An Orlando doctor gives anti-choice activists a way to more easily and thoroughly harass abortion clinic clients | Orlando Area News | Orlando

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photo by McKenna Schueler

A clinic escort (left) blocks anti-abortion activist Anne Marchetti from filming a patient walking toward an Orlando abortion clinic. April 15, 2023.

One of Orlando’s only abortion clinics, located just south of downtown, is visited daily by anti-abortion activists who camp themselves outside to dissuade patients from getting an abortion.

Disruptors who oppose what goes on inside the Center of Orlando for Women are legally forbidden from trespassing onto the clinic’s private property. But for years they have been allowed access to a driveway the clinic shares with a doctor next door who’s personally opposed to abortion.

Dr. Donald Collins, a state-licensed physician affiliated with Orlando Health and Advent Health, is an “extreme Catholic,” said Betty, founder of Stand With Abortion Now, an Orlando-based clinic escort group that stands guard outside the abortion clinic.

“For over 20 years, he [Dr. Collins] has allowed John and various other people to camp out in the shared driveway to just basically harass patients because it’s against his Catholic beliefs,” Betty added.

John Barros, a “pro-life” Evangelist, sits in front of the small clinic or off to the side every weekday. He’s done so proudly for 20 years.
Once featured by the Florida Family Policy Council, a nonprofit affiliated with the anti-abortion Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Research Council, Barros describes himself to Orlando Weekly as a “sidewalk counselor,” bristling at the term “protester.”

“We’re not protesters at all,” said Barros, a middle-aged man with fair skin tanned by the sun. “I’m here to offer help to people.”

Barros, who’s become a regular fixture outside the women’s center, confirmed that  Collins allows him and other anti-abortion activists access to his property, which includes a shared driveway and parking lot space behind both of the properties’ buildings.

This ultimately gives people like Barros greater access to the clinic’s patients, as well as providing a staging area where they can gather off the public street.

“He’s a Roman Catholic,” Barros said of Collins, in explanation of the doctor’s sympathy. “He wants to see babies live and women get their lives changed.”

Beyond his private practice, Collins is also a volunteer faculty member at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine. Volunteer faculty, according to the college’s website, are professionals employed by an entity that has an affiliation agreement with the college.

Orlando Weekly reached out to Collins’ medical office multiple times for comment on this story, but did not receive a response.

Video footage of Collins, obtained by Orlando Weekly however, shows the doctor meeting with anti-choice activists. He admits to a SWAN volunteer (filming the encounter) that he allows the anti-abortion activists onto his property.

“I stopped counting years ago,” he shares, “at 3,000 babies who are alive today because women were told about options they had.”

Part of that exchange, peppered with emojis and captions, was posted to TikTok by SWAN in February. Raw footage, containing some explicit language, was provided to Orlando Weekly.

A volunteer with the clinic escort group, which often uses confrontational tactics (and language) to distract protesters from the abortion clinic’s patients, asks Collins in the video, “You allow them [patients] to be harassed?”

“I believe in the sanctity of human life,” Collins responds, “From conception to natural death” (not really an answer to the question) and eventually claims, “I don’t believe in harassment.” 

The soft-spoken doctor waves his hand towards two anti-abortion activists beside him, the “option” providers. One is a middle-aged white man with a sign reading, “Abortion Is Murder.”

The clinic escort tells Collins that the activist he’s currently chatting with pursued someone from the clinic to their car, even after she was asked to leave them alone.

It’s the anti-choice protesters’ access to the shared parking lot, provided by Collins, that makes confrontations like this possible. Without it, they’d be confined to the public space of the street.

No healthcare, no peace

Many of the activists who camp outside of the Orlando clinic bring anti-abortion propaganda to shove at patients, either before or after they leave: flyers advertising a local crisis pregnancy center, which does not offer abortion care, as well as pamphlets containing other misinformation.

“Human life is present from the moment of conception — at that moment a baby’s life has begun,” a line from one of the pamphlets reads.

But it’s not just quiet protest that occurs outside of the clinic’s doors.

Barros also does what SWAN calls his “yell” at the clinic, bellowing on the horrors of abortion. In one video posted to TikTok, someone off-screen tells Barros to “shut the fuck up” after he offers to “help” them.

“I already have two,” the off-screen voice adds, presumably referring to children. “I don’t want a third one.”

“Why don’t you kill one of them and let this one have a chance?” he responds, a startling suggestion from a self-described “pro-life” person.

Because of ongoing health issues and past injuries, he generally stands on crutches, or sits off to the side in a lawn chair set up under an umbrella with a cooler.

click to enlarge SWAN volunteer clinic escorts sit in front of longtime anti-abortion activist John Barros outside the Center of Orlando for Women, "fighting absurdity with absurdity." - photo courtesy SWAN

photo courtesy SWAN

SWAN volunteer clinic escorts sit in front of longtime anti-abortion activist John Barros outside the Center of Orlando for Women, “fighting absurdity with absurdity.”

