The XX Factor

Pro-Life Activists Sue Chicago for the Right to Use Disturbing Tactics Outside Abortion Clinics

Anti-abortion activists protest outside of a Planned Parenthood health clinic in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2005.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-abortion activists in Chicago filed a federal lawsuit this week arguing that a law designed to protect abortion-clinic patients and employees from harassment is a violation of activists’ right to free speech. The city’s 2009 law delineates an 8-foot “bubble zone” for visitors once they are within 50 feet of a clinic entrance; an activist may not advance closer than that without the visitor’s permission. The lawsuit calls the strips of protected space “vast anti-speech zones.”

The Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm based in Chicago, filed the suit on behalf of four anti-abortion “sidewalk counselors” and two activist groups. The defendants named in the suit include the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel, who are accused of “partnering with abortion vendors to violate the rights of those who wish to reach out to women seeking abortions.” The legality of ordinances like Chicago’s is murky at the moment. The Supreme Court upheld a similar Colorado law in 2000, which included an 8-foot bubble zone within 100 feet of health-care facility entrances. But in 2014, the Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that prevented protestors from coming within 35 feet of clinics; at the time, justice Antonin Scalia suggested revisiting the Colorado law.

It’s not a coincidence that the current suit is playing out in Chicago, which has a prominent place in the history of the anti-abortion movement. The Pro-Life Action League, one of the plaintiffs in the current case, is a pioneer in clinic protests and “sidewalk counseling.” Co-founder Joe Scheidler, whose wife, Ann, is also named as a plaintiff in this week’s case, wrote an influential 1985 book titled Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion in which he calls sidewalk counseling “the single most valuable activity that a pro-life person can engage in.”

The Pro-Life Action League also developed the “Chicago Method,” a tactic that involves scaring women away from clinics by telling them about any lawsuits against the location, and redirecting them to a nearby anti-abortion counseling center. Ann Scheidler described the Chicago Method a few years ago as a way to set aside the question of fetal life and convince women that having an abortion poses a risk to their own bodies. The anti-abortion group Priests for Life outlines the tactic with remarkable candor:

When you approach the pregnant woman and her escort, say, “Excuse me. Are you going to the medical center here? Did you know about the medical malpractice lawsuits against this place?”

Give the pregnant woman and her escort factual information about the specific abortuary they are about to enter. Repeat this information until it produces the desired effect of disturbing them. Develop visual aids, such as a sheet that summarizes the malpractice lawsuits against the mill, especially the abortion-related lawsuits. Newspaper articles about scandalous conditions in the abortion mill are also helpful.

After a minute or two, when the potential abortion client is sufficiently and justifiably disturbed by negative factual information about the abortion clinic, give her literature about an alternative center where she can go immediately for a free pregnancy test and counseling help. The pregnancy help agencies used in conjunction with this method will ideally have a neutral-sounding name like “Women’s Aid Center.” …

It is absolutely vital to the success of the technique that you not disclose that you are an anti-abortionist or that the agency you are taking your clients to will not give them an abortion or a referral. You need not lie to accomplish this. Just reveal as much of the truth as you need to and no more.

Other on-site tactics vary widely, from shouts to quiet prayer to one-on-one conversation. The sidewalks around abortion clinics can have the chaotic atmosphere of battle. The setting tends to attract the most passionate (or virulent, depending on which side you’re on) advocates for and against the right to abortion. Both sides see the issue as a matter of life and death. And both sides see their opponents as dishonest and aggressive. In a statement about the new lawsuit, Planned Parenthood of Illinois said that anti-abortion activists in Chicago have recently started wearing similar-colored vests as clinic escorts, with a label reading “Parenthood Volunteer” and a logo similar to Planned Parenthood’s.

Even anti-abortion activists admit their success rate outside clinics is low, but the circus-like atmosphere is nonetheless painful and disorienting—not to mention physically threatening—to many women entering the clinic. As one clinic escort told The Atlantic last year, “No one wants to drive up to their doctor’s office and see over 100 people standing outside.”

Of course, whether or not anyone wants to see it is a different question from whether those 100 people should be able to use otherwise legal attempts at persuasion on public property. Depending on the outcome of the suit in Chicago, the “bubble zone” may be on its way to bursting.