Within the last year, half of the clinics that offer abortion in the state of Texas have closed down as a result of HB2, last summer’s omnibus abortion restriction bill. By September, unless the courts offer a stay on the implementation of the rest of the bill, the state will have just five or six clinics left to provide terminations.
Just as the anti-abortion lawmakers and legal experts have been organizing to come up with the most effective ways to shut down most of the clinics in the state, it appears that behind the scenes, activists have been plotting their own blueprint for ensuring those clinics that do remain open are under constant surveillance…literally.
According to the Austin Chronicle’s Mary Tuma, anti-abortion action groups in the state have been having training sessions to ensure that patients going to the few remaining clinics in the state don’t find the process easy. The information was obtained via a recording from Progress Texas, who attended the Texas Alliance for Life event. Entitled “Keeping Abortion Facilities Closed,” the training session gave best practices on how to make the most intimidating clinic atmosphere they can, including bringing massive amounts of people to “line the sidewalk.” That not only makes it a larger presence for a patient to maneuver through, but allows the ability to “track license plates” to follow up on patients and learn the identities of the providers.
“For instance,” writes Tuma, “Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas instructs the audience on how to track license plates as well as car make, model, and description of the patients visiting abortion clinics and lauds causing cancelled abortion procedures by ‘lining the sidewalks’ of abortion clinics. ‘You track license plates […] coming into any abortion facility. We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet. This way you can track whether or not a client comes back.’”
The anti-abortion activists claim that the license plate tracking is innocuous, since it is simply to note which patients do return after the mandatory 24 hour waiting period, and isn’t used to learn their identify or violate their privacy. “In absolutely no way is this ever used to intimidate or harass or stalk or anything along those lines. No one is ever contacted,” Ganett told a local ABCNews affiliate. “If a car returns, then that is someone who is having an abortion. If a car does not return and we never see that car return, then we can feel pretty confident that that mother has made a decision for life.”
However, the group also admits that they are tracking providers with the information, as well, and that in those cases they are most definitely seeking out the person’s identity so that they can determine who they are and if they have the now mandatory hospital privileges. While Garrett seemed appalled that her group’s tactics could be seen as intimidation, anti-abortion activists Abby Johnson’s own taped remarks show that yes, intimidation is an active element in their campaign against clinics.
“These abortionists are feeling the pressure from the pro-life movement in Texas. I think they feel like they’re on the run,” she said in the recording, according to Talking Points Memo. “And that’s how we want to keep it, we want to keep pressure high on them and let them know they can move wherever they want … We’re still gonna be there outside their clinics, we’re still gonna be praying, we’re still gonna be sidewalk counseling, and we’re still gonna be exposing what’s going on inside these buildings.”
“The same groups that lobbied Texas lawmakers to pass HB2, a law that has nothing to do with the health and safety of women, are those outside abortion clinics, harassing and intimidating patients, blocking them from accessing the care they need, and threatening abortion providers,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas in a statement. “With fewer clinics for these stalking protestors to target, the dangerous impact of their intimidation tactics will be exacerbated. Texas women are now not only forced to travel hundreds of miles to even access a safe and legal Texas clinic, but once they reach a clinic they must also confront the very real threat posed by these anti-abortion activists. The anti-abortion harassment tactics outlined in this disturbing training lead women to seek dangerous alternatives.”
What is being unveiled in Texas, however, isn’t new, or even unusual. While abortion opponents may claim the license plate tracking is about finding out who returns after a waiting period, that same excuse doesn’t work in a state where there is no wait, yet similar monitoring has occurred. That also doesn’t address the so-called “sidewalk counselors” who arrive with cameras strapped to their chests, or with them placed on tripods, tracking every patient coming in and out of a clinic door. Abortion opponents can say its to protect the “counselors” themselves from harassment, or to be able to document if a medical emergency occurs, but the simple fact of the matter is that strangers outside an abortion provider carrying cameras, notebooks or other equipment is always going to be viewed as someone about to violate a person’s medical privacy. Yet for some reason, since it is at an abortion provider, that’s accepted as completely justified.
The number of clinics in the country is dwindling. The number of active abortion opponents are not. That math in essence means that inevitably, the crowd outside each clinic will grow. And now we know, beyond a doubt, that they are tracking patients and staff while they are there.
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