“Ignorance, poverty and vice must stop populating the world. This cannot be done by moral suasion. This cannot be done by talk or example. This cannot be done by religion or by law, by priest or by hangman. This cannot be done by force, physical or moral.
To accomplish this there is but one way. Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.
This is the solution of the whole question. This frees woman. The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts. They will fill homes with light and joy.”
—Robert Green Ingersoll, “What Is Religion?” (1899)
For several months now, my fiancee has been volunteering as a clinic escort at a local Planned Parenthood. The escorts’ job is to keep an eye on the protesters (because there are always protesters) and make sure they don’t violate the law by trespassing on clinic property or blocking other people from entering.
I’d been wanting to join her, but it took me a while to work up the willpower. (I wasn’t afraid; to be brutally honest, it was more about having to get up early on weekends – as well as the difficulty of scheduling the required training sessions with a full-time job.) But the murder of Dr. George Tiller gave me the spark of motivation I needed, and today was the first day I accompanied her.
When we got to the clinic this morning, there was only one protestor on the sidewalk outside, a man waving a sign that read “Personhood Now”. But three more soon showed up, all waving or carrying similar signs: “Abortion Kills Children,” “Planned Parenthood – The Killing Place”, “They Kill Babies Here”, and so on. Other than a few pictures of sonograms, there wasn’t much variety or creativity in evidence.
None of the protestors tried to block the clinic entrance or seriously harassed any patients that morning. The most they did was approach arriving cars to offer literature (most people ignored them, a few accepted it). On one or two occasions, they yelled at arriving women who were visibly pregnant: “Save your baby! We can help you!” Perhaps they don’t realize that Planned Parenthood also offers prenatal care and checkups for pregnant women, since that is, of course, what pro-choice means. They did shout at one arriving car which apparently was one of the doctors: “It’s blood money! It’s all blood money!”
Mostly their signs were pointed at the road, although they’d occasionally turn and face the clinic. About one in every fifty or a hundred cars honked at them, whether in support or opposition it’s impossible to tell, although I did see several drivers give the protesters a thumbs-up. At one point, the driver of a passing car made an obscene gesture at them, while another slowed down to yell out the passenger-side window: “Get a life!” (I burst out laughing at that, I have to admit.)
My fiancee had warned me that the protesters often tried to test new escorts, and that I could expect to be harassed if they realized this was my first time there. Nothing like that happened, although one of them did try to engage with me at one point. I was standing near the street entrance, about ten feet away from one of the protesters standing on the other side of the chain-link fence. He appeared to notice me, turned so his sign was facing me, and held out a pamphlet: “Hey, young fella! Come and read this!”
I made no move toward him, more than half suspecting he would grab me or try to spit on me. I shook my head slowly, giving him a flat stare.
He persisted. “Aren’t you pro-choice? Don’t you want to read it so you can make a choice? Come on, I’m not trying to insult you. I’m trying to help you!” When I continued ignoring him, he tried one last time – “I guess you’re not pro-choice!” – and then turned away.
More protesters trickled in over the course of the morning, and by the time our two-hour shift was almost up, there was a crowd of about fifteen people. Almost without exception, they were all elderly, male, and white. (There were two elderly white women, and one other exception, which I’ll come to in a moment.) As far as I could tell, they were also all Catholic. Many of them held crucifixes or rosary beads, and one, showing some rare creativity, brought a poster showing the Virgin Mary wrapped in an American flag and looking sorrowful.
That exception I mentioned came near the end of our shift. I was watching the protesters in a desultory way, not expecting them to make much trouble after two hours of relative quiet, when – wait: that new one there, dressed all in black. Wait a minute: he’s not dressed in just any black. Yes, that’s a priest’s collar he’s wearing, all right. Is he really a priest showing up to protest the clinic?
I didn’t have reason to doubt that for much longer. A young woman, probably about my age or a little older, whom I had thought was an ordinary passerby, stopped and embraced him, and I was close enough to hear her call him “Father”. But it wasn’t the woman that disturbed me so much; it was that she had brought her daughter, a little blonde girl who couldn’t have been older than six or seven.
The protester with the Virgin Mary poster had also brought several squares of carpet, and the priest, several other protesters, the young woman – and, to my shock and disgust, her daughter – knelt on the sidewalk and started to pray the Rosary out loud. These prayers went on for a good forty-five minutes without a break. Near the end, the little girl was obviously getting bored, if she even knew what was going on. She fidgeted, squirmed around, but didn’t leave her mother’s side.
Of all the things I saw that morning, this was the one that most appalled me. For adults to exercise their right of free speech and protest is one thing; I wouldn’t seek to deny them that freedom, however repugnant and medieval I may find their opinions. (I don’t think it was a coincidence that by far the majority of protesters were male.) But using your young daughter as a political prop, brainwashing her with religious rhetoric from the earliest possible age, and forcing her to participate in a protest whose nature she can’t possibly grasp – this is child abuse, in a moral if not a legal sense. Parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit, but we as a society should react with outrage when parents seek to mold their children into copies of themselves, rather than giving them the freedom to make up their own minds.
There was one impression I got from clinic escorting that heartened me, which was this: Despite the numbers and noise of the protesters, they were far outnumbered by the people who came to the clinic simply to use its services. The parking lot had room for around forty or fifty cars, and it was almost full by the time my fiancee and I left. An incautious observer, seeing just the two of us (and one hired security guard) standing guard duty in the parking lot and facing down a noisy crowd of fifteen or sixteen chanting Catholics, might mistakenly conclude that pro-lifers far outnumber pro-choicers. In fact, if today’s traffic was any estimation, there are hundreds of people from throughout the community who come to Planned Parenthood for medical assistance each week, while the same relative handful of believers show up every weekend to picket. As always, the way religious fanatics concentrate their numbers and act out in highly visible ways makes them seem more numerous than they really are. The majority of Americans already accept the idea that people have a right to control their own bodies, to have sex safely, and to have children only when wanted – and they seem more than happy to let this rest as a settled matter and get on with their lives.
I have one final observation, which is that Planned Parenthood is a clinic. It’s a place where people come for medical procedures, no different than any other outpatient clinic or hospital. It’s not here to advance a political agenda, but to care for women, for couples and for children. Its patients often come under desperate or trying circumstances, people who’ve already had enough shame and misery heaped on them. (One of the other escorts who arrived after us told us a story about a woman who was harassed and yelled at by the protesters until she left in tears, without ever getting into the clinic.) These people need our understanding and compassion, not the hateful shouting or the false front of sympathy put on by these spiteful bigots and their misogynist religion. They affect loving concern, but what they are really seeking is for other people’s bodies to be put under their church’s control. That is something we can never permit to happen again.