Adventures in the Culture War; A Saturday morning at Planned Parenthood

When I first arrived in America, I was federally mandated not to work for several months as a condition of immigration. Volunteered as a patient escort for Planned Parenthood. Essentially my job is to be a visible counter to anti-choice protesters who may try and prevent people entering though harassment, misinformation or just plain obstruction. What follows is an account of Saturday Morning protest organized by the local Catholic Church I attended as an Escort.

 We arrive early to prepare for the protest. Although there is not much to do, our coordinator begins to organise the twelve or fifteen volunteers who showed up early on a sharp, if not actually cold, October Morning. We have several bases to cover so that the women intending to use the clinic will be able to see friendly faces amongst the sneering and patronizing faces of protesters. The first and obvious place we must hold open is the entrance gate itself. I’m stationed there because I twisted my ankle on the walk from home. The Law currently forbids anti-choice activists from blocking the entrance to a woman’s clinic but law enforcement is sporadic when it comes to protecting woman’s healthcare; rarely proactive, they send an officer only if there is an actual complain and almost never send an officer or two to prevent violence happening. In a city where police are deployed to make sure an ATM is kept open during a May Day protest, this comes off as insulting. I guard the gate. Though I have acted as an escort before at similar protests, I have always stood behind the main focus of the protest on a corner waiting to see if anyone needs someone to walk through the baying mob with them so being stationed by the entrance is new. The rest of the team stand about fifteen feet away from myself both on the corners and down the street. For a few minutes street life continues as normal until we hear a bustle around the north corner.

They are early. A group of around fifty people, they’re lead by four young men I later learn are studying at a local seminary, and two priests; one bald in flowing white robes the other is bearded with a sizable paunch. The sight of their dog collars irks me: I was raised in the Church of England, and despite coming to the conclusion that god almost certainly doesn’t exist sometime ago I still think of myself as part of that particular religious tradition. The Vicar of what I still think of as my parish is an ex-teacher who has made a point of reading at least a hundred books a year on a variety of subjects; furthermore, the broader church has a reputation for employing well educated people who understand the weight that is put on their shoulders as some people genuinely view them as having a link to god. This means my experience of priests has been that they should know better than to get involved in an activity so divisive. The Seminarians are in suits, two of them wear Vatican lapel pins, presumably to show their papal loyalty, another holds a large crucifix.

The crowd they lead is primary old and white, mostly male though the most active members of the crowd are all women; they are the ones who talk to passersby and seem to be the ones who spend the most time yelling at people attempting to access the clinic. I have no idea if this is a conscious strategy but it seems like one – at least I realized when I thought about it later that it’s the sort of thing I would do if I was trying to harass a woman’s health clinic. This theory was supported when a Black lady in sunglasses and a Star Wars baseball cap begins to lead the crowd in the first round of Hail Marys; a lot of the protests involve some invocation of the idea that planned parenthood is determined to wipe out people of color so she isn’t a very surprising warmup act. They’re not all old though, there is – inexplicably – five teenagers standing in the front of the crowd, four girls and a boy, I’m unsure why they’re there but I begin inventing back stories for them, I’m running under the constant assumption that the teenage boy wants desperately to sleep with the girl he is leaning toward, looking over at her and trying to wispier in between the chanting, quietly as they are standing between the two Priests. My assumptions are that way around because he seems much less interested that she and she spends a lot more time looking at me than at him. I suppose young love blooms in all forms.

A line of people form against the wall, serving two purposes: firstly to form a corridor of people so anyone coming from the main road into the clinic has to walk a full ten feet surrounded by Hail Marying; the second seems to be that many of the protesters tire easily and they all lean against the wall in such a way that betrays they would rather sit. A woman slides in between two older Italian gentlemen holding a large sign asking passers by to “Ask me why I regret my Abortion.” I reflect that that’s not an especially a good argument against anything besides compulsory abortion but I continue to stand and listen to the crowd chant Hail Marys.

This is a picture from a different protest, but you get the idea

This is a picture from a different protest, but you get the idea

After a few minutes, a couple walk to the corner and stop, looking at the crowd with an expression of disbelief. Before the outlying protesters notice them, escorts begin walking with them through the back of the crowd. Annoyed that they’ve missed their opportunity to save this fallen woman and her wicked companion the activists go into overdrive, the arms are outstretched bearing leaflets which lie about the effectiveness of birth control and models of fetuses. I and the other escort at the gate form a barrier to keep protesters out of the way of the gate. The couple walk on and as they do so a woman leans over the threshold of the gate and yells in a strange patronizing whine particular to Anti-choice protesters,

It’s already perfectly formed!”

I block her; as she stands and resumes her post, an old lady comes and stands to the right of the gate. I have heard that this elderly woman is especially annoying and she proves my colleagues right when a nurse walks through the baying crowd. As the nurse wishes us a good morning, the old woman chirps up, with her own equally patronizing whining tone;

Abortion hurts women, how can you let them hurt your own?”

The nurse nods at us, making a point to annoy the protesters as she enters the building.

Now the seminarians begin leading the Hail Marys and I’m aware they are staring at me, trying to catch my eye. It is at this moment I fully appreciate my position. A crescent of protesters now surround me chanting Hail Marys and they do not view me as just a counter protester or someone to be converted; I am the problem. It is quite something to be prayed at, that phrase probably evokes someone calmly closing their eyes and quietly invoking the lord toward you, that is not what is happening. Around fifty people are looking directly at me and chanting, I am the problem, I am the gate keeper to Satan’s house, I am the harbinger of death luring fallen women into the den of iniquity the fevered imagination of these church goers imagine lies beyond the glass swing doors and if not for the CCTV cameras and the proximity of the police several blocks away, these people would like nothing more than to purge me. They make no secret about this. A bearded man in a leather jacket leans over the threshold and stares at my coordinator who, without a beat, says she would like the man to get out of the way, the protester responds that he would like to break her head off, now we’re into threats, now we can call a civil affairs’ officer.

