Editors’ Note: Today’s guest post comes to us from Miranda Pennington, a clinic escort from New York City who is in her first year of a Creative Nonfiction MFA at Columbia University. You can follow Miranda on Twitter, and check out her blog.
Saturday Morning, 26 Bleecker Street
What could they have said to her?
What could convince a young, pregnant Latina woman walking up to the doors of Planned Parenthood for a scheduled abortion to change her mind, to walk away with two bikers and the novice nun they pulled away from the rosary procession hailing Mary around the corner?
Was it a persuasive promise of affordable counseling, prenatal care, parenting classes, postpartum checkups, and birth control?
No, wait, that’s what Planned Parenthood offers.
According to the GOP (and The Onion), Planned Parenthood is really after the abortion of an entire generation of Black children. That’s why the bikers have brochures specifically targeting people of color. On the cover a teenage-looking Black woman says, “What if this pregnancy doesn’t mean my life is over?”
Anne, the septuagenarian protestor who is there every week, props signs on the back of her sky blue Buick. One cartoon of a fully formed baby in utero has a thought bubble that reads “Mommy, please go home. I want to live!” She confronts women with poorly photoshopped laminated pictures of “botched abortions,” (mannequins and food coloring, mostly) which promise doom and destruction to women who dare to choose their lives already in progress over a cellular hypothetical.
As the women cross Mott Street, Anne sizes them up. If they appear between 15 and 40, especially if they are women of color, she assumes they are pregnant and moves to intercept them, to shove a leaflet in their hand, and mumble “take this, read it, you can keep your baby, god will help you.” If they are with their mothers, she hones in even faster and follows them all the way to the door, well inside the legal 15-foot perimeter. If they are accompanied by a man of any age, she waits for him to come out for a cigarette or in pursuit of coffee, then tries to convince him to take a pamphlet into his girlfriend, wife, sister, cousin, friend. Though I have been volunteering once a month at this Planned Parenthood for nearly two years, when I first approach the building to start my shift she never fails to approach me, too. I take advantage of the fact that I am not yet “on duty” to roll my eyes and tell her she’s wasting her time.
Across the street behind the grafitti’d warehouse that the Margaret Sanger Center faces, thirty or so men, women and a few children are praying the rosary. They are led by a priest bearing a cross, an acolyte carrying a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young man playing the violin, and another member of the clergy carrying a walkie-talkie, which he uses and hands off to the nun by his side as they transmit Hail Marys and Our Fathers to their followers, a few of whom carry the receivers to broadcast the message around the small crowd. Their prayers are punctuated by choruses of “Ave, ave, ave Maria.” One nun’s undulating soprano rings out harsh and discordant against the lackluster choir’s muttering.
Aside from their chanting and occasional singing, the neighborhood just north of Houston street, east of Washington Square Park, is quiet. We see the same neighbors walking their dogs, strolling with their babies every month. Deli workers and custodial staff are on their way to work, bakery trucks and gypsy cabs are making their morning rounds. Some club kids are still stumbling home from the night before when I arrive for my shift, the second of three volunteer rotations in place every Saturday. I used to do the opening hour and a half, but the rosary procession doesn’t show up until 9 and I felt like I was missing all the action.
A handful of Bikers for Life, representatives of an anti-choice organization made up of actual Harley-riding, leather-vest wearing, be-ponytailed middle-aged dudes, are spread out around the intersection. They talk to young women and the people who accompanied them to the clinic about the life that may or not be growing in their sacred wombs. For many of these women, the reason they have come to the clinic is simply to have a pap smear performed in the vicinity of their sacred wombs, and they are understandably hostile. Others seem to want to stop and listen. Like this young Latina woman, maybe 20 at the oldest, who has buried her hands in the pouch of her red hoodie except when she is wiping away tears.
I want to tell the waylaid young woman that this abortion won’t mean her life is over, either. Instead, I stand still in my blue Planned Parenthood Volunteer vest and grip the door handle more tightly. If she decides to walk in, I will pull that door open and smile comfortingly so she knows there are people in here who trust that she has thought her options through and chosen the one appropriate for her.
The Biker for Life nearest me, loud enough for me to overhear, leads with “Have you considered keeping your baby?” which is staggeringly insulting. That is exactly why unplanned pregnancy is so shocking for women; obviously there is a possibility that they will actually be having a baby. Who thinks this is easy?
After she stops to talk to one baby boomer, whose black vest has a flaming heart of Jesus embroidered with the light pink shape of a fetus in the middle, another swoops in. When the nun in the novice’s habit joins them, they kneel and pray from her rosary together. The woman is still crying. The friend who came with her is standing apart, talking on her phone and shrugging.
I don’t want any woman to regret her decision, whether I hold the door open for her or not. Is the conclusion she reaches after thinking it over at home with friends or family most likely to be the right one? Or is it the last minute impulse that made her stop and listen to the pamphlet carriers, who most people breeze by. They must be pretty persuasive to outweigh logistical, financial, or emotional preparedness.
