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Aug 10, 22

We Were Keeping the Clinic Doors Open With Our Bodies: Interview with Sunny Chapman

An interview with Sunny Chapman that originally was published on Hard Crackers, which details Chapman’s history of grassroots defense of reproductive freedom.

Sunny Chapman is a longtime activist and artist. In the 1980s and 1990s she participated in abortion clinic defense struggles by escorting women to clinics and videotaping the activities of anti-abortion activists. In this interview, she discusses how her own abortion experience with Jane politicized her to become an activist and she shares some of her encounters with militant anti-abortion activists.

Hard Crackers: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to get involved in abortion activism?

Sunny Chapman: I grew up in a very working- class family in the Midwest. My mother was a waitress and my father worked in factories. When I was a teenager, I was chosen for Project Upward Bound, which was a Great Society program for smart poor kids. They sent us to college for a summer and everything was paid for. So, I was sent to Northern Illinois University and the first day I got there, I was one of three white kids. The second day, I was the only white kid and the rest of the kids there were Blackstone Rangers[1] from Chicago. I had a lot of amazing experiences with them and they taught me a lot. For one of our field trips in 1966, we went to Soldier Field stadium in Chicago for an open housing rally in 1966 and we heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and that was a transformative moment that just changed everything for me. So, I ended up going to Chicago when I was 17 and I got a job at the Chicago Seed,[2] the alternative newspaper. I was a ward of the state. I had myself declared an emancipated juvenile and I began my so-called adult life. I worked at the Seed for about a year. I quit after the ‘68 Democratic Convention because I was very unhappy with certain decisions the organizers had made. I felt that they led people to get slaughtered by the cops. I wasn’t really involved in activism after that. I was kind of taking a little break from it because my time at the Seed had been intense and the ‘68 Convention was just traumatic.

At 19, I found myself pregnant and I did not want to have a baby at all. There was no question that I absolutely didn’t want to have a baby. I was not having a good pregnancy. The doctor told me later I probably had a detached placenta. I was bleeding all the time. And sometimes it became hemorrhaging. I was in the emergency room a couple of times. I spent the night in an abortion ward because they thought I had tried to self-abort. Meanwhile, I was becoming really ill from this pregnancy. I was already a skinny girl, and I started losing more weight and I was having fainting spells. I just felt like I was dying and none of these doctors would help me. Every time I went to the ER, they would just pack my vagina with lambswool and tell me, “There you go, be a good girl.”

So, I called the number that a friend gave me. It was some gangster sounding guy who picked up. He kept asking me questions about how I looked. He wanted to know if I was blonde, which I was, because he really liked blonde girls. I was so creeped out by him. I wasn’t quite desperate enough to go but almost. So, I told him I would call him back. And then I remembered Jane. I don’t know why I forgot because I knew about them. They had flyers everywhere that said “Pregnant, need help? Call Jane.” So, I called Jane.

HC: What were your experiences with Jane?

SC: When you called Jane you got an answering machine, and you leave a message. Someone calls you back, who is the one that “vets” people. She talked to me for a while and asked me a few questions about myself. I guess I passed muster because then she told me that I would get a call from a counselor who would meet with me. The counselor called me, and I met with her at her house. She was super nice. She was really supportive, and she gave me the instructions. She gave me a date for the procedure and told me to wait on a corner near my house wearing a yellow sweater and I would be picked up by a man driving a car.

The idea of getting into a car with a strange man is terrifying. But when the car came to pick me up that day, I just knew it was the right person. There was a vibe. Also, there was another woman or maybe two women in the car already. So, he drove us to the South Side of Chicago, probably Hyde Park and drove into the back of an apartment building and parked. We went in the back way and went into an apartment where there were other women sitting around in the living room. We stayed there for a while, and everyone was very quiet. No one was in the mood to chat plus no one had eaten and we were all hungry. Then someone came and got a small group at a time and took us to a van, a different car. We were blindfolded so we couldn’t see where we’re going. And that van took us to another building where we parked in the back. They took the blindfolds off, and we walked up the stairs to another apartment where the procedure was done.

