Pro-life activists are protesting a Minnesota clinic from a deer stand

At a clinic that provides abortions in Robbinsdale, protesters have allegedly set up a deer blind so they can yell at patients as they walk through the parking lot.

At a clinic that provides abortions in Robbinsdale, protesters have allegedly set up a deer blind so they can yell at patients as they walk through the parking lot. Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Getting to an abortion appointment at the Robbinsdale primary care clinic requires a little maneuvering in the home stretch.

Not only do you have to avoid the Robbinsdale Women’s Center, located across the street, which the clinic notes is "not supportive of a woman's right to choose abortion." 

Even on the right side of the road, it can be an awkward walk to the front door. Along the right side of the parking lot, there’s a wooden fence, and poking over the top of that fence is a deer stand. Spoiler alert: It's not for hunting deer.

“This is so protesters can stand in it and yell over the fence and into the parking lot while patients are walking in,” NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota organizer Hayley Brioch testified Thursday at a Minnesota House of Representatives committee hearing. Brioch’s job is to marshal escorts for patients seeking abortions at independent clinics.

The hope is having someone with will make them less afraid to seek help. But situations like the one in Robbinsdale only make this harder. Former DFL legislator Erin Maye Quade tweeted a sketch of the setup during Brioch's testimony. 

“Between the deer stand, the crucifix, and the fake clinic across the street, it’s an onslaught,” one person replied.

Brioch was testifying in support of a bill introduced by Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina),  which would make obstructing access, intimidating, or causing injury to someone trying to enter a clinic a gross misdemeanor. The bill would protect providers, staff, and patients; if it's enacted, perpetrators could be punished by a year in jail or up to a $3,000 fine.

Protesters could also get cited for destruction of property while someone's trying to get to the clinic. (That would be a misdemeanor, punishable by 90 days in jail or up to a $1,000 fine.) Essentially, people would still free to assemble and protest. They just can't get in anyone's face. 

“Women should never have to choose between their safety and their healthcare,” Edelson said during the Thursday's hearing.

Besides Brioch, other testifiers included University of Minnesota OB-GYN and abortion provider Jessika Ralph, who said she tries not look like a doctor—no coat, no scrubs—when she leaves her clinic. She’s been “threatened” by protesters and trapped in the parking lot before.

A few speakers were there to advocate for the other side, too. Almost universally, they rejected the label of “protesters.” They're “sidewalk counselors,” they said, and they claimed they weren’t being anything but peaceful. In fact, they said, it's the other side that needs to be policed.

“I have been bumped by a male partner of a woman who was on her path to abort her child, I’ve had pop poured on my literature and on my arm, I’ve been threatened,” Ann Redding, a “sidewalk counselor” of nearly 20 years, told the committee. “I’ve had threats against me for just standing, offering love and support.”

A few of the representatives present called the bill a “redundant” overreach on the demonstrators’ free speech rights, at best, and needless at worst. Others weren’t that polite about it.

“This bill bothers me,” Rep Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) said. “Here we’re talking about people going in to murder children.”

On a more civil note, Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover) called the escorts’ war stories a “mischaracterization” of what “really happens” outside of abortion clinics.

“I’ve never known them [demonstrators] to be anything but peaceable,” she said.

Be that as it may, the National Abortion Federation has tracked abortion-related violence in this country since 1977, and the numbers say things are only getting worse. In 2017, violent acts against providers more than doubled from the previous year at 1,081 incidents—a record high. In 2018, we broke the record again at 1,369 incidents, despite some of the lowest abortion rates since the procedure became legal nationwide.

The bill’s supporters say this would be a preventative measure to keep things from getting too bloody in Minnesota. And besides, it’s not just an issue of freedom of speech and assembly, they say – it’s an issue of patient privacy and protecting access to health care.

Rep. Hunter Cantrel (DFL-Savage), a cancer survivor, compared protesters approaching patients seeking abortions to cancer patients being dissuaded from chemo in favor of “essential oils” and other so-called cures.

He never saw people picketing outside his chemo clinic, but he’d be alarmed if he did. Still, abortion—which is, legally, just another form of health care—is being treated differently.

“You can say anyone has the right to go and protest these [other forms of birth control], but they’re not,” he said.

The bill passed the committee on party lines, 8-7, and will get its next test on the House floor. There is no companion bill in the Republican-controlled Senate, and it’s unlikely it would get far in that chamber as it is.