don't talk to strangers...

...or to strange people. especially when they're standing outside of an abortion clinic, yelling to women that they're murderers.

i braced myself this morning. i'd heard word that the number of protesters had grown, that the police had been called last week, that they were trampling all over the grass, stalking the escort volunteers, shouting at the women. a far cry from the timid Hat Lady with her satchel of pamphlets. i wasn't nervous, because there were three escorts on this morning's schedule. we could handle five noisy nutcases.

but then i got there, and no one else showed up. S was sick. i didn't know where E was. i checked in with the clinic staff, and they told me there were 16 women on the patient roster this morning. that's a lot. last friday, there were five.

the protesters immediately started in. "we didn't think you'd show up -- we'd hoped maybe you'd had a change of heart," said the lone man in the group. another woman tried to introduce herself, asked how long i'd been "working" there, told me she was praying for my soul. i ignored them. i didn't make eye contact, pretended i was the only one there. when they came right up next to me to ask questions, i casually wandered a few feet away. this left them confused and disconcerted. "i know you can hear me," said one woman who told me her name was victoria.

i didn't blink. but i did help seven women get in safely in the course of about five minutes. it felt like triage, asking some to wait in their car while i helped others in, escorting them to the door in small groups. "do you get paid to do this?" asked the man. "or do you just get the satisfaction of knowing that you're helping these women kill their babies?" all of a sudden, their energy seemed focused on me. three of them huddled, intentionally close enough so that i could hear them. "it amazes me that people who promote abortion can't even discuss it," one of them said.

"do you really think you're protecting these women?" they demanded. "do you really think we want to HURT them?" they sounded incredulous and bitter. their faces twisted in anger. the man looked like he wanted to spit on someone.

i'd been there 30 minutes, and they hadn't been able to hand out a single nasty brochure. so they took to heckling the women. one woman showed up with her infant son and a friend -- the friend had the appointment; the woman with the child was there to support her. the protesters, of course, assumed both women were there for abortions. as the woman hoisted her child from his carseat, the man sneered in her direction, "it's too bad you're here to kill your other baby!"

finally, D, a second escort volunteer, showed up. S had tracked her down, asked her to fill in. most of the 16 women had arrived by now, but four were still unaccounted for. this was my first time to deal with multiple protesters, but D had been here twice before with them. the man saw her walking up the sidewalk. "hello, there!" he shouted. "well, hi, Carl!" D said. she was smiling. so was he. "i didn't think you were coming today," Carl said. "oh, I woudn't miss it! if just to see you!" D said. they interacted like old buddies.

the other protesters looked on approvingly, then shot me smug, reproachful looks.

i asked D why she was talking with them, and she said it was because they were human beings, too, with strong beliefs, that they deserved respect just like we did. that she might have to see them in the grocery store, or at the coffee shop, and that ignoring them completely was disrespectful. "we may disagree about this issue, but we probably have a hundred other things in common," she said. i understood her point. but i also completely disagreed with the tactic. escorting women into an abortion clinic isn't exactly the time to try to find common ground with the enemy.



Revelations can come in funny packages. Like over hummus sandwiches. Like in the middle of otherwise-banal conversation. Like today.

I had an unsettling conversation today with a close friend. We'll call her Molly. I love Molly, and I know Molly loves me. We've relied on each other during times of stress and heartbreak. We've revealed things to each other that we don't widely share. I feel like we know each other pretty well.

Now, before I go on, I feel the need to clarify something. There was a time in my past when I required near-complete ideological agreement with other human beings in order to become or remain their friend. I think this is a common reaction to going to college and also to becoming a 20-something. That period of time doesn't usually last long, as it means you don't get asked to many dinner parties. And besides, variety is a good thing, and yes, conservatives are people, too. But still, like most folks, I have some general measuring sticks. Like, I try not to closely associate with racists. Or with people who don't think women should be president. Or, generally, with evangelical, Anne-Coulter-loving Republicans. I'm just not sure we'd have much to talk about.

