For two decades, Kelly Flynn barely noticed protesters who gathered almost daily along University Boulevard, the main public drag to the office park that houses her clinic, A Woman’s Choice of Jacksonville. The signs, the chants, the occasional blocked sidewalk — they all went with the territory of running an abortion clinic in Florida, one of the last states in the South where abortion remains widely accessible.
Most mornings, Flynn would take a back route to avoid them. As soon as she turned left onto University Center Drive, the quiet road fronting the clinic’s two buildings, she almost forgot the protesters existed. The only people permitted to use the private road and parking lots were the medical staff who worked in the surrounding offices, their patients and approved visitors. Anyone else was trespassing.
All that changed on the morning of Dec. 1, 2020. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office logged a call from the clinic shortly after 9 a.m.: Three protesters had infiltrated the clinic’s defenses, staking out a spot on the private road. They parked in the lot next door, anti-abortion banners hanging from their cars. The protesters, according to a sheriff’s report, said they had been given access by the property owner.
That’s when Flynn discovered she had a new neighbor: Gertrude Perez-Poveda, a former accountant in her early 70s who is a leader of Family for LIFE, a local anti-abortion group. Trudy, as everyone calls her, was known for picketing the nearby Planned Parenthood. Now she’d moved into a drab one-story building a couple of hundred feet from Flynn’s clinic that had sat vacant while its owner, a doctor, faced prosecution for allegedly exposing himself to a patient. (He was convicted last year.) For $1,000 a month, Perez-Poveda suddenly had 24/7 access to a room, a bathroom and — most importantly — the private road.
Just like that, Flynn’s world shifted. She’d spent most of her adult life trying to make A Woman’s Choice a refuge for women from around Florida and the South who couldn’t get the reproductive care they needed closer to home. Now that safe haven, like abortion rights more broadly, was under siege. It wasn’t just Flynn: Clinic owners across the state were under intense and rising pressure as protesters poured in from around the U.S. and home-grown groups like Family for LIFE became more aggressive and creative in their strategies.
As states across the South have drastically cut access to abortion, Florida has become a hot spot for the anti-abortion protest movement. Now with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, Florida is providing a glimpse of the future for states that keep abortion legal. As abortion is curtailed or banned across the country, the last remaining open clinics will offer protesters fewer and clearer targets. A Woman’s Choice of Jacksonville is a case story in what they can expect.
In the year after Perez-Poveda signed her lease, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office records show 16 calls involving the clinic for physical confrontations, disturbance and harassment — a relentless stream of nerve-fraying, in-your-face interactions that Flynn was powerless to stop because the protesters had a right to be there and almost everything they did was legal under state and federal law. Many mornings, the picketers, wearing fluorescent vests, marched in single file, inches from the faded white stripe marking the clinic’s property lines, literally testing Flynn’s boundaries.
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Perez-Poveda declined multiple requests for an interview. Martin Cannon, senior counsel of the Thomas More Society, a national anti-abortion law firm that represents her group, described the protesters as “sidewalk counselors” who are exercising their First Amendment rights to engage abortion-minded women in meaningful conversation. He called Perez-Poveda “a very nice lady.”
Flynn worried that the situation was dangerously volatile, that someone would snap, someone would get hurt. In the spring of 2021, it happened.
A 19-year-old woman arrived with her mother one morning after driving from a part of Georgia with no abortion clinics. About 10 Family for LIFE members had assembled in the usual place, waiting.
Some of the picketers yelled at the young woman as she walked toward the clinic entrance. Meanwhile, Perez-Poveda was taking photos and approached the family’s car. Video surveillance captured what happened next: The young woman turned around — she’d forgotten her AirPods, she later told police — and saw what Perez-Poveda was doing. She marched up to the older woman and shoved her — hard — to the ground. Then she went into the clinic. Perez-Poveda stood slowly from the pavement, a bloody scrape on her left ankle, and called 911.
Police chose to refer the case to prosecutors, who charged the 19-year old woman with battery. In Florida, if a victim is over the age of 65, battery is automatically a felony. At an age when many teenagers are planning their futures, the young patient was facing a life-altering criminal record. After her appointment, clinic staff bundled her in a blanket so protesters couldn’t photograph her as she slid into the back of a patrol car. Then she went to jail for the night.
In the year and a half since Family for LIFE moved in next door, she is the only person police have arrested. Charges against her are still pending.
How Florida Became the Abortion Oasis of the South
Florida has a special place in the history of the abortion rights movement. In 1980, voters made it one of the few states to enshrine an express right to privacy in its constitution: “Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life.” Four decades later, that protection is the major reason that Florida remains an important oasis for reproductive care. The state has 55 abortion clinics, more than seven other Southeastern states combined; from 2017 through 2021, total abortions surpassed 360,000. Only California and New York are believed to have higher counts.
