NEW YORK (CN) – An embattled and well-known women’s rights activist who runs a women’s health clinic testified Thursday in a trial surrounding anti-abortion protesters that the state says have gone too far.
Merle Hoffman, 71, is president and CEO of Choices Medical Clinic in Jamaica, Queens. The clinic sits at the center of a federal lawsuit New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought nearly eight months ago in Brooklyn.
After investigating for a year, Schneiderman said clients of the clinic have been harassed and groped by protesters, who have been gathering outside the clinic nearly every Saturday since 2012.
About 25 percent of Choices clients are seeking abortions, Hoffman testified.
Defense attorneys called Hoffman as an adverse witness before U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon. For a tense two hours, Horatio Mihet of the Liberty Counsel and Stephen Crampton attempted to use Hoffman’s own words against her, repeatedly referencing her deposition and comments she and her staff made at a press conference, in emails and on Twitter.
Mihet is defending protester Scott Fitchett Jr., while Crampton represents Church at the Rock pastor Kenneth Griepp, the lead defendant.
Mihet emphasized Hoffman’s use of words like “we” and “our” when talking about the attorney general’s lawsuit, implying she was using the government to fight a case from which her clinic would benefit.
Hoffman maintained lawsuits have never been a priority for her.
“Justice costs money,” she said.
“It doesn’t cost you much when the attorney general files it, does it?” Crampton countered.
Earlier, Mihet had made a similar point.
“You wanted the attorney general to solve the problem of the ‘American Taliban,’” he said to Hoffman, referencing a phrase Hoffman had used to refer to anti-abortion protesters.
“No, I didn’t,” Hoffman shot back.
Mihet showed a 2012 video clip of Hoffman at a press conference accusing anti-abortion protesters of being “bullies” and the “American Taliban.”
Hoffman has since clarified her intent but has not retracted the comments.
“I used it because at that point in time the Taliban were very much in the news,” she said Thursday, “and their issues concerning the treatment of women … the misogyny, the fundamentalism.”
She compared Taliban fundamentalism to the religious beliefs of protesters outside Choices.
Hoffman did not tie any of her testimony directly to the defendants, whom she did not seem to know or recognize. Instead, she spoke of protesters in a more general sense.
“What I see outside,” Hoffman said, “I see that as a type of terrorism, yes, a type of terrorism toward the patients, definitely.”
Mihet also showed an email from Hoffman to Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sandra Pullman and Nancy Trasande, as well as Choices colleague Mary Lou Greenberg, in which she said the protesters had been “particularly aggressive — they need to be bridled!”
Mihet questioned her on the word “bridled,” saying bridles are used to “control.”
“It’s used to restrain and to … influence a horse,” Hoffman said. “It’s used to direct.”
She reiterated her belief that a combination of federal, state and local laws and ordinances requires protesters to stay at least 15 feet away from the clinic. Before she wrote the email, Hoffman said she’d heard the protesters had been “out of control.”
Hoffman appeared visibly irritated throughout much of her testimony, sighing loudly and tapping her fingernails on the witness stand.
Judge Amon, at times, put her head in her hands.
When Crampton asked Hoffman to define her views on abortion, Amon cut the examination short.
“I think we know where we all stand here,” she said.
Crampton stressed that sometimes women change their minds about abortions at the last minute.
“Women know what abortion is,” Hoffman said. “They know.”
Hoffman and Crampton agreed that the more informed a woman is of her choices, the better.
Proceedings will pause Friday and resume next week.