NEW ORLEANS — The crowds were lined up along both sides of South Claiborne Avenue — some to protest, some to support — what is soon to rise from an empty lot next door.
On the neutral ground, more than 100 residents chanted “my life, my choice” and waved signs that read “I stand with Planned Parenthood.” In a lot across the street, some 500 or more gathered to describe that same organization as an evil, violent enterprise that profits from destroying families.
Monday’s anti-abortion rally, and the opposing abortion rights protest it spawned, was the opening salvo in what will likely become a noisy battle over construction of a 7,000-square-foot Planned Parenthood clinic on South Claiborne that is scheduled to begin construction Wednesday. When it opens in 2014, the center will be the first Planned Parenthood to perform abortions in the state.
While abortions account for only 3 percent of the organization’s work, Planned Parenthood a lightning rod in the abortion dispute, as both the nation’s leading provider of abortions and its loudest advocate for a woman’s right to choose.
Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast says the $4.2 million Uptown clinic is a needed resource in a region with soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, paired with scarce access to women’s healthcare or abortion services.
Its opponents, which includes several religious groups, describe it as an “abortion super center.” They maintain that it will lead to an inevitable surge in terminated pregnancies across the region.
The NOLA Needs Peace Coalition, founded this month to oppose the clinic, have distributed yard signs, bought television advertisements and erected four billboards that read: “More Planned Parenthood = More Abortions.”
It held the rally Monday evening that drew throngs to hear anti-abortion speakers like Wendy Vitter, the wife of U.S. Sen. David Vitter; celebrated conservative commenter Mary Matalin; and Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director turned anti-abortion speaker and author.
Speaker Abraham Hamilton III, the minister of Gideon Fellowship Church, likened abortion to the city’s staggering episodes of violent crime. Archbishop Gregory Aymond made a similar comparison: “A Planned Parenthood abortion facility will take us further away from the peaceful future New Orleans needs. Violence is violence, whether on our streets or in the womb.”
But Planned Parenthood says its mission is in fact saving lives by providing quality health care to historically marginalized and uninsured groups, like women of color or those who have little means.
Such disagreements are well established in the decades-long battle between anti-abortion and abortion rights groups. The former have consistently come out ahead in Louisiana, ranked this year as the most anti-abortion state in the country based on its laws limiting access to abortions. Gov. Bobby Jindal, hailed as leading abortion opponent, has been given a 100 percent score by the National Right to Life organization.
There are five clinics remaining in the state of Louisiana. Next door in Mississippi, the sole abortion clinic is on the brink of closure.
The local NOLA Needs Peace Coalition suggests that women will come from all over the region to have abortions in New Orleans.
Sarah Zagorski, communications director with Louisiana Right to Life, the umbrella organization behind New Orleans group, said the anti-abortion campaign is meant to inform city residents about Planned Parenthood’s toll on American abortion rates. The company performed 333,964 abortions in 2011, equaling one-third of the procedures performed in the United States, and dwarfing the rate of its adoption referrals, she said.
Planned Parenthood provides a different set of numbers to encourage support for its New Orleans center: Louisiana has among the highest rates of syphilis, Chlamydia and HIV in the nation, and came in last place in state rankings on access to women’s health. In Louisiana, the company cites, 58 percent of pregnancies are unintended, for a $406 million price-tag for state taxpayers.
The organization says 97 percent of the services it provides are not related to abortion, and include breast and cervical cancer screenings, contraception counseling and testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted diseased.
New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who represents the district where the clinic will be built, said she supports the project as a means of expanding health care to her disadvantaged community.
“Make no mistake, we’re suffering from elevated rates of cardiovascular disease, low birth weights, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, and a host of other preventable ailments,” she wrote. “I hope this new facility will go a long way toward reducing these staggering disparities. The people of New Orleans deserve better.”
But the NOLA Needs Peace Coalition insists that all the services the new Planned Parenthood will offer, aside from abortion, are already available in New Orleans.
The new clinic will replace a smaller Planned Parenthood clinic on Magazine Street, which had some 7,500 visits last year, and did not perform abortions. The closest Planned Parenthood clinic that offers abortions is in Mobile, 125 miles away.
The company acknowledges that it will perform abortions at the South Claiborne Avenue clinic, though describes the alarm at that news as being sensationalized by anti-abortion activists.
“Women in Louisiana who need to end a pregnancy will eventually be able to rely on Planned Parenthood for safe, legal abortion,” wrote Julie Mickelberry, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. “Planned Parenthood believes a woman who is making these complex and personal decisions should have accurate information about her options.”
Planned Parenthood will host a ground-breaking ceremony at its new site Wednesday, and abortion opponents promised to be protesting from the neutral ground across the street.