I have always been pro-choice and pro-abortion. Having a baby transforms a woman’s life, and abortion is often the best solution to an unwanted pregnancy. I have participated in a few demonstrations about abortion rights.
I am ambivalent about the value of demonstrations. But the latest outrageous attacks on Planned Parenthood have really pissed me off, and when I see a notice on Facebook that the anti-abortionists are picketing our local affiliate (which doesn’t provide abortions), I decide to join the counter-protest.
The event is at 9am on a Saturday in August. I arrive at 8:50 and nobody’s there. ‘Shit,’ I think. ‘What if the Anti’s show up and I’m the only Pro? I gotta have a sign.’ I had thought Someone Else, as in ‘let someone else do it,’ would bring signs.
I park at Office Depot, across the street from Planned Parenthood, to buy supplies. Three SUV’s pull in, two with out-of-state license plates. I read the bumper stickers: They’re all about Jesus. Probably not my allies.
In the store I buy a giant foam board and a pack of six colored Sharpies on sale for three bucks. I’ll move my car to a shady spot and make my sign. Oh. The foam board doesn’t fit in my car. I lay it on the sidewalk in the blazing sun and open the Sharpies. They’re super-fine, and barely make a mark. I go back into Office Depot to exchange them for jumbos. Can’t leave the foam board outside where the Anti’s might steal it. (I don’t think they’re all as righteous as their signs and prayers imply). I take it inside with me and ask the clerk to keep an eye on it.
I need to write something brief, visible, and to the point. Support Planned Parenthood? I Support Choice? Both too fuzzy. Support Abortion Rights. That’s what I write, in black block letters . Fill them in with black zigzags, crossed over with red zigzags. I’m pleased - it’s very visible, if a little crooked.
I cross Tenth Avenue, holding the sign so drivers can see. I cringe a little at expressing myself publicly. What if somebody doesn’t like me? I lift the sign higher and feel good, if self-conscious. As I cross Thirteenth Street I see about twenty-five people. I recognize some from Occupy Gainesville, and see that old chestnut, the coat hanger sign. I’m greatly relieved - I won’t be just one crazy old lady in muumuu, big hat, and sunglasses. A little farther down the sidewalk are four or five Anti’s with signs. Oh boy, we outnumber them.
It doesn’t last. Within half an hour, a few more Pro’s have arrived, and maybe sixty Anti’s. Most of the Anti’s line up across the street, in the shade, while two small groups split off and stand on either side of us in the merciless sun.
The day is a cloudless ninety degrees. I’m perfectly attired in my big straw hat and breezy muumuu with no underwear, and I have a water bottle full of minted iced tea. But sweat runs down my face and all down my torso.
I see a lot of familiar faces. Sharon, who used to be head of Planned Parenthood. She was a leader in Voices for Choice in 1988, when Gov. Martinez responded to the Supreme Court’s Webster decision by proposing many restrictions on abortion, and women around the state organized to fight him off. Shirley, who’s now working to save Payne’s Prairie from an even loonier governor. Linda, who put out the call on Facebook for the demonstration. She was a volunteer at the domestic violence shelter when I was president of the board, and stood in angry solidarity with staff against the board when we hired a new director in a process they felt excluded them. Joe, who founded the Civic Media Center, hub of radical and progressive action in Gainesville. And wonderful Zot, tireless advocate for the homeless, currently working with the residents of Dignity Village. It feels good to see them all, to feel connected to my 35-year history in Gainesville, to know we’ve all kept on keeping on.
And it feels good to see a lot of young women with hand-made signs like mine - one says “My Choice and No Regrets.” She hadn’t heard about the demonstrations, but tells me that when she drove past she had to make a sign and join in.
Oh my, the signs. Many are too tiny or cluttered to read. On their side we have “Aborted 2nd Trimester embryo” with a large bright red photo of an embryo. On our side we have a very neatly lettered sign that says, “Every ____________ deserves health care.” In the space is an odd pink object, like a child’s stuffed animal. I can't tell if it's a pig or some kind of Pokemon character. Across the street is a well-lettered sign, easy to read: “Men Regret Lost Fatherhood.” I can't help it, all I can think is ‘Tough shit.’
It all takes me back, though I’ve only been an occasional demonstrator. On both sides you have your Aggressive Protesters, who yell at each other. “Baby-killer.” “Religious fascist.” They like to get up close in each others' faces and make all sorts of accusations.
I’ve never liked the hateful ones. I can’t stand self-righteous closed minds. I’m too deeply imbued with “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” from my mother. And I’m a great believer in ‘You catch more flies with honey...’
