In a TikTok shot outside a women’s health center in Charlotte, NC in August, the uncensored version of the mid-1990s Gillette rap song “Short, Short Man” booms: “Eenie weenie teenie weenie is little one , shrunken little man. ”
The camera is aimed at a middle-aged white man in sunglasses who is holding a poster with a fetus printed with the word “abortion” on it. The headline in the video reads: “Don’t worry, the volume was turned up all the way so he could hear :-)”
This is just one of a series of viral videos of Alex Cueto, 19, an abortion clinic defender with the Charlotte for Choice organization. She publishes videos of her confrontations with abortion protesters on TikTok as a @alexthefeminist in front of a large audience. The “Short, Short Man” video, filmed outside of the A Preferred Women’s Health Center, has over four million views.
Better known is the TikTok, in which Ms. Cueto recites the texts of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s bawdy hit “WAP” while an opponent of abortion reads the Bible outside the clinic.
“We treat these protesters like a joke,” Ms. Cueto said in an interview. “We don’t make them feel morally superior.”
Ms. Cueto, who grew up in South Carolina and now lives in Charlotte, is one of many Gen Z abortion rights activists who use social media to motivate colleagues. “I write about Pro-Choice every day,” said Michaela Brooke, 19, a student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and an activist with Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that helps young people promote reproductive health. Ms. Brooke said she posted educational resources as well as information about organizational opportunities.
Many of these activists grew up in southern and midwestern states with severe abortion restrictions. Katie Greenstein, 17, who uses non-gender pronouns and lives in Wildwood, Missouri, said she partnered with NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, the local branch of an advocacy group for abortion rights, after Missouri reported abortion after eight weeks a year Banned in 2019 (the law was later blocked by a federal judge).
Still, “abortion is unattainable because of various obstacles” in Missouri, Ms. Greenstein said. These include a 72-hour wait and a ban on using telehealth services to advise those seeking medication-based abortions. “It made me want to fight,” said Ms. Greenstein.
According to an American Psychological Association poll in August, 64 percent of Generation Z adult women say that a potential change in abortion laws in 2020 will be a source of stress for them. Conservative Amy Coney Barrett’s endorsement on the Supreme Court soon afterward also bolstered abortion rights advocates who fear Roe v. Wade could be in danger.
The day after Justice Barrett confirmed, “I woke up angry and was ready to go,” said Ms. Greenstein, whose state has what is known as a “trigger law,” which immediately prohibits abortion if Roe v. Wade is knocked over. “There is so much at stake.”
The modern abortion rights movement emerged from the women’s rights movement of the 1960s, said Alesha Doan, 48, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of “Opposition and Intimidation: The Abortion Wars and Political Harassment Strategies”. In the early days, activists worked to get state laws passed and shared their experiences in awareness-raising groups, Ms. Doan said.
After Roe v. Wade became federal law in 1973, the anti-abortion movement began to band together, adopting the tactics that abortion rights advocates had once used. You can’t talk about one group without the other, Ms. Doan said, “They coexist, they learn from each other, and they react and react to each other.”
Clinic escorts – volunteers who stand outside of clinics and help patients enter safely – were not widespread until the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Shoshanna Ehrlich, 64, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at UMass Boston . “It came out very powerfully in response to the increased violence in the clinic,” she said, including the murders of a handful of doctors who performed abortions and other clinic workers.
The guiding philosophy for hospital attendants has always been not to be confrontational, said Ms. Ehrlich; They saw their role as human shields protecting clients with their bodies, if not with their words.
But while escorts by and large still take a non-confrontational approach to dealing with anti-abortion protesters, so-called defenders like Ms. Cueto act more as counter-protesters.
The rise of defenders reflects the rise in anti-abortion protests outside of clinics. According to a report by the National Abortion Federation, there were more than 6,000 incidents of picket against abortion in clinics in 2010 and more than 100,000 incidents in 2019. Over the course of a decade, trespassing incidents also increased significantly.
And since the pandemic began, “we’ve seen an increase in harassment and attempted invasions in clinics, and people have come up to scream, protest and shout exposed,” said Katherine Ragsdale, 62, the president and executive director of the National Abortion Federation .
