A still from a video that shows Christmas carolers entering a reproductive health clinic, singing and handing pamphlets to patients before being asked to leave.
“O holy night! The stars are brightly shiiiiiiiining…”
Ah, the holidays. A time of year where music fills the air with songs of peace and joy—and abortion?
Indeed, for a sizable group of dedicated anti-choice organizations, Christmas is a time to step up protests of reproductive clinics across the country. Caroling as tactic to shame healthcare workers and women seeking abortions started with the Pro-Life Action League, who hold a yearly “Empty Manger Caroling Day” in the Chicago area.
“Bring the Joy and Hope of Christmas to Abortuaries with an ‘Empty Manger’ Caroling Day!” the Pro-Life Action League website happily proclaims. They have a “Caroling Day How-To Guide” on executing your “empty manager building plans.” The group encourages people to construct tiny empty mangers, place them outside of clinics, and then gather a group of people to sing traditional Christmas carols like “Away in a Manger” and “O Come, Little Children.” This December, Christmas caroling activists have events planned at places ranging from a Planned Parenthood in LA to a family planning clinic in Pensacola. Cheery group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust (group founded by former Operation Rescue member Jeff White and long-time anti-abortion activist Cheryl Conrad) provides handy flyers you can print out to encourage people to get into the Christmas spirit:
On Survivors-run website A Pro-Life Christmas Carol, the group argues that “abortion-minded” women need “a jolt of love” at Christmastime, just like Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
According Benita Ulisano, who has organized the Illinois Choice Action Team’s clinic defense escort volunteers the past four years, the holiday crowd at the clinics is actually easier to handle than the regular picketers. Ulisano’s group is charged on a weekly basis with standing as human shields between patients and picketers — some of whom can be aggressive and even physical. The caroling seems to occupy the Pro-Life Action League members who assemble this time of year, however, leaving less time for yelling or chasing people into the streets.
“Three of our clinics get hit with the Empty Manger Tour,” said Ulisano, “but the patients don’t react much.”
In Southern California, the situation is different.
The Survivors group target clinics from Long Beach to San Bernardino and is promoted as a necessary Christmas tradition. In a 2012 newsletter printed by Survivors, caroler C.J. Williams condescendingly describes the people entering an LA clinic as “young and worried, middle-aged and feeling old, uneducated, immigrant, scared students, confused wives” and explains how carolers leaned in to show one woman in particular pictures of fetuses in-utero as they all sang “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
In addition to handing disturbing photos to patients, the group encourages distributing “gift baskets” that are “filled with ‘firsts’ for her baby—first blanket, first diaper, first booties.”
According to Mary Beth Blakey, co-coordinator of LA For Choice, description of offering “gifts” is accurate—and the real reason the picketers congregate on the sidewalks and at the entrances. Videos show carolers walking into clinics and then occupying the lobby to sing and talk about Jesus as staff asks them to leave.
“The caroling is just the gimmick,” said Blakey, who has witnessed the Survivors’ brand of patient intimidation for the five years as a clinic escort in Los Angeles. “Their main goal is to trespass onto the private property, enter the lobby, and harass, frighten, and manipulate the patients and staff.”
Blakey says the “baby baskets” are filled with booties, bottles and blankets—and of course the medically inaccurate anti-abortion literature the group uses to manipulate patients and passersby. Carolers also have edible gifts that they offer to staff and patients—which clinic staff say is a tactic used around the country to try and get patients to eat, forcing them to reschedule termination procedures that must be done on an empty stomach.
These offerings sometimes come with awkward and upsetting “reassurances” when staff chooses not to engage or accept tokens.
In 2011, says Blakely, a caroler cheerfully proclaimed to an escorting co-coordinator “Don’t worry, it’s not a bomb!” when the worker politely refused chocolate.
This year, with the Supreme Court striking down buffer zone laws designed to provide protection for patients entering reproductive healthcare clinics, there is an increasing awareness about the prevalence of picketing—even in predominantly progressive areas like Chicago and Los Angeles. Blakey says the patients are still caught off guard when they see the “Survivors” singing with graphic signs in their disturbing “skeleton fetus” shirts.
“The main reaction I see is confusion and a desire to be patient and polite, even to the carolers and other picketers who are pushy and really have no regard for boundaries,” says Blakey. “During the caroling action last year, the clinic staff made a point of telling me that multiple patients said that the carolers scared them. In 2012, a caroler jumped into a patient’s car and stayed there for about 15 minutes, showing the patient anti-abortion literature. The patient’s support person (who owned the car) told me he did not feel safe asking the caroler to leave.”
Clinic buffer zones, like this one in Vermont, were meant to keep health clinic clients safe. Photo by Adam Fagen.
Such pushiness is unsurprising considering organizer Jeff White’s political activity kicked off during Operation Rescue’s most infamous decade—the late 1980’s through the 1990’s. White was in Wichita during the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” campaign when Dr. George Tiller was shot the first time. (Tiller would later be assassinated by a different Operation Rescue-inspired man, Scott Roeder, in 2009.)
“I can tell you that Jeff is described as confrontational, pushy, and scarily off putting by any escort, patient, or clinic staff member who has ever talked to me about him,” said Blakey. “I think that he understands this about himself and that’s part of why he uses younger, more earnest, less physically imposing people to go after patients and healthcare providers. He also doubtlessly knows they will face less legal consequences.”
Because of his aggressive nature—White is on video pushing an escort—the LA For Choice organizers reaffirm their strict non-engagement policy ahead of the annual caroling events, add extra volunteers to shifts, and coordinate with police to call them if things get out of hand.
All of this aggression and intimidation seems counter to the holiday spirit that’s practically unavoidable this time of year. Blakey says that’s what catches people so off guard during the caroling events.
With the increased media attention on the current state of aggression toward providers and patients following the Supreme Court decision in June, there has been a surge of pro-choice motivated “counter-protesting” intended to support clinics. Both Blakey and Ulisano urge people not to take such action because they’re worried it will agitate picketers.
“De-escalation is the goal because we just want people to get in and out of their appointments safely and comfortably,” says Blakey.
Ulisano agrees that clinic entrances and sidewalks shouldn’t be political spaces; most patients on the day of an appointment just want to get in, see their doctor, and head home.
“Clinic supporters should connect to and attend training with a locally organized escort group and participate in that way,” said Ulisano. “Counter-protesting is not really productive and most clinics do not support that action. If you cannot escort, please donate to your local abortion fund.”
Perhaps one of these years the coercive carolers will make it through the entirety of “O Holy Night” and hear the lyrics in the third verse—a more fitting depiction of the season than the scene they create at the clinics: “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.”