monck got an unlisted number. "My kids were small then and they picked up the phone a lot of the time," he says. "Someone would ask, 'Why are you murdering children?' The kids had a mixed response, frightened, then angry. The older kids became confrontational with the callers. But as a result of the intrusion my family talked a lot and I emphasized that abortion was not the issue. The issue was the right of an individual to empower herself and make important decisions in the context of her life. Quite often we would end up discussing the situations people find themselves in. Being a health center administrator, I would frame the conversations within the basic tenets of care, that health services should be available, accessible and affordable to everyone."
In his eight years at Ambulatory, Monck has seen staff weather various forms of intimidation. A doctor's car was followed to Long Island and a nurse has been repeatedly photographed as she enters and exits her home. Vandalism, including a fire near a back door, graffiti, slashed tires and Crazy Glue in building locks, are routine annoyances.
Still, as upsetting as these things have been, it is the harassment of patients that most sticks in Monck's craw. "The experience of surgery is intense enough without being told you're making the wrong decision or going to a place that is unsafe," he says. "As a male, it is not my experience, when I go to a doctor's office, to be stopped and harassed on the way in or the way out. That's unique for a female seeking abortion."
Chris K., a Brooklyn Pro-Choice Network [BPCN] member, has escorted patients at Ambulatory since 2000; she becomes increasing incensed as she describes the behavior of HOGPI members. "One Saturday a woman and her significant other came outside after being in the clinic for about an hour. The woman was crying and we didn't know what was wrong. Was it too late for her to have the abortion? Did she not have the money? The antis saw her sobbing and they followed her, calling after her as she went down the street. They were so intrusive. If the woman was already out of the clinic, her mind didn't need to be changed. She needed to be left alone."
Chris rattles off a roster of egregious incidents. "Some get right in the woman's face and scream, 'You're murdering your baby. How can you kill your child?' One man goes up to the patient's friends when they go outside to smoke, telling them to go back inside and talk their friends out of having the abortion." Another leans into approaching cars and admonishes driver and passenger to "let us help you."
And the police? The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act [FACE], passed in 1994, forbids the use of "force, threat of force, or physical obstruction" to prevent someone from receiving or providing reproductive health services. Although the Act allows localities throughout the country to impose civil and/or criminal penalties on lawbreakers, this rarely happens.
"The 72nd precinct could not care less," blasts Joan S., another longtime BPCN escort. "When we complain, we're told that HOGPI is just giving out information."
"NYPD is ineffectual at best and a downright hindrance at worst," adds BPCN's Helen K. "When they're at the clinic, they don't interfere in the goings-on except when they chide our escorts for being too assertive. One time the officer on duty actually rolled up her patrol car window when someone from BPCN approached and tried to enlist her assistance."
Clinic administrator Monck has also repeatedly attempted to get help from the precinct. Like BPCN, he has gotten nowhere. The Community Board, as well as the courts, have been similarly unresponsive, he says. In fact, during one court appearance Monck overheard the judge and HOGPI attorneys conversing. "They were discussing the merits of a particular Catholic group, the Followers of St. Anthony," he recalls.
"My argument with the police and the courts is that they say that FACE is only violated if the patient tries to break contact with the antis and the antis won't walk away," Monck continues. "The expectancy on the part of the police is that the woman has the social skills to break contact despite the fact that the person has probably identified himself or herself as a priest, monsignor or nun. That's an unreasonable expectation."
While numerous calls from The Brooklyn Rail to the 72nd precinct went unreturned and a visit yielded only, "I don't have no comment on that," from a plainclothes officer, clinic staff and volunteer escorts are hunkering down for what is sure to be a very long haul. "We're not giving up," says Monck. "Most of the staff -- 30 doctors and 32 clinicians and administrators -- have been here long-term, for five or more years. They are incredibly dedicated to the patient population we serve and sensitive to their needs. Sure, there is vulgarity to being approached in the street and called a baby killer or picking up your phone at home and being called a murderer. But our clinic keeps on expanding."
For the time being, says Monck, that is vindication enough.
Eleanor J. Bader is the coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, St. Martin's Press, 2001.