Every Thursday morning, before most people get out of bed, Erika Hathaway packs her wheelchair into her uncle’s truck and heads to the Planned Parenthood clinic on Valencia Street.
Hathaway isn’t receiving ongoing medical treatment at Planned Parenthood. She is an anti-abortion protester who situates her wheelchair in prime position — in front of the clinic doors.
Hathaway and her uncle, Ross Foti, have been protesting outside the Valencia Street facility for about two months. Planned Parenthood staff members have repeatedly called the San Francisco Police Department and the city attorney’s office, and have consulted a lawyer to see what can be done about the couple encroaching on the space of patients walking in and out of the clinic.
“It’s absolute cruelty,” said Adrienne Verrilli, director of communications for the San Francisco Planned Parenthood Health Center. “The way our health care center is, you have to walk close to them.”
The protesters are using a San Francisco exemption that allows wheelchairs to remain in white zones designated as a pick-up/drop-off area in front of the clinic.
“If I was near the street, it wouldn’t be as good as right in front of the door,” Hathaway said.
Hathaway said that she has early onset arthritis in her hips that requires her to use a wheelchair at times, although not continuously. She said she runs a pet-sitting business in San Mateo. A website detailing her services includes photos of Hathaway walking dogs.
She has not always been pro-life, she said. A re-establishment of her Catholic faith — she attends St. Mark’s church in Belmont — propelled her to become active in the movement.
Hathaway and Foti are not considered “run-of-the-mill” anti-abortion protesters. Yes, they have the gruesome signs, the hurtful exclamations and the uncomfortable presence. But they are also provocateurs, a characteristic of veteran activists.
In particular, Hathaway said, she addresses the partners of women going into the clinic. A man once walked into the clinic with a woman and started a conversation with her of his own volition, she said.
“I am his conscience, combating him,” she said. Responding to a man who asked her why she was there, Hathaway said, “I can judge you because I see you coming into this abortion clinic with your girlfriend.”
Both Planned Parenthood representatives and the anti-abortion protesters say they have received generous support from the community.
“Every time they would see the protesters they would come in and donate everything in their wallet,” Verrilli said of one patron.
“We have a lot of people supporting us out here,” Hathaway said.
Beth Parker, Planned Parenthood’s pro bono attorney, calls the situation “a travesty.”
“They are flouting the system that has been designed to allow to drop off patients,” she said.
Parker has worked with Planned Parenthood for over 20 years, and has brought restraining orders against Foti at Planned Parenthood clinics in San Mateo and Redwood City. Foti, in turn, has sued Planned Parenthood for what he believes are violations of his freedom of speech.
“They thrive on lies,” Foti said of Planned Parenthood. “My point is not to harass patients; they have a right to go into the clinic. My point is to persuade them against abortion.”
Employees at the clinic are told not to engage in conversation with the protesters, and they do not provide escorts for people in and out of the clinic.
“We try to keep it as calm as possible out there,” Verrilli said.
In order for the Valencia Street clinic to obtain a restraining order, several authorizing agencies, including San Francisco’s planning and police departments, have to state that city ordinances are being violated before the city attorney’s office can sue Foti and Hathaway.
Planned Parenthood representatives, for their part, believe the white zone laws are being violated, as well the “bubble” law.
The so-called bubble law is a San Francisco ordinance that provides patients who are entering a health clinic with an 8-foot buffer zone within 100 feet of the clinic. No one is allowed to approach them within that fixed distance without their consent for the purposes of educating or counseling them or to pass out leaflets, according to NARAL Pro-Choice California, a political advocacy nonprofit.
“We are doing everything we can to address this issue,” said Deputy City Attorney Yvonne Mere, who is familiar with the Planned Parenthood case.
A front desk employee at Planned Parenthood, who asked not to be named, said she calls the police every week in order to show that the clinic is making every attempt to remedy the situation, and failing.
“Morally, it’s challenging,” said Verrilli. Referring to Hathaway’s wheelchair use, she added, “We don’t want to set a precedent of SFPD challenging someone’s ability.”
One recent rainy Thursday morning, Hathaway and Foti were in front of the clinic. A man walked in with a woman, then walked out several minutes later.
“Sir, don’t you want to be a father?” asked Hathaway.
The man turned and looked at her. “You don’t know what I am,” he replied. “I am already a father.”