Several hundred people filled the pews at St. Stephen Catholic Church on Napoleon Avenue on Monday night in a rally against a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic on South Claiborne Avenue that would perform abortions.
The protest is the latest move in a long-running battle between anti-abortion activists, who have sought to block the clinic, and Planned Parenthood, which argues the facility is needed to provide medical services that include abortions but also extend to a variety of other procedures, educational resources and medical assistance.
Monday’s rally, hosted by Louisiana Right to Life, including a cross-section of Christian clergy, including New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who said abortion “numbs” society. He said it leads to violent crime and to values that allow capital punishment and that could be extended to euthanasia and assisted suicide.
“We leave here to go outside and be a voice for life,” Aymond said.
The rally was originally planned for the property next to the site of the new 8,000-square-foot clinic but was moved as storms swept through the New Orleans area Monday evening.
While Planned Parenthood now has two sites in Louisiana — a clinic on Magazine Street in New Orleans and another in Baton Rouge — the Claiborne Avenue site would be the first of its facilities in the state that would perform abortions.
Two clinics in the New Orleans area that are not affiliated with the organization now perform abortions.
Those two sites annually serve about 16,000 patients seeking a variety of services including Pap smears, cancer screenings, treatment of sexually transmitted infections and sexual health education. The new clinic would allow Planned Parenthood to serve about twice as many patients with those services, according to the organization’s estimates.
Opponents have seized on another number: 2,844. That’s the number of abortions that Planned Parenthood estimates are sought but cannot be performed because there is not enough capacity at existing area facilities.
That number comes from a 74-page application Planned Parenthood filed with the state to meet the requirements of a 2012 regulation that requires new abortion clinics to prove they are needed. While anti-abortion activists have pointed to that number as a quota or goal for the new facility, the study only examines the number of abortions that would be expected in the area, based on statistics, compared with the number actually performed.
The organization’s initial application was denied by the state Department of Health and Hospitals, and a supplemental application is pending.
The rally featured several speakers who had abortions themselves — or who supported their partners’ decisions to have abortions — and now regret that decision.
One, Kathy Allen, with Louisiana Black Advocates for Life, referred to abortion as “a system that is evil, that is destroying the future of our community.”
“We call on you to embrace the word of God, to choose life that you and your descendants may live,” she said.
Ben Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, rallied the crowd by pointing out the long delay in the construction of the Planned Parenthood facility, which broke ground in March after numerous delays.
“It’s not just by accident, it’s because … of so many people in our community,” Clapper said. “It’s not just a few people. It’s not just the archbishop.
“It’s a combination of so many people in our community that said, ‘We don’t want another abortion facility in our community,’ ” he said.
But that activism has crossed into intimidation and harassment, Planned Parenthood officials have charged. That includes a threat by the Archdiocese of New Orleans to prohibit any contractor working on the clinic from working on any Catholic churches, schools or other facilities.
“For more than a year, extremist opponents of women’s access to health care have launched protests and intimidation campaigns to try and stop the construction of the new Planned Parenthood health center,” Planned Parenthood State Director Melissa Flournoy said in an emailed statement. “These extremist groups are engaging in a bullying campaign against local businesses that work on the construction and even protest at doctors’ private homes.”
“These groups don’t do a thing to help people detect cancer or avoid unintended pregnancy,” Flournoy said. “Too many women, men and families in New Orleans are going without health care, and it’s taking a toll on the New Orleans community and Louisiana. We’re taking action to help more people get health care, and these attacks only make us stronger.”
The clinic is now expected to open early next year, said Jewel Bush, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s communications manager for Louisiana.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.