BRATTLEBORO - Protestors have been showing up at the Planned Parenthood offices on High Street in Brattleboro on Tuesdays for quite a while.
On Tuesday, they showed up again, and though they didn't block access to the clinic, nor attempt to stop anyone from going in, their message seemed to take an unwelcome turn.
"The people left all this chalk all over the street saying Planned Parenthood supports rapists and sex traffickers," said Sonia Silbert, who showed up with her partner, Fhar Miess, the next day to clean up the chalk and to show support for the staffers in the clinic. "It was so awful. Planned Parenthood doesn't even do abortions here. These people were protesting pap smears. It's not OK to do this to staffers and patients, to have this energy in this community."
It is not known at this time who the protestors were or where they came from.
Lucy Leriche, vice president of public policy in Vermont for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, told the Reformer that associating the services provided by Planned Parenthood with rape and sexual trafficking was absurd.
"If someone thinks providing a pap smear is somehow equal to supporting rapists and sex traffickers, there's not much to talk about," said Silbert.
In Brattleboro, the services are focused on the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, medical exams, birth control education and supplies, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and counseling, and testing and treatments for urinary tract infections.
"Our general policy is to not engage with protestors," said Leriche, who said she has been told by Brattleboro staffers that the protests have been peaceful, and that none of the protestors has blocked the clinics entrance nor have they prevented people from entering.
Miess said it was important for him as a man to show up and support the freedom of women to make their own reproductive health choices.
"Men need to model something different and be part of a solution to gender- and sex-based crimes and violence," he said. "Men don't have to act that way, and by and large they don't."
Miess also noted that Planned Parenthood offers health services to men as well.
"About 20 years ago, I got a vasectomy at Planned Parenthood," he said. "If we want to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it requires the participation of men as much as women."
Both Silbert and Miess said they wanted the people working at Planned Parenthood to feel safe and valued.
"We want to support them and the lifesaving work they perform," said Silbert.
Chalking the street with supportive messages was a way for her and others to make a nonconfrontational statement for the reproductive rights of women.
"This is a health clinic in our community that serves people who often can't afford health care elsewhere," she said. "They offer supportive, wonderful, inclusive, accessible and non-judgmental health care for people who are marginalized. If someone somehow think that's equal to supporting rapists and sex trafficking, to think they will come to our community and say that, we're not going to let them."
"It's really troubling to see that many people feeling so hateful," said Miess. "I want them to recognize that the policies they are pushing, limiting the choices and options for women's reproductive health, is detrimental to everyone. However you feel about the sanctity of life, the sanctity of everybody's life needs to be taken into account as well."
Leriche noted that a constitutional amendment, Proposal 5, also known as the Reproductive Liberty Amendment, might go to Vermont voters in 2022 and will protect reproductive liberty and the right to an abortion in the state.
"The amendment will prohibit government interfering with someone making their own health care decisions and about their reproduction," said Leriche.
The amendment was proposed two years ago and has been through one legislative session. If it is approved in the 2022 session, and there is every indication it will pass, it will go to the voters.
Leriche said the amendment was in response to concerns that the Supreme Court of the United States might very well overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that protected a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. If Roe is overturned, the decision on keeping abortion legal or prohibiting it will return to the states.
Leriche said if Roe is overturned, states like Vermont, New York, California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Illinois, where abortion is a protected right, might become a refuge for women seeking reproductive liberty.
She also characterized the recently enacted Texas law, which rewards citizens with $10,000 for turning in people who assist women in having an abortion, as vigilante justice akin to McCarthyism.
"It's turning neighbor against neighbor," she said. "It's extreme and regressive."
"If things keep going this way nationally, we may need to figure out how to be a refuge for people," said Silbert. "It feels important to stand up for those values here in Brattleboro and in Vermont. We can take a stand here. We can protect our community."