By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
A national day of protest against Planned Parenthood on Sat., Feb. 11 drew about 150 anti-abortion activists to the organization’s regional headquarters in the Midway. More than 5,500 defenders of Planned Parenthood turned up to support the organization in a counter-protest. The two groups were separated by a “neutral” corridor 15’ wide, reinforced on both sides with temporary fencing.
Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota (PPMNS) has been located at 671 Vandalia St. for six years. The organization was first established in Minnesota 89 years ago and nationally is celebrating its centennial year. Margaret Sanger opened the doors of its first clinic in Brooklyn, New York in 1916, and the controversy over Planned Parenthood has never waned.
Photo right: Brian Gibson (pictured left), Executive Director of Pro-Life Action Ministries, spoke at the Feb. 11 protest. The group has a regular presence in the daily protests at Planned Parenthood headquarters; (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)
A smaller scale protest takes place outside the building every day, with volunteers from local pro-life organizations and churches coming in regularly scheduled shifts. Called sidewalk counselors, these protesters attempt to dissuade patients from entering the building or from using the services provided there.
In response, PPMNS has assembled a cadre of 55 volunteer escorts to make patients feel welcome when they arrive. Jason Garcia is one of the volunteer escorts. ” I‘ve been volunteering on Saturday mornings for two years,” Garcia said. “I’m a bigger guy, and I feel like maybe protesters are less likely to engage with me. We work in teams of two, and Saturday mornings are a busy time. All of the escorts are here to support the patients and not to interact with protesters.”
PPMNS Communications Manager Emily Shaftel said, “The blue-vested volunteer escorts are here to help direct people in and out of the building, and to greet each patient or visitor with a smile. The protesters are restricted to the sidewalk, and can’t approach the driveway or parking lot area. We have a top-notch team of professional security guards inside the building. Incidents of violence are extremely rare; our priority is making sure that patients, staff, and volunteers feel safe here.”
“The recent protest was a continuation of the high level of support PPMNS has received since the election,” Shaftel said.”We’ve been inundated with more than 1,600 new volunteer inquiries and generous financial support from the community.”
“We’re an organization that provides a broad range of services to about 64,000 patients in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” Shaftel noted. “These services include birth control counseling and products, annual gynecological exams, cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, vaccines (human papilloma virus and hepatitis B), vasectomies, and abortions. Abortion services are an important part of reproductive health care, but make up less than 5% of our services annually.”
She underscored that “abortion rates are at their lowest since data collection began in 1974. We believe that’s because of the ease of access to birth control and sex education. Congress is currently proposing defunding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid: the government healthcare insurance program that provides low-income individuals and families with affordable healthcare. If they succeed, it would mean that our patients who use Medicaid—about 40% of the people we serve, or 24,000 in Minnesota alone—would not be able to come to our clinics. Many of them come to us as their main source of health care, and federal Medicaid dollars can not be used for abortions.”
In addition to the daily sidewalk interactions, there are events coming up this spring on both sides of the argument. Planned Parenthood is sponsoring a Solidarity Day on Fri., Apr. 14 from 10am-3pm with food trucks, music, games, and more.
Groups opposing Planned Parenthood will gather on the fourth Saturday in March and April. Pro-Life Action Ministries will sponsor a STAND! prayer rally from 9-10am on those dates. STAND! prayer rallies are held at different facilities that provide abortions throughout the year, giving supporters a chance to learn the prayer and engagement techniques used by experienced Pro-Life Action Ministry team members.
(Editor’s Note: Brian Gibson, Executive Director of Pro-Life Action Ministries, declined to be interviewed for this story.)