In the past five years, more than 16,000 people traveled to Florida from other parts of the U.S. for abortion care. The increase in out-of-state patients was especially large during the pandemic, up a stunning 77 percent in 2020. Florida continues to allow abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, for example, later than many states. Even a new 15-week ban that takes effect in July (after the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be finalized) isn’t nearly as draconian as the near-total bans that would go into effect in Texas, Oklahoma and about two dozen other states as soon as Roe is officially gone.
That reality – that a state where Republicans have long controlled every major lever of power had nearly 75,000 abortions last year – has been deeply frustrating to the national anti-abortion movement. Father Stephen Imbarrato, who calls himself the “Protest Priest,” is one of many activists who have swarmed to Florida in recent years. “If they were murdering 75,000 other people in any demographic, in any class, (lawmakers) surely would be acting differently,” he said. If they choose to do nothing, then they’re going to hear from me … and I’m going to make as much trouble for them as I can.”
But the protest movement’s impact has been almost impossible to measure. Now, in a first-of-its-kind analysis, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that police calls across the state related to clinic harassment, disturbance and violence doubled over the past six years.
A Woman’s Choice of Jacksonville was among the clinics with the biggest increases in police calls, tripled compared with 2016. At another provider, American Family Planning in Pensacola, calls jumped 400 percent.
At the Planned Parenthood in Fort Myers, a man tossed two Molotov cocktails into the clinic in October 2020 and later pleaded guilty to arson; in January, dozens of protesters blockaded the clinic’s entrance and refused to leave, and several were arrested.
A few protesters also reported major threats against them, including an October 2020 incident in Orlando in which a man dropping off a patient pointed a gun at a demonstrator who approached his car.
A June 2020 incident at the All Women’s Health Center in Tampa was strikingly similar to the Georgia teenager’s case in Jacksonville. A picketer strapped a camera to her chest to record footage of patients and their cars, reading their license plates out loud as she filmed. In the video, a woman leaving the clinic walked up to her and demanded, “Why are you taking a video of my car?” “It’s public record,” the protester responded, then chided the patient for having a sticker on her car that read, “In God We Trust.” The patient snatched the protester’s camera and threw it on the ground, then drove off. Police easily tracked down the patient and charged her with misdemeanor criminal mischief. But unlike in Jacksonville, the Hillsborough County state attorney’s office declined to prosecute, noting: “All 6 witnesses testified to the fact that the ‘victim’ was the instigator and aggressor.”
The Reveal analysis found that only a small percentage of calls by either side ended in arrests. David S. Cohen, a Drexel University law professor and author of two books on the anti-abortion movement, said the legal line between harassment and free speech is often blurry. “The First Amendment protects speech. It protects aggressive speech. It protects distasteful speech,” he said.
Meanwhile, the main federal statute that protects abortion providers and patients didn’t envision the kind of behavior and tactics that many clinics are dealing with today. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act was passed nearly 30 years ago.
Since the act’s creation, according to a Reveal analysis of federal data, the U.S. Department of Justice has brought only 101 cases. That’s an average of just four a year.
How Killings in Florida Led to the FACE Act
In Florida, the possibility that anti-abortion extremism might turn deadly isn’t theoretical. A wave of anti-abortion violence across the country that started in the late 1970s reached a crescendo in Pensacola in 1993, when Dr. David Gunn was shot three times outside a clinic, becoming the first known abortion provider to be killed in the U.S. Sixteen months later, Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett, were assassinated at a different Pensacola clinic by an ex-minister who claimed that the killing of abortion doctors was justifiable homicide.
Weeks after his father’s slaying, David Gunn Jr., then a college student, testified before Congress in support of a bill making it a crime to intimidate, injure or interfere with abortion clinic staff or patients. “My father was murdered because no one took the appropriate measures beforehand to prevent this,” he told a House panel. “If we could have done this two years ago, this probably wouldn’t have happened now.”
The bipartisan law that resulted, the FACE Act, empowered the Justice Department to bring criminal charges or civil lawsuits against people who commit acts of “force” or “threat of force” or “physical obstruction.” Violators can be banned from standing near clinic entrances, they can be ordered to pay damages and civil penalties, or they can face up to 10 years in prison if someone is hurt.
But today, the FACE Act’s limitations have become clear. Gunn Jr., now an insurance adjuster in Alabama, was stunned by the scene at an abortion rights rally several years ago in Jackson, Mississippi, outside the clinic at the center of this year’s blockbuster Supreme Court case. Anti-abortion demonstrators blocked traffic to keep patients from going inside. Law enforcement seemed to be doing nothing, he said — or acting like there was nothing they could do.
Reveal obtained a list of every FACE case filed by the Justice Department since 1994 through the Freedom of Information Act. Early targets included the man who gunned down Britton and Barrett; an Alabama woman who, during a call with a TV reporter, threatened to kill another abortion doctor; and a California man who set clinics on fire in four states. Other cases were aimed at cracking down on the over-the-top clinic invasions and blockades that used to be ubiquitous.
