The Sexist

Barrier Method: How a 42-Inch Fence Is Threatening Our Nation’s Unborn

To the barricades: Mahoney is pro-life, anti-fence.

On Tuesday, June 8, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney arrived at Planned Parenthood with the intention of going to jail over a fence.

Two months earlier, the District had granted the organization a permit to build a 42-inch-high “wrought iron steel fence” around the front lawn of its clinic at 1108 16th St. NW. When Mahoney learned of the construction, he notified police, press, and fellow activists; marched onto the lawn; and knelt to pray in hopes of getting handcuffed.

Landscaping changes rarely prompt civil disobedience. Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister and longtime anti-abortion activist, is more concerned with what lies beyond the fence: a grassy, 40-foot-long entryway with a paved center walk that leads to the clinic, where the services include abortions. The turf has historical significance for Mahoney: For years, he and his allies have come to the yard to pray, confront patients, and attempt to convince pregnant women not to abort.

The new barrier, equipped with signs reading, “Private Property. No Trespassing. Violators Will be Prosecuted,” is meant to keep the anti-choicers at a distance. But it also provides an opportunity for Mahoney to pursue his second-favorite activity involving the property in front of the clinic: litigation.

Before Mahoney staged his public prayer, he brought in his go-to attorney, James Henderson of the American Center for Law & Justice. Henderson investigated the issue with city officials and uncovered city maps indicating that the 40 feet between Planned Parenthood’s doorway and the 16th Street sidewalk is zoned as “public space.”
Clinic reps maintain that the property is theirs to police. “The fence serves to protect the health center and our patients from violations of D.C. 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,” Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington CEO Laura Meyers said in a statement.

D.C. police concurred, enabling Mahoney his photogenic arrest. “At this point, our attorneys have advised us that they do consider it private property inside the fence line, so if you go inside the fence line, you will be encroaching upon private property,” Cmdr. Hilton Burton informed Mahoney shortly before his planned prayer. Mahoney prayed anyway, Burton arrested him, and the reverend promised to pursue the issue in court.

Indeed, Mahoney rarely misses the opportunity for a court appearance. In 2000, he sued the Supreme Court over a decision banning large picket signs from sidewalks on the high court’s grounds, thus preventing his entourage from toting what the Washington Post described as a gigantic “full-color depiction of a decapitated fetus.” In 2005, he sued the U.S. Marshals Service for the right to picket in favor of the Ten Commandments in a restricted area opposite St. Matthew’s Cathedral. In 2009, he sued the District for refusing to allow a “chalk art demonstration” in front of the White House that was meant to slam President Obama’s “radical support of abortion.”

But Mahoney’s preferred battleground is Planned Parenthood’s walkway. Over the past 20 years, Mahoney and his colleagues have launched several protracted court cases asserting their religious freedom to “counsel” those on their way into the facility.

To local anti-abortion activists, the 40 feet are worth the decades-long battle. “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 says. “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.”

With the fence, D.C.’s anti-abortion activists are forced to set up shop on the 16th Street sidewalk, where it’s difficult even to 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 activist who is familiar with the disputed terrain. “Outside the fence, you’ve only got maybe three to four seconds.”

Back in the ’80s, Mahoney would commandeer local clinic entrances for days at a time. The dispute over the Planned Parenthood entryway originated in 1989, when Mahoney and Christian activist organization Operation Rescue staged a series of “rescue” missions “involving physical blockades” that prevented access to several local health centers. In response, District Court judges laid down an injunction barring the protesters from “trespassing on, blockading, impeding or obstructing access to” D.C. abortion clinics.

Since then, Mahoney has fought a series of injunctions designed to keep him at a distance from local abortion providers. In 1994, Congress made the courts’ job easier with the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The measure forced Mahoney to reconsider his tactics. He began, of course, by challenging the act in court. Later, he settled for talks—on-site prayer demonstrations and targeted “sidewalk counseling”—instead of blockades. The idea was to provoke a reaction that Mahoney could then take to court. After all, what’s a few days in front of a clinic when you can tie up an abortion provider in litigation for years?

