Women practice linic defense tactics outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Octavia and Bush in San Francisco.
Photo: Rick Gerharter
I tried to stop what happened that day, but it wasn't going to be stopped. A woman died. It was reported as a car accident, a not terribly unusual event. But it didn't have to happen. On some level, the clinic escort team failed miserably. I was co-coordinating our efforts with a woman considered a warm, nurturing escort, a self-avowed Christian-for-choice. I didn't trust her as far as I could throw her (which in retrospect is what I should've done).
In most respects the morning had seemed successful. We'd deployed enough people around the clinic that the Operation Rescue (OR) scouts, checking all the clinics open that morning, wouldn't be likely to advise a hit against ours. We'd avoided the ORs' attempts to bump or trip us so they could tell the police we were assaulting them. We'd brought women smoothly through a particularly skilled cohort of OR "sidewalk counselors," a quartet of young women in their late teens and early twenties.
These "counselors" looked ... meek; they stood apart from the contingent of fetus-porn sign carriers yelling about baby-killing, and from the vicious old men fondling their beards (tough old coots with military backgrounds written all over them). The "counselors" pounced like piranhas on any woman from fourteen to sixty that passed near the clinic. One of them, during a previous action, had looked me straight in the eye as I escorted a client into a clinic and, hearing people use the familiar chant "Pro-life, that's a lie, you don't care if women die," responded in an emphatic whisper, "That's right!"
By the second time they messed with a client we were ready. We blocked their sign-carriers before they blocked us, and formed corridors to give the client and the escort smooth passage. We even dampened the "sidewalk counselors" piercing cries of "Don't go in there! They'll hurt you and kill your baby!" by holding up our placards ("This Clinic Is Open" and "Defend Our Abortion Rights") and singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
But what happened to a woman I'll call "Ana" occurred after she got into the clinic. Someone got to her boyfriend, perhaps between the clinic and his car after he dropped her off. He decided she didn't have any right to get the abortion.
First he got loaded. Then he came into the clinic. He started yelling in the waiting room about how she couldn't kill his baby. The clinic staff ejected him, warning the escorts not to let him back in. But meanwhile he'd gotten her purse. He demanded to see Ana after she was already being prepared for surgery. If only we had been strong; if only I had gotten some of the women together and just taken back the purse (the men on the escort team that morning were all very uncomfortable with this idea!).
My Christian co-coordinator instead chose to call in the police. It seemed opposed to what we stood for, but she insisted. Something was already terribly wrong, and it got worse when the cop hung out with the kid, just talking like brothers. I still thought I could save the situation. I'd get him to leave, then we could handle it. The cops always claimed they didn't want to be there anyway, that they had more important things to do.
I told the cop that things were pretty much over for the morning, that we had everything under control--gave the whole rap, none of it false. But now that this cop had been invited in, like a vampire, he wasn't about to let go. He threatened and lez-baited me, obsessed with getting to talk to Ana. He pled the kid's case. He lied to me and to the clinic director in his efforts to get her to bring Ana out of recovery to him.
Ana had said to me that she was never going to see her "boyfriend" again, and that she didn't even know if he was the sperm donor for today's problem. She thought he was pretty crazy. But if he had her purse, how was she going to call her brother-in-law (who, like most of her family, lived over an hour from San Francisco in a lower-income commuter town) to come and get her? While she was trying to work out getting home without her purse and without this creep, the policeman was working to undermine her decision, put her back into the intoxicated young man's custody. Finally, he simply ordered the clinic to surrender the patient to him, and then proceeded to badger her until she agreed to go home with the drugged-out anti-abortion ex-boyfriend who'd seized her purse. The cop, with the tacit support of the Christian escort coordinator, pulled out all the emotional stops--He just wants another chance, he just wants you to know how much he loves you. (Subtext: he's got a right to you.) How much did he love her? I guess she found out. I hopelessly watched as she got into his flashy car and drove away.
I let a woman be murdered; I watched her get sucked down the drain by a desperately sweaty blond cop who had entirely too much emotional investment in getting her to ride with the purse thief. I learned once again what a crock of shit being nice is, and Ana learned how much love and protection there was for her in this world. Later we read about a freak crash on the freeway heading to her small town, involving a rare and flashy vehicle and two Hispanic teenagers.