Another issue of importance to me (aside from anti-racism and democracy and religious freedom) is reproductive rights. I know this comes as a surprise to anyone who's ever read this blog. :-) Being human, I tend to assume similarities with other people until I receive information to the contrary. So I generally assume my close friends feel pretty much the same way I do about most things, and especially about women's rights and feminism and pro-choice politics. (I also tend to assume that women in their 20s and 30s who wear hip shoes and funky glasses and eschew things like plaid blouses and shoulder pads are, of course, radical feminists with a burning desire to bring down the patriarchy.)

So, Molly and our friend S and I were having lunch today at a cafe near our office. The subject turned to a meeting S and I are attending later this week to discuss ways to fight the looming abortion ban. Molly got kind of quiet. We didn't notice this, so we kept talking. Then Molly, who wears hip shoes and funky glasses and eschews plaid and shoulder pads, said something that made me almost drop my fork. "I think abortion is murder," she said.

Now, Molly has every right to think this (and, given her audience, it was brave of her to say).

I was just surprised to hear her say it. I have spent the past several months fighting against the anti-choice movement in my state; hearing that my dear friend felt something of an allegiance to that movement was a bit of a jolt.

After we had paid our bill and were driving back to work, Molly elaborated on her feelings. She thinks abortion is murder, but she also thinks abortion should be legal. It's a paradox that bothers her. She doesn't know if how she feels is the right way to feel. She knows women have abortions for many legitimate reasons, but she can't get around the notion that the fetus is a human being, and that aborting that fetus is like murdering a child.

As we stepped into the office elevator, Molly turned to us. "So, I guess neither of you thinks it's murder?" she said.

S and I both shook our heads no.

"So you think it's just a bundle of cells that's okay to kill?" she said.

"Well, I mean, no," each of us sputtered.

"Then when is it okay to kill, and when is not okay?" Molly asked. She wasn't being argumentative or accusatory or confrontational. She sincerely wanted to know. Her voice was conflicted, almost pained. I think she wanted to know what we thought because maybe it would help her unravel that paradox.

As I stumbled over an answer about when a fetus becomes viable, and how legally, a fetus isn't really a person (well, in most states), I realized that Molly's conflict was probably more common than my certainty. Because at the heart of her conflict was the emotional, gut-level response to abortion and what it means to say you're okay with ending a potential life.

I've never really stopped to think about this.

I spend so much time thinking about the woman, and her circumstances, and the need to protect her, that I don’t think at all about the fetus that would be her baby. I'm not sure if this is okay, or if it's a problem.

S has a close relative who works in an abortion clinic; S tells me all the time that the pro-choice movement does a horrible job recognizing that abortion can be a difficult and painful decision for many women, that it's deeply emotional, that those feelings matter. S is right. If someone says "I think abortion is murder," you can't answer with, "You have the right to feel that way, but don't infringe upon my choice." That's like saying, "If you think it's wrong to murder your mother, then don't murder your mother. But let me still murder mine."

So what did S and I say instead? We shrugged. We looked at each other. In some ways, it was like we were all three looking at the same thing, but through a prism, so that the contours and colors of that thing looked different to Molly than it did to us.

"This is an important conversation," S said on the elevator. "It's almost like both sides of the abortion issue need to take a step back and look at the language we use to talk about it."

The abortion battle isn't just about passing laws or fighting laws or keeping clinics open. It's about, as it always has been, how people feel. It's about what mothers teach their daughters. It's about what we value and what we fight for. And it's about answering Molly's emotional questions with something that doesn't feel like a court case citation.


anti-abortion protesters are lunatics.

okay, perhaps not ALL of them are crazy.

but i would bet my next paycheck that a hefty percentage are at least mildly unstable.

s and i escorted at the abortion clinic today.

this means we helped women get from their cars to the clinic door without first getting accosted by the anti-choice protester who tries to hand them fistfuls of nasty pamphlets filled with pictures of bloody, dismembered baby parts.