On Jan. 23, 1998, the day after the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mahoney planned one of his arrest-baiting protests at now-defunct abortion provider the Capitol Women’s Center. When Mahoney arrived, “volunteers had already created a human chain in front of the clinic” to assist those entering, according to court documents. Five of Mahoney’s cohorts took a knee on the center’s sidewalk, at which point police officers “cordoned off the front of the clinic with police tape.” Mahoney crossed the line anyway and was arrested for violating FACE. A court issued a permanent injunction forbidding the minister and his allies from “coming within a twenty-foot-radius of any reproductive health facility” located inside the bounds of the Capital Beltway—including Planned Parenthood.

More recently, Mahoney’s litigious strategy has been embraced by younger activists. In 2005, Christendom College student Daniel Heenan sued Planned Parenthood after a tussle with a security guard. In those pre-fence days, the protesters’ no-fly zone was delimited by a spray-painted line on the pavement 20 feet from the clinic. According to court documents, it marked “the boundaries of an injunction issued by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia” against—whom else?—a “discrete group of individuals affiliated with Rev. Patrick Mahoney, who had been found by that court to have violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994.”

Inspired by Mahoney, Heenan had turned up the previous May intending to cross the boundary. Police were summoned. Pro-choice volunteers linked arms. Heenan crossed the line. Then, according to court documents, Harry James, a former Metropolitan Police Department officer working as a clinic security guard, “placed one hand on Heenan’s collar and another on his belt” and “attempted to turn Heenan around and walk him away from the building.” At some point in the commotion, “Heenan fell to the ground, and James tumbled over him.”

Heenan, also represented by Henderson, asked for $35,000. He lost in court. But, just like Mahoney’s suit, the ruckus took up a little bit of Planned Parenthood’s time and energy and money, which was kind of the point.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • kza

    He must love him some fetus to care that much.

  • AGB

    Besides how ridiculous all of the rest of it is, as soon as I hear someone planned to use the infamous "aborted fetus" posters, I lose any respect I had left for their cause. Those pictures are not helpful to women, they are harmful, and using them negates the whole "helping women" illusion these people sometimes try to present.

  • Jenny

    What a lovely reminder to make a donation to Planned Parenthood.

  • Elise

    Especially since they tend to be animal fetuses, from what I've heard (I'm neither an expert nor someone who has seen one of these infamous displays, for the sake of staying civil with those around me).

  • kza

    The aborted fetus pictures could probably sway people towards the pro-life view point. Same reason the run commercials of people with voice boxes to get people to stop smoking.

  • Katie

    @kza: that's definitely what they're hoping. But the fact of the matter is that surgical procedures aren't pretty, and abortions are the only example where a potential patient is confronted with (often wildly exaggerated) graphic pictures of what her LEGAL procedure might result in in order to dissuade her. How many heart surgery patients would back out upon seeing photos of a bloody heart lying on a table next to a post-op surgery patient? Well, maybe some, but would their decisions be sound? Photographs can be moving and that's why they're used, but it's important to remember that 1) many of the pictures used to protest PPs are doctored or shadily "arranged" and 2) the women who come as patients to PP have gone through enough internal struggle on their own (no matter how much or how little back-and-forth they had) before arriving to the clinic for an abortion. Protestors who carry pictures like that aren't persuading people to come out; they're allowing themselves the pleasure of self-righteousness.

  • kza

    Well it worked on me. I remember seeing videos in catholic school....a lot worse than surgeries you see on the Discovery channel....

  • Keith B

    Those photos piss me off, and you're right AGB, they (and most of these nutcases tactics) are most def' not at all about helping women. The fact that they need to constantly justify their nasty behavior as being for "freedom of speech" or "doing God's work" should set off anyone's BS detectors. I really sometimes wonder about the women that take part in these protests too.

    Elise, I've never gone out of my way to see fetus photos, but a couple of years ago had the displeasure foisted on me by a truck driving around Oakland with enormous photos of them on the sides. It's tasteless and I can't see it changing anyone's mind. Be glad they don't have them here.

  • kza

    "...are most def’ not at all about helping women"

    Nothing church related is about helping women.

