Table of Contents
CLEARWATER — The volunteers grip umbrellas like riot shields.
In neon pink vests, they buzz around the parking lot of Bread and Roses Woman’s Health Center, a clinic that provides abortions. It’s a Saturday morning in January, and patients arrive in a steady stream.
So do the protesters.
“No trespassing” signs line the property, but a sidewalk in front of the clinic is fair game — leaving those seeking care and those out to condemn it separated by just a few feet.
A man wears a sweatshirt that reads, “Hell fire is real!” He stands at the edge of the driveway where patients enter, and points a finger at one of the patient escorts.
“You’re going to get the wrath of God,” he booms. “You’re going to get the wrath upon you.”
His calls blend with those of others on the sidewalk. A few pray quietly, but many shout — some through speakers.
The sound is dizzying. It wasn’t always this way.
In the last few years, volunteers and workers at abortion clinics around Florida say they’ve seen an increase in the number of protesters outside health centers. Instances of assaults and battery at clinics rose 128% in 2021 from the previous year, according to a report from the National Abortion Federation, which surveyed 390 clinics.
Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade last summer, which saw abortions outlawed in 13 states, workers affiliated with four Florida clinics told the Tampa Bay Times that the level of hostility has intensified.
Now, clinic workers and volunteer escorts at the health center are asking the Clearwater City Council for help. The center hires an off-duty police officer to work security on its busiest days, but escorts say what’s really needed is more space between patients and protesters.
They’d like to see the council take action to move protesters to the other side of South Highland Avenue — or away from the entrance to the driveway.
“It’s a tinderbox ready to explode,” said Jean Johnston, a 66-year-old volunteer at the clinic who said she fears for people’s safety. “The question isn’t if, it’s when.”
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.
Explore all your options
Division in prayer
The story about the clinic and the protesters changes depending on whom you talk to — depending on which side of the privacy fence you’re standing on.
Dick and Debbie Maxwell have been picketing outside of clinics for more than a decade. The couple met in the Dominican Republic, where they were working as missionaries years ago. Now, they drive 45 minutes to Clearwater from their home in New Port Richey each week.
“First of all, we don’t consider this a protest,” said Dick, 69. “It’s a proclamation of the Gospel. This is murder in God’s eyes, plain and simple.”
This morning, the Maxwells are the first from their church to arrive. They unload signs from their SUV. One is hand-written: “Babies are murdered here.” Another shows a fetus.
Dick is tall, with a deep and measured voice. He wears a jean shirt with a cowboy hat. He carries his Bible in his right hand.
Debbie, 67, is softer-spoken. She’s a self-proclaimed introvert with a “Minnie Mouse voice.”
She uses a microphone to make sure patients and clinic staff can hear her.
“Perverts work here. Perverts and criminals,” she calls out, her sandy-gray hair pulled back. “Please don’t kill your baby.”
The couple says the notion that the people gathering outside the clinic pose a threat to anyone’s safety is untrue.
“It’s nonsense,” said Dick.
What he doesn’t contest is that the crowd has changed in the years since he’s been picketing.
Under a tree in front of the clinic, a group of Catholics gather and quietly pray the rosary. They don’t address patients or staff. They stand, heads bowed, and recite the Hail Mary.
Others, from evangelical groups, try to reason. They come bearing packets about “other options” and “resources,” and speak about love and forgiveness.
Then, there are the shouters — today, mostly men — who pace the street, yelling so loudly that businesses 400 feet away have complained that they’re disturbing or intimidating customers.
Spit flies from their tongues as they point. They clench and stomp with aggression in the name of the Lord.
Dick Maxwell called it a “prophetic” approach.
“They’re more confrontational. People minister in different ways,” Dick said. “I don’t consider one right or one wrong.”
He said it’s created some division within the protesters.
This particular Saturday, for example, Scott Smith — a born-again Christian with a Presbyterian persuasion — packed up and left early.
“My message isn’t going to get through the circus noise,” Smith said.
Regardless of approach, Dick insists that concerns about potential violence are unfounded.
“I’ve watched these guys in some pretty stressful, hot, intense situations, and they are disciplined,” he said of his peers. “There’s a discipline to it, and you have to exercise that discipline. But babies are being murdered here.”
A violent history
There is a history of violence against abortion providers in Florida.
The first to be murdered was David Gunn, a doctor who was shot outside his Pensacola clinic in 1993.
One year later, another doctor and a volunteer at a separate Pensacola clinic were killed by a former minister who said he had been inspired by the earlier shooting.
Across Florida, abortion clinics and workers have been subject to bomb threats, verbal assaults and ongoing harassment over the last three decades.
As tensions increased last year, there was also a documented case of threats made against a pregnancy resource center, which works to dissuade women from having abortions. The two people involved have been indicted.
Amber Gavin, vice president of A Woman’s Choice Inc., which operates four clinics that provide abortions in North Carolina and Florida, said anti-abortion protesters’ tactics have grown more aggressive in recent years.
At a Jacksonville clinic where Gavin works, staff and patients used to be shielded by property lines that kept protesters at distance. But the building in which the clinic operates is part of a group of properties that share land. When a nearby unit became vacant, a protester rented the space — eliminating the buffer and clearing the way for the group to approach staff and patients.
The clinic applied for grants to build a privacy fence, Gavin said. They train volunteer escorts in deescalation techniques.
“A few weeks ago, (protesters) were calling our doctor by the name of one of the abortion providers who was murdered,” Gavin said. “People should be able to get health care free of intimidation and harassment, but people should be able to go to work without experiencing that, too.”
Donna Windsor, a volunteer and organizer for a clinic in Lakeland, said the decision to overturn Roe has amped up the intimidation campaign. As clinics have shuttered throughout the South, emboldened protesters now have fewer, more specific targets.
That’s something Johnston, the Clearwater volunteer, has noticed, too.
“Bread and Roses is getting more patients from out-of-state where abortion is now illegal,” she said. “But here, it is legal. Everything that’s happening in this clinic is legal health care, and that’s what we want to protect.”
A possible solution?
Around the country, some states and cities have taken steps to deescalate these tensions.
In California, lawmakers made it illegal to take photos or videos of patients and staff within 100 feet of clinics. The state also invested in training law enforcement to respond to crimes against abortion providers.
Maine passed a law creating “medical safety zones,” intended to keep protesters at least 8 feet from clinic entrances. In Louisville, Ky., the City Council created a 10-foot buffer for all health care centers. And in West Palm Beach, a noise ordinance prohibits shouting within 100 feet of health care facilities.
Now, in Clearwater, the city government could take action.
This month, the council is expected to consider an ordinance that could create such a buffer zone and impose noise restraints. The move comes after Johnston and another volunteer brought their concerns to the city, and council members visited the clinic to observe.
“All we want to do is greet patients and walk them in as safely and as stress-free as possible,” Johnston said.
The ordinance has yet to be finalized and made public, but council member Mark Bunker confirmed it is likely to appear on the agenda by the end of this month.
“We’re hopeful,” Johnston says, while a man on the sidewalk chants Bible verses. He’s carrying a sign with images of mutilated fetuses. “I worry about the direction we’re headed if nothing is done.”
Johnston said she believes in freedom of speech — and that the anti-abortion activists have a right to protest. All she wants is mandated space to make sure everyone stays safe.
She takes a deep breath, purses her lips and shakes her head. Before she can fully exhale, she pivots. A patient car is turning into the parking lot.
She straightens her posture and walks toward it.
“It’s OK,” she says loudly to try and cut through the noise. “I’m a clinic volunteer. I’m here to help.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misclassified a pregnancy resource center as a clinic that provides abortions based on a reporting error.