The confrontation outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia escalated quickly. A state legislator held up his phone and filmed himself saying the clinic was one of the most heavily protested in the country. Then he flipped the camera and approached a woman pacing the sidewalk with her back turned and a rosary in her hand.
“How many children have you put shoes on their feet today?” Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat, asked the woman. “Have you fed any children today, or have you just stood out in front of a Planned Parenthood, shaming people for something that they have a constitutional right to do?”
Sims told the woman, who is white, that her actions were “extremely racist.” He urged his viewers to donate $100 for every hour that she protested outside the clinic “telling people what’s right for their bodies.” He also asked whether anyone knew the woman’s address so they could protest in front of her home.
The woman mostly ignored Sims during the eight-minute encounter, except to tell him to get the camera out of her face.
Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, said she did not condone Sims’s approach but also opposed “shaming, judgment, harassment or intimidation” of women coming to the clinic.
“It’s important to know that in Pennsylvania, we’re facing several abortion ban bills that are being pushed by politicians who want to roll back the right to safe, legal abortion,” Steinberg said in an emailed statement. “We thank our champions — including Representative Sims — for their unwavering opposition to these bans.”
The incident, and another video in which Sims asks viewers to identify three young girls outside the clinic, have sparked outrage from Republican politicians and antiabortion activists, who said Sims’s behavior amounted to harassment. He has also tweeted this month that antiabortion activists are “Bible Bullies” and “bigots, sexists and misogynists.”
Abortion has been a particularly hot topic in recent months, as several states passed “heartbeat bills” that prohibit abortions once a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected. Courts have stopped these laws in every state that has passed them, The Washington Post previously reported.
Pennsylvania’s legislature is considering a bill that would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of possible Down syndrome.
In a letter sent to federal and state prosecutors Tuesday and posted online, Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, requested an investigation of whether Sims’s actions could constitute criminal conduct. DiGiorgio said Sims had engaged in “harassing, intimidating and threatening” behavior to people exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
“Not only does Rep. Sims, a former collegiate-level football quarterback, use physical intimidation, but he also threatens people with so-called ‘doxing’ or enticing viewers to provide identifiable information about his targets to increase the harassment and intimidation of his victims,” DiGiorgio wrote.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office said they were reviewing the letter and the videos and had not made any charging or investigative decisions.
Spokesmen for the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania declined to comment.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) spoke out on Twitter, calling Sims a “hateful, angry Dem” and asking the Democratic Party to denounce his behavior.
Sims’s second video shows him calling people standing outside the same clinic “pseudo-Christian protesters.” Turning the camera onto a group of young women, he promised to donate $100 to Planned Parenthood if any viewers could identify the protesters — something known as “doxing,” or publicly posting someone’s private, identifying information online with the goal of targeted harassment.
One woman told Sims they were “just here praying for the babies, and we believe that women deserve more.” Then the group walked away.
Sims tweeted a video to apologize Tuesday in which he said he lives by the clinic and has volunteered as a patient escort there for seven years. He said he has seen women circle the block several times and then drive away because of demonstrators.
But Sims said he respects Planned Parenthood’s policy of not engaging with protesters.
“Last week, I wasn’t a patient escort,” he said in the video. “I was a neighbor and a concerned citizen, and I was aggressive. I know that two wrongs don’t make a right, and I can do better, and I will do better for the women of Pennsylvania.”
Antiabortion groups are planning to rally outside the Philadelphia clinic at 11 a.m. Friday, conservative Christian commentator Matt Walsh tweeted.
“The rally at the Planned Parenthood in Philly isn’t just about the one jerk harassing pro-lifers at that location,” he posted Tuesday. “It’s about taking a stand against anyone who tries to intimidate those who exercise their First Amendment rights. And it’s about standing for life, most importantly.”