  • Terry

    Most women who go to Planned Parenthood clinics are there for low-cost gynecological care -- check-ups, pap smears, et al, -- and birth control.

    These crazies are mostly just making it difficult for women who don't have the money to go someplace else to get basic gyn care and birth control. (Bleepin' bleeps!)

  • lancepoint

    '“You don’t really have enough time to talk to them that way,” says Dick Retta, an activist who is familiar with the disputed terrain. “Outside the fence, you’ve only got maybe three to four seconds.”'

    Funny, I thought they'd be totally fine with yelling at the women entering the clinic for being terrible people, like they usually do.

  • Lizrd

    It's shit like this that makes me want to volunteer to be an escort.

    @Terry I'm not encouraging this, but my boyfriend's cousin clocked an anti-choicer at her ob-gyn, who, unrelatedly, performed abortions. She was pregnant,and just in for a check up, and was getting harassed, which proves your point. Nothing like being poor, female, unable to access health care, and having to deal with a bunch of fundy-douches while trying to take care of yourself.

  • kza

    So if they're anti-choice does that make you pro-death?

  • Ron The Don

    @KZA, what people do with their body is their business and their business alone. They don't need Uncle Sam or Religious Right telling what they can or can't do with their bodies! You have the right to express your anti-abortion views, but people who don't share or agree with them should have the right to be left alone!

  • hipocrit

    I've always wanted to go to these lines and start a collection to support the poor, underprivileged mothers, ie private school fund, scholarship, or otherwise. I bet you won't get have a lot of donations from these people. Instead, you'll hear how the woman shouldn't have got pregnant in the first place. Mind you, contraception is a sin according to these people.

    Funny how it's easy to preach at someone when it doesn't affect you at all. Really anti-abortion? Pay up, support the mother for the next 5-9 months, adopt the child.

    Your right to free speech stops when you restrict my right to choose how I live.

  • qct

    @kza being "pro-choice" does not mean "pro-death." It means that I, and I'm sure many other people for choice, think the woman should be able to decide what is best for her or her family. That means I support a woman who has an abortion, a woman who decides for an adoption, AND a woman who decides to carry the pregnancy to term and keep the baby. I am neither a doctor nor God, so what right do I have to tell a woman what to do in such a personal matter?

  • Know the truth

    The "public space" definition in DC is unique and a bit tricky, especially in the old L'Enfant part of the city. It normally runs about 39 feet from the curb, and nearly everyone's front yard is in public space. In fact, the television in the bedroom of my condo is technically in public space. Our building paid for use of that public space, in perpetuity. Portions of our building jut about three feet into public space, and so does all of our front lawn and garden. But, because we pay for their usage (as do thousands of other Washingtonians for usage of their public space), we control their usage.

    Incidentally, on old city maps, that front yard space is listed as "parking." That doesn't mean you can park your car there. That term, 125 years ago, meant turning it into park with greenery.

    But, back to the story, Patrick Mahoney is a butthole full of explosive diarrhea.

  • Jamie

    It seems that Mahoney works at the Christian Defense Coalition at 120 7th St NE.

    Looks like they've got a nice, wide parking area with that would be a good place to have, say, a motor scooter rally, or a daily drumming circle.

  • Elise

    I like your thinking, Jamie. *evilgrin* Nothing quite like harassing the harassers . . .

  • Rick Mangus

    'Keith B', talk about BS how about the line from Plan Parenthood that, "we believe in a womans right to choose"! now that's bull shit of the higest order, PP believes in one thing and one thing only, the all mighty dollars they get!

  • Elise

    Not certain about sarcasm, but just a note: Planned Parenthood is a non-profit. That means they don't channel the money they make into their owners or shareholders (like a for-profit business) but back into the work they are doing (like advocating for women's health here and abroad).

  • Jim Henderson

    Today, June 29, 2010, Reverend Mahoney appeared in DC Superior Court to answer to the nonsensically bogus charge of unlawful entry. The Office of the United States Attorney today announced that it was declining to prosecute the charge of unlawful entry against Reverend Mahoney.