Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General

New York State’s Attorney General Sues Women’s Clinic Protestors

June 23, 2017

As published by Elle Magazine, June 22, 2017.

  • The New York state Attorney General will sue anti-choice protestors who have harassed women outside of a Queens, New York, clinic for five years.
  • The lawsuit describes the harassment that women face when they try to access a legal medical procedure.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Tuesday that his office would file a federal lawsuit against more than a dozen protestors who have harassed patients and staff at the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, Queens.

The decision is the culmination of an extensive investigation; the complaint claims that since at least 2012, anti-choice protestors have gathered at Choices each week to intimidate and aggravate patients, forcing them to endure “a barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies about the clinic’s hours and its services.” Rebecca Lentjes, a clinic escort at Choices, says that she’s seen protestors not only yell at women, but literally block their access, “walking them into a wall or standing directly in their path,” so they can’t enter the building. According to Lentjes, the clinic has more than once reached out to the police to deal with the abuse, but its complaints went nowhere, which is why Lentjes was so surprised to find out that the attorney general’s office had filed suit.

“Just seeing the local authorities not be concerned week after week, I kind of felt like it was this hopeless situation,” she says. “Technically, these people are breaking the law in so many ways each week, stepping on women’s feet or continuing to yell at people who’ve asked to be left alone. And this happens not only in Queens, but in clinics all across the country. It’s really ridiculous.”

Schneiderman, who worked in a clinic after high school, has been paying attention. He’s suing protestors under several laws, including the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), the New York State Clinic Access Act, and the New York City Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act, all of which rule that while anti-choice activists are welcome to exercise their free speech, they aren’t allowed to block patients’ access to reproductive health care facilities.

The behavior is more than a nuisance; it’s illegal and can have psychological and emotional repercussions for those seeking perfectly legal medical care. Patients, according to the lawsuit, “arrive at Choices shaken and scared. Some patients need to delay their appointments because they are crying, trembling, and in need of counseling. Some are deterred from returning to the clinic on a later date for followup services or other medically necessary care. Still others believe the lies about the clinic’s services or hours of operation and simply leave before even entering Choices.”

“Mirroring a national trend of rising anti-abortion violence,” the lawsuit continues, “the protest activity at Choices has become increasingly aggressive in the past year.” And Lentjes agrees; particularly since the election, she says, protestors have become “more emboldened,” more hostile in their attitudes toward women on their way to appointments. According to the suit, one protestor harasses children who are accompanying their mothers to the clinic: “Don’t let your mother go in there; they kill children in there.”

“The tactics used to harass and menace Choices’ patients, families, volunteers, and staff are not only horrifying—they’re illegal,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The law guarantees women the right to control their own bodies and access the reproductive health care they need, without obstruction.” Schneiderman has repeatedly stood up for women in New York, proposing a bill that would keep birth control cost-free in New York, no matter what health care bill Congress signs into law, and leading an amicus brief to oppose efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. In 2012, he successfully secured an expanded buffer zone around a Utica, New York, Planned Parenthood, extending the boundary around the clinic by 24 feet.

“The lawsuit is just really, really promising for clinics across the state and for clinics in more conservative states as well to see this happening,” Lentjes says. “It just says to people, ‘We don’t just have to take this.'”