In recent months, the only abortion clinic in Kentucky was the target of two separate acts of vandalism.
Those incidents — and the mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado — have led to increased concerns about safety outside the downtown Louisville clinic.
Police say they keep tabs on activity around the clinic and have recently increased their presence there. But worry remains.
Meg, who asked that her last name be withheld, is a volunteer clinic escort in Louisville. She is a part of a network of volunteers known as the Louisville Clinic Escorts who assist women into the EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the state’s only abortion provider.
“Escorts create and hold space to allow people to feel empowered as they go to their doctor’s appointments,” said Meg, whose group is not associated with the EMW Women’s Surgical Center.
The center did not respond to requests for comment.
On Saturday morning, protesters lined the sidewalk outside the clinic. Some hoisted signs or shouted at the women entering the clinic. Escorts stood quietly, although they blasted music to drown out the howls.
Protests at the clinic are nothing new. But the abortion rights debate was reignited earlier this year, after the release of undercover videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the use of organs and tissue of aborted fetuses. Planned Parenthood blasted the videos as highly edited and false in their depictions of the discussions.
The controversy placed the issue again at the forefront of the American political conversation.
Then last month in Colorado Springs, Colo., an armed man entered a Planned Parenthood facility, killing three people and injured nine others. The man charged in the shootings, Robert Lewis Dear, expressed anti-abortion and anti-government views in interviews with police afterward.
In Louisville, the most recent vandalism in mid-November resulted in the arrest of a homeless man, who threw a rock through a window of the downtown clinic. It was the second time within three weeks that someone broke the clinic’s windows.
Meg said the vandalism that took place in Louisville prior to the Colorado Planned Parenthood attack drove home safety risks for those using the clinic and the volunteers who help them.
Louisville Metro Police Major Andrea Brown said both EMW and Louisville’s Planned Parenthood clinic — which doesn’t offer abortions — have always been monitored with the understanding that they could be targets of anti-abortion radicalism.
“As a result of the Colorado shooting, we’ve actually stepped up our patrol,” Brown said. “I’ve directed my officers to be very visible in the area, and we even have off-duty officers who are working at the EMW clinic to ensure that nothing happens to the employees or the protesters.”
Betty Cockrum, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said the organization is used to a constant protester presence at any of its locations, including those that don’t offer abortion services.
“We are reviewing all of our policies and going into retraining activity to ensure that all of us remember the cautionary moves that can be taken to ensure that we’re paying attention and alert to any sign of risk,” Cockrum said.
In 2013, Benjamin Currell was arrested for taking an ax to and painting the Planned Parenthood in Bloomington, Ind. According to court records, he pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The law makes it a federal crime to injure, intimidate or interfere with those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health care services.
Cockrum said Planned Parenthood has garnered negative attention this year, particularly from politicians who she said use inflammatory language that misrepresents the organization’s mission.
“They need to understand that their words have an influence on people’s thinking and behavior. And they shouldn’t contribute to this type of egregious behavior,” Cockrum said.
Tammy Purkins, an activist who regularly protests outside the EMW clinic, said protesters don’t deserve blame for acts of violence that could happen there.
“With the shootings and all that stuff going on, murder in any form is unjustifiable,” she said. “There’s no reason for it.”
Still, Meg said she hopes Louisville police are taking recent events seriously. She said since the vandalism, the police department has been more present at the center. But, she said, from where officers are positioned, they can’t see everything.
“They’re not able to see what actually is going on, particularly near the doors of the clinic, which is where the largest crowd gathers and the most yelling and shoving and standing in people’s way happens,” Meg said.
WFPL News reporter Ashley Lopez contributed to this story.
Photo by Ashley Lopez/WFPL News