Metropolitan Police Department vehicles pull onto 4th Street NE, off of Florida Avenue near Union Market, just as a couple dozen anti-abortion-rights activists begin walking toward the center of the block.
“Oh God, protect us now,” says the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister and longtime abortion-rights opponent. He’s organized this protest ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the District. “We are going in the street.”
The way someone might slowly, nervously ease out of her clothes her first time at a nudist beach, the group moves hesitantly at first. Two pre-teen girls, a middle-aged woman, and an older man shuffle into the middle of the street holding a hot-pink sign emblazoned with fat white letters, reading, “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts.” To the right of this sentence sits an image of a baby that appears to be floating, as in a womb, with its arms and legs curled upward. The baby is illustratively carved with dashed lines marking off limbs and organs. Dollar signs have been drawn within the demarcations.
The sign, produced by Created Equal, a national anti-abortion-rights group based in Columbus, Ohio, references a high-profile undercover video campaign targeting the nonprofit Planned Parenthood, which through affiliates runs about 700 health centers throughout the U.S. Many of these health clinics offer abortions and the majority offer low-cost reproductive and sexual-health services.
In July, a national group called the Center for Medical Progress began releasing a string of secretly recorded videos of conversations with Planned Parenthood executives, trying to prove that the nonprofit illegally sells aborted fetal organs for profit and murders live babies out of the womb. The group edited the 10-minute versions of some of these videos to suggest these notions. However, the more than 15 hours of raw footage the organization has released so far does not support these claims. State and federal investigations of these allegations have thus far proved fruitless.
But the narrative that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts is powerful and useful when your goal is to stop the construction of a new Planned Parenthood health center, such as the one Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC is building in Near Northeast, after recently closing down its two older locations.
It’s Monday, and these couple dozen activists, some of them clutching rosaries, plant their knees in the street just next to the Planned Parenthood construction site. They pray to God, but simultaneously direct their prayers at the pope, who will touch down just outside of D.C. the following day. As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis opposes abortion but recently made headlines after he encouraged priests to absolve women who confess to “the sin of abortion.”
“We pray, oh God, that this center will not be built,” Mahoney leads in prayer. “As we hear the sound of children celebrating on the playground and enjoying one another, it stands in stark contrast to what may be happening in this building just months from now.”
Indeed, the squeals of children playing almost drown out the reverend’s earnest prayers. Planned Parenthood is moving in next door to Two Rivers Public Charter School’s elementary campus. It’s mid-morning, and students are playing during recess. But today, their playground has been wrapped in black netting, shielding the kids’ view of the protest.
The school’s executive director, Jessica Wodatch, stands on the front steps of the elementary campus with other school officials, one of whom films the kneeling protesters, who are taking turns praying out loud and at one point begin singing “Amazing Grace.” Officials at the Two Rivers middle school campus across the street are also watching and filming the scene through the window, and construction workers watch from high up in the structure they’ve been turning into a Planned Parenthood center.
Meanwhile, a group of MPD officers lean against their SUVs that are blocking off the street’s entrance. They calmly observe the activists while occasionally talking to school officials.
As organizers go, Mahoney is especially organized. Leading up to this event, his group filed for a permit to assemble and let police know of their plans. Though 12 of the 25 or so protesters have arrived this morning with $100 cash in their pockets for potential bond money, neither Mahoney nor MPD expect anyone will end up in handcuffs.
And by 2 o’clock that afternoon, the activists get out of the street, and the police disperse. No one is arrested.
Mahoney set up this scene for the pope, but the true target audience of this protest was the neighborhood. Officially, the charter school, residents, and business owners around the block are gaining a new neighbor in Planned Parenthood. Unofficially, they’re also gaining a group of abortion-rights foes. Planned Parenthood has relocated, and so have the protesters.
Over the summer, anti-abortion-rights activists converted the construction site at 1225 4th St. NE into a prayer site and a platform from which to protest against abortion access, but more specifically Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC’s new health center.
Various groups have been staging protests in front of the construction site. On a Saturday morning in August, about 150 activists from different national groups protested in front of the building, calling for Planned Parenthood to be stripped of federal funding it receives to provide non-abortion-related services. And just last week, activists began protesting, praying, and fasting in front of the site as part of an international campaign led by a Texas-based group called 40 Days for Life. They plan to show up for 40 days, from dawn to dusk.
Many of the organizers of these campaigns work for national anti-abortion-rights groups headquartered in the District. Abortion-rights opponents across America have long treated D.C.’s now-shuttered Planned Parenthood flagship site on 16th and L streets as their Lincoln Memorial. It is a national symbol for them, but also a convenient place to demonstrate for those who work on the Hill or visit for events or conferences focused on criminalizing abortion.