The bedroom where the procedure was done was right off the living room. I heard people talking. You heard everything, and you saw people going in and out one by one. They would blindfold us take us into the procedure room. And there was the doctor who we found out later was not in fact a doctor. Two Janes were in the room. The doctor did a shot of lidocaine to the cervix and then started the dilation procedure which I still remember was very painful. He did a D & C.[3] The Jane counselors held my hands. They were super supportive, and they were really good at what they were doing. When it was done, they reversed the whole transportation procedure and dropped me off near my house. They gave me a medication to help my uterus shrink back into its normal size. That was it. I had a couple days of light bleeding and then I was absolutely fine. I started gaining back the weight I lost. I got my life back and it was miraculous.

And then I went on make life very difficult for anti-choice activists for many years after that. I escorted women at abortion clinics, I videotaped anti-choice demonstrations, and I testified in court. I basically did everything I could to make sure that women could have safe, legal procedures and get in and out of clinics safely.

HC: Can you tell us more about your activism?  

SC: Roe happened in 1973 which was four years after I had my procedure. There wasn’t a big anti-choice movement then. I got involved in the late 1980s because that is when the real harassment at abortion clinics started. I was active for ten years at clinics in Chicago. I moved back to Chicago from New York. I started working as a volunteer safety escort at a clinic that was the focus of Joseph Scheidler’s[4] people and they were very aggressive. I was there every week for a couple of years.

I also traveled around the country to weekly summer protests that Operation Rescue[5] and other groups had, and I videotaped their activities. I moved to New York in 1996 but then I came back to Chicago for another Democratic Convention. That year I videotaped all the clinic blockades in Chicago and tried to get something done. However, the Department of Justice in Chicago squashed the whole thing. They didn’t want to prosecute anti-choicers who blockaded clinics during the convention.

I went to a lot of other places, and I testified in a couple of federal trials. There was one in Dayton, Ohio where I filmed anti-choicers for a week blockading a clinic, and I testified in the US vs Operation Rescue court case and provided all the visual evidence. A few years later the judge declared a mistrial because the defense claimed they had not been notified as to the breadth of the witnesses’ evidence. This is what we are up against; it’s not just individual anti-choice activists, it’s a system that supports them.

HC: What was it like to videotape anti-choice activists? 

SC: I was good at it because I seemed like this nice girl from the Midwest. So, I would just go up to them, point my camera and talk to them. I would say “Hey, what’s your name? Where are you from? Do you have a gun? Would you ever shoot a doctor?” I would smile and ask these questions. The amount of information was surprising, especially from the men.  The anti-choice men flirted with me, which was really creepy, but I did it for the cause. If they liked me, I could find out more.

I would go to all their stuff. They would invite me to their churches or church rallies. I would go eat with them, I would ride their buses with them and videotape them all the time. One day I was talking to Ken Scott, an activist from Colorado who was a well-known anti-choicer and suspected clinic bomber, but no one could ever pin it on him. I asked him “What is your vision for this country?” And he was so happy to tell me.

“Well,” he responded “first, we should have a king and he should be a Christian. And everyone who holds elective office should have to be Christian. And only Christians can own land” And of course, the unsaid thing was that he should be a Christian white man. He didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious to me. So, this is their vision of this country and they are working towards it and we have to fight back. I taped this guy at Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Wichita and there were hundreds of anti-choicers there. This was just one of many disturbing conversations I had.  When Dr. Tiller came to the clinic, he had to come in by lying down in a metal box in the back of a bullet proof car. That’s how dangerous these people are, and they got him eventually. They got him in a place where he never thought they would do it: his church.

I also did a lot of videotaping in New Jersey and there was one particular clinic where some radical anti-choicers were present. I videotaped James Kopp who would later go on to kill Dr. Barnett Slepian through his kitchen window in Buffalo, New York. I turned my footage of Kopp at the clinic over to the FBI while he was on the run so they could figure out who his friend was, and who was supporting and helping him.

This is another aspect of clinic defense because you find yourself in this bizarre position of working with cops who have traditionally been your enemy, especially if you are an activist. But if you do clinic defense there is some level of cooperation with police. It was a strange and bizarre experience to have to talk to them especially after being beaten up by Chicago cops in the ’68 Democratic Convention. But I had to suck that up and work with them. There is some horrifying footage I still have of clinic blockades which should be seen by people today.

