An anti-abortion protester yells at a client and escorts entering a health clinic in Englewood, New Jersey.
In the battle for reproductive freedom, anti-abortion activists aren’t shy about bringing the fight to their adversaries.
They routinely picket women’s health clinics, spread false information about abortion at crisis pregnancy centers and have publicly outed abortion care providers, making them targets of threats, harassment and even deadly violence.
Wendi Kent, a Madison-based photographer and activist, remembers seeing a “wanted-style” poster made by the Pro-Life Action League featuring the name and photo of a friend, who was identified as a “pro-choice journalist.” Though Kent had been involved in reproductive justice advocacy for several years, seeing the poster highlighted a stark truth — abortion advocates are routinely identified, but anti-abortion protesters operate in relative anonymity.
The realization prompted Kent to begin documenting protests at abortion clinics in an ongoing photojournalism project called “Faces of the Fight.” Over the past two years, she’s visited abortion clinics in nearly a dozen cities throughout the country in an effort to shine a light on the protest tactics of the groups and individuals engaged in clinic demonstrations and the motivation behind their movement.
“I would like for these people to see themselves,” says Kent, 36. “I don’t think they understand what they look like.”
Kent’s project recently drew national interest after two of her friends, who are writers, interviewed Kent and published articles on The Daily Dot and RH Reality Check in January. The story was later picked up by Huffington Post Women and The Washington Post. Kent was also interviewed about her work — and her personal backstory — on the popular anti-slut-shaming podcast, Guys We Fucked.
Kent is not in it for self-promotion. “It was shocking,” she says of the media attention. “I don’t really care about talking to people about myself, but the whole point is to get these images out there.”
Kent opts to document abortion clinics on a “typical day,” rather than during the larger demonstrations that take place on significant dates, like the anniversary of Roe v. Wade or during the 40 Days for Life vigil. That way, the images represent the everyday reality of what women face when seeking abortions or reproductive health care. Kent says she’s been pleased with the way her message has hit the mark — she’s received feedback from people who say they are opposed to abortion but disagree with picketing clinics.
She says every demonstration is different. Some are vocal, some are passive. Some clinics provide volunteer escorts to shield patients from picketers, while others have opted to forgo escorts in an effort to minimize attention on the clinic. But while the tactics differ from place to place, Kent has found that the protesters have a common thread: religion. Many of the protesters Kent has met in her travels are engaged in a peaceful, prayer-based demonstration, but Kent believes that any presence at a clinic site constitutes harassment.
“That alone is intimidating,” she says. “I don’t think they see that.”
Kent’s advocacy for reproductive justice stems from her personal history. She became pregnant at age 13 and was not offered abortion as an option. She remembers being somehow aware that abortion carried a stigma, and was afraid to bring it up when she went to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy.
She gave birth and tried to be a parent to her daughter, but it was difficult. Facing an unsafe home environment, she gave the child up for adoption and began living on the streets of Austin. While homeless, she became addicted to heroin. She was eventually arrested and spent a year in a juvenile detention center, where she kicked heroin cold turkey. She got out at age 17 but was still a ward of the state, so she was ordered into a drug rehab facility — a place she describes as “tougher than jail.”
“I don’t know what drove me [to get clean],” she says. “I didn’t want to turn out like the junkies that I knew. I thought that maybe there was a chance I could still be happy, that I could maybe have a normal-ish life.”
After completing rehab, she got married, at age 18, to another former addict, but he began using again. She left him and got work in Austin as a cook and a barista. She befriended one of the coffee shop regulars — a grad student at UT-Austin — and eventually married him.
“He pretty much saved my life,” Kent says.
They moved to Madison about five years ago, a few months before the Act 10 protests. The massive demonstrations further fueled her political activism. A self-described “serial volunteer,” she has also been active in organizing to support the local LGBT and homeless communities and has also organized a program to spread accurate information about abortion.
Meanwhile, she plans to continue her photography project and visit as many clinics as she can. She hopes to continue the momentum from the buzz her work has created this year, but she worries that people might stop paying attention.
“I’m mostly concerned that after this 15 minutes of fame, people are going to forget about it,” Kent says. “I want to show that there are a hundred more clinics that go through this every single day that they’re open. Every clinic deserves to be seen.”
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"You're a sinner," this man tells photographer Wendi Kent. "Take pictures of these, sinner." In the background, a clinic escort for Family Planning Associates laughs at the exchange.
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A group forms a prayer circle outside Family Planning Associates in Chicago, Ill.
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A protester and a clinic escort face off at Family Planning Associates in Chicago, Ill.
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A demonstrator sets up outside Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee with a graphic anti-abortion sign and and baby dolls that have been painted red.
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Photographer Wendi Kent says anti-abortion protesters often buy vests like the ones worn by clinic escorts in an attempt to confuse patients. In Milwaukee, escorts have added rainbow patches to differentiate themselves. Protesters have stopped copying them -- perhaps due to the rainbow flag's association with the LGBT community.
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A passerby reacts to protesters displaying graphic abortion images outside Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee. "How dare you shove those pictures in my face," she said, according to photographer Wendi Kent. "I’m pro-life, and that is just sick!"
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This woman, identified as Annie, regularly shows up with a stroller displaying three fetus dolls to protest at Affiliated Medical Services in Milwaukee.
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Protesters from a local church group take turns preaching at patients as they enter the clinic in Raleigh, N.C.
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An anti-abortion protester films photographer Wendi Kent during a demonstration at a women's health clinic in Raleigh, N.C.