But it’s on the weekends, when anti-choice protesters travel in from out of town, that things become particularly tumultuous, according to SWAN.

And some of the blame, they believe, rests with the licensed and board-certified internist next door.

Winnie, one of the SWAN volunteers, shared that Collins has been informed that the protesters who park in his parking lot follow patients to their vehicles, follow them down the street, “and kind of circle their vehicle and not let them get out.”

“When Dr. Collins has been met with that information,” Winnie says, “he dismissed it.”

In the video footage shot by SWAN, the white-haired doctor claims, “I don’t believe in harassment,” but dismisses concerns about activists who engage in confrontational behaviors — behaviors that could ostensibly also put off his own patients as well.

While some of the “anti’s” will sit quietly on the shared driveway, clutching their anti-abortion packets and Bibles, Orlando Weekly has witnessed others bellowing hateful comments and harassing random passersby and patients walking toward the clinic from the back parking lot.

One of the protesters, armed with a rainbow-adorned anti-abortion flyer, made a beeline for a female Orlando Weekly reporter when she walked up to the clinic one Saturday while on the job, assuming she was a patient seeking abortion care.

The clinic’s controversial founder, James Pendergraft, likened this phenomenon in the ’90s to crossing “a pool of big sharks.”

Betty, the clinic escort, told Orlando Weekly that she learned within days of beginning clinic defense that Collins is the primary reason why anti-abortion activists have been able to gain as much access as they have to clinic patients.

“My goal was to, if I could just get this doctor to be called out enough, to stop allowing this behavior,” she said. “It would solve a lot of the problems.”

Harassment and violence is not unheard of outside Florida abortion clinics.

Decades ago, a wave of anti-abortion violence emerged following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, first guaranteeing the constitutional right to abortion in 1973.

Since then, abortion providers have been shot, killed by clinic bombings, and become victims of stalking and assault.

“We have seen a consistent pattern, acknowledging the fact that people are willing to go to any means for their cause,” Ralph Ostrowski, former chief of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ arson and explosives division, told the Washington Post in 1995.

“In the past we would have acts of violence directed at property. Now we see acts of violence directed at people.”

In the late 1980s, an abortion clinic in Ocala was firebombed twice in 10 days. In 1993, an abortion provider was fatally shot outside a clinic in Pensacola, becoming the first known abortion provider to be killed in the U.S.

Just 16 months later, a different doctor (and a clinic escort) were assassinated at a different Pensacola clinic by an ex-minister, who called the killing a justifiable homicide, as Reveal News reports.

click to enlarge Newspaper story from Naples Daily News with headline reading, "Abortion doctor, clinic volunteer shot dead; volunteer's wife wounded," published on July 30, 1994. -

Newspaper story from Naples Daily News with headline reading, “Abortion doctor, clinic volunteer shot dead; volunteer’s wife wounded,” published on July 30, 1994.

The Center of Orlando for Women (formerly called the Orlando Women’s Center) also has had a troubled history.

Back in 1998, Orlando Weekly reported the clinic was a target of Operation Rescue (now “Operation Save America”), an anti-abortion group that also vocally opposed gay rights.

Back then, the group protested the Orlando abortion clinic, and also Disney World, for its “Gay Days” and for extending insurance benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. The group protested Barnes & Noble as well for selling what the group deemed “pornography” (some things don’t change).

Activists with the National Organization of Women counter-protested.

The Orlando clinic has come under scrutiny in the past; its founder, James Pendergraft, was sued by a former patient for medical malpractice about 10 years ago. The patient left the facility, mid-abortion procedure, in 2001, and later gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy.  Pendergraft’s license has been suspended five times since 2009.

Pendergraft also got flack over 20 years ago for distributing condoms advertising his clinic at Orlando nightclubs, performing late-term abortions, and for offering $50-off coupons for abortions performed on Sundays. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to drug charges involving six counts of possession of a controlled substance.

Back in the ’90s, Pendergraft — who is Black — told Orlando Weekly that he was inspired to do the work he did in part because of his time in medical school at Tuskegee University in Alabama, where he saw for himself the consequences of “back-alley abortion” and unsterile methods used, out of desperation, to end a pregnancy.

One of his aunts, as a teenager, became sterile as a result of a “back-alley” abortion, Pendergraft said.

“Abortion is a right for women,” he told Orlando Weekly. “It is something to be taken seriously. It is a constitutional right.”

Records from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration today show the clinic is now under the ownership of Denise Williams, Pendergraft’s ex-wife.

More recently, the state has also fined the clinic for violating a 2015 state law mandating a 24-hour waiting period between an initial consultation and abortion procedure.

The clinic has fought the charge, arguing they hadn’t been informed of the law’s implementation date prior to the procedures, despite actively seeking out information from the state on the matter.

The threat of violence

Violence at abortion clinics isn’t a thing of the past. Recent years have seen a rise in clinic violence, with anti-abortion activists emboldened by an extravagantly funded national campaign to abolish abortion access altogether.

