Early Saturday morning, with cups of coffee and handmade pro-abortion rights posters in hand, members of the Columbia University Democrats made their way to Dr. Emily Woman's Health Center in the South Bronx to escort women into the clinic and face off against anti-abortion protesters.
CU Dems Lead Activist Melissa Quintana, CC '16, said the clinic defense is especially crucial this month, as Sept. 25 marked the first day of 40 Days for Life, a national campaign that sends anti-abortion activists to locations such as Dr. Emily. This is the second year the Dems have defended women going to the clinic.
"Last year we would stand on the corner and escort the women into the clinic, but I think today one of our biggest challenges and roles is messaging that this is a safe place," Quintana said.
Quintana participated in all three of the clinic defenses the club organized last year, but said it has always been a challenge to get enough pro-abortion rights protesters.
"We're all really, really happy that we got people to come out this time and understand the power of this cause," she said.
About 25 CU Dems were at the clinic on Saturday, compared with 14 anti-abortion protesters standing at the front of the building and six near the clinic's back entrance.
CU Dems Vice President Austin Heyroth, CC '15, called the ratio "absolutely fantastic."
"If past experience continues, this means there will be far fewer protesters next time," he said. Dr. Emily had the most anti-abortion protesters of any clinic the group went to last year.
Despite tension between the opposing sides of protesters, the scene in front of the clinic remained calm all morning, with occasional chanting and religious singing from the anti-abortion side.
The police arrived mid-morning after two anti-abortion activists blocked the sidewalk in front of the clinic, violating the national Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which restricts protesters from blocking access within 15 feet of the clinic. The police did not press charges, but stuck around for a couple of hours as tensions increased.
"I think one of the biggest lessons that you learn in clinic defense is the symmetry of the First Amendment," Quintana said. "You get to see that not only does it apply to us, but it also applies to them."
However, the CU Dems' presence "made them realize that they weren't getting much done here," she said of anti-abortion protesters who dispersed shortly after the police departed.
Heyroth said the group hopes to return every other week.
"They have a right to be here just as much as we do," Heyroth said of the anti-abortion protesters. "But it's very important to make sure that they're not harassing, they're not coercing, they're not giving demonstrably false information."
CU Dems President Sejal Singh, CC '15, said women at the clinic appreciated the students' help and asked them to return.
"Having protestors outside educating you, yelling at you, with these graphic images—sometimes even physically blocking people trying to get into the clinic—makes a really difficult situation a lot more difficult," Singh said. "We just want to show women that we support them. We're here to make sure they get a chance to exercise their rights and that they feel as comfortable doing that as possible."
Several of the Dems said the clinic defense gave them more perspective as to what women seeking abortions may go through.
"I can't imagine having to go through this to get healthcare," Aditya Nair, CC '17, said. "It's ridiculous."
CU Dems Media Director Swara Salih, CC '14, said that while the club works to influence national politics, they also focus on local issues.
"We really want to find that the members in our club can engage more with the community and make a difference directly," Salih said. "And I feel like that's what we've done today."
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