Radical anti-abortion activists are taking to the streets Saturday in a national day of protest against the availability of abortion medication at pharmacies across the country.
The protests were co-ordinated by Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), a direct action group that describes itself as comprising nonviolent feminists committed to dismantling the “abortion industrial complex.” They are calling for anti-abortion supporters to boycott Walgreens, CVS and RiteAid in order to prevent money flowing to “Big Abortion.”
“Feb. 4 is just the beginning. There will be more protests and actions to come unless CVS and Walgreens decide to enrich communities rather than support the murder of children to line their pockets,” PAAU spokesperson Caroline Smith said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Their vision to turn pharmacies into abortion businesses which will exploit and kill disproportionately low-income people and people of color for profit, will be met with nonviolent resistance at every turn.”
PAAU said they had protests planned at 94 pharmacies, with around 400 people signed up to attend via their website, and expectations of hundreds more turning out. The group said they expected counter-protesters in bigger cities where actions were being held, like San Francisco, Boston, New York City and Washington D.C.
Abortion rights groups have condemned the group’s actions, while some reproductive rights activists have dismissed them as ridiculous.
“Anti-abortion individuals and groups are doing everything in their power to prevent people from being able to access any abortion care nationwide and are promoting an agenda that is not supported by the majority of people in this country,” Melissa Fowler, chief program officer at the National Abortion Federation, told The Daily Beast by email. “Pharmacies that are expanding access to medication abortion are just the latest target of the well-coordinated, violent anti-abortion movement.”
“If they wanna embarrass themselves by whining about the ‘abortion-industrial complex’ outside a random pharmacy that’s just funny,” the group NYC for Abortion Rights wrote on Instagram. “New Yorkers will be out to watch the clown show.”
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration relaxed its rules, allowing pharmacies to dispense mifepristone, the first of two pills required for a medication abortion. Pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens immediately announced they would seek certification to sell the medication. (Patients still require a prescription from a health-care provider to access the drug.)
Since the fall of Roe, some Republicans and anti-abortion activists have set their sights on eradicating access to abortion medication. At least 18 states have legislation prohibiting the use of telemedicine, instead requiring a patient to be in the physical presence of a clinician to receive a prescription.
On Wednesday, Attorneys General in 20 states signed a letter to CVS and Walgreens, warning that red states might take legal action if the pharmacies send the medication by mail. The letter railed against the Biden administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, which recently advised USPS employees could not be held criminally liable for delivering mailed abortion medication, regardless of a particular state’s laws.
Over the last few years, PAAU activists have made headlines for their bizarre and grisly antics, some of which have resulted in arrests and jail time.
In October 2020, Lauren Handy, a Catholic anti-abortion zealot and PAAU’s director of activism, was among ten people who allegedly blockaded and invaded the Washington Surgi-Clinic, a facility providing abortions in Foggy Bottom. Handy pretended to be a patient seeking care, according to a federal indictment, and the rest of the group used furniture, chains, ropes and their bodies to block access to the clinic’s doors, while live-streaming the protest on Facebook.
The group, which included other PAAU activists, were federally indicted for violations of the FACE Act, which protects access to abortion clinics, in May 2022. Handy, who has faced similar charges in other states, was described by the feds as the ring-leader of the “conspirators.” She has pleaded not guilty, but the case is ongoing. Handy faces up to 10 years in prison.
Handy defended her actions in an interview with Catholic news outlet The Pillar in April 2022.
“If abortion is murder, then our actions need to be reflective of that,” she said, “When man’s laws counter God’s law, we are under no moral or ethical obligation to acknowledge those laws.”
In November, 2021, Handy, along with six other PAAU activists, including the group’s executive director Terrisa Bukovinac, invaded the Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia. Handy was later sentenced to 30 days in jail for trespassing, while other activists, including PAAU’s director of communications Kristin Turner, served shorter sentences.
In a particularly gruesome incident, police removed five fetuses from Handy’s Washington D.C. apartment in March 2022. Handy claimed that she and Bukovinac had been given a total of 115 fetal remains by the driver of a Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services truck outside Washington Surgi-Clinic. The waste company vigorously denied their story.
“At no time did the Curtis Bay employee hand over any of these packages to the PAAU or other third party, and any allegations made otherwise are false,” the company said.
Handy held a press conference, in which she claimed to have had a Catholic priest bless and bury 110 of the smaller fetuses, which she said appeared to have been aborted early in pregnancy. PAAU claimed the five fetuses Handy held onto were illegal late-term abortions. However, Metropolitan Police Department executive assistant chief Ashan Benedict said the fetuses had been aborted in accordance with D.C. laws.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything criminal in nature about that,” Benedict said, “except for how they got into this house.”
PAAU have gravitated towards the kinds of extreme tactics used by previous anti-abortion militants, such as groups like Operation Rescue, founded in 1986 by Randal Terry.
Activists with Operation Rescue blockaded abortion clinics and harassed medical providers. When an abortion provider, Dr George Tiller, was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009, Terry defended the killing, saying, “George Tiller was a mass-murderer.” Terry, who ran Operation Rescue until 1991, is now a member of PAAU.
“Ironically, calling yourself ‘Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising’ seems anathema to being progressive, if you’re deciding that you’re going to be committed to ensuring that body autonomy is not going to be available,” says Lizz Winstead, a comedian and founder of the abortion rights group Abortion Access Front.
Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show before focusing on reproductive rights, says that PAAU’s actions are hypocritical and dangerous. She points out that they’ve shared a platform with Senator Ted Cruz, who Winstead says “has actively fought to destroy programs for children and families.”
“Their latest lie is that people are dying from abortion medication. It’s simply not true,” Winstead says. “That only does harm to people seeking the care, and people providing the care.”
Medication abortion now accounts for around half of all abortions carried out in the United States, according to data collected by the Guttmacher Institute. The scientific consensus, based on studies conducted over the last twenty years, is that abortion medication is safe and effective for ending early pregnancy. The same drugs used for medication abortion, including mifepristone, are also used to treat miscarriage.
Tensions have been high between anti-abortion activist groups and reproductive rights advocates since the fall of Roe.
Violence against abortion clinic escorts and attacks on clinics are on the rise, reporting by The Daily Beast has found. Last week, an Illinois man was charged after allegedly setting fire to a Planned Parenthood center in Peoria on Jan. 15. Tyler W. Massengill, 32, told investigators his former girlfriend had an abortion at the clinic and that if his actions caused “a little delay” in the clinic’s ability to operate and serve patients, then it would have been “all worth it,” according to the Peoria Journal Star.
Last month, the FBI offered a $25,000 reward for information about three arson attacks against anti-abortion groups and centers in Oregon.
Despite the uptick in violence, Winstead says anti-abortion activists won’t deter reproductive rights organizers. Today’s protests, she says, are an attempt to distract from the serious legal charges some activists at PAAU are facing.
“[PAAU] are trying to assert themselves as a smokescreen for the trouble they're about to get in,” Winstead says. “We are not afraid of them.”