I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole “Blog for Choice” thing this week. Trying to compose a post, something thoughtful and insightful. Yeah, not so much. Not so much with the eloquence on this one. I don’t really have much to say that hasn’t already been said by better writers than me. I’ll share with you my personal experience with this issue instead.
I used to work as a clinic escort, two or three mornings a week. I wore a traffic orange vest and I walked women from their cars through a gauntlet of pro-life protesters. The women were always terrified, sad, angry, and it was hard for them to face all those people. Sometimes the protesters would have signs or awful pictures to wave. They’d try to hand the women tracts, yell at them, plead with them, pray at them. It was my job to get the women inside safely. It was a pretty stressed out gig, all things considered. I worked with a small crew. There was Dani, a single welfare mom who figured she might as well do something constructive while she waited for a job to materialize through GAIN. Frank, a seventy year old guy from the local Unitarian Church. Total eco nut, rode his bike everywhere. Marge, she kept our motley crew together from her tiny home office, kept us official, dealt with permits and clinic staff. And there was me. I was a single mom, working part time, raising a toddler. We had a few others who would join us from time to time, but really, that was it, the core group. Four of us, volunteers all, in little orange vests that read ESCORT on the back.
Against all of them.
Not all the protesters were hard to deal with. The Catholics showed up on Tuesday mornings, stood in a little knot and prayed quietly. Left just as quietly. One tiny old lady came on her own every day. She walked up and down the street in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun and prayed, holding up her little sign at passing cars. We used to keep an eye on her just in case, we worried about heat stroke or worse. There were a couple of comfortably middle class women we called the Church Ladies. They held tracts out and prayed at the clinic patients as they walked past but they were respectful and never got nasty. We had a sort of wary but amicable relationship. It was like in the cartoon where Wile E Coyote clocks in with Bob the Sheepdog and spends the rest of the cartoon trying to steal sheep. We’d all clock in at 7am and clock out at noon. We’d herd our charges past and they’d try to steal our sheep. I started talking to a couple of the Church Ladies, trying to understand where they were coming from and trying to get them to understand where I was coming from. We never did convince each other but I appreciated that we could have a dialogue.
Not all the protesters were easy. There was Bible Bob, he came with a video camera and taped the escorts and clinic workers, followed us home in his car after a shift, wrote down where we lived. The King, so named for the verses he would scream at us. They had big groups of followers that they brought along sometimes and it got loud, abusive and noisy when they showed up en masse. Scary, too. They carried this sort of insane vibe that always threatened to tip over into something nasty. I got pregnant while I was doing this work. I kept working at the clinic because it was choice that mattered to me and I wanted other women to have it too. I don’t believe having a baby and being pro choice are mutually exclusive, you know? I had a choice. I made it. Period. Some of the more rabid protesters never did see it that way and began to single me out for abuse, commentary and bile. The more visible my belly got, the nastier they got.
One day, a man dragged his partner out of the clinic and began to beat her in the parking lot. Bible Bob stood there with his videotape, calling out encouragements. Frank tried to pull him off her and I had to help Frank and got socked in the face for my troubles. Frank almost had a heart attack and couldn’t ride his bike home that afternoon. The poor Church Ladies didn’t know what to do so they stood there wringing their hands. I think it scared them to death. Marge called the cops who showed up eventually and did nothing. Conservative small town in California’s Central Valley. Not a shock. Nobody got arrested. The day after that, Bible Bob picked me up off my feet and threw me into a brick wall so that he could get at the woman I was walking into the clinic. I don’t think he appreciated the irony. That was the day I quit doing escort work. Took off my orange vest and limped home because I decided that the pro-life folks were too much of a danger to MY unborn child. It was the right decision. It was time to quit. Punch me once, shame on you. Throw me into a wall the next day? Shame on me. I was about 5 months along at that point and in retrospect, maybe it was stupid to take such a risk, but I did believe I was doing the right thing by working there. There were only four of us and if I left, that made three. It didn’t really matter though, in the end. The clinic shut down not long after anyway, couldn’t find a doctor willing to work with the constant threats. The sad thing is that the clinic didn’t just do abortions. It wasn’t even 20% of what they did. They provided low cost, basic health care to women who needed it and they were IT for miles. They dispensed birth control, counseling, provided community resources and information, helped women through the welfare process, did pap smears, STD testing, needful things. When they were gone, those women didn’t have access to those things anymore.
I think it is my experience here that gives me pause, that makes me understand that there is so much more than the legal issue at stake here. Our right to choose is being chipped away with every clinic that closes, every doctor who is afraid to perform this procedure, every nurse who doesn’t want to put herself at risk. Every escort who puts her vest down and limps home. We cannot lie down. If this continues, our daughters will be worse off than the low income women in the little farm town I used to live in. That is unacceptable to me. Roe is at risk, yes, but right now women have a legal right to this and it is being taken away through illegal and horrifying tactics. I guess for some folks, it’s really a war.
It’s a funny thing about war, though. See, I got another lesson from this. I learned that no matter what people believe in, it is possible to reach them. There is always common ground. Those conversations we had between clients at the clinic did eventually grow fruit. After I quit doing clinic work, I stayed in touch with the Church Ladies. I never really bought into their way of thinking and I know I never convinced them to mine, but we could at least look at each other and see a person and not “the bad guy.” I know that at least a few of the Church Ladies began to think of these women at the clinic as people in need because of our talks and that sparked some interesting and charitable endeavors. They changed my outlook a little but I also changed theirs and that benefited everyone. The day after my baby was born, the little old lady who used to walk up and down the street with her sign brought me muffins. Banana. I think she got my address from Bible Bob’s little black book of people he’d stalked. Don’t get me wrong, I never felt warm and cuddly about Bible Bob. There are limits. Point is, I reached 2 or 3 women out of 20 and that was something. It is possible to see past ideology and a conflict of belief, to try to reach past that, and connect. Sometimes you won’t agree, but if you can at least keep a dialogue open, there is hope. War (of all kinds, fought with words, fought with votes or the wars fought with guns) is fought by people. We allow ourselves to do this by dehumanizing the enemy because it is easy to dismiss the beliefs of something that is Not Like Us. If you’re not a person, I don’t have to listen to you. LAlalalallalala.
It is possible to reverse that. I know. I’ve done it.
I don’t know if there’s hope here for Roe v. Wade in the big picture. It looks bad. I really don’t know and I have my doubts. What I do know is that individuals can open doors. If there is any hope to be had, I think it’ll come from there in the end, not from any big political shift, not from Democrats, not from SCOTUS. It’ll come from people having the courage to sit down and talk out their differences, maybe find a common ground, agree to disagree. I have hope that maybe we can achieve that some day. Me? I’m long past being afraid of Bible Bob. I think maybe it’s time to put my orange vest back on, walk some women through the gauntlet and try to open some more doors.
Whatever you believe? Do. Just, listen while you do. It might change the world.