All in One Day: Mainstreaming the End of Choice
Shortly after columnist George Will suggested that rather than focus the antiabortion battle on electoral races (where it tends to be lost), enemies of abortion rights re-animate the doctrine of abortion-as-sin by "stigmatizing" the woman involved, examples of his strategy began popping up everywhere. Women, already urged to be anxious about everything from exercise to eyebags, were now invited to forget 20-plus years of the tenuous right to make choices about the uses of our uteri, and instead wring our hands over the "moral crisis" (whose?) of abortion.
It may have started with Will and his ilk, but our own willingness to be such self-doubting wimps doesn't help. I remember a sensitive, oh-so-ethically-tortured cover piece in the Village Voice by a woman who had apparently had a few bad experiences with feminists (hey, who hasn't?), decrying the frequency of abortions. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion--that current contraceptive technologies just aren't good enough--she joins the Will chorus and blames the women. Her delicate soul was tormented by wondering if women were seeking abortions as rites of passage? New Age Crap like this implies that we should instead be crowning our pubescent lasses with spring blossoms on windblown beaches while singing menstrual chants. It's also callous stupidity, losing sight of the fact that when women come of age, we can get pregnant, with or without chants, garlands, and beach (which, come to think of it, would be a lot nicer than looking at the sappy posters in a clinic recovery room). So we need the option to end unwanted pregnancies, just as we need affordable effective prenatal care.
If we want to do anything other than begin the mom life at fourteen or fifteen, the sane, smart, even courageous choice for a young woman as well as for the children she may one day raise, is abortion. The Voice writer aside, very few women that I know experience any physical or emotional malaise post-op. It's just like having a period, or should be. The influence of "stigmatization" erodes the self-esteem which promotes physical resilience: some clinic workers have told me they see more depression, discomfort, anxiety, and over-justification among women who were got at by anti-choice family members or acquaintances. Who knows? With the proliferation of New Age Crap riding on the coattails of feminism and hippie nostalgia, we'll probably soon be prodded to agonize over fetuses' past lives.
My best friend, the Red Diaper Baby, has noted that in olden times good commies simply said, "Beware the mass media, they're a bunch of pigs," while today scads of would-be dissenting voices buttress their yen for a Front Page career by producing reams of analysis of the beast. One day of S.F. Examiner reading and I'm wondering how much my buddy's kidding when he sighs for the straightforward caveat of the good old days. First, the liberal Christopher Matthews column suggests without irony that the $5+ million war chest the Conference of Catholic Bishops is preparing for a sin-based anti-choice multimedia ad campaign is modest, even frugal, and perhaps does a service to "us all. " You see, it brings "the debate" out of "the cold, clinical, medical realm" where findings on brain function and viability just happen to consistently support calling a fetus a fetus and a baby a baby. Chris, Chris, I wanna cry from the heart, there's no "debate" here! Either these old guys have the right to tell me what I'm gonna do with my uterus, with the next one to twenty years of my life, or else their campaign has as much moral legitimacy as a fucking Marlboro ad! However ascetic you may find a $5 million P.R. budget.
In my experience, tolerance of apologetic, morally sensitive attitudes about abortion plays into the same hands which the women and men who want to censor pornography are tickling: the Religious Right.
Former car salesman Randall Terry, the troubled son of a violent father and a mother whose family has a tradition of feminist activism, including reproductive rights work, founded Operation Rescue in the mid-80s after an intense on-the-road conversion experience whose details change depending on whose version you hear. OR has a slick magazine, state-of-the-art computerized fundraising, savvy body mobilizing campaigns through sympathetic Catholic and fundamentalist churches, and tenacity. Its assets have been seized, its activities enjoined, but at this writing, it seems to have returned from the brink once again.
Its Wichita extravaganza has given George Bush a chance to look moderate as the Justice Department abets OR's new strategy taking the fight to women's clinics in the Bible belt to avoid the more aware urban areas where there has been quick response from civil liberties, women's, and gay organizations (as well as the new network of militant pro-choice groups which has arisen all over the country, but mostly in metropolitan areas, in response to OR itself).
