Planned Parenthood awarded $110K after Spokane clinic protests

Demonstrations by anti-abortion organizers, including the extremist-supported Church at Planned Parenthood group, have doubled in the past year.

A line of protesters hold signs reading "Pro-life Pro-woman," "Abortion betrays women," and "Save your baby! We can help"

Anti-abortion advocates gather outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Mo., in this June 4, 2019 file photo. Protests at clinics around the country, including in Washington, have increased since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, witnessed a protest outside the organization’s clinic in Spokane. 

This wasn’t unusual: Protests at Planned Parenthood clinics in the state have doubled compared to last year, and a religious group known as the Church at Planned Parenthood has led protests outside the Spokane facility since 2018, touting the gatherings as “a worship service at the gates of hell.” On Dec. 16, Planned Parenthood announced it had won a motion of summary judgment for civil damages against the group, with a judge awarding $110,000 in penalties.

That day, an older man participating in the protest crossed the street and screamed “Fuck you, baby killer!” at Dillon. 

“That, to me, represented a shift of hostility,” he said.

Targeting clinics where abortion remains legal is part of the group’s strategy, said Pastor Ken Peters, who founded the Church at Planned Parenthood after preaching in Spokane for 20 years.

“We want to ramp up where abortion is happening, and shut down where it’s not,” he said, adding that part of his motivation was knowing Idaho patients were crossing state lines to get care at the Spokane clinic. 

Of the encounter Dillon described, Peters said, “I can’t say that nobody did that. But I can say this: Nobody from our group, meaning people that are leading this and putting this on, has done that, ever.”

The heightened rhetoric Dillon describes reflects national increases in harassment and violence leveled at abortion clinics, a shift that began before Roe’s reversal, but seems catalyzed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, especially in states where clinics are still operational. 

At the Church at Planned Parenthood, this hasn’t translated to increased protest attendance. Not even Peters attends as regularly as he once did. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a move he said was driven partly by the difficulty of advancing anti-abortion policy in Washington. 

The pop-up church saw a drop in attendance since an injunction last September limited when and where the group can hold events, in response to a 2020 lawsuit from Planned Parenthood. The group further splintered after Peters had a falling-out with his onetime ally, disgraced Washington State Rep. Matt Shea. (“That’s church drama right there,” said Peters.) 

At its height, the Church at Planned Parenthood drew up to 500 attendees, by both Peters’ and Dillon’s estimates. Now that number is closer to 100. But protests have grown at other clinics in the state since the Dobbs decision, Dillon said, including at health centers in Pullman and Kennewick, where protests weren’t previously common, and ongoing protests in Spokane. 

“There’s a very consistent presence, but whether that’s because of the pandemic or the reversal of Roe v. Wade, we have seen protests double in numbers from where they were last year,” he said.

The Church at Planned Parenthood holds a service in August 2019. (The Church at Planned Parenthood)

The Northwest Abortion Access Fund, which assists people seeking abortion throughout the region with paying for procedures and getting to appointments, has encountered similar reports from abortion patients, even at clinics in major metropolitan areas like Portland and Seattle, where protests had been less frequent or nonexistent. For abortion patients, encountering a protest is “one more thing for them to have to deal with on a day when they are already struggling or have had a hard time getting to their appointment,” said Riley Keane, the fund’s practical support lead.

Unlike a dedicated abortion clinic, University of Washington’s Family Planning Clinic is housed within a larger health care center that provides primary care and mental health services. Despite the building’s numerous health care offerings aside from abortion, the practice also experienced “our first episode of anti-abortion protesters” over the spring and summer, said Dr. Sarah Prager, an OB/GYN and professor in UW Medicine’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. The protest drew only about 10 people.

“It’s pretty low-value protesting at our UW clinic building, which sees patients for anything and everything and only a small percentage of patients are there for abortion care,” she said.

The increase in protests aligns with national trends toward disruption and even violence targeting abortion clinics, a spike that began before Dobbs. In June, the National Abortion Federation, which keeps track of clinic harassment and attacks across the U.S., released a report detailing how many of these incidents took place in 2021, logging 1,465 acts of violence, 144,637 incidents involving disruption, and 11 clinic blockades. Compared to 2020, the organization noted major increases in the number of incidents involving stalking (a 600% increase over 2020); clinic blockades (450%); trespassing, occupying or entering clinics under false pretenses clinic invasions (129%); suspicious packages (163%) and assault and battery (128%). 

The report also mentioned the overlap between anti-abortion extremism and the rise of far-right violence more broadly, noting that during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, “abortion providers recognized a number of the people at the Capitol as they are the same individuals who target abortion clinics and harass and terrorize clinic staff.”

The Church at Planned Parenthood shares some of these ties. According to CNN, Peters preached on Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza on Jan. 5. Peters denied any direct connection between the church and the neo-fascist white-nationalist group the Proud Boys, calling accusations “lies from the pit of hell.”

But the church has received support from other right-wing extremists. Joey Gibson, founder of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, has been an outspoken supporter of the church. In March 2020, Gibson attended a Spokane City Council meeting to express his opposition to a proposed ordinance aligning city law with statewide protections for health care facilities that would curb the church’s actions outside Planned Parenthood. The ordinance ultimately passed, and the limitations imposed by a preliminary injunction in 2020 and a permanent one last year have improved the experiences of patients and providers at the Spokane health center, Dillon said. 

Before, the protests would get so loud “you could hear, word for word, what they were saying through the walls,” he said. He recalled “one really bad night” when a patient’s exam was disrupted because the protesters were so loud the patient and provider couldn’t hear each other above the noise. 

The disruption was just one of numerous anti-abortion actions Northwest clinics have seen over the years; others have spilled into violence. In 2021, the windows at Planned Parenthood’s Spokane Valley location were smashed in. The year before, its Spokane health center received a bomb threat

Now the Church at Planned Parenthood is required to set up 100 feet from Planned Parenthood and can’t begin their services until 7 p.m. But Dillon said church organizers sometimes arrive early for a sound-check, and if patient appointments go long, there can still be overlap. Peters maintains any sound before the 7 p.m. start time is minimal.

In December, Planned Parenthood sought a summary judgment in Spokane County Superior Court against Covenant Church, Peters, Shea, and two other pastors associated with the church, Gabriel Blomgren and Clay Roy. Court documents show Planned Parenthood identified 22 services at which violations of state law occurred; by law, the Church at Planned Parenthood can be fined $5,000 for each day they occurred. On Dec. 16, Judge Tim Fennessy awarded Planned Parenthood $110,000 in damages for penalties that took place during the protests.

As part of their motion, Planned Parenthood included video documentation of the protests where violations occurred. The footage, obtained by Crosscut and dating back to 2018, shows protesters singing and playing music loudly amplified through a PA system, screaming and shouting at the health center while standing directly outside of it, spilling out onto the sidewalk and street, holding gatherings during the day, bragging about gathering in violation of coronavirus restrictions, shouting curses at Planned Parenthood “in the name of Jesus,” and using militaristic language to describe their opposition to abortion.

Dillon said Planned Parenthood had reviewed years of protest documentation ahead of taking the group to court. “My hope would be that that will be the end of it,” he said.

Abortion rights supporters in downtown Spokane protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. (Young Kwak for Crosscut)

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