But one group in particular has been working religiously since mid-summer to try to stop this clinic from opening.
Mahoney launched Abortion-Free DC in July after learning that Planned Parenthood would not be shutting down operations in the District, but simply moving in order to update and expand its operations. Some of Abortion-Free DC’s tactics are very public. In addition to protests, the group is trying to drum up local opposition to the clinic by canvassing the neighborhood and speaking at community meetings. Behind the scenes, though, the group has been collecting documents and searching for proof that Planned Parenthood has violated D.C. regulations.
“When we heard that there was no Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in D.C., we were thrilled,” says Mahoney, who also directs the Christian Defense Coalition and is lead pastor at Church on the Hill, headquartered behind the U.S. Supreme Court. “But then they’re planning to build a much larger facility, so we began to mobilize and say, ‘Well, can we come together as a community and do all that we can peacefully, prayerfully, and publicly to see that this new Planned Parenthood is not built, does not do abortions?”
Ultimately, however, Abortion-Free DC is trying to create roots in a new neighborhood. Mahoney has spent 27 years—almost half of his life—peacefully protesting in front of the former Planned Parenthood, and occasionally going to jail for it. And he says he is prepared to spend the rest of his life doing the same.
Because while Mahoney believes that his group is unlikely to stop Planned Parenthood from opening next year, he says he and other activists intend to serve as public witnesses of D.C.’s Planned Parenthood clinic as long as the clinic stands.
“This may be another 27-year relationship,” he says. “I hope and pray that it isn’t, but it could be.”
Planned Parenthood’s D.C. affiliate says they are not daunted by activists’ efforts.
“With all of the swirl around Planned Parenthood, we will continue to see patients,” says Dr. Laura Meyers, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC. “We will continue to provide care no matter what.”
Despite the group’s name, the focus of Abortion-Free DC’s campaign is not to eliminate legal abortion in the District; other independent clinics and doctors provide abortions here. Instead, the idea is to try to expel the most visible symbol of abortion in America from the nation’s capital.
“If we can work as people of goodwill and justice to stop this center from going in, it will have national implications,” Mahoney says. “Because what happens in the nation’s capital has strong bearing on what goes on and influences the country. Plus, you are right in the center of every decision maker, both legislatively and judicially, who would see this.”
Of course, protesting the District’s Planned Parenthood is just one example of national advocates and politicians trying to curtail D.C. residents’ access to abortion and reproductive health services.
In 2011, then-Mayor Vince Gray and several D.C. councilmembers were arrested while protesting a congressional spending bill that precluded the District from using local funds to pay for some women’s abortions. This year, congressional Republicans have been trying to overturn a D.C. law prohibiting employers from firing employees based on their personal reproductive health choices.
On a recent Thursday night, about 10 activists met at the Dubliner restaurant and pub, just a few blocks from the Capitol. The air was crisp and pleasant that night, so the group sat outside. A passerby might have wondered about the odd hodgepodge of people drinking beer and eating sandwiches together, which ranged from millennials working in the anti-abortion-rights movement since college to longtime activists like Mahoney to a local priest.
Abortion-Free DC does not have official members. Mahoney says between 10 and 15 people meet with him at his shared office space to talk strategy, and usually more attend their events.
Spirits were high around the table, even though the evening did not go quite as planned.
The group was able to corral about 20 activists and friends to this month’s meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C, which serves the area where the new Planned Parenthood is scheduled to open. They were hoping to voice their opposition to the clinic at the end of the meeting. But as it turned out, the agenda was full, and there would be no opportunity for unscheduled comments.
Fortunately for them, one activist who lives in the District had signed up to speak.
Diane Conocchioli managed to capture the essence of Abortion-Free DC’s messaging strategy in her short speech, which spilled a bit over the three-minute time limit. After briefly comparing abortion to the Holocaust, Conocchioli zoomed in on two key points. She argued that Planned Parenthood was insensitive to move next door to Two Rivers Public Charter School. Then she accused Planned Parenthood and the ANC of covering up the center’s relocation plans.
“This is so astonishing and in my view only compounds the whole horror of abortion and the whole horror of Planned Parenthood, that you have this facility square in the middle, at an exact right angle of a school,” says Conocchioli, who helped organize D.C.’s 40 Days for Life campaign this fall.
Indeed, parents of children who attend Two Rivers expressed concern to the Washington Post about the school’s proximity to the Planned Parenthood, in part because of the people protesting out front and, in at least one instance, waving graphic signs with images of aborted fetuses months before the center has even started seeing patients.
Two Rivers’ Wodatch did not respond to requests for comment, but Planned Parenthood says they have met with the school’s administration and parents and with the local ANC multiple times since last year and are trying to foster a positive relationship with the school and community leaders.
