Community Health

It was surprisingly quiet outside of the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in downtown Louisville Saturday.

Hundreds of anti-abortion activists were expected in front of Kentucky’s last remaining abortion clinic Saturday as far-right fundamentalist Christian group Operation Save America began its weeklong conference with the stated goal of shutting down the clinic. U.S. District Judge David Hale granted a temporary restraining order on Friday establishing a buffer zone around the clinic to keep protesters from blocking its entrance.

The order affects 10 individuals associated with Operation Save who were arrested at the EMW clinic after protesting in May, as well as any of their associates.

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

Buffer zone outside EMW clinic in Louisville.

The buffer zone isn’t a large area — 15-feet by 7.5 feet — and the only breach of the boundary by anti-abortion protesters was to walk from one side of the clinic to the other. Protesters were set up in front of the buffer zone to the street.

Sarah Dugan, a volunteer who helps escort women between their cars and the entrance of the clinic, said the unusually quiet day was due to increased law enforcement presence. Eight U.S. Marshalls and 15 Louisville Police officers were stationed outside.

“Today was quieter than most Saturdays,” Dugan said. “With the police presence there, everyone was way more cognizant about behavior that could be seen as escalating.”

On a typical Saturday morning, Dugan said there’s at least one Louisville police officer who observes from a parked car across the street from the clinic. She said with more officers on site today, the process was smoother for patients approaching the clinic.

“The police were telling people to ‘move, move, get out of the way,’ when people — some people were trying to get through and there was blocking happening,” Dugan said. “Which is amazing. It’s a luxury for us because typically we don’t have that sort presence at all, and the sidewalk gets very congested and very blocked.”

Jonese Franklin

Law enforcement officials keep the peace as anti-abortion activists protest at the EMW clinic.

Brian Parrish, the chief deputy of the U.S. Marshalls Western Kentucky district, said marshalls will be posted there as long as the temporary restraining order — which created the buffer zone — remains in place.

“We’ve had no issues,” Parrish said. “We’re here to make sure everyone’s rights are preserved, and maintain the integrity of the court order.”

In May, 10 people associated with Operation Save America — formerly Operation Rescue — were arrested for blocking the door to the clinic. The group changed its name to Operation Save America after reports of violence against abortion providers and at clinics were tied to the organization.

Ante Pavkovic, an organizer with Operation Save America, drove from Charlotte, North Carolina to attend the weeklong conference that kicks off Saturday night. He said the buffer zone isn’t necessary because his group and other local anti-abortion protesters will still approach women walking toward the clinic to stop them from going in.

“Our weapons are prayer, speaking, and just being out there where things are happening,” he said. “It’s persuasion and that’s as far as it can go.”

Some protesters just pray, others silently hold signs. Some hand out pamphlets and talk at the patients walking toward the clinic. But Sarah Dugan, the clinic escort, said anti-abortion protesters commonly try to intimidate her and the other volunteers.

Pavkovic acknowledged he does this as well.

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

An anti-abortion protester holds a sign outside the EMW clinic in Louisville.

“Yes, there’s rebukes,” he said. “I preach against this sin. I hate abortion. So the preaching is often fiery, but if babies are actually being killed, it should be.”

About 15 minutes before the clinic opened and patients walked the block toward the clinic, Pavkovic approached a clinic escort wearing a purple vest, standing on the same corner.

“You shouldn’t be working here,” he said to the escort. “Take that dumb purple thing off or better yet, join us. Don’t you care about babies? Do you at least know what abortion really is? And do you actually support murdering and dismembering little babies?”

Most Operation Save conference attendees were due to arrive on Saturday and Sunday, according to Pavkovic. And Dugen said the clinic escorts expect next Saturday to be the most active day of protests.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.