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Abortion Rights Advocates Raise Money, Support For Pensacola's Only Abortion Clinic

Since late December, a group of volunteers have been in front of American Family Planning, Pensacola’s last standing abortion clinic, to provide support to clients and staff and act as a buffer against a growing number of anti-abortion protesters.

“The clinic reached out and asked for people to come down here in the What’s Happening Pensacola (Facebook) group,” explained one volunteer, Shannon, who did not want to give a last name. “(They said) they were being harassed by pro-lifers who are coming out and yelling nasty things. They have a baby crying on a speaker to scare people coming in here. So, we came to support the clinic workers and patients from the harassment they were receiving.” 

In 1995, the Pensacola City Council approved an 8-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics but, protesters have found ways to share their message by waving at cars that drive down the street. Some go around the perimeter of the building to try and preach to staff and patients who exit a side door. In those cases, the volunteers will create a shield using their bodies and drown out the protesters by talking over them or playing music. Sometimes, they simply climb a ladder and yell to patients. 

Clinic staff has been appreciative of the advocate's efforts. 

“Several patients have come over personally to thank us and it’s really nice, too, to see them wave, honk and make heart signs at us when they leave and to know they definitely felt supported that is the best feeling ever,” said volunteer Ashley Faulkner. “It’s been a really good response from the clinic and the patients.” 

This back-and-forth protest has been going every Friday and Saturday for the past two months. Abortion-rights advocates represent organizations such as Strive, Worker's World Party and Women's March of Pensacola. They have since raised $5,000 for the clinic to build a 6-foot fence around the clinic and they plan to be out front more throughout the week as the 40 Days for Life campaign encourages more anti-abortion protesters. 

The debate is never-ending. And it seems there’s no room for compromise.

“There’s nothing fancy about it, I just don’t believe it’s right,” said Mark Farmer, a longtime anti-abortion advocate. “I believe the unborn child is a creation of God even as we ourselves were once very little the unborn child is little and deserves a chance like everybody else.” 

“Everybody should have the right to choose when they reproduce, if they reproduce and I think the only person that can choose is the person with the uterus,” said Shannon. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
An anti-abortion protestor, Aaron, is surrounded by abortion rights advocates as he tried to preach to patients and staff at the side door of the American Family Planning clinic.

Farmer has spent years protesting against abortion. On a recent rainy Saturday, he sat in a camping chair about 100 feet from the clinic next to a portable speaker playing gospel music. He also displayed posters of unborn fetuses. 

“Anything I can say or do to help that mother change her mind before she gets in the door and actually does it, I will try to do. Because I believe that life inside her is vital to the survival of humanity. That’s the future. Period.” 

Some of the protesters are self-described “abolitionists.” They protest churches and conservative lawmakers for not having a strong enough stance against abortion. They hand out pamphlets about the abortion reversal pill. Some of the protesters wear body cameras in the event of an altercation, like Dr. Thomas Messe, a family doctor in Milton. 

Messe said he believes there is no medical reason for abortion. And while he admitted that closing clinics like American Family Planning could lead to dangerous procedures, his stance is unwavered. 

"It would be (dangerous) and that's unfortunate, but it's not my fault," he said. "People taking drugs is not my fault, people who drink alcohol is not my fault. People who do self-inflicting harm to themselves is not my fault. Abortion is wrong, it will always be wrong, it will always be a sin. It will always be immoral."

Both groups have had discussions, some friendly and some not. But compared to Pensacola’s violent battle over abortion in the past, the scene outside American Family Planning is tame. 

Farmer said he has no hate in his heart for the other side. In fact, he applauds their passion to stand up for their beliefs. 

“As we get to know them, we recognize their humanity and recognize they want to be out in the public forum expressing their First Amendment rights,” he said. “We believe that’s very important for people to do that. Anybody that’s willing to talk and express their feelings — that’s welcome to me.” 

Faulkner said she believes some of the anti-abortion protesters may be confused or haven’t spent enough time talking to people on the other side. 

“Maybe they’re living within the bubble of the culture they were raised in, I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen them be really violent but to say they don’t have hate in their heart … that’s just false.”

“I get the impression that a lot of these men have never taken the time to consider what it’s like to be a woman living in this society because sometimes I’ll try to explain things in a very basic way — this is what’s happening here and this how what you’re doing is impacting these women — and it’s clear by their responses and the looks on their faces that they have never conceived of these ideas before,” added Eliza Epsy, another volunteer. 

The volunteers say they’re concerned for patients of the clinic — which provides gynecological services, such as pelvic exams and pregnancy tests, as well as abortion services. They stand up for the patients because it could be them or their friends and family, they say.

Victoria Billingsley is one of the volunteers who showed up last Saturday. As someone who’s had an abortion, she knows what many of those patients are going through. And she wanted to stand up for them. 

“I was 18, so it’s been 10 years,” she said. “It was an instance where the birth control failed and I was a freshman in college and I was like ‘there’s no way I’m having a kid right now.’” 

Billingsley was living in Columbus, Ohio, at the time. She said there were protesters yelling at patients as they walked up to the clinic. She fought back, but she remembers one young woman who suffered the brunt of the attacks. She was showing physically, but couldn’t come up with the money for an early-term abortion. 

“That was probably the saddest part of the day for me, just seeing that woman who had no other choice,” she said. 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
Victoria Billingsley sits in the trunk of her car while she plays music to drown out the anti-abortion protestors. She got an abortion at 18 and says she doesn't regret making that choice for herself.

While men are typically protesting outside the clinic, there are a few women. Women like Caroline Johnson, a college student, who was protesting as part of the 40 Days for Life campaign. She said she considers herself a feminist and says her stance on abortion is about empowering women to keep their babies.   

“I consider feminism to be supporting all women so that’s going to be women who are choosing to do things I don’t necessarily agree with,” she said. “I absolutely support their life and I support the life of their child.” 

On the abortion-rights side, advocates say they need more people to show up, including men. There is always the chance of protest fatigue, but the group will continue to show up until they’re the last one standing. 

“We’re not going to stop,” said Allison Ferreira. “Until we get equality and equity in this world and we’re not harassed because we want to maintain and have control over our own bodies, we’ll just keep at it.”