When I approach Michelle Guobadia standing just outside the driveway of A Preferred Women’s Health Clinic (APWHC) on Saturday, May 25, she looks exhausted.
It’s only 11 a.m. and the temperature is already getting ready to hit 90 degrees. Guobadia is watching the ending of another Love Life Charlotte march, during which anti-abortion prayer marchers from different churches each week gather outside the clinic to pray, march along Latrobe Drive by the hundreds and then stop in front of the clinic to hold a concert, usually consisting of acoustic Christian hymns the crowd can sing along to.
While the marchers wrap things up across the street, right across the driveway, different anti-abortion protesters continue to yell into the clinic parking lot, trying to reach anyone they can inside or outside the building’s walls.
Guobadia has been volunteering as a clinic defender with Charlotte For Choice, a grassroots organization associated with APWHC for just under a year, and she’s tired.
“I think it’s exhausting because we could all be doing other things,” she says. “They could be doing other things. We could all be volunteering at shelters or foster care, but the fact that we have to be out here to defend legal rights to a medical procedure in health care is ridiculous and it is frustrating.”
In recent years, tensions have ramped up outside of the clinic. During the organization’s 40-Weeks Journey of Hope, Love Life sometimes attracts as many as 1,000 people or more to the small street in east Charlotte where APWHC sits at the end of a loop that dead-ends into itself. Last summer, Love Life bought the property next door to the clinic, cleared all the trees from the lot and now sets up a stage for marchers to congregate around and hear speeches just feet from APHWC offices.
Protesters with other anti-abortion organizations like Cities4Life are outside of the clinic every day, using loudspeakers that can be heard inside the building.
On April 20, APWHC director Calla Hales showed up to work to find that someone had thrown a brick through a window of the clinic.
Disagreements over parking, noise ordinances and blocking access to the clinic have led the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to increase its presence outside of the clinic. On May 25, about 10 officers stand across the street from the clinic, one holding a sound meter.
Officers don’t write any citations that day, but proposed changes to the city’s noise ordinance have added to the controversy around the daily battle taking place outside of APWHC. A committee has recommended that Charlotte City Council approve an update to the ordinance that would prohibit amplified sound within 200 feet of “quiet zones,” defined as medical facilities, places of worship and schools.
The ordinance has been the hottest topic discussed during public forums at city council meetings for more than a month now, and council members may vote on the change sometime in June.
Protesters have called the proposed ordinance an infringement of their free speech. Cities4Life Executive Director Daniel Parks has stated publicly that his organization will pursue legal action against the city if the ordinance is passed. When I ask if that’s still his plan, he confirms.
“Certainly if there’s an infringement of First Amendment rights, I think every red-blooded American should want to get behind infringements of First Amendment rights, and that certainly would be,” he says.
“Every form of speech that we employ has been attacked by the city of Charlotte — every form, and so yeah, it’s obvious that they’re against what we’re doing,” Parks says. “It’s obviously worsening with that new ordinance that they’re trying to pass, and that’s just one stepping stone along the way. Ultimately what they want is for us to not be out here at all.”
As much as that’s what Guobadia and other clinic defenders would love to see, no city council members have outright said as much, though it appears that every council member is in support of the new ordinance save for District 7 representative Ed Driggs.
During an April meeting about the ordinance, Driggs said he worried council members were pushing through the changes to support their stance on abortion, rather than any real issue with noise.
“It’s a tough call because … I don’t really approve of what I’ve heard about in terms of what is going on there, but I cannot support this particular solution,” he said.
Hales says she’s cautiously optimistic that the ordinance will pass.
“I am tentatively hopeful,” she says. “I think that it’s really clear that there’s an issue here and if this remains an issue for yet another year, this could really impact a lot of businesses in Charlotte as it continues to grow.”
Multiple other medical clinics call Latrobe Drive home, including psychiatric centers such as New Hope Specialty Clinic and Mental Health America of Central Carolinas.
Guobadia also points out that most patients who have to run the gauntlet of prayer marchers, protesters and folks waving literature outside the clinic are the ones who have no other choices.
“The reality is, if I needed to have an abortion I could go to my private care physician and be referred to a medical facility to do that and no one would ever know,” she says. “Because [this clinic] is for people of different means, they don’t have that luxury, and that’s not OK.”
For Guobadia, the ordinance would bring the city one step closer to what she hopes for, which is to have Saturdays free to serve in some other way. She says it’s not a matter of free speech, but of respecting the legal rights of a patient to their healthcare.
“Everyone gets to have different beliefs, but when you infringe on other people’s beliefs and you stand in front of the facilities where they’re making decisions for that, that’s when you’ve taken it way too far and it’s inappropriate,” she says. “If we came and protested your church, you would have an issue with that, and we wouldn’t, because again, we respect your right to have that in your space. Respect people’s right to have what they need in this one.”