Outside the Clinic Doors

Reading Jessa Crispin’s “The pro-choice movement is in tatters. Planned Parenthood is part of the problem,” (Guardian, July 13, 2020), brought back memories of escorting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in a large city in New England for about a dozen years that ended in the early years of the new millennium. Crispin’s critique aligns with my feelings and beliefs about the work I did at that clinic. The anti-choice movement has been very, very successful at hammering away at reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade (1973). They placed bars on access to abortion, from unnecessary medical tests to forcing patients to wait before having the procedure and forcing doctors to provide useless information to patients before they perform an abortion. Sometimes forcing physicians to have admitting rights to local hospitals and the scant number of medical schools that teach the procedure have further reduced the number of clinics that perform abortions. If a person does not have the money and the means to travel hundreds of miles or more for an abortion, then that person is out of luck and has very, very unappealing alternatives, including having an unwanted child, and that result seems like a desired outcome of the anti-abortion movement.

I escorted mostly at a private clinic across the city because I hated the in-your-face taunts and harassment that patients and I (and other escorts and physicians) had to face, as the patient exited the parking lot across the street from the Planned Parenthood clinic and was forced to walk through a gauntlet of bestial protesters screaming at the top of their lungs, insulting the patient, and thrusting images of aborted fetuses in our faces.

When I approached a few people in charge of Planned Parenthood about articles I wanted to write about abortion, they met me with uniform silence. The latter may not have been a negative policy, or individual issue since publicity seemed to bring out more anti-abortion crazies. Keep in mind that at clinics, there was always the specter of being harmed or killed by those protesters who believed that they heard the voice of God (I’ve yet to comprehend just which deity would endorse the slaughter of innocent people).

Another effective offshoot of the anti-abortion movement is the Orwellian use of language. Besides popularizing having unwanted children in the mass media, they, the anti-abortionists got people to think of a fetus as an “unborn child.” When there is mass condescension to that level of language manipulation, then the battle is won.

The whole damn debacle was best summarized by the button worn by one organizer of escorts at both Planned Parenthood and the other clinic where I escorted: “God, Save Me From Your True Believers!”

I found the conditions at the private clinic, in terms of patient privacy, much better to navigate, as they parked in a fenced-in private lot on the premises of the clinic and the angry insanity of anti-abortionists was somewhat lessened (in a minor way) by the fence. Here, we were subjected to the screams of “You’re going to hell,” among other taunts. One day, one protester shouted at me, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”

The religious fundamentalism of the anti-abortion protesters was added to when members of a local church would pour out after a religious service and march en masse to the clinic where they would augment the already substantial numbers of anti-abortionists chanting and screaming outside with their signs and bloody pictures.  Some children accompanied those anti-abortionists.

Fast forward to the last several years when I contacted Planned Parenthood many times, once in writing, in an attempt to escort again. For whatever the reason or reasons, I never received a reply to my repeated attempts and finally gave up. In the meantime, the anti-abortion movement has been very effective in severely limiting the access of women to abortion. While they disclaim violence at clinics, a guess is that they like the result of intimidating those who seek an abortion, yet another reason to be fearful of using that medical procedure.

At the end of my work as an escort at the private clinic, an abortion “information” center was established across the strret from the clinic. These centers, which have sprung up across the country, are anti-abortion propaganda outlets in disguise.

When I think back over the years of escorting, there was a time in the early part of the decade of the 1990’s when a rabidly vicious anti-abortionist made the geographical area where I lived an anti-abortion hotspot. He was condemned in the media by local church leaders, who may have liked his presence, and a guess is that they privately welcomed his presence. One day outside the doors to the Planned Parenthood clinic, he instigated a violent assault that nearly broached those doors. I was body slammed by a man wearing religious garb, but we repelled that assault. The police arrived and some of the violent anti-abortionists were arrested.

At the private clinic across town, I routinely used a tactic that the military teaches soldiers called a perimeter search. The purpose of that technique is to scan ever-increasing arcs going outward from a starting point to assess the possibility of a threat. It all got that fucking nuts with the assault by the radical right on reproductive rights and the push for control over women’s bodies and lives.

Decades earlier, in 1977, I recall the Planned Parenthood T-shirt of the woman who passed me on a hiking trail on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont. It read: “Make Love Carefully.” Great advice, but as many women, women’s healthcare providers, and reproductive rights organizations have found out, it all turned out to be much more complicated than that.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).