As you may be aware, I have not blogged here for a very, very long time. You may be prepared for a post about where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing, my return to blogging, etc. This is not that blog post; I hope to write that one in the not-so-far future.
(Adapted and updated from a piece I wrote back in November 2009.)
This has been something on my mind for a while now. Something I’ve felt like sharing, but since I really haven’t been in a bloggity place it hasn’t really come out. It has to do with the volunteering I’ve been doing several times a month over the past half-year.
And it’s one of those things that people will perceive in very different ways: some of you will take a look at what I’m doing and cheer, saying that I’m doing a wonderful thing. Others of you might nod a bit and take a “hey — whatever floats your boat” attitude. There will be some who think what I’m doing is stupid, and some who will see this as a counterproductive abomination to society and the heavens above.
And you know what? That’s fine. I’m still going to do it. Not because others have given me their blessings — but because I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Because I feel that what I’m doing is right.
So — what exactly is it that I’ve been doing when I wake up early on certain Saturday mornings? When I hop on the Metro and cross over into downtown DC, huddling with a cup of coffee I buy on the way while I walk the few remaining blocks, where do I go?
There’s a simple answer to this: I volunteer by helping women get to their doctors’ appointments without being harassed and/or intimidated.
I suppose that leaves out a huge chunk about why this is so controversial: The women with appointments are coming to a clinic at which I “escort.” The clinic is Planned Parenthood in Northwest Washington, DC. Planned Parenthood provides medical care and counseling for women — primarily working class women in the District. Women can make appointments for gynecological exams. Their physicians can prescribe birth control. There are counselors on site to assist women in many ways — not just limited to discussions of sexual health.
And yes — Planned Parenthood is a place where, if a woman chooses to do so, she can have her pregnancy terminated by a physician. I’ll say this in no uncertain terms in case anyone accuses me of not being direct and straightforward here: abortions. Women can get abortions at Planned Parenthood. (At least they can at the branch where I volunteer. Contact your local office for further information.)
My job is not to judge. My job is not to ask women if they are there for the normal Pap Exam or for an abortion. My job isn’t to convince women that they are making the right decision by choosing to have abortions. My job is simply to help them get into the door without being harassed. It’s trickier than you might think: we have protesters lining the sidewalks and the common area leading up to the front door all morning. There are prayer vigils. Posters of babies — and of fetuses, in-utero and aborted. Self-described “sidewalk counselors” will find any woman walking down the sidewalk — even if she’s just walking on by! — and latch on with fliers, pamphlets, and non-stop talk about how murder is occurring in that building. Some of them mention that there is always another way — and that people can help take care of their babies. It can get rather intimidating.
Here’s how a typical morning usually goes for me: we (the escorts) get there at about 8:15 or so. By that time, some of the protesters are already out front, some of them engaged in prayer vigils and mass. Some of them have their banners and signs up prominently. Many are clutching rosary beads and crosses, one of them being on the lookout to “counsel” any women who might be going to Planned Parenthood. A few of them are polite and responsive when I smile and say “good morning.” We’ve both been there for weeks; we’re simply soldiers standing guard on different sides of the battlefield. We simply have very, very different ideological differences. Others don’t acknowledge when we greet them. I’m okay with that.
We get buzzed into Planned Parenthood’s front door by Rita (not her real name), the security guard on duty. Each of us puts on an bright orange vest stating that we are clinic defenders. The phrase that sticks out the most, in big, capital letters: “PRO-CHOICE.” Some would feel that this is a misnomer, but it’s a surefire, quick way to let people know that we are with the clinic, and we are here to help those who choose to use it.
There is a coordinator on site every week — and that person is “the boss,” letting volunteers know the skinny on what might be going on that week and where to stand. Some of us are at the front door, waiting to open it quickly when a patient needs to come in — and closing it just as quickly so the protester following inches behind doesn’t have his/her shouts bellowing into the vestibule. Others are lined up on the sidewalk — sometimes playing zone coverage, other times covering individual protesters who roam around. When women (and companions) are approached by protesters, we walk alongside and ask if they need help getting in. With a smile. If we’re needed, we often talk about anything — or nothing at all — drowning out the voices of protesters and alleviating the tension. The same thing happens once someone exits the clinic: we ask if an escort is needed, and we’ll walk alongside the patients as far as they need us to go. Usually the protesters won’t go more than a block or two (but I’ve seen it happen on occasion). We do not raise our voices; if anything, our job is to diffuse any potential violence. We won’t get into a screaming match with protesters; if the patients get emotional and start yelling at them, so be it. We’re a strong, quiet force. Not there to preach, not there to argue. Just there to escort.