That was the extent of my involvement and after the Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrance Act[6] was passed, the harassment at clinics died down. The anti-choicers did not want to go to jail for their cause. So, I retired from direct action at clinics, but I continued to support marches and protests including the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March in D.C.  I also donate my artwork to fundraisers for various causes as well.

Then this horrific Supreme Court decision came down recently and I contacted my old activist networks. I said if you need me, I will come back. I will do whatever it takes to help women get procedures–if it means giving money to abortion funds to help women travel to where they can get their procedures or if it means giving people a place to stay or give them rides to clinics. I talked to a pharmacist about buying a large amount of generic plan B and storing it and giving it to women that need it.

My old pro-choice networks are eviscerated because no one thought they would do this. So, people have not organized all that well to respond to it. This is a plan that they have been working on for decades. The next thing overturned will be gay and lesbian rights. This is very bad and it’s going to get worse. It’s terrifying to me.

HC: The Supreme Court decision in 1973 in many ways, contributed to a certain kind of deactivation of the abortion rights movement. The emphasis shifted away from the radical activism that was characteristic of the early abortion rights movement to more lobbying and going to court. As you reflect on almost fifty years, what should anything be done differently now? 

SC: There was a general distaste in the mainstream feminist movement for direct action. People who were clinic defenders were looked down on as rowdy children by the mainstream feminists who just wanted to keep their jobs and give speeches. I never felt like they were doing enough legislatively. They were not fighting hard enough while we were keeping the clinic doors open with our bodies.

And by the early 1990s, the right had a vision of what they wanted this country to be. We, on the other hand, don’t have a real unified vision. We are fractionalized and we are fighting with each other. And this is what we need, we need to have a movement of people unified behind a collective goal.

HC: Today many of the people who were celebrating the overturning of Roe v Wade are young women. It seems like the anti-choice movement is doing its work with younger people. How do you make sense of that?

SC: This is something we didn’t miss back then. There were young anti choicers at the clinics who had tattoos and green hair. It was confusing to us because aren’t we supposed to be friends? But these kids were the children of the anti-abortion leaders who were indoctrinated.

There are also some women who don’t care. They say, oh, it’s not going to happen to me.  But it’s all fun and games until you need an abortion. Even the anti-choice women are going to run into a situation where they can’t get the reproductive healthcare, they may need which is not going to allow them to get fertility treatments or deal with an ectopic pregnancy. And then they will have to consider what they have become part of.

But there are more of us. Most Americans support abortion access. The other side is winning because the right wingers outvote us. So, they get that monster Trump in office and three horrific Supreme Court justices. And now we are in trouble. This is all going to get worse, and we have to fight back. We can’t say oh this is bad, but I am old, and I can’t do it anymore. I think people are freaked out and tired, but we must fight back.


[1] The Blackstone Rangers or the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation (BPSN) were a street organization formed in the late 1950s in Woodlawn, a South Side neighborhood in Chicago. They eventually assumed a political outlook and associated themselves with black nationalism movement.

[2] Seed was an underground radical newspaper in Chicago that ran from 1967 to 1974 and covered important events like the Chicago Eight Trial and the murder of Fred Hampton.

[3] A D&C (Dilation and Curretage) is the most common method of early abortion.

[4] Joseph Scheidler was a former ad executive who became a leading figure in the anti-abortion movement. He reached national prominence for pioneering street-level anti-abortion activism including protests, pickets and sit-ins at abortion clinics which he coopted from civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King. Jr.  He founded the anti-abortion organization, Pro-Life Action League in Chicago in 1980 which helped to build a grassroots national network of activists. Many of his followers committed themselves to direct action by vandalizing and burning down clinics and even shooting and killing doctors who performed abortions.

[5] Operation Rescue was a militant anti-abortion organization founded in 1986 by fiery evangelical activist turned politician, Randall Allen Terry. The organization’s slogan was “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.”

[6] The Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrance Act was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in 1994. It prohibited the intentional damage of a reproductive health care facility and the use of physical force, threat of physical force, or physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate, interfere with or attempt to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person who is obtaining an abortion.

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Former editors of Race Traitor. Examining lives of “ordinary people,” among whom there exists the capacity to overturn the present mess and build a new society.

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