Finally, I don’t think any of us can say or do anything that will change each others’ minds. By definition, protesters are among the more opinionated people about any particular cause. In fact, I have to wonder why we do it. For me, this time I was just fed up, so I wanted to speak up. And perhaps waving signs at passing drivers will call attention to the issue, and remind them that, over fifty years after Roe v Wade, it still matters.
One woman comes along our line holding a truly beautiful 3-month-old baby - one of those plump, bald, round-headed ones. She looks at each of our signs and asks if she may give us a hug. At first I think she's pro-choice, but soon realize she's an Anti. I give her a hug anyway, and whisper, “I don’t want to interfere, but PLEASE put something on that baby’s head. The sun is brutal.” She thanks me and goes on down the line, hugging whoever is willing. Then she puts the baby in its stroller, covers it with a cloth, and leaves it in the sun. She sets up a folding chair for herself and begins saying Hail Mary’s and other prayers to the Virgin.
Meanwhile I, and several others, are becoming increasingly distressed about the baby in the stroller. “Please put the stroller in the shade,” say Polite Protesters. “That’s child abuse.” “You don’t give a shit about babies.” “I raised three children and I’d never do that.” “Fuck Jesus Christ,” says Aggressive Protester.
Finally someone calls the police to report the baking baby situation. When the police car arrives, the mother promptly pulls out her breast and begins nursing, leading Aggressive Protestor to say, “Oh right, stick in the nipple when the cops come.”
The police officer walks along the lines on both sides of the street and
ensures that nobody's blocking the sidewalk or trespassing on property, and then approaches the mother. He speaks to her for awhile, and then leaves, suggesting that she put the stroller in the shade. As he passes me I hear him say into his radio, “The baby is breathing, its heart rate is normal and it shows no signs of distress.” The mother switches from praying to singing, in a very pretty voice, though I can't make out the song.
Sharon says they want a couple of “point people” to talk to TV 20 when they arrive. They have Erica, from Wild Iris Books. Will I do it too? Of course I will - the old warhorse smells the cannon smoke and is chomping at the bit. Or something like that. As we wait, I think of what I want to say.
We had planned to leave at eleven, but we wait in the sun till 11:40. Then the organizers (a loose term) say they don't think TV 20 is coming, and Joe of the Civic Media Center says it's just as well because it would publicize their big crowd, and we gratefully gather our stuff and leave. I'm pleased to see the Anti’s trooping into the Office Depot parking lot with their signs too.
Here’s what I planned to say: "The anti-choice people have been relentless and very well-organized, and statute by statute, case by case, have eroded our right to abortion, and also succeeded in making people think abortion is shameful. I’m 68, and I had an abortion in my early thirties, and again in my early forties. Both were complicated decisions, which no one else could have or should have made for me, and I’ve never regretted either one."
The constitutional right to privacy is the legal underpinning of abortion rights. But thanks to years of effort and propaganda by anti-abortion forces, privacy has become shame.
Katha Pollitt calls for everyone who has had an abortion, or participated in an abortion as a father or friend, to tell their story. “...[T]oo many pro-choice people are way too quiet...Nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause. Why don’t we hear more from them?...It’s not that they think they did something wrong: A recent study ...finds that more than 95 percent of women felt the abortion was the right decision, both immediately after the procedure and three years later. They’ve been shamed into silence by stigma.” (NY Times, August 5,2015)
It’s been fun to write a light-hearted story, complete with illustrations, about all us earnest people on both sides of the street. But I don’t take this issue lightly. I was 41, and deeply involved with Voices for Choice in the fight against the Webster decision. I was driving to Tallahassee for a meeting, when I suddenly realized, in the way you do, that all the tiny signs - sleepiness, a missed period, a rash - meant I was pregnant. In the next couple of weeks I weighed many factors, including a boyfriend who didn’t want a child. It brought home to me the absurdity, the outrageousness, of a bunch of legislators or anyone else presuming to interfere in my choice of whether to have a baby. This is truly a decision that belongs to the pregnant woman, and whomever she chooses to involve.
I don’t think we need to tell our full stories. Why a woman has an abortion is entirely her business. She doesn't have to justify it to anyone. But maybe if everyone who has had an abortion acknowledged it openly the stigma would fade. Your mother, your sister, your Catholic girlfriend, your fundamentalist boss - any one of them is likely to have had an abortion. I’m not brave enough to go on Facebook with it; I’m afraid I’d drown in ugliness. But at least I will say so here.
To read a very moving, anti-abortion and pro-choice essay by a wonderful writer, click here. click
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