VERMONT — There was a time when working at an abortion clinic necessitated wearing a bulletproof vest. Or stepping over chained protestors blocking the front door. In some cases, it meant giving your life. Is the past repeating itself at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England? Not quite, but employees say patients and staff are increasingly being harassed and intimidated at clinics in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
Emily Blistein, PPNNE public affairs director for the state of Vermont, says workers throughout New England are reporting increased pro-life activity at their clinics. She points in particular to events at Burlington’s Mansfield Avenue and Barre’s Washington Street facilities. “It has sort of changed over the last few months, from a typical . . . handful of protestors to a larger group who are encroaching much more close to our property boundaries, and using protest techniques they haven’t used in the past,” says Blistein.
PPNNE staffers say they respect the protestors’ right to be there, but add that the recent surge in activity has upset patients entering the facility. Particularly disconcerting was a discovery of fake bullets outside the Burlington clinic. Staffers found the faux ammo this past summer and reported it to the local police.
Patients have complained about one man — a regular — who sports red tape over his mouth with the word “Life” written across it. The man, says Blistein, has been seen standing on the Burlington clinic property line, alone or sometimes with a group of young protestors. He walks slowly and stares.
In April, a group of 40 protestors — presumably from outside Vermont — appeared with the red tape on their mouths, says Blistein. They stood directly in front of the health center, humming at entering patients and refusing to move out of the way. Blistein also says protestors have been seen taking notes in front of the building and sprinkling holy water on the sidewalk. Staffers think they may be writing down license plate numbers, or recording the comings and goings of patients and staff.
Patients also report being approached by protestors, who often hand out pro-life literature. “The patients have said they don’t want people to come up to them about these personal decisions,” says Blistein. “The patients that come to us are upset because they feel they are being judged, and they feel intimidated.”
Planned Parenthood Assistant Director of Medical Services Erin Carmichael says that, in addition to upsetting patients, the recent protests have had a chilling effect on the staff. “The surge in activity is concerning because anti-choice activists have a history of threats and violence,” says Carmichael. “The history is very real, and any reasonable person would feel threatened as their activity escalates.”
Blistein believes the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is responsible for the recent upsurge. She points to a column called “Montpelier Matters,” which is written by Michele Morin and published biweekly by the diocese. Recent editions of the column, which appears in the Vermont Catholic Tribune, feature plentiful pro-life information, including guidelines on how to pray at abortion centers, approved by Bishop Salvatore Matano. “Montpelier Matters” also lists specific times, dates and locations of pro-life events at abortion clinics in Vermont.
Gloria Gibson, the Diocese’s director of communications, denies it has anything to do with the recent increase in activity, describing the demonstrations as “spontaneous.” “What you have is a lot of different people from different walks of life that feel the same,” says Gibson. “All they do is pray. They don’t have signs. They don’t have messages. There’s no demonstrations of any kind. They just simply pray . . . I don’t even know what religions they are.”
When pressed about the pro-life material in “Montpelier Matters,” Gibson says Morin is merely a part-time columnist, and “a lot of the stuff she does is not initiated by and not promoted by the diocese.”
When contacted, Morin refused to speak with Seven Days on the record. In an email response to a request for an interview, she said the diocese has never organized a protest at an abortion center. Morin attributes the effort to a Montpelier-based group known as the Vermont Right to Life Committee, whose executive director, Mary Beerworth, just happens to be Morin’s sister.
When Seven Days asked Morin to comment on a recent issue of her column describing a “Peaceful protest at the abortion center in Barre,” she did not respond. Morin’s column also estimates how many “abortion customers” enter the Burlington clinic on a given day, a figure she reaches by observing how long each person stays in the building and whether they come with a companion.
“I think that’s a bit disingenuous, to say that they don’t have an organized effort,” responds PPNNE’s Blistein, adding that 97 percent of PPNNE’s care is prevention-based, and most patients do not come to its clinics for abortions.
But VRLC’s Beerworth doesn’t shy away from the issue, and says county chapters of her organization do indeed spearhead local protests. Beerworth denies any knowledge of note taking, and says she has never witnessed blocked sidewalks or trespassing — later adding that VRLC does not condone protestors approaching or addressing those entering the clinic. But she admits, “You can’t control everybody.”
Beerworth also says VRLC’s mission is “totally different” from that of the diocese. VRLC stays away from religious rhetoric and embraces protest. “Anyone who doesn’t want to do it the way we do it is not welcome to join us,” she adds.
Beerworth attributes the recent surge in protests to VRLC’s efforts, as well as to a progressive increase in Vermont’s abortion rate. She claims that, after dropping steadily each year since 1985, numbers of abortions have started to rise, and that about 15 abortions are performed each week at the Burlington clinic and about six in Barre. “In the end, they are primarily in the business of abortion,” Beerworth says of PPNNE. “They may not like it, but it’s the truth.”
“It saddens us that the protestors claim to be there to help women, but they have no regard for the emotional effect their judgmental presence actually has,” says PPNNE’s Carmichael. She adds that encounters with the protestors have reduced some women to tears.
“We have a right to do it,” says Beerworth. As for PPNNE, “If they’re proud of what they do, it shouldn’t be disturbing them in the least.”
This month, PPNNE began enlisting the help of volunteers to escort patients in and out of the Burlington clinic. (Until the mid-1990s, the clinic contracted with an off-duty police officer to monitor the building.) When protestors do come on PPNNE’s property, they get a warning before police are summoned.
Deputy Chief Mike Schirling of the Burlington Police Department says the cops responded to a call in August. A woman at the Burlington PPNNE clinic was “in the office yelling about ripping dead babies out of bodies,” he reports. “She wanted to see where they were keeping the dead bodies.”