It’s 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and anti-abortion activist Reverend Pat Mahoney has arrived at Washington, D.C.’s downtown Planned Parenthood health center with the intention of getting arrested.But first, he has to warm up the crowd.
“For the first time in the history of Washington, D.C., they have banned and prohibited prayer on a public sidewalk,” Mahoney announces to the crowd of television cameras, microphones, and note-pads jockeying for position around him. “Men and women who have prayed here for years have been threatened with arrest. . . We’re going to pray here today! And if it means going to jail, then we’re going to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against D.C. in order to keep praying!”
Commander Hilton Burton, of the D.C. police’s Special Operations Division, has been dispatched to handle Mahoney’s public display—-and if necessary, arrest him. Mahoney agrees to give Burton ten minutes to confer with his supervisors before the Reverend attempts to perform the stunt that will likely get him handcuffed. Mahoney is happy to claim some extra time to play to his audience.
“As I just informed the Commander, this is just as much a disgrace as the ‘White-Only’ signs put up during the civil rights movement,” Mahoney announces. As he stalls for the cops, additional press file in to jot down his statements and assemble more video recording equipment. Local anti-abortion activists file in with cameras of their own. Several more police officers report to the scene. A reporter fits a microphone into the pocket of Mahoney’s brown jacket. He grins. “If you speak to me,” he informs the crowd, “Just remember, I’m miked!”
The spectacle was two months in the making. It started with a fence. On April 2, the Planned Parenthood Association of D.C. was granted a fence permit to build a “42” wrought iron steel fence” in front of its clinic at 1108 16th Street NW. Once Mahoney got wind of the construction, he sensed an opportunity to make himself heard.
Mahoney, who heads up the Christian Defense Coalition, doesn’t take issue with the fence itself. He’s more concerned with what lies beyond the gates: A 40-foot-long grassy entranceway with a paved center walkway that women must traverse in order to receive Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health services, which include abortions. For years, anti-abortion activists have come to the turf to pray, confront patients, and attempt to convince pregnant women not to abort. The fence, equipped with signs reading “Private Property. No Trespassing. Violators Will be Prosecuted,” threatens to keep the activists at a distance. And D.C. police officers threaten to arrest anyone who dares protest inside the gates.
Mahoney contends that the space is public property, and he’s had James Henderson, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, investigate the issue with the Office of Tax and Revenue, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and the District Department of Transportation in order to prove it. Planned Parenthood reps maintain that the property is theirs to police. “At the 16th Street health center, where Planned Parenthood also provides abortion care, our patients are typically met with and often harassed by people opposed to legal abortion,” Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington CEO Laura Meyers said in a statement. “The fence serves to protect the health center and our patients from violations of DC trespassing laws while still allowing those who are opposed to legal abortion to exercise their First Amendment rights and express their views along the sidewalk.” (The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs did not return calls for comment).
So, why not just pray on the sidewalk outside the fence? “It’s better access,”explains Erik Whittington of Rock for Life, an anti-abortion initiative targeted at teens. Whittington says he’s prayed outside the clinic “at least once a year” since 1995. “I’ve been up there next to the door, I’ve been up on the grass leading prayer circles,” he reminisces. “For women who are coming here to have an abortion, they’re walking up on that public property for about 15 seconds. . . Forty feet is a long way.”
Now, D.C.’s anti-abortion activists are forced to set up shop on the main 16th Street sidewalk, where it’s difficult to even identify women seeking clinic services until they’re already out of earshot. “You don’t really have enough time to talk to them that way,” says Dick Retta, an anti-abortion activist who is familiar with the disputed terrain. “Outside the fence, you’ve only got maybe three to four seconds.”
The fence may have been a bust for local sidewalk counselors. But as Mahoney knows, having your speech rights curbed in even a tiny section of the District can get a lot of people to pay attention to what you have to say.