Hundreds of antiabortion activists rallied outside a Center City Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday, saying they were emboldened by the attacks of a Democratic state representative whose videos of himself berating protesters there, some of them teenage girls, sparked a firestorm on social media this week.
“We are here because we stand for the dignity of every human life. We are here because we do not cower to bullies and harassment,” Lila Rose, president of the antiabortion group Live Action, said outside the clinic at 12th and Locust Streets. “We are here because we share the commitment to fight for life.”
Rose and other activists called for the resignation of State Rep. Brian Sims of Philadelphia, who recorded himself yelling at antiabortion protesters who said they had been praying. In one video, he approaches a woman, her two teenage daughters, and the girls’ friend, and says he will donate money to Planned Parenthood if viewers help identify them.
The woman, Ashley Garecht, 41, told activists on Friday that she and her husband had raised more than $116,000 for the Pro-Life Union of Philadelphia via a GoFundMe page set up in reaction to Sims’ solicitation for Planned Parenthood.
“Even in the midst of all of the challenges, the challenges we had that day and certainly the firestorm of this week, I want you to know that I am so grateful,” Garecht told the crowd. "I am so grateful because we are here today to witness the tangible proof of incredible effort.”
Sims this week acknowledged he had been “aggressive” in the recorded encounters and vowed to “do better for the women of Pennsylvania.”
Soon after the videos went viral, Rose, of Live Action, and others started organizing Friday’s rally. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput encouraged attendance, issuing a statement Wednesday “calling on all people of good will to channel their indignation into right action and prayerful witness.”
The hundreds gathered stretched across a half-block, with protesters holding signs that read “Pray to End Abortion," “I regret my abortion,” “Mary Chose Life,” and “#ResignBrianSims,” among others. At various points during the more than hour-long rally, protesters broke into chants of “Pro-Life! Pro-Love!” and “Let them live!”
Police and Planned Parenthood escorts wearing yellow and pink vests stood along the gate to the clinic to ensure there was sidewalk access for potential patients.
Speakers decried Sims’ behavior in the videos, and some booed his name. But organizers also said they loved Sims and wished him peace.
Monique Ruberu, a Philadelphia obstetrician-gynecologist and leader of the antiabortion group Sidewalk Servants, told the crowd “we are here to love” — moms, babies, and “even those who persecute us.”
She said she prays that Sims “finds true healing and true peace.”
Matt Walsh, a conservative podcast host, said antiabortion activists “will not be intimidated.”
"We will not be silenced,” he said, describing his message to Sims: “If you try to shut us up, we’re only going to get louder.”
Sims couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon.
In an interview, Garecht said that “God loves [Sims] more than he can imagine" and that she had forgiven him.
But she added that Sims “made some terrible mistakes."
“He’s an adult male, and he should know better, but especially as an elected official, he knows that in this city of all places, we have the right to peacefully express our faith, and we have the freedom of speech as protected by our Constitution," Garecht said.
She said the legislature had a responsibility to hold Sims accountable and to “take action quickly,” adding she had not seen “steps that I am happy about yet.”
The top two lawmakers in the state House on Wednesday stood together on the floor of the chamber to call on legislators to behave better. They didn’t single out anyone by name, though Sims and a couple of other lawmakers have generated controversy in recent weeks.