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Images of dismembered fetuses cover the windows of the car in which I'm trapped. A mix of sounds shocks and confuses me. Fists bang all over the car and loud sobs emerge from deep within me as my friend gets out of the car, yelling, “You don’t even know what she’s been through!”
Ten years pass and I never speak of those images or sounds. I push the contents of that day deep within me.
But cracks begin to show.
Another five years pass and I can’t hold myself together — I am completely broken. I can’t talk about babies. Birth announcements bring anguish. My behavior becomes increasingly erratic and my partner doesn’t know how to help me.
A few more years pass and suddenly the contents of that day in the car refuse to stay down in the dark places of my mind. They burst through me in convulsions.
Between cries and gasps, I tell my partner about the abortion, reliving the protesters’ chants.
Alone and without resources — a major reason why women choose to have abortions — I arrived at the gates of the clinic already in a fragile state. I had taken the privacy of my decision for granted. I never expected to encounter a mob barring my entrance to a facility providing a legal medical procedure.
The anti-abortion protesters, their faces contorted in anger, assured me I was a baby killer, that I would pay for my sins and I was a monster. Some protesters held rosaries and pleaded with me to let my baby live.
As I recounted the details of the experience to my partner, I began to repeat what the protesters shouted at me years ago: “I am a baby killer. I am a monster.”
Their words embedded themselves within my psyche. Their posters, graphic images of blood and body, left me traumatized for nearly two decades.
What does an anti-abortion protest look like? In their award-winning documentary Care in Chaos, directors Lindsay Beyerstein and Martyna Starosta follow North Carolina clinic administrator Calla Hales in her attempts to curb the intrusive actions of protesters who converge in front of the clinic every single day.
In one scene, teenagers and children stand before the clinic chanting: “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world” over and over. The protesters, who often call themselves "sidewalk counselors," employ tricky tactics to make themselves heard over loudspeakers, ensuring their message penetrates the clinic’s walls — an odd form of "counseling" considering reproductive counseling is normally (and should be) consensual and private.
Perhaps instead of protesting a woman’s private and often painful choice, “sidewalk counselors” should protest income inequality, gender pay gaps, diminishing healthcare coverage, increasing healthcare costs, the abysmal state of public schools, access to contraception and the fact that Black mothers are dying during childbirth.
Any person seeking medical advice or a procedure deserves the right to privacy, yet women seeking services offered by family planning clinics — from counseling to contraception to abortion — find their rights scaled back by a system that overlooks their vulnerability.
At the federal level, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act prohibits the “physical obstruction, intentional injury or intimidation of any person obtaining or providing reproductive health services.” Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the first violation of the FACE Act carries the penalty of up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Some states have attempted to protect the rights of healthcare facility patients and staff over the past few decades with the inaction of "buffer zone" laws, which create protective areas around clinics and hold protesters just a few feet at bay. Today, only two states — Montana and Colorado — maintain buffer zones around clinics after a 2014 Supreme Court decision stripped Massachusetts of its 35-foot protective buffer zone, deeming it a violation of the First Amendment. New York City maintains a 15-foot protective zone around reproductive clinics, as do a few other local governments.
Though that Supreme Court ruling made it more difficult for states to enact buffer zone laws, the idea of protective zones seems to be catching on abroad: Ontario passed the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act late last year, creating a bubble of protection around clinics stretches as far as 150 meters, which also applies to service provider residences. More recently, the West London borough of Ealing received the support of its council for a proposal to instate a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) around Marie Stopes reproductive health clinics. (If the council moves forward with that protection order, it would be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom and could stand to have an impact around the country.)
Buffer zones serve to protect patients and staffers from harassment and intimidation committed by activists, but just how effective are they? Women entering clinics are sometimes filmed or photographed by protesters, which violates their right to privacy. While some argue that protesters have the right to freedom of expression, the struggle to strike the right balance between these civic rights unfairly places one side in a vulnerable position.
The religious exigency that underscores many anti-abortion protests is also troubling. Catholic churches and schools across the country have not only organized group trips to protest outside local clinics, but also to attend pro-life marches.
Here's the thing, though: If a woman seeking an abortion does not hold the same religious beliefs as the protestors pleading with her to "choose life," then their vigils, prayers, and threats of an infinite inferno won’t persuade her to make a different choice.
For both anti-abortion protesters and the government, perhaps the way around the issue is to offer women more support and address the economic and social ills that must affect a woman’s choice whether or not to have an abortion. Perhaps instead of protesting a woman’s private and often painful choice, “sidewalk counselors” should protest income inequality, gender pay gaps, diminishing healthcare coverage, increasing healthcare costs, the abysmal state of public schools, access to contraception and the fact that Black mothers are dying during childbirth.
It is scary as hell to give birth to a child in America. Why not address the issues that make it so?
When I reflect on that day in the car, I don’t see kind faces of people who genuinely cared about my wellbeing or the wellbeing of my unborn child. I saw religion being used to disseminate hate. I saw images that have served only to disturb me to the core of my being. I heard only shouts and banging. I felt only shame and distress.
We must move this battle to other grounds and position humanity at the forefront of these efforts.