What could they have said?
To my left, a young Black man and a young Latina woman are talking animatedly, leaning against the side of a yellow car. She starts to walk away, he blocks her path. She shrugs by him, he grabs her arm. They are clearly debating whether they are going to go into the clinic, but I can’t tell if they are playful or fighting in earnest. I ask Collins, the tall guy with the bouncer build who works at PPNYC, if he would go check on them. He drifts in their direction and reports that they’re fine. All I can do is keep deliberately turning my head toward them, letting the guy know I am watching him, letting the girl know I see her. They tell a Biker for Life to fuck off. I think maybe they’re fine. Eventually they walk away, his arm firmly around her waist.
What could I have said?
A different day, I’m across the street with the 30-odd people arranged behind the same portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The priests in light brown robes and the handful of penguin-garbed nuns lead their congregants in ruminating on the great mysteries. I am standing there to point people to the poorly marked clinic entrance on the corner of Bleecker and Mott streets, to explain to tourists and those still making their way home from the night before why a group of religious people is standing outside a licensed and regulated reproductive healthcare provider.
Nobody has to run the gauntlet to go to the dentist or the chiropractor, and this is just as legal, I grumble to myself, pretending I don’t see the glaring difference. Before I started volunteering, I completed Activist Council training, where I learned how to have tough conversations with pro-lifers, was told never to engage with protestors verbally or physically, and acquired a working knowledge of Planned Parenthood facts to rebut the misinformation disseminated by anti-choicers around the country and across the street.
Today a pale man with watery blue eyes stops to pray with the rosary crowd. After a few minutes he sidles over to me.
“Can I ask you what you’re doing here?”
“Sure,” I say, mindful of the practice dialogues PPNYC uses to teach hot-heads like me to say things like In the world I’d like to see, everyone is informed about their reproductive choices and abortion isn’t necessary because comprehensive sex education is mandatory. I’m too on-edge from standing near judgmental public prayer, directed in part at me in all my deviance, to adhere strictly to script, but manage “I’m not a protestor, I’m an escort, and I believe that women should have unrestricted access to safe and legal birth control, because I trust them to make those decisions.”
He nods. “They should have you working inside. Nobody explained it like that to me before.” Pausing, he looks back at the praying throng. “Do you like kids?”
Oh good, an easy question. “Totally — I love kids. But I know I’m not ready for one and nobody gets to tell me that I have to carry a child to term just because I had the bad luck of faulty birth control. That’s why I think sex education is so important, because if people can prevent pregnancy they won’t need to terminate it, but if they do need to terminate it, I believe it should be in a clean, medical environment. Women will do whatever it takes not to be pregnant, you know?”
“Right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. My wife, actually, uh, we had to have an abortion. We have two little kids at home and when she got pregnant again, it was too much.”
This was different than my usual interactions – usually a guy who stops to talk just wants to complain about how he hates using condoms and eventually segues into asking what time I get off my shift, which is my cue to have a staring contest with the horizon.
“I’m so sorry. Did you come here?” I look him in the eye. He nods. “I’m glad these services were there for you. It might be worth finding someone to talk to if you’re still having strong feelings about your decision. This isn’t easy for anybody. That’s what these folks,” I gesture to the now kneeling Catholics behind him, “don’t want to think about. It is incredibly hard for a woman, no matter what her decision is, to go in there, and nobody deserves to be harassed out front of a doctor’s office. I’m sure it was hard for you guys, but I’m glad that you both had the option.”
“Me too,” he looks at the clinic entrance where another volunteer is holding the door for a young couple. “It was hard, but I think it was the right thing. Thanks for talking to me about it.”
Just then my giant little brother saunters up and slings his arm around my shoulders — we have plans for breakfast when I finish my hour and a half of volunteering. I’ll pay for pancakes and we’ll talk feminism, activism, and where he can find free condoms should he ever need them. I am the proud sister of a proud feminist who will never question his future girlfriends’ right to choose. I shake hands with the guy, and tell him to have a good day. I remind him that Planned Parenthood offers lots of affordable services for him and his wife.
I don’t try to glibly argue that if there is a God, they definitely don’t want me to be a miserable, broke and resentful parent. I don’t offer the conspiratorial wink I share with the eye-rolling local residents who walk by this assault on reproductive rights every month. I don’t mock the faith of the believers or the mendacious pamphlets they hand out to people who have every right to seek the medical procedure they may or may not even be seeking.
But I don’t say hello, either, when the always polite Bikers for Life say good morning. I don’t care what they have to say, and if they weren’t here, I wouldn’t need to be here. Then again, I might feel differently if I were looking for signs from God to change my mind, like the woman in the red hoodie.
Back at the door, I use the autonomous control I enjoy over my body to make a barrier between Anne, the wild-eyed lady with the holy water, and a woman in her mid-thirties who looks up and says “Thank you” before the door closes behind her.
“You’re welcome” is all I needed to say.