At Planned Parenthoods in more than 40 states across the nation on Saturday, Feb. 11, thousands of demonstrators from both sides of the abortion debate gathered to both decry and defend the embattled women’s health organization, which provides services to more than 2.5 million people every year (Planned Parenthood, “Planned Parenthood at a Glance”). After the pro-choice Women’s March on Jan. 21, over 70 anti-abortion groups organized #ProtestPP, a nationwide rally calling to defund Planned Parenthood. In many cities, even more pro-choice activists gathered to counter protest in support of the organization.
At the counter protest in Poughkeepsie, several hundred people congregated on all four corners of the intersection of Church and Market streets. They waved enthusiastically to the passing cars, many of which honked in solidarity. The crowd was overwhelmingly dressed in pink, and many attendees sported “pussy hats” from the Women’s March.
Event organizer Analiese Dorff explained the rationale for this counter protest, saying, “We need to show our solidarity for an organization that helps so many people everyday, especially in the face of such political turmoil. We need to show that there are more of us [who support reproductive choice than oppose it].”
Beyond the actions of pro-life organizations, there have been repeated recent attempts by lawmakers at the state and federal level to limit access to abortion. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, for instance, Oklahoma lawmaker Justin Humphrey introduced a bill to the state House of Representatives that would require pregnant women to get the permission of their baby’s father before getting an abortion. In defense of the bill, he said that he believes pregnant women shouldn’t make this decision alone because their bodies are merely the “hosts” of their unborn children (New York Magazine, “Oklahoma Anti-Abortion Lawmaker Says Women Are ‘Hosts,’” 2.13.2017).
At the counter protest, a huge portion of those in attendance carried official “I Stand with Planned Parenthood” signs, while many others had made their own, proclaiming, “My health is not a political issue,” “Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries” and “Nevertheless, she persisted”—a reference to the remarks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made after silencing Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor on Feb. 7. The phrase has since been embraced by feminists, similar to when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.”
One sign declared “Never again” above the image of a coat hanger–a brutal reminder of a time when abortion was illegal and the only options for terminating an unwanted pregnancy were to seek out a “back alley,” often unlicensed, provider or to perform a dangerous self-induced abortion, which sometimes involved using a wire coat hanger. Before Roe v. Wade, in which the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide, an estimated 5,000 women, mostly Black and Hispanic, died from illegal abortions in the United States each year (The Atlantic, “Abortion in American History,” 5.1997). Though they are much less common today, self-induced abortions are still utilized by women with few other choices, due to regulations that make abortion clinics inaccessible to women in many areas. In Texas, for example, between 100,000 and 240,000 women aged 18 to 49 have attempted to induce an abortion in the last five years (The Atlantic, “Texas Women Are Inducing Their Own Abortions,” 11.17.2015).
Across the street from most of the demonstrators, a group of a few dozen pro-life protesters stood, holding signs reading, “Defund Planned Parenthood” and “Planned Parenthood lies to you.” One of these protesters, Maureen Haege, commented, “We’re here to rally people to defund Planned Parenthood so the government will move funds for women’s health from Planned Parenthood, which is the largest abortion provider in our country, to other health care agencies that provide more comprehensive health care and not just reproductive health care. [Planned Parenthood tries] to claim that they serve women’s health care, but in fact their largest business is abortion.”
While Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the United States, abortions make up only three percent of its total services. Much more common services include providing contraception (31 percent) and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (45 percent), which are available to both men and women. The organization also provides routine health care, such as breast and cervical cancer screenings, to nearly a million women each year (Planned Parenthood, “Planned Parenthood at a Glance”).
Next to the pro-lifers was another group of counter protesters shouting, “Fuck Trump, fuck Pence, community self-defense!” Hearing this, a woman muttered, “Hey guys, let’s keep it peaceful. There are kids here.” One young man in the group started yelling his disagreement when Dorff announced that the pro-Planned Parenthood demonstrators would start marching around the block, angrily arguing against moving away from those rallying to defund the organization. Later on, when asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions, he abruptly turned and walked away.
The crowd did indeed march, to Academy Street, then down Noxon Street and back to Market, where the demonstrators gathered in Hulme Park on the southwest corner of Church and Market. The demonstration was originally intended to take place in front of the Planned Parenthood building on Noxon Street, but was moved to respect the space and privacy of Planned Parenthood’s patients. Along the way, the marchers chanted, “Pro life, that’s a lie. You don’t care if women die” and “Her body, her choice.”
Madeline Bankson ’18, who attended the counter protest, remarked on why the issue matters to them in an email, saying, “To me, having open and financial access to autonomy over one’s own body (including reproduction choices, free gender expression, and the right to be healthy, all of which Planned Parenthood supports) is absolutely essential for a liberated and socially just society.”
Attendee Bridget Smith added, “It’s really important to protect women’s health, to protect the people who can’t afford health care, to protect both those who want to have abortions and those who want to have a healthy baby. We need to protect all women.” She continued, “[People looking to get involved] need to make sure they’re reading reputable news, that they’re well informed and that they listen to both sides of the issue so they can have an informed argument and counterargument.”
Smith’s mother, Cathie Lang, chimed in, “Young people need to register to vote and they need to vote. We would not be in the mess we’re in if more people who opposed Trump had voted.”