“Planned Parenthood has been working with the community since purchasing the building including the ANC, Two Rivers, and other key stakeholders,” says Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan, DC Vice President of Marketing and Communications Mara Braunger in an email. “Last school year, Dr. Meyers spoke to the Two Rivers PSA. Earlier in the summer, we knocked on 500 doors introducing ourselves to our new neighbors, and the response was overwhelmingly positive and welcoming.”
ANC 6C06 Commissioner Tony Goodman, who is also a Two Rivers parent, says many people in the neighborhood are nervous about the new clinic. Though some oppose abortion, he says, his sense is that the neighborhood is worried about the circus of protesters that the center will bring.
“I’m not thrilled about walking past, between my house and the school, [the Planned Parenthood] every day,” Goodman says. “But it’s not because what is going on inside the building. It’s because I don’t want to walk past protesters every day.”
Planned Parenthood says this is not the first time one of its clinics will exist next to a charter school. For years, the School for Arts in Learning operated next door downtown, Braunger says.
“We need to ask the protesters why they think it is appropriate to involve small children in an adult conversation with images that are clearly inappropriate for children,” Meyers says. “The bottom line is that we really need to be talking to the protesters about censoring and monitoring their own behavior around children.”
To mitigate some of these concerns, Mahoney says he has instructed activists affiliated with his group not to speak to students or parents or to show them graphic signs as they protest. He says he scheduled Monday’s protest in the street at 10 a.m. in order to avoid disrupting students arriving to school in the morning. And at his request, protesters did not bring signs displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses.
“Our issue is not with the school,” Mahoney says.
Of course, many of the protesters argue that they are compelled to protest in front of the clinic because they are morally opposed to abortion and view it as murder.
“What kind of a monster would I be if I thought that they were killing human beings inside and I didn’t say a word?” says Kathleen Burke, who has lived in D.C. for all 36 years of her life and attended this month’s ANC meeting. “I don’t want to be like all of the Germans after World War II that were like, ‘Oh I had no idea they were killing Jews in there.’”
A claim Conocchioli raised at the ANC meeting and one that Abortion-Free DC has repeatedly made is that neither Planned Parenthood nor the local ANC made residents aware that Planned Parenthood would be coming to the neighborhood and providing abortions.
“This has been on the drawing board, under the radar, for two years,” Conocchioli says. “And I guess I have to turn to the commission and respectfully ask, ‘How is it that this could have happened without a period of public notice, without a period of public hearing? How could something like this have happened without people from the community being brought into the process?’”
But Matt Orlins, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ legislative and public affairs director, says Planned Parenthood’s permits to renovate the facility were “properly approved” and did not require a public hearing or that the public be noticed.
Mahoney’s group intends to keep the regulatory affairs department busy as they search for regulations Planned Parenthood may have violated. Earlier this summer, Abortion-Free DC claimed Planned Parenthood had violated a rule surrounding its permit signs. Inspectors checked out the claim and determined that the health center was complying with all building regulations.
Mahoney is also trying to prove his theory that Planned Parenthood may have violated a requirement for full disclosure by applying for building permits as an “outpatient health clinic,” without noting on the applications that its health services would include abortions.
“If abortion is nothing to be ashamed of, why not put it in there?” Mahoney says.
But according to the D.C. Department of Health, Planned Parenthood was not required to re-state its services as part of the process of relocating to a different building. Ivan Torres, a media liaison for DOH, says that two years ago Planned Parenthood inquired with D.C.’s State Health Planning and Development Agency to see if they needed to resubmit a certificate of need detailing their activities. It was determined they did not need to, he says.
“For nearly 80 years, D.C. women and men have relied on Planned Parenthood for a broad range of high-quality nonjudgmental healthcare services including STI testing, well woman exams, pap tests, breast exams, birth control, and abortion services,” Braunger says in an email, when asked if Planned Parenthood had notified residents and Two Rivers parents whether it would be providing abortion services. “We will be offering the full range of services at our new state of the art health center.”
Goodman disagrees with activists’ assessment that Planned Parenthood has not been transparent, arguing that the organization purchased the building and has applied for permits using its true name rather than trying to hide under an alias. He says the type of building permits Planned Parenthood applied for did not require a vote from the ANC, or for the ANC to ask the public to weigh in on the project.
Still, Goodman says he is considering a request from Mahoney to host a special meeting to allow residents to air their concerns about the new Planned Parenthood. He says the ANC did this two years ago when residents mounted opposition against a Wal-Mart opening on H Street NW.
He thinks the meeting eased tensions back then but does not think a special meeting this time around will resolve the controversy, or end the protests.
“We’re not going to solve [a] nationwide, long-running debate in the course of a special meeting,” Goodman says.
Resnick is an investigative reporter for RH Reality Check.