A new report from the National Federation for Abortion, which has tracked clinic violence since 1977, found that incidents of arson, burglaries and death threats at clinics hugely increased in 2022 from the year prior.

The number of incidents of trespassing, assault and battery decreased, according to the report — but the group attributes this to clinic closures that occurred as a result of state-level abortion restrictions post-Roe: Fewer clinics to attack means fewer attacks. But, they found:

  • Stalking increased by 913% (from 8 in 2021 to 81 in 2022)
  • Obstructions increased 538% (from 45 in 2021 to 287 in 2022)
  • Bomb threats increased by 133% (from 3 in 2021 to 7 in 2022)
  • Burglaries increase by 100% (from 5 in 2021 to 10 in 2022)
  • Assault and batteries increased by 29% (from 7 in 2021 to 9 in 2022)

The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, passed 30 years ago, “prohibits threats of force, obstruction and property damage intended to interfere with reproductive health care services,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

But some worry the law doesn’t do enough to adequately protect clinics and staff. And although the prohibition applies to abortion clinics, it’s also applied to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which have been criticized for using manipulative tactics to dissuade people from getting an abortion.

Volunteers with SWAN, an Orlando organization that came together after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal constitutional right to abortion last June, told Orlando Weekly they’re troubled by the situation with Collins.

“Patients have zero way to hide from the protesters,” said Betty. Access to part of the back parking lot in particular, with permission from Collins, gives protesters “unlimited access to a full line of vision,” Winnie added.

Some wear body cameras or use their phones to take photos of patients of the clinic to post online, to try to identify and shame them.

click to enlarge An Orlando Police Department Pulse police cruiser sits parked outside the Orlando abortion clinic. - photo by McKenna Schueler

photo by McKenna Schueler

An Orlando Police Department Pulse police cruiser sits parked outside the Orlando abortion clinic.

The abortion clinic hires off-duty Orlando police officers to keep watch over the property several days per week, for a handful of hours each day (off-duty rates aren’t cheap).

Some just sit in their patrol cars, said Betty, but others will regularly patrol out front and occasionally walk back to the parking lot to look out for any protesters trespassing onto the clinic’s property.

Still, officers can’t tell protesters to get off property that’s shared by Collins, since he’s given them explicit permission to be there. To give the patients “choices,” they say.

Barros, whose daily protests are listed by the Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford as a “related ministry,” said although he’s against what the clinic does, he doesn’t hate the clinic’s staff. He believes that he helps protect them.

“I’ve had to call the police on people that were coming to harm this place,” said Barros. Abusive partners of patients, for instance. Or family members.

He’s heard that things are a “mess” at the clinic on weekends, when some of the louder, more aggressive protesters travel through. But because he’s only at the clinic on weekdays, he separates what he does from their tactics.

“I love every patient that comes here. I love every worker that’s in this place,” he said.

Nodding over to a small group of SWANs, clad in neon vests a few yards away, he added, “I love these people that tell me to fuck off every day of my life, all day long.”

The way he sees it, they’re “lost.”

On a quiet Tuesday morning in May, Barros and one of his recruits, a younger woman named Olivia, sit in front of the clinic with their anti-abortion flyers.

Abortion access has been heavy on the minds of Floridians, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April signed into law a bill banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Critics say this is essentially a full-out ban, since few people know they’re pregnant that early on.

Whether that law goes into effect, however, is contingent upon a lawsuit filed over the state’s current 15-week limit, which was signed into law last year. Currently, getting an abortion in Florida is still legal up to 15 weeks.

A fervent ally of anti-abortion groups, DeSantis recently headlined a conference of the anti-abortion Florida Family Policy Council held in Orlando, where he dedicated a surprisingly brief amount of time to discussing abortion.

Last Wednesday, DeSantis also formally announced his campaign for U.S. President, in a botched launch on Twitter with billionaire and enthusiastic procreator Elon Musk.

According to Politico, DeSantis “danced around” the question of a national abortion ban the night of his launch, likely because public support for such an idea is extremely low among the American public, if not among the handful of ultra-wealthy who fund campaigns.

As it is, the future of the Orlando abortion clinic is unclear, especially if the six-week limit does go into effect.

But, for the time being, the clinic escorts who stand guard outside want patients to feel safe and free to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions.

“This isn’t Christians handing out pamphlets and meals and trying to help these people,” said Betty. “These are people who threaten them with eternal damnation and that God will rip them limb from limb.”

And it’s not just patients they worry about. They also worry about the staff.

With their access to part of the clinic’s parking lot, courtesy of Collins, anti-abortion activists can easily take photos of staff and their vehicle license plates.

Barros, on his private Facebook page, recently posted photos of someone he identified as a new clinic staffer and of her car. “If any of you know who she is i would like to know. Please pray for her,” he wrote.

“If something were to ever happen to one of our abortion care providers, it’s truly because Dr. Collins allows them to be so vulnerable,” said Winnie.

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