the toenail-painted hat lady doesn't look like the protesters on the news, those mostly men, holding horrible posters of dead babies while screaming "murderer" in women's faces. the hat lady doesn't carry big posters. she wears gingham sundresses and lipstick and pink toenail polish. she wears widebrimmed sunbonnets decorated with floppy, oversized bows. she is petite and even kind of puny. she's married to the president of the alabama christian coalition. she carries a bible with her, and usually a hymnal, and all morning she stands on the sidewalk outside of the clinic, softly singing songs about jesus and meditating and smiling her vapid, churched-out smile. she looks like a sunday school teacher on crack.

several mornings a week, the toenail-painted hat lady paces back and forth in front of the clinic, reciting the same saccharine words over and over to every woman trying to enter the building: "morning! how are you today? if you're here for an abortion, i'd like to help you!"

the clinic is a bland place on the outside. it's one story, brown brick, with a sagging, white overhang. it has narrow windows framing the front door, but they're mirror-coated so you can't see inside. a small strip of grass separates the clinic from the sidewalk, and a gravel parking lot stretches along two sides of the building. even the sign -- white plastic, with plain, black letters that say, "reproductive health services" -- is easy to miss. no brand name. no fancy logo. everything about it fades into everything else. i drove by the clinic for a year and a half before i realized it was there. this is to its advantage, of course.

the hat lady (and the preacher or two who sometimes accompany her) isn't allowed on the grass or the parking lot or the driveway. she can stand only on the sidewalk; one step anywhere else, and we call the cops, and she gets hauled to jail. so, as we walk with women -- and sometimes the men who are with them -- from their cars to the door, we're careful to stay off the sidewalk and stick to the grass. one of us walks next to the woman; the other body-blocks the hat lady. once, i "accidentally" walked backwards, because i knew she was behind me. i didn't knock her over, but i knocked her off guard. and she wasn't able to get to her satchel of pamphlets in time.

the woman who organizes the escorting has warned us to take the protesters seriously. "these are dangerous people," she says. doctors in alabama -- like in new york and elsewhere -- have been murdered over this. clinic-bombings may have died down in the 90s, but the fervor of things seems to be on the rise; who knows what could happen. it's easy to think the hat lady harmless. and on some level i do. i scorn and ridicule her on the inside, and part of me hates her for the weak-minded misguidedness of her actions.

but i know better.

today, she got to a woman. i wasn't fast enough. the hat lady recited her script and handed the woman a pamphlet filled with photocopied images of death. i got to the woman before she could open it. "i can take that from you, if you'd like," i said. she looked at me with a mixture of gratitude and fear. "yes, please," she said.

in sight of the hat lady, i tore the pamphlet into several pieces. i'm sure i looked smug while doing this. then, as i walked back to my post at the front of the driveway, the hat lady and i made accidental eye contact. and i did what i shouldn't have done. i smirked. by the time i got to the curb, she had pulled out her cell phone and was dialing a number. she was probably calling the dry cleaners, or the exterminator, or the daycare. but i made sure not to make eye contact again. she has a fancy cell phone, the kind with a built-in camera. i'm sure she has close-ups of me and my car.

as someone who interviews people for a living and is paid to be curious, i have to stifle the urge to talk to her. i want to ask her a million questions. i want to know what motivates her to do this. i want to challenge her with medical facts and see how she responds. i want to hold her accountable. i can't do this. because, obviously, none of this is about me.


Plan B in 'Bama

This is a true story.


What follows is an actual conversation with a registered nurse. A medical provider. Someone who is paid to dispense medical assistance and possess a more-than-average knowledge of basic medical information.

Yesterday afternoon I called my doctor's office to find out if she prescribes emergency contraceptives. I didn't need any -- but it occurred to me that I ought to check, based on a couple of recent events.

Some background: At our local NOW meeting last month, someone passed around a flyer encouraging people to call their doctors and ask if they prescribed Plan B. If the doctor said yes, the flyer suggested we get a prescription in advance (it can be hard to access in case of a real emergency; and besides, with conservatives in control, who knows how long it'll be legal). If the doctor said no, we should think about getting a new doctor.

Then, earlier this week, I read this washington post article, about a woman in northern Virginia who had unprotected sex with her husband and was refused emergency contraceptives by her two doctors. She got pregnant and, for a host of reasons, decided to have an abortion. If her doctor had prescribed Plan B, none of this would have happened.

