By Laurie Bertram Roberts
Most people know that the 22nd of January marked the 40th anniversary of Roe vs Wade and, as such, the clinic-and really Jackson as a whole-was under siege by an anti-choice “activist” group named Operation Save America/Operation Rescue. I write activist in quotations because they need to be classified as a terrorist organization. Many incidences of clinic violence in this country have links to their members. Several people who hang out with them are also linked to or members of an extremist group known as The Army of God.
These past few months have marked the first time I have worked as a volunteer clinic escort at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Jackson Mississippi. JWHO is Mississippi’s ONLY abortion provider in the state. This makes them the target of constant harassment from anti choice groups not only local but national. In this time as a clinic escort I have learned some lessons that I will carry with me for life. I have become the keeper of women’s abortion stories and literally used my body as the shield between people who shame and intimidate women when they access legal medical care in a country that guarantees freedom and privacy. These are the five lessons I want to share.
1) Clinic harassment is worse than you think-
When most of people have the occasion to drive past a clinic they may see people standing outside possibly with big bloody signs. Perhaps they notice people praying or singing while holding pamphlets out to patients. To most they seem awkward, maybe obnoxious, even righteous, annoying but not menacing, certainly benign. Yet if you take the time to sit outside the clinic for even a moment you would see a different scene. You would get to see protesters taking pictures of patients and staff going in and out of the clinic. You would see anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, stopping their cars in the street, following them and yelling into their ears as they walk. Calling them murderers telling them they will NEVER be the same, that the clinic wants to kill them and their baby. You would see grown men stalk women all the way to their vehicles after being asked to leave them alone. You would see protesters scream as if they are being stabbed to supposedly mimic the screams of babies. There is the non-stop preaching and singing on most days. They tell women constantly they can help them get forgiveness only AFTER they admit what they have done. Then claim they aren’t shaming them. You would hear anti-choice extremists harass workers and clinic escorts by saying “you will one day be tried for war crimes”, “you have blood on your hands”, “your work caused the school shootings”, and asking “if they wished their mother aborted them” and “aren’t you glad your mother didn’t know you were short she would have aborted you”. There is a protester at the clinic I escort at that routinely tells my teenage daughters and I to commit suicide and to play in the traffic. It never stops rain, shine, heat or freezing cold they are there to shame and demean women whose only offense is accessing LEGAL medical care in America.
2) Anti choicers/Pro lifers use racially biased messaging-
Awhile back in New York City a billboard popped up with the picture of a young African American child on it with the tagline “the most dangerous place for a African American is in the womb”. The billboard funded by a white anti-choice group that found some black spokespeople put it up during Black History Month. This type of racialized conversation around abortion isn’t new. Groups have also placed billboards around Atlanta saying black children are an endangered species. (although I didn’t know we were another species). This messaging doesn’t stop at billboards it is alive and well at clinics EVERYDAY. I know in Jackson we hear it. While white women hear the standard “don’t kill your baby” or are much more likely to hear “choose adoption, let us help you” black women get barraged with “you are HELPING WHITE PEOPLE KILL BLACK BABIES” “DO YOU KNOW 80% OF THE BABIES KILLED HERE ARE BLACK” “do you know abortion is a plot by Margaret Sanger to exterminate black people”. They even have a handout especially for black women citing a study (incorrectly) claiming that the higher incidence of abortion among black women causes infertility. They hurl racial arguments at the black women who work and volunteer at the clinic too. Even though most will openly tell you they don’t support ANY of the programs that help the disproportionate number of poor women of color in Mississippi.
3) There is no such thing as “elective abortion”-
This is a term I have heard for years it is even a term I myself use to use. However, I am here to say I no longer use it and don’t believe in the existence of such an occurrence Each patient I see enter the clinic has a very real, very critical reason to be there. On that day at that time she needs this medical procedure to carry on with her life. Whether it’s because she is too sick, too young, just not ready, can’t provide for another child, or has a non progressing pregnancy on that day she needs this form of medical care. It may seem “elective” to others but it is critical to HER life at that time. She doesn’t owe anyone or any group an explanation. Regardless of what someone may believe about their God, she is not beholden to another person’s belief system or their interpretation of Christian teachings. What she does have to do is what is right for HER family and HER life.
4) Clinic workers are not evil or greedy–
Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian I always heard that people who worked at and owned abortion clinics are greedy, mean, and evil. They would perform abortions on women who aren’t even pregnant. They hated children. They didn’t care if women had problems afterwards they wouldn’t talk to them. They just took their money and tossed them aside. The women and men at Jackson Womens Health Organization are nothing like that. I have watched staff talk women through being scared after losing their paperwork post op. I have heard our counselor on the phone with patients who had procedures weeks ago answering questions and making referrals. Unlike crisis Pregnancy Centers that call and call women to see what they decide, if women chose not to have a procedure the clinic wishes them the best and gives them referrals for resources. They don’t badger them to change their mind. I know clinic staff have come together to help women who are $30 or $40 short for their procedure so they don’t have to resort to some unsafe way of termination. Most are mothers, fathers, loving aunts and uncles so they don’t hate children they love children. Rather than mean, greedy ,evil people I have seen compassionate, caring, ethical people.
5) There is no compromising with anti choice protesters–
When people see clinic protesters they often think these people must be the radical fringe of the movement. However, they are not. At the clinic I volunteer at many of our protesters are leaders in not only the pro life movement but the Mississippi Tea Party and the Republican party. This is important because they are also people with whom compromise is impossible. They truly believe that abortion is murder and have told me that I am an accessory to the American holocaust (I always want to ask why they think abortion is just a US problem). For them there is only one way to save ourselves and that is to stop legal abortion and of course to worship the Christian God in the same way they do. When you are dealing with religious zealots reason, logic, and science are all useless.
I find my volunteer work extremely rewarding. I get the privilege of helping women during a scary and emotional time. I get to hear their stories offer them a smile or a laugh, sometimes a hand to hold. I often have patients and their families ask me why I would volunteer to be harassed by strangers. My answer is simple. If I can take some of the harassment so patients don’t have to then that is fine with me. I remember what it was like to walk through protesters to access a clinic. Those people knew nothing of my life but felt qualified to condemn me. No one deserves that. What they do doesn’t bring women closer to God in fact it drives them away. Patients just want to be left alone. They have prayed, cried, chanted, meditated or whatever it is that works FOR THEM before coming that day. They aren’t stupid and don’t need saving.
Lastly, I think whether you believe abortion is right or wrong we should all be able to agree harassing, shaming, and intimidating women accessing LEGAL medical care is not right. It is not a symbol of God’s love and it shouldn’t be allowed in a free country.