Operation Rescue unites groups of people who sincerely believe all the other groups are going to burn in hell, devout Roman Catholics, Bible-believing Baptists and Spirit-filled Pentecostals, in rather authoritarian public displays of passive aggression: mass sing-, lie-, and kneel-ins to shut down medical facilities where abortion is offered. With less media presence OR members mount more violent attacks against clinics, their clients and escorts (calling the latter "death squads" is one of their more absurd attempts to ape activist-speak). The clinic attackers I've spoken with are quick to point out that there has never been an OR member convicted of actual clinic arson or bombing, but membership is fluid, and their training literature advises outright deception (key OR leaders in the Bay Area disavow all knowledge of the organization!) as well as vagueness about OR activities beyond the orchestrated media events.
A trendy piece on contemporary Civil Disobedience activism, also in the Examiner, centers on one Colonel Ron Maxson, painting the Nam vet in rose soft hues. This, we're told, is a gentle, simple man, a man of conviction, fighting for what he believes despite police brutality and a world that won't understand. What Colonel Ron does to express his great soul is physically block women from entering medical facilities; this "activist in the tradition of Gandhi and King" is a member of OR.
A fifteen-year-old girl-child is left standing in the street waiting for police to remove Maxson and crew. (If they do; without strong pressure from pro-choice groups, police response is typically to order the clinic closed. At one OR action, I even saw the officer in charge ask the OR in charge if there were any pro-choicers he wanted arrested, and proceeded to arrest them.) The Holy Spirit might speak in her heart, Maxson reasons, telling her not to go through with her abortion. That these hours might also mean hemorrhaging from laminaria insertion, shock, needless pain, infection, perhaps even returning home for a desperate and ignorant attempt to self-induce and possible death, doesn't bother a man with the guts to stand by his convictions.
After all, OR mentor Joe Scheidler, author of Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, Chicago Pro-Life Action League founder, and suspected clinic bombing participant, declared "a war of fear and pain" on women seeking abortions. I've seen ORs gleefully cite the (fabricated) Closed passage claiming that infections, perforated uteri, shock, hemorrhage and death rates rise by 5percent at a clinic that was targeted by OR. To Maxson, confrontations with "death squads," which have resulted in concussions, internal injuries, cuts, sprains, bruises, and at least one miscarriage for clinic escorts to date, represent ((a "spiritual confrontation between good and evil." It's hard for me not to agree.
Raw Good and Evil, or, Background on Us and Them
It's not fashionable, probably not PC, and worlds away from New Ageism, but I do see Operation Rescue and its fellow travelers as my enemies, as "Them."
It's my experience as an escort coordinator that has inspired this rant. There's a clinic in an old building, on an incredibly chilly corner of San Francisco, redolent of eucalyptus, where voodoo Priestess, underground railroad stationmistress, Madam, and probably herbwise woman abortionist Mammy Pleasant had her establishment. Here she planted the fragrant messy trees with her own hands. Today it's the site of a low-cost clinic. This privately owned facility is OR's most-targeted site in San Francisco, possibly because of proximity to OR-sympathetic churches like St. Dominic's and St. Mary's (a.k.a. St. Domino's and St. Maytag's), serving a cross-section of Bay Area women, the majority being younger women of color.
Somehow my partner and I managed to get up early enough every Saturday morning for almost a year--until our own demanding daughter arrived one November dawn--to work with the Bay Area's direct action, pro-choice coalition defending the clinic. We escorted clients past "pro-lifers" who shoved, shouted, and waved huge color blow-ups of dead newborns purported to be aborted fetuses in the clients' faces. They tried to photograph clients' license plates and faces. They used the heavy plywood backing their fetal porn to bash pro-choicers, and the substantial size and weight of their bodies to threaten. They cunningly used the police to present their actions as simple First Amendment rightslike picketing. The surreality was perhaps enhanced by the colors and shadows of pre-sunrise, but it was confirmed by the fact that all this went on with almost no mention in the news. The biggest attacks would get at best a fact-garbled paragraph or two buried deep in one of the papers.
It never ceased feeling strange to go about my weekend after clinic mornings. In the normal world, traffic whooshed by the corner, at most honking an encouraging honk at the sight of the pro-choice placards, and most men weren't poised to hit or trip me; most cops and old ladies weren't threatening me, and most people either didn't know or didn't care that women's basic privacy, basic dignity, basic rights to choose and receive medical care, were being routinely shit on.
--Angela Bocage (originally published in Processed World #28, 1991)