So yesterday, I decided to follow up on the advice from the flyer at the NOW meeting. To the best of my memory, this is how it happened.

I call Dr. F's office around 2:30. A receptionist answers the phone. I tell her my name and say something like, “Hi, I was calling to see if Dr. F prescribes emergency contraceptives.”

The receptionist: “Emergency contraceptives?”

Me: “Uh-huh.”

The receptionist, sounding very stumped: “Hmm.” Then a pause. Then, “What do you mean by that?”

Me: “It’s, like, a really strong version of the regular birth control pill. It’s sometimes called Plan B? Maybe you've heard of that?

The receptionist: “Hold on a minute. I’m gonna let you talk to the nurse.”

After a very long wait, another woman comes to the phone. She has a thick Southern accent. I immediately recognize her as the same nurse who took my blood pressure the first time I visited the office. She was sweet as pie as she asked where I was from and why I had moved to Alabama. (My lack of a strong Southern accent is like an invisible billboard.) As soon as I told her where I worked -- at a rabble-rousing civil rights law firm -- she recoiled. Her face turned to stone, and she said in barely controlled anger, “Seems like none of you people is from here.”

So I am thrilled, of course, when she’s the one who picks up the line.

The nurse: “Okay, exactly what are you looking for?”

Me: “Emergency contraceptives. Um, Plan B?”

The nurse: “Who are you?”

I give her my name. I tell her I'm a patient. I tell her I've been there several times before.

The nurse, sounding increasingly skeptical: “Let me pull your chart.”

She comes back after a couple of minutes.

The nurse: “Now, okay. What exactly is this medicine? What does it do?”

Me: “Um. Well. It prevents a woman from getting pregnant if she takes the medicine within 72 hours of having unprotected sex.”

The nurse: “Really?!”

Me: “Really.”

The nurse: “Huh.”

Another long pause follows, during which time she’s either thinking to herself, ‘damn, that’s cool!’ or looking up the number for the Christian Coalition to report a traitor. I decide to clear my throat to remind her that I’m still here.

The nurse: “So, 72 hours, huh?”

Me: “Yep, 72 hours.”

The nurse: “So you take it 72 hours after you... ahem. After you have sex?”

Me: “No, no, you have to take it within 72 of having unprotected sex.” (I kind of want to say the word “sex” a little more slowly and loudly, just to make her squirm a little. But I don’t. Because deep down, I really am a decent person.)

The nurse, incredulously: “And that keeps you from getting pregnant?”

Me: “Exactly.”

The nurse: “Huh. So, do you need this now?”

Me: “No, no, I just want to know if Dr. F provides it.”

The nurse, silent again, and perhaps a little confused.

Me, clarifying: “Not all doctors prescribe it.”

The nurse: “Oh.”

Me: “You know, I want to make sure that, if I did need it, like in the future, that I’d be able to get it from my doctor.”

The nurse, still sounding like she doesn’t understand what, exactly, I’m talking about: “Oh, of course. I mean, of course!”

But it turns out the doctor is seeing a patient. So the nurse takes my name and number and says she’ll be happy to find out for me and call me back.

The phone rings 15 minutes later.

The nurse: “Yeah, Dr. F said she’d prescribe that if, you know, the circumstances were right. But you’d have to come in first.”

Now, it takes many, many weeks to get an appointment with my doctor. And the comment about circumstances being right sounds a little ominous. Or at least a little weird. And then -- and I hate that I think this next thought, but I do -- then, with a sinking feeling, I think: “But Dr. F is Catholic.” Which means an “appointment” could really mean a counseling session. Or a chance for her to badger me and try to make me feel small and shameful for wanting a piece paper with her signature on it that I could then take to the CVS and exchange for a couple of little pills.

I sigh into the phone.

“Thanks,” I say.

Then I go online and make a donation to Planned Parenthood.


the GOP made me have an abortion

read this washington post article.

it's absolutely ridiculous that plan b is being opposed by conservatives. it's not abortion, people. it prevents abortion. big difference.