At the clinic last Saturday I saw them. Two men, late 50s or early 60s. One held a large folder in one hand, stuffed full of smaller, manila folders and papers. From the other hand pink or blue plastic rosary beads dangled.
His friend, meanwhile, was on the ground. The parking lot of the clinic I visited was surrounded by a large metal fence, and that fence covered from nearly top to bottom with gray canvas to protect a patient’s privacy. But at the very bottom, a gap of about two feet was open, and he was flat on the ground, peering through.
“What were they doing?” I asked my photographer later.
“He was reading license plate numbers,” she told me. “The other guy was writing them down.”
I asked a clinic escort later about the incident and she told me that happened most weeks. “Nothing’s ever come of it,” she explained, mostly unconcerned.
Last week, Progress Texas and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas released undercover recordings of a training session for abortion opponents where, among other things, they explained why pro-life people need to be an even greater presence at the remaining abortion clinics in Texas. Clinics closing at a rapid clip thanks to the new, medically unnecessary, and onerous anti-abortion law known as HB2 mandating local hospital admitting privileges and offices rebuilt as ambulatory surgical centers, and the targets are dwindling while the number of anti-abortion activists seem to be unchanged. Recommitting their troops to the last clinics still standing means even more people on the sidewalks – a tactic that we’ve seen in other states leads to a massively intimidating presence as a patient tries to walk through a provider’s door.
Standing witness or trying to cajole patients out of going to their appointments isn’t enough, however, and the Texas Alliance for Life provided additional jobs that need to be conducted outside a clinic – namely monitoring the license plate numbers of those who come into the building. “We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet,” said Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas. “This way you can track whether or not a client comes back.” According to Garnett, the spreadsheet includes “license plate, car, make, model, description of the person.”
In follow up with local media, Garnett was quick to explain that the tracking isn’t to obtain the identify of a potential patient, but to note who doesn’t return for a second appointment (Texas has a mandatory 24-hour waiting period in between two in-person appointments when obtaining an abortion), so that they can assume that the person decided against abortion. “If a car returns, then that is someone who is having an abortion,” Garnett said. “If a car does not return and we never see that car return, then we can feel pretty confident that that mother has made a decision for life.” They also use license information to track abortion providers, allegedly to check hospital privileges.
There are a number of reasons anti-abortion activists may want that information on potential patients that doesn’t actually involve naming or contacting the person inside that car. For anyone who has ever following the Facebook, Twitter or email newsletters of anti-abortion action groups and especially those focused on “sidewalk ministry,” there is no story they love to tell more than the story of their “saves” in front of an “abortion mill,” and the more detail they can provide the better.
A brief glimpse through the 40 Days for Life website and their ongoing tally of “saves” shows this phenomenon first hand. During the last campaign, during which the group attempts to have at least one person outside as many clinics as possible nonstop for a full 40 days, the group claims 728 “saves.” While some “saves” involve actually providing information and taking people to crisis pregnancy centers, however, others, such as “The abortion clinic was closed because no one made it in for work!” are a bit more of a stretch.
Are these non-returning license plates in Texas simply another aspect of the desire to provide endless victories to their supporters in order to encourage them to keep fighting (and, even better, keep donating)? Possibly. But how does that square in states like Illinois, where I visited last weekend, where there is no waiting period? What could possibly be the purpose behind documenting license plate information in a clinic parking lot there?
License plate monitoring has had a long and sordid history when it comes to the anti-abortion movement, and often involved outing and contacting patients, not just tracking abortion providers or clinic staff. As E.J. Bader wrote in her 2001 book “Targets of Hatred,” which tracks violence and harassment against abortion providers, staff, volunteers and activists since the Roe decision, abortion opponents would use license plates to obtain home addresses for patients, ostensibly to “follow up” and inform them of alleged clinic violations and ask them to file lawsuits against the businesses. In reality, however, it was a backdoor effort to ensure a patient understood that some stranger was watching her and knew she had obtained an abortion.
One anti-abortion activist who did this for years was Meredith Raney, who targeted the now-closed Aware Women Center in Florida throughout the ‘90s. Bader reports that Raney repeatedly sent letters to patients who had abortions at the clinic, after tracking their home addresses via their license plates, calling himself “The Women’s Legal Action Coalition” and offering first assistance, and, as the years progressed, financial incentive if the patients would provide information on a doctor’s identity.
“It has come to out attention that you may be one of the 20,000 women who have had an abortion at the Aware Woman Clinic in Melbourne, Florida,” one such letter began. “We know that it may be difficult and painful for you to even think about this period in your life. Please be assured that we mean you no harm or embarrassment.”
In 1999, Raney justified his tactics, stating, “It’s been my intention and the intention of Christians for Life to present truthful information to patients. We have used inventive ways to do that.”
“The anti-abortion movement has been doing this for decades, tormenting women who choose to have an abortion or obtain birth control,” Bader told Talking Points Memo. “It is harassment, pure and simple–and it is a crime that law enforcement rarely takes this issue seriously and more often than not refuses to protect women choosing these important services.”
Maybe the privacy invading aspect of license plate tracking really is a thing of the past (At least, when it comes to patients. Not so much for the doctors, it seems). Even if we accept that at face value, however, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that seeing a stranger at an abortion clinic documenting an license plate number – whether on a pad of paper or with a camera – is a frightening thing for a person entering a clinic to have to endure.
“Taking down someone’s license plate number and description is not just an invasion of privacy, but a method of intimidation,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas via email. “It doesn’t matter if the protesters ever follow up and contact the patient afterwards, the damage is done at the clinic. They purpose is to scare someone away from the clinic because they’re being tracked. It’s a form of bullying.”
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Ms. Magazine, In These Times, Truth Out, AlterNet, RH Reality Check and other publications.