Pro Choice Voice, Fall 1999
For almost ten years, the Ambulatory Surgery Center has been the daily target of anti-choice demonstrators and "sidewalk counselors," who approach patients and their companions arriving at and leaving the center. Trying to convince them to have their babies instead, they offer help at a "crisis pregnancy center" advertised in their literature. Meanwhile, a large sidewalk display in front of the center shows gory pictures, which often frighten and disturb patients. Every few months, a much larger march and prayer vigil in front of the clinic is led by Brooklyn's Bishop Thomas Daily.
The Helpers of God's Precious Infants are not just a small local group of ultra-religious people. Rather, they are the original chapter of a large and growing clinic-harassment network, and Brooklyn is their headquarters. HOGPI is active at several other New York clinics, and has branches in many U.S. cities as well as several foreign countries. Although they claim that they are always "peaceful and prayerful," they are closely connected to the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, directed by the notorious clinic blockader Joe Scheidler.
As long as the anti-choice forces have been there, so has BPCN. Every Saturday, and sometimes during the week, in cooperation with Refuse & Resist! (a national organization devoted to opposing the "politics of punishment, poverty, and patriarchy"), our escorts provide a welcoming and calming presence to patients who are frightened, disturbed, or confused by the aggressive "sidewalk counselors," the prayer vigils, and the uniformed police on the clinic street. We also inform patients of their legal right to ignore the "counselors."
Patients' companions sometimes ask us "Is that legal? Can't somebody get them out of here?" Pro-choice people often ask "Why do we still have this situation if we have clinic access legislation?” One answer is that existing legal protections are only as good as their enforcement. The police and legal system do not take the threats to clinic access seriously, and often simply ignore them. While the law provides penalties for physical clinic blockades, there is little recognition of the psychological stress on patients created by the "counselors" and demonstrators. HOGPI's association with the organized Catholic Church (especially Bishop Daily) provides a powerful atmosphere of respectability around activities that would not be tolerated in other settings. The demonstrators' "right to present their views" is often seen as more important than the right of patients to enter and leave health-care facilities without interference.
The Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act (1994, introduced by our own Senator Charles Schumer) and New York City's Access to Reproductive Health Services Act both prohibit activities that unreasonably block access to clinics.
New York Police Department policy allows local precincts to establish buffer zones around clinics when violations of the law can be shown. However, our clinic's precinct has been reluctant to enforce these provisions of the law, despite the everyday presence of one or more police officers at the clinic, and despite repeated requests from the clinic.
In late 1998, the clinic took decisive action, filing suit against the Helpers of God's Precious Infants. The suit sought a preliminary injunction to establish a buffer zone around the building, on the grounds that patients' access to the clinic is being limited by the presence of the Helpers' "counselors" and prayer groups.
This spring, the request for a preliminary injunction was turned down in state court. The case is now being reargued in search of a permanent buffer zone as well as damages against the demonstrators.
So why is BPCN still at the clinic, ten years after the appearance of the Helpers? Because we make a difference that we are proud of.
First, we are a service to the patients, who appreciate it. Not only do we help individual patients, but our presence serves to keep the Helpers' behavior in check.
Second, while we deal with the "problem" every week on the sidewalks, we're also part of the eventual "solution." Several escorts have been able to provide legally sworn reports of access violations they have observed. These reports have played an important part in documenting the inability of the NYPD to handle the situation, and thus the need for the buffer zone around the clinic. Third, we provide an important show of support for the clinic's staff, who must deal with the demonstrators themselves every day, as well as reassure their upset patients. We have been impressed with the clinic's caring staff and well-organized medical services, and they have thanked us in many ways for our support.
Finally, we organize pro-choice counter-demonstrations against the bishop's prayer vigils at the clinic. These show that most Brooklynites are not going to stand by while women's rights are violated.
Want to help? Here are some things you can do:
(1) Volunteer for an activity such as staffing an information table, working on the newsletter, fundraising, helping with publicity for demonstrations.
(2) We always need more escorts. You are expected to escort only a few times a year, and will be matched with a more experienced volunteer.
(3) Visit our Web site (http://www.echonyc.com/~bpcn) for updates, news, suggestions for phone calls to make and letters to write.
(4) Send us your e-mail address so we can put you on an "alert" list to notify you of upcoming pro-choice events. Write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(5) Note our address, with slight change: