Content Warning: abortion, mention of anti-choice violence.
It was a blustery morning, a small group of us standing in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic as usual. We were still reeling from the recent home sniper shooting of Dr. Short from Canada just days earlier (Dr. Short did not die, but the injuries he sustained ended his surgical career). The days following the attempted assassination, my volunteers showed up full of unfocused anger and fear. Several had to stop volunteering because their significant others demanded it. For every volunteer I lost, two new ones appeared to take their place, infuriated that people murdered doctors and terrorized women, yet had the gall to call themselves “pro-LIFE.”
But some of the volunteers we lost had been clinic escorts for years, had been indoctrinated into clinic defense during the era of Operation Rescue storming clinics and shutting them down with brute force: beefy white men letting us know that their Might was Right. The loss of some of our most dedicated volunteers impacted all of us.
We had heated debates about raising funds for bullet proof vests, and I explained repeatedly the company line about not going that route, because we didn’t want to be the ones to escalate. I didn’t agree with that logic, but I also knew that there were no funds, that it would be cost prohibitive to purchase enough vests to cover the bodies of volunteers at our seven clinics, and most importantly that the decision had already been made by those further up the chain.
And so half a dozen of us were there on this blustery morning, a morning like any other except that recent events made emotions raw and I’d been doing double duty as therapist for angry and frightened volunteers and their significant others for days.
One of the clinic’s regular protesters, one of our most vociferous and ruthless protesters, drove up to the curb and parked in her usual spot on the street in front of the clinic. The protesters already there, mostly older folks who tended to pray quietly, gathered around her car. As Jenny got out from behind the driver’s seat, a man got out from the passenger’s side.
Jenny’s body language conveyed pride and self-satisfaction at this guest she brought with her. The other protesters seemed giddy to be in this man’s company.
And he was… perhaps in his 50s or 60s, a stout, white man. He was wearing a long trench coat. I didn’t care for that trench coat. So much could be hidden there. Who was this man that they were all fawning over? He looked boldly towards us. They were too far away to catch what they were saying. But even from that distance it was apparent that he sized us up. The protesters around him, encouraged, stole looks in our direction.
We’d developed unwritten, unspoken rules of conduct over the years. For the most part, protesters and clinic defenders did not talk to each other. In fact it was a rule for volunteering, to not engage with the protesters. Since our primary focus was to do everything in our power to create a safe and calm experience for people entering the clinic, shouting matches or debates of any kind were not tolerated.
Some of the protesters would lecture us now and then. Ask how we could live with ourselves, sleep at night, with blood on our hands. Ask us how many babies we’d helped kill. Preach to us about God’s judgment. Pray for us.
When clients drove up, clinic defenders would try to create a physical buffer between them and the protesters, who would start yelling about murder and thrusting graphic pictures at them, trying to physically stall their entry into the clinic. If necessary we would loudly tell the protesters to “stop pushing.”
But other than those exchanges, there was very little interaction, not even much eye contact. It was an odd dance that we danced.
Mr. Trench coat fished inside his coat. We all were already on high alert, and I felt a burst of adrenaline surge through my body.
He pulled out a camera and started taking pictures, then started walking brazenly towards us and the clinic building. This was all very much outside of our rules of conduct and it was highly unnerving.
As a group, we clustered on the sidewalk and parking spaces to stop his progress. Jenny, clearly emboldened and energized, walked in step with him. The other protesters came a few steps behind, timidly. He stopped a couple feet in front of us and again sized us up. In addition to me, one of the volunteers was a young woman. He looked the two of us over. My skin crawled. And then with a hint of an accent (German?) he asked me if I knew who Margaret Sanger was. I was so taken off guard, I nodded Yes. He started talking about Sanger and the Nazis. This didn’t make any sense at all (Hitler was notoriously anti-choice), and my brain scrambled to make sense of his words and the appearance of this esteemed stranger.
He looked at the other woman and asked her if she’d ever had an abortion. I stiffened. She looked him in the eye but didn’t answer. He then turned to me and asked the same thing. I focused on steadying my breathing, and paying attention to his body movements. He talked a bit about abortions, graphically, but my brain started tuning out his words and focusing on his behavior. I felt blood pumping to my arms and legs, every part of my body on high alert. He took some pictures of us, particularly we women. We were in a public space, he had the right; and at that moment one of my volunteers was recording all of this on our video camera.
Abruptly the man in the trench coat stepped off the sidewalk and started walking towards the clinic entrance. I touched the arms of the two people on either side of me, and silently as a group we all walked calmly but quickly and positioned ourselves in front of the clinic door. We stood shoulder to shoulder.
So coolly and deliberately, he took pictures of us in front of the door. The glass was tinted, so between that and our bodies he couldn’t see anyone inside.
Having realized we would not answer his questions, he started talking with Jenny. Asking her about the protesting activities and of course about what she knew of abortions at this clinic.
And we stood, bolstering one another. My mind recognized that if he intended violence, he most likely would have done so by now. But my body remained on high alert, and I could feel the same from the volunteers on either side of me.
After a final assessing look, Mr. Trench coat and Jenny walked back to her car. The older protesters shook his hand with obvious adoration. Jenny puffed up again at having delivered an obviously important person to town. They got into her car and drove off, and the remaining protesters resumed their typical quiet prayers with seeming relief.
I exchanged glances with the volunteers to either side, and let out a long breath. “Good job, everyone. I'll go start a fresh pot of coffee,” I told them, and went into the clinic to give a report to the clinic manager.
Epilog: With the help of some pro-choice friends, we were able to identify our visitor as Father Paul Max, referred to as a “Pro-Life Pioneer.”