HYANNIS — For 15 years, people seeking abortions had to leave Cape Cod for care; the nearest clinic was over 100 miles away. But in July, Health Imperatives opened in Hyannis. It is the only clinic where women can get prescriptions for abortion pills on the Cape. A group fighting abortion rights is planning protests at that clinic beginning next week and continuing into November.
That group is a local chapter of the Texas-based “40 Days for Life” campaign, whose slogan is “The beginning of the end of abortion.” They are planning what they’re calling daily “vigils,” from Sept. 27 to Nov. 5, gathering outside Health Imperatives bearing signs and reciting prayers.
Julia Kehoe, executive director of Health Imperatives, said the clinic is aware of the protesters’ plans.
“Our primary concern is the health and safety of our patients, so we are planning on having a police detail onsite,” said Kehoe. Police will be present at the beginning of the campaign, she said, and plans will evolve from there.
“The police are also planning on driving by several times a day just to make sure that things are peaceful, which we’ve been assured they will be,” Kehoe said. She added that protesters will not be able to park in the Health Imperatives parking lot or draw closer to the building than the sidewalk in observance of the clinic’s buffer zone.
That buffer zone has not been a sure thing since the Supreme Court struck down a rule establishing 35-foot protective areas around women’s health clinics. But under Massachusetts law, the police can enforce a 25-foot buffer if they see that patients’ access is impeded.
The 40 Days for Life campaign is aware of the buffer zone rule. Its vigil “dos and don’ts” handout directs participants not to park in the Health Imperatives lot and not to “go on the grass or block the driveway of Health Imperatives parking lot.”
That leaflet was distributed at an organizing meeting at Corpus Christi Parish, a Catholic church in East Sandwich, on Sept. 8. There, organizers “cast the vision” for the protesters, modeling the protest after others organized by the 40 Days group, which is headquartered in Bryan, Texas. It claims to have shut down 145 abortion clinics since it formed in 2007.
A variety of printed materials were on offer at the meeting in East Sandwich, including two booklets of “prayers to end abortion,” a 40 Days-branded devotional guide, and a 40 Days-sponsored pamphlet about medication abortion.
Medication abortions, which have been FDA-approved since 2000, consist of two pills: mifepristone, which blocks the hormone progesterone and keeps the fetus from growing, and misoprostol, which expels the fetus. The pills are taken 24 to 48 hours apart.
The 40 Days brochure about medication abortion contains several statements not supported by science.
“Abortion pills break a woman’s healthy reproductive system,” the brochure claims.
The word “break,” said Dr. Nicola Moore, an abortion provider who lives in Truro, “suggests that something about the woman changes. Nothing about the woman changes in any permanent way.” In terms of harm to the woman, said Moore, there is none: “She has come to you asking for help with a pregnancy she doesn’t want, and you’re helping her.”
The brochure also says that medication abortions are not safe, quoting testimony from people who describe intense and painful side effects.
Moore drew a distinction between pain and danger. “The pill can be very unpleasant,” she acknowledged. “Labor can also be very unpleasant, and many more people get sick having a baby than using the abortion pill.”
A 2012 study comparing the safety of abortion and childbirth in the U.S. found that childbirth was 14 times more likely to result in death than abortion. Citing that research, “The controversy surrounding pregnancy termination is exceptional in its treatment of abortion as anything but a medical procedure,” wrote Adebayo Adesomo in Scientific American last year.
Anti-abortion centers, which have been called crisis pregnancy centers or CPCs, number more than 30 in Massachusetts. They advertise themselves as resources for pregnant women considering their options but do not offer abortion as an option. And although they refer to themselves as clinics, they are usually staffed by nonmedical personnel.
The Mass. attorney general has issued warnings about CPCs’ limited service options, which are often unknown to their clients because of deceptive advertising.
At the 40 Days vision meeting, Mass. Citizens for Life President Myrna Maloney Flynn of Northampton warned Sandwich parishioners about a state bill that she said would “censor” crisis pregnancy centers. She told the group that the legislation would require centers “to be very careful in terms of what words they used on their websites and in any kind of print promotion.”
Flynn told the group she was referring to H.377, “An Act to Protect Patient Privacy and Prevent Unfair and Deceptive Advertising of Pregnancy-Related Services.” Submitted by Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover, the bill would preclude limited-service pregnancy centers from making any claim to the media and on their own websites and materials that “is deceptive, whether by statement or omission.”
A mobile van from the crisis pregnancy conglomerate Your Options Medical has been roaming Cape Cod since shortly after Health Imperatives began offering abortion services. The van’s exterior claims to offer immediate ultrasound results, which Your Options Medical’s Director Teresa Larkin told the Independent are “preliminary findings,” not actually coming from a registered physician.
At the protestors’ vision meeting on Sept. 8, Larkin said that the mobile medical van recently had “an issue” with the Dept. of Public Health, which she said was “the tip of the hand of somebody wanting to shut us down. We believe it’s been resolved,” she said.
According to DPH, a clinic renewal license for the mobile unit and its brick-and-mortar parent site in Revere was issued on July 12. Then, on Aug. 30, DPH conducted a clinic licensure renewal survey at the mobile unit. “Onsite inspections are unannounced without prior notice in order to determine compliance with regulations,” according to DPH. The Independent is awaiting results of the inspection from a public records request.
“I would not be surprised that the Dept. of Public Health is bringing some scrutiny to crisis pregnancy centers, given that they’re masquerading with what services they’re providing,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr.
While Health Imperatives director Kehoe said it is possible for patients to get abortion care in telehealth appointments, most prefer to come in person. From a medical perspective, she said, that’s also ideal: “It is preferable for people to come in for the first dose and speak with a provider,” said Kehoe.
There are multiple organizations operating where the Hyannis branch of Health Imperatives is located. Kehoe said that gives patients a sense of security.
“People will not know who is coming in for what service,” she said, “and people should not be nervous or let these protesters get in the way of their accessing whatever service it is that they need.”