Defenders of the clinic and other more contrary counter-protesters interfered here. In general, young activists are “driving a more apologetic voice,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, 48, president of Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund.
While Gen Z isn’t the first group to use loud and apologetic tactics – some senior activists and writers, including Katha Pollitt, have promoted these ideas for years – they may be in greater numbers.
There is evidence that a slightly larger percentage of Gen-Z Americans support abortion rights than previous generations, and that those who support abortion rights feel it more, said Natalie Jackson, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit and impartial Election organization.
According to the nonprofit’s latest 2019 survey, 59 percent of Americans ages 18-29 say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 57 percent of the same age group in 2014. “Have other age groups has not changed significantly since 2014, ”says the report.
In addition, some teenage and early 20s activists oppose the “safe, legal and infrequent” design of abortion rights adopted by many in the 1990s, said Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, 36, vice president of politics, partnerships and organization Advocates for Youth. Gen Z activists “really pushed the issue as an intersectional issue. Your race, your gender, your sexuality, your age – all of these identities will affect your access to care. “
A change of strategy
Calla Hales, 30, the executive director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center (APWHC) in Charlotte, has seen the number of anti-abortion activists outside the clinic skyrocket since 2015. She knows the history of the APWHC well when her parents started the network of clinics in 1999 in Raleigh, NC
Prior to 2015, “We saw five to ten protesters on a weekday and 20-30 on weekends,” Ms. Hales said. For the past five years, there have been Saturday prayer walks outside of the Charlotte Clinic, organized by a group called Love Life, which her clinic estimated up to 5,000 people attended, Ms. Hales said.
“Over the past few years thousands of people have gathered for prayer, worship and celebration of life,” said Josh Kappes, Love Life’s director of urban development. “This year there was a lot less Covid to thank for.”
“This year we continued our outdoor prayer walks, offering masks and hand sanitizer in each participating city,” he said. “The love life has strongly encouraged social distancing and face-covering wherever mandated. We have also encouraged virtual participation of at-risk family members, the elderly, and communities with community diffusion. “
In March, four men who are part of the Love Life organization were charged with violating a home stay order in Greensboro, NC. Ms. Hales of the clinic said it was not uncommon for 90 anti-abortion advocates to gather outside the clinic on a typical day earlier this year when the state was much more locked down with coronavirus restrictions.
Local newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer and The Queen City Nerve have been reporting for years clashes between proponents of abortion rights and anti-abortion activists outside of APWHC. Many involve disputes over noise regulations. Anti-abortion fighters have settled in the countryside next to the health center so they can “turn their speakers on the clinic while avoiding the need for a city-approved sound permit,” The Observer reported. In November, the anti-abortion group Cities4Life received a consent form from a federal judge allowing protesters to approach cars as they enter and exit the clinic’s driveway. Cities4Life did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Hales said her parents were “very strongly about the” head down “crowd, a strategy favored by many abortion providers,” which was about avoiding confrontation with those who oppose abortion. “That doesn’t work anymore when they have the property next door and come in droves at once.”
She said 2020 was also the first time large numbers of teenagers and 20-year-olds organized outside of their clinic. A media strategist for Charlotte for Choice, withholding her real name on fear of harassment from anti-abortion activists, said since Ms. Cueto and others publiced the organization’s work in providing defenders and escorts to clinics the volunteers tripled from 50 to 150.
However, not everyone is happy with the new strategies. A handful of board members resigned from Charlotte for Choice in response to the clinic’s defenders’ more confrontational tactics this year, said Angela Blanken, 42, a founding member who was among those who stepped down.
While anti-abortion protesters were always loud, Ms. Blanken said counter-protests only added to the chaos and made the experience worse for patients. “It’s just more noise outside of your doctor’s appointment,” she said. Regarding patients, she added, “They don’t know who is on their side and who is against them.”
Ms. Hales disagrees that the patient experience has suffered. “As managing director of the clinic, who digs deeper into the specifics of the clinic, it was not,” she said.
Ms. Cueto believes that controversial methods are effective because they divert attention from patients. “We make sure they focus on us and argue with us and how mean we are, rather than focus on screaming through the bush line and telling patients that they will murder their baby and burn in hell. ” She said.