But after an initial flurry of activity — 45 cases during the Clinton administration — the numbers tapered off.
The overall trend reflects a reality that clinic providers can’t overcome: The intent of the law was to target things like death threats, arsons, blockades and destruction of clinic property, not taking highly personal photos of patients outside a clinic or shouting at them through a megaphone.
About 90 percent of FACE Act cases have been successful in court, a sign of the Justice Department’s careful vetting. But sometimes even cases that seem like slam dunks have been rejected by judges and juries. Julie Abbate, a former Justice Department deputy chief who oversaw FACE civil cases from 2003 to 2018, recalls handling a case against a Kansas woman named Angel Dillard. She sent a threatening letter to an abortion doctor trainee, saying, “You will be checking under your car everyday because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” She also sent admiring letters to the man who killed a Wichita abortion doctor during church services in 2009. “We thought it was a very strong case,” Abbate said. But in 2016, a jury disagreed, saying Dillard hadn’t threatened the doctor with physical harm but rather had warned of spiritual harm.
If the Justice Department chooses not to pursue a case, the FACE Act does offer clinics one other option – they can use the law to sue protesters on their own behalf. But few clinics have the resources – or the support in their communities — to take such a risk.
The Justice Department declined Reveal’s interview request. In a statement, the agency said it is “committed to holding (accountable) those who resort to violence and threats of violence to deny people access to reproductive health clinics in our country.”
In the post-Roe era, with abortion poised to no longer be a federally protected right, states will be under pressure to safeguard clinics and patients. A growing number of states have already taken action. Washington prohibits anyone from “telephoning the facility repeatedly” or knowingly allowing their phone to be used to make threats; California has made it illegal to photograph staff and patients within 100 feet of a clinic for the purposes of intimidating them or to share those photos, videos or recordings online. Several states bar trespassing or physical obstruction of all health care facilities, not just abortion providers. A few states have enacted buffer-zone laws that prohibit protesters from approaching patients and staff near clinic entrances.
But in Florida and most of the country, there are no state protections for clinic providers and patients. In these places, the federal FACE Act remains the only way to prosecute violence and obstruction. Over the years, the law has been used in Florida only seven times.
One of those cases involved A Woman’s Choice of Jacksonville, but it had nothing to do with protesters. A man named Rodney Allen, angry that his girlfriend was getting an abortion, obtained her patient code and canceled her appointments. When that didn’t work, he called in a bomb threat to the clinic. He was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to two years in prison. To Flynn, the case is another reminder of how vulnerable she feels. “That was the first time in 20 some years I’d actually seen them start and finish and complete a process and actually convict somebody,” she said. “I was shocked, honestly, that no one just shoved it under the rug.”
On the TV news recently, Flynn watched a report about a murder trial at a Jacksonville courthouse. People had gathered outside to protest. “And they said, no, you cannot be here.” That’s because the courthouse has a buffer zone that prohibits demonstrators from gathering at the entrance. Meanwhile, she said wistfully, “we have no protection.”
What a Supreme Court Decision Would Mean for Florida
One of the biggest questions for Flynn and her fellow providers now is: How will the Supreme Court’s imminent ruling affect clinics in Florida? In the short term, the privacy clause in the state constitution will likely guarantee at least some abortion access. But the Republican-led Legislature is expected to start passing tougher abortion restrictions — and the state Supreme Court, now dominated by conservatives, to eventually greenlight them. “The groundwork has been laid to reverse, undo, the Florida state constitutional right to abortion,” abortion historian Mary Ziegler, who teaches at the Florida State University law school, recently warned. “Sooner or later, it’s going to work.”
For the time being, however, Florida is likely to remain a place where people from out of state travel to get an abortion. With much of the rest of the South poised to ban most if not all abortions, A Woman’s Choice and other clinics will be called upon to absorb a huge new influx of patients. “Right now,” Flynn said, “we’re just sending out the message that, you know, abortion is still legal. We are still open, abortion is safe.” She’s worried that many women will believe that the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion is the same as a final ruling, with the weight of law.
But for all the planning and strategizing she and her colleagues are doing, Flynn isn’t forgetting about Family for LIFE. She recently hired a surveyor to demarcate the clinic’s property lines. Soon, she plans to build a fence around her parking lot; it won’t keep the protesters off the private road, but it will give her patients some measure of privacy.
Laura C. Morel and Mohomed Al Elew are reporters at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Morel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Al Elew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Morel on Twitter: @lauracmorel
Decca Muldowney and Soraya Ferdman contributed research to this story. It was edited by Nina Martin, Andrew Donohue, Soo Oh and Marianne Szegedy-Maszak and copy edited by Nikki Frick.