What happens on any given Saturday depends on a few factors: the weather is one of them. Protesters still come out on rainy and snowy days, but not in full force. (Patients are also sometimes dissuaded by bad weather.) Washington, DC is a unique place in that it’s a hotbed of political activism. There was a huge rally on September 12 of this year which had many conservative opponents of President Obama come down — many of whom passed by Planned Parenthood and decided to spontaneously join in with their own protests. A campaign called 40 Days for Life took place from the middle of September through November; we had shifts of protesters there specifically for that cause. On most Saturdays during the school year we have groups come down from Catholic University (in DC) and Christendom College (in Front Royal, VA) for their own student prayer vigils. Rumor is that students can get school credit for attending. EDIT: I have been informed by a reader that no college credit is given to Christendom students for participating. Some Saturdays we can have only a handful or protesters; other Saturdays we can see crowds into the hundreds.
Escorting at the clinic used to be a much tougher job until 1994, when the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act was passed. This is a US law passed which makes it a crime to block the entrance of an abortion clinic. I’ve spoken with some of my fellow escorts who remember the days when protesters would sit-in on sidewalks — or even park cars there. We don’t see this happening nowadays (at least I haven’t). Most of the protesters are well aware of the extent of the law. They also know exactly where our rights, as escorts, end: we can’t “assault” them (meaning we try not to touch them in any way). We make sure to travel in pairs to make sure that there is a witness to any possible accusations. Sometimes we will state the facts to protesters: “You’re not allowed to block the sidewalk.” Usually they comply pretty easily.
In fact — there is some civility there on both sides — perhaps because there is enough legal information on both sides. Example: one day we noticed a film crew shooting patients coming in and out of the clinic. One of our escorts asked them to stop — not that there was a specific legal prohibition against it, but it was seen as harassment. Almost immediately, one of the protesters asked them to stop filming as well — and they did. It’s interesting to see that, although it can be easy to see them as simply “the enemy,” they have the same type of goals that we do: they want to make their position heard in a civilized professional manner. (Some of them.) We, too, want to make sure that women are aware of all of their options, and we feel that Planned Parenthood will be a far better place for them to become better informed than pamphlets being shoved in their faces.
Usually it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to convince each other of our own views. But I have been approached by protesters in a very friendly way, trying to get me to change my ways. I mention, right up front, that I’m certainly okay to “agree to disagree.” That I’m not here to change their minds, and I’m not going to be swayed either. But some of them just won’t quit. I’ve had one protester take out a box of plastic models of fetuses of different sizes (I kid you not), lecturing me on gestation. I’ve had protesters say that my position aligns me with Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger who had some nutty opinions about eugenics and culling the herd. Other times I’ve had labels thrown at me: godless. accessory to murder. Murderer. Racist (in that our clinic serves primarily African-American women). Misogynist. Child-hater. (Only the ones who run around shopping malls with no boundaries — and I hate those parents more than I do the kids). Evil. I’ve even been called a “tool of the devil.” (I certainly won’t argue with being a tool; I’ve been called that many times before.)
I’ve marched in DC supporting women’s reproductive rights. I’ve supported Planned Parenthood in petitions and donations. I have voted for candidates who feel the same way I do about the right of women to choose what happens with their bodies. But this is different: This goes against the grain a bit. I suppose it’s potentially dangerous (although the chances are very small that I’d be in a situation where I would risk my life). It begs the question if this is something I really feel is right. It’s easy to march among thousands for a cause. But what happens when you’re one in a sea of others who feel differently from you? I’ve determined that yes — this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to do.
And I get my share of thank yous from people passing by. I smile at them. I also get a lot of stares from those who don’t condone what I’m doing or who think I look foolish in a bright orange vest. I smile at them as well.
When I go home at the end of the shift, however, I feel like I’ve helped make a difference. And that’s what counts for me.
If you’re interested in knowing how to get involved in clinic escorting. In the DC area our organization is called the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force (WACDTF). I happened to read about Clinic Defense through a blog — and had found it to be intriguing since my Mom and I had spoken about it years back. (She was a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood). If you’re interested in volunteering, you can do a web search on “Clinic Defense” and your local area.
Note about comments: feel free to post whatever replies you’d like. Praise me. Condemn me. Compare me to Hitler. Whatever. Just know that I’m not going to engage in a debate about abortion rights. This isn’t a post to try to convince anyone that my viewpoint trumps the opposite one; I’m just chronicling what I’m doing and how it makes me feel.