Students, protesters face off at St. Louis Planned Parenthood
Military veteran and Planned Parenthood (PP) clinic escort John Till did not react when a conservative Christian minister stood inches from his face, calling on him to protect women from abortion.
In Till’s eyes, he was protecting women. Standing outside of Planned Parenthood’s Central West End location, ushering patients seeking healthcare past members of Operation Save America—a traveling, pro-life ministry—he aimed to shield them from what many Planned Parenthood volunteers deemed “harassment.”
Less than 24 hours after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to freeze federal funding for Planned Parenthood, pro-life Christians rallied outside of the St. Louis location. Since the bill will likely not make it past the Senate, the vote is mostly symbolic—but if passed, it would block funding for a full year to allow Congress time to investigate the group’s involvement with fetal tissue research. On Saturday morning, many Washington University students stood in solidarity with Planned Parenthood, while other pro-life students—a far cry from the protesting group—recognized the need for women’s healthcare, but condemned the act of abortion itself.
Washington University senior Rebecca Basson, a public policy intern at Planned Parenthood Action, has gotten used to the “regulars”—the protesters who set up camp outside of the Central West End location on a regular basis.
“I work probably three days a week, and I’ve been working three days a week for a year and a half, and I’ve never not had people out there when I come in,” Basson said. “Every week, we have this guy, this minister…who is out there every week yelling at people, calling women who walk in ‘mom,’ calling their men that come in with them ‘dad.’”
At the rally, Planned Parenthood supporters were instructed by organizers to not respond to protesters. Supporters stood on Planned Parenthood’s property, behind fences lined with blue plastic to protect their identities, holding up signs.
Micah Thomas, son of the director of Operation Save America (OSA), said that the demonstration was not intended to be an attack.
“I think the reason why it gets sometimes that people are screaming or whatever…I think it’s just because people break their hearts. It gets emotional and stuff, so it’s hard to stand by,” Thomas said. “We’re here to help them. A lot of these families will adopt these babies; we’re really here to help.”
Singing hymns and donning shirts reading, “Jesus is the Standard,” members of OSA emphasized being pro-life as a religious stance. In addition to preaching at gay pride parades and mosques, the ministry also goes to other churches—especially those located near clinics that provide abortions.
“Like, ‘Hey, do you know what’s happening in your neighborhood?’ We want to open your eyes to this, because God—these are his children,” Thomas said. “And we’re dismembering them, selling their body parts, and it’s very sad.”
Junior Marc Maguire, speaking as a representative of WU Students for Life, Wash. U.’s secular pro-life student group, said that the issue isn’t Planned Parenthood, but the act of abortion itself.
“Honestly, we don’t think Planned Parenthood is bad because of their business practices, or whatever these videos are showing,” Maguire said. “I haven’t watched these videos because even if they’re true, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to us…we’re more concerned that the abortions are happening in the first place.”
Maguire said that Students for Life was not partial to the non-secular argument.
“Something that does irk me about the pro-life movement is that it’s largely sold as a religious movement. As, ‘You shouldn’t do this because this book says so,’ and I and other people in the group don’t believe that at all,” Maguire said. “I would never want to force any sort of opinion on anybody if I didn’t think it was for a very important secular reason.”
He said that Students for Life supports the use of contraceptives, which “logically and empirically results in fewer unwanted pregnancies, which results in fewer abortions.” Additionally, the group works to engage in productive dialogue rather than use gruesome imagery and threats.
“We have two rules: one, don’t be weird,” Maguire said. “While some kids are totally down to spontaneously talk about humanity, morality and bodily rights for hours on end, others just want to eat their half and half in peace. Two, we make everyone in the group say, ‘I believe in wrong things,’ because above all else we must be humble and acknowledge that nobody knows everything about the world—we’re all still learning.”
Although Thomas and Maguire both offered alternative places for women to receive health care—including crisis pregnancy centers, a mobile clinic with ultrasound equipment, adoption services and “prayer centers”—Basson said that most locations are not equipped to handle the kind of traffic Planned Parenthood receives.
“If you sent women to access not even abortion but other healthcare at all of those places they would be so overwhelmed, so underfunded, so understaffed, it would be insane,” Basson said. “Planned Parenthood in Missouri serves 70,000 people a year, and we can’t even serve everybody that we need to because we don’t have the funding. Imagine sending all those people to Hope Clinic [a clinic that provides abortions in Granite City, Ill.].”
Basson said that Planned Parenthood also aims to serve women who do not have access to alternative clinics, as many of PP’s locations are in rural areas.
“Abortion is such fundamental healthcare, but so much more than that—it’s a fundamental choice that women have over their own bodies,” Basson said. “Your right to swing your fist ends at my face, right? Don’t take away my choice over my own body. Trust me to know what is right for me.”
Junior Vera Schulte, founder and co-president of Washington University Student Advocates for Reproductive Rights, echoed Basson’s statements.
“One in five women have used resources from Planned Parenthood,” Schulte said. “That’s such a large percentage of the population, and if Planned Parenthood weren’t here, women who are of lower socioeconomic status would have nowhere else to go.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate—despite a Republican majority—because there will likely not be 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. An earlier version stated that the bill would likely not pass due to a Democratic majority in the Senate.