My colleague runs off to tell the security officer to call the police and I take a central position in front of the gateway, I begin to regard the two seminarians staring at me, the other two are looking toward the sky, none of them seem to want to be there but the two who are staring at me seem particularly upset; “You” they seem to say with their eyes “you are the reason I have to spend my Saturday morning chanting with these morons”. At least I hope that’s what they’re thinking, they’ve probably been told that staring evil in the face shows it that you’re not scared, shamefully all I can think about, as these trainee Catholic priests try to enter my soul with their eyes is; “I’ve had sex, sometimes I was premarital and It was awesome.” I begin giggling at this, my inner voice continues “Oh yeah, and we used all necessary precautions to prevent pregnancy”, I begin fully laughing, to be honest it’s not just my internal mockery of the priesthood, it’s the whole bizarre situation; a large number of old people from suburbia have driven to the center of a large urban development to yell at women they don’t know to stop a medical procedure they have little to no knowledge of, and they do this by chanting praises to the mother of Christ .

Someone walks by and stops, he waits for the Hail Mary to stop. Deciding that he, and he alone will be the defender of woman’s right to choose he yells the moment the drone pauses

How about you go home? Leave these women alone.”

There is a moment of silence, someone in the crowd yells that they love this man, who walks away yelling something about being the spawn of Satan. I’m not sure what he’s going to take from this experience, aside a story to tell his friends about the time he was witty and yelled at some anti-choice protesters. These people worship a god who was tortured to death; any resistance they face is simply proof that their message is righteous enough for the damned to attack it.

My favorite reaction of the day comes a few minutes later when two women walk through the corridor of people. They are both heavy set to the point at which the protesters seem to have ruled the out as potential Planned Parenthood patrons. One of them smoking, both are seemingly ignoring the crowd. Giving us encouraging looks, a few people have already walked the gauntlet between the gate and the mob generally ignores them in turn. There is no reason to suppose this is any different until the woman pauses, sucks down two more lungfuls from her cigarette before handing it to her friend, patting her on the back and striding past us through the gates. Too late the activists start yelling at her to save her baby, she contemptuously waves them away and walks though the door. I’ve realized this dismissive brush off is my favorite response patients give to the anti-choice brigade; there’s a dip in the activist’s voice from a righteous shrill to a disappointed squeal once they realize they’re up against informed annoyance. The cries of “Don’t you care about your baby?” are repeated in an increasingly less confident way until their target is gone, lost forever. The most common response is confusion, at least thee times of the course of the morning three women have tried to explain to the mob shoving leaflets at them that they’re only here for a pap smear. “It’s all terrible!” and old man yells at the last woman to do this “You’ll only find suffering inside.” Leaving her bemused rather than scared, she walks in and waves awkwardly to the crowd, seemingly unaware of the things they’re actually saying.

The Hail Marys drop off. As far as actual results go, they haven’t prevented anyone entering. I’m only counting people who physically approached the scene; there could have been several people who saw us from a distance and couldn’t stomach it, or who just heard about it and decided to stay home. I’m not entirely sure but as far as people who tried to get it, we win. The bearded priest takes the microphone, he begins to thank everyone: he thanks the crowd for turning out, he thanks the teenagers for inspiring their generation, he thanks the seminarians for for leading prayers. He then hopes that the souls of the unborn will get to heaven despite “being cut short by selfishness”. To be a successful escort you have to take a decision very early on that what the protesters say and do is meaningless and that your job isn’t to counter them, it is to nullify them, to make sure that in real terms they may as well have stayed in bed. If you take what they say to heart you will spend all day stewing in your own anger. Being English and awkward, this is something I’ve been able to perfect quite quickly; however this fat, middle aged, probable virgin casually calling women selfish for taking care of their reproductive system is the moment that angers me enough to stare straight at him. He glances up at me briefly before turning away, I would like to think he feels awkward for having generalized so ludicrousness, but it’s more likely because looking too much into the eyes of the beast’s little helpers is best left for after breakfast.

The crowd begins to disperse, chatting and laughing as though they’ve just enjoyed a Sunday afternoon picnic. They seem completely turned off to the notion that real people have just had to walk past their bile, that real people are currently sitting within the building they have so violently chanted at and dealing with adult decisions with the added weight of the judgment of childish strangers. It’s at this moment during the preceding that I decide I don’t believe most of these people are serious. If I took them at face value they would have to believe that inside every family planning clinic around the world, literal people are being actually murdered; standing outside and invoking the mother of Christ seems like an under reaction. “People are being killed by the millions?” I want to ask, “And you’re standing outside with a sign? What the hell is wrong with you? Burn the place down or call the police”. These people won’t do that because all they seem to care about is making a show. A man from the crowd walks up next to me; he wears sunglasses, a baseball cap and a T-shirt proclaiming that 50% of all of America’s black children are killed before they are born. An ex-boxer, I’m told, though he look long past those days now; he tells me that if he catches me laughing at him praying again he’ll take me to an alley way and beat me. I’m not sure how to take this as it’s hard to feel threatened by a significantly shorter, older man. He seems to be more angry that I disrespected the church than anything about human life. This situation feels less like a rescue operation for the unborn and more like a dick-swinging competition to show off who cares the most about the theoretical idea of Birth control. They all seem to care very little about the complexities of the human body, or life events that might lead to the need for birth control. Before I began escorting people into planned parenthood past protesters I thought that whilst wrong, the anti choice movement was at least sincere and should be respected for that at least; I don’t harbor any such delusions anymore. 

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