For a year in college, I woke up early every Monday and Friday morning to drive down to my local abortion clinic so I could sit in a fluorescence-lit room and say some human things for a few hours. Mondays and Fridays were the only days they conducted abortion procedures, and when I first started volunteering, my supervisor gave me a handful of pamphlets with information you could utilize to neutralize the protestors, who would invariably line the premises fence on abortion days. I said, “Neutralize them?” She said, “Well, we can’t run them over…right?” The way she said, “right?” as though she were waiting for me to give her the go-ahead to mow ‘em all down already, was my first moment of, “These are the good guys, right?”
When I had first made the decision to volunteer, my disillusionment with the lip service given by my women’s studies professors had given me the confidence to take the most difficult position they had, which was the post-surgical attendant. The nurses found out I was just an English student at the university, and they laughed. “You know,” they said, “people take that position because they have to for a med internship.” While the protestors blockaded cars and screamed “filthy slut” at our clients—most of whom were actually just women in need of a new birth-control prescription, not an abortion—the nurses and staff of this location had become so overworked and taunted that they were no longer the embodiment of women’s rights, but instead the tired and battle-worn staff who honestly didn’t give a shit what you decided to do, as long as you weren’t making your choice based off of malicious picketing.
I was minimally trained to take and record blood pressure and other basic medical stats on a patient’s chart, and then I was charged with giving a short sex-ed talk, writing up a pre-signed prescription for birth control, and another short talk on aftercare, which I gave while shoving a handful of colored condoms, birth control, a paper towel, and some pamphlets into a little brown lunch sack that you or I or any ten-year-old kid would carry to school for lunch. This was every woman’s parting gift. We worked like machines, really. A woman would be led dazed and drowsy into the room, and I would pour one Dixie cup full of animal crackers, pop a plastic straw in one juice box, place a heating pad on her stomach, and quickly direct her to the blank journals we kept on every side table, in case she wanted to share her story with others. By the time I could wrap her flaccid fingers around a pen, another woman would enter, and I would still not be able to get to the blood pressure of the first woman, and it continued like this all day, and the reason it continued like this all day is because this was the only abortion provider within driving distance of western Ohio that could perform an abortion. Ohio, home of the abortion ban after a detectable fetal heartbeat, where anti-abortion activists actually fight with one another about whether or not the laws they propose are harsh enough. Well, Ohio, maybe you should place a ban on women driving, because they’re spending quite a bit of time in Michigan these days. Better yet, just cripple all your women with a holy baseball bat.
With all this hustle going on in the recovery room, you’d think that a moment’s rest might allow you to take a look at the occupied black leather reclining chairs and say to yourself that you’re doing a good thing, because you’re upholding your beliefs through the power of your own actions. That is not always what happens, because you are very, very tired. In my year of the recovery room, I saw the absolute widest array of women seeking out abortion services, from middle-class Christian mothers-of-four having secret procedures because they are just plain exhausted, to life-long lesbians who only slept with a man once just to see how it would feel, and if I had a nickel for every thirteen-year-old girl who would be released into the custody of the damaged woman who ultimately let her family member rape her, I would have only one nickel, but it would be the heaviest damn thing in my pocket. While all of it was frustrating and heartbreaking, nothing was more frustrating than the “Regulars.”
Each time a Regular came in, out cold from the anesthesia, the nurses would reflexively clench their teeth and mutter something about forced surgical sterilization. With the Regulars, there was still tender care, but their requests for cracker-cup refills were met with tired responses. The Regulars knew the recovery room drill so well that it seemed second nature to them to call nurses by name or ask for refills like you would a server for coffee at your go-to breakfast spot. And the nurses, after so many years of fighting their way through picket lines to get to the job they thought would be a shining beacon for all women everywhere, had been beaten down long ago. The sight of a repeater would often cull some deep-seated resentment for any woman who may have been incapable of caring for herself, like, “Don’t you see that we’re fighting for your rights, and you’re abusing them!” They knew that gut reaction was against everything they believed, but on those busy days, it was difficult to squelch it, and this is something no one wants to admit.
In fact, pro-choice advocates believe in varying ideals, but our golden ideal lies in the fact that ALL women can make their own choices, and that ALL women are equal to men and to ALL other women. Our largest fault, probably, is our inability to maintain that all women should be cared for equally, whether or not one has chosen to have several abortions. How would you react to seeing the same patient over and over again after you had already given her several sessions on sex-ed and have offered her numerous months of free birth control? It is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s there nonetheless, and because we are in an age that requires us to stand tall and together on this issue, it is ridiculously difficult to be honest about any of it when we’re still even fighting for our initial rights. Pro-lifers are ready for any possible argument to tear us apart, and dissention within the ranks could lead to a grenade of criticism. But it doesn’t have to.
We should never forget the difficulties presented when switching our brains from fight to nurture. With the new laws requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, abortion providers are likely to become even more battle-worn than before, which is where community efforts enter the picture, and where you get to take a shot at being the beacon of hope in women’s rights. In no way am I launching a negative attack on abortion providers, but I am calling for an increased awareness from armchair pro-choicers. Not just activists, but every person who believes a woman has the right to choose. At almost every local Planned Parenthood or other abortion provider, you have the opportunity to volunteer in several capacities, with usually just a background check and an orientation. And may I suggest you bite the bullet and take the most difficult job, not because you have to, but because you want to.
Before I did my volunteer time, I was an ignorant fool. I read newspapers, went to talks, discussed the hot-topic issues with friends, but nothing will ever compare with the short time I spent volunteering, because there are very few ways to discern what you believe from what you know to be true, and if even in the face of your own hypocrisy you can come to terms with the greater good and what equality really means, you’ll be well-suited to defend your rights from a place of knowledge, not just belief. In all honesty, isn’t that often our argument against pro-lifers, that they rely on beliefs instead of facts? There are people on the front lines who have been fighting for our rights for years, and no longer should we assume they’ve just got it all covered. Go ahead and pick up the slack, if just for a year, or until you’ve sufficiently challenged your own beliefs and weathered your own personal storm.
To answer my earlier question: yes. Yes, they are the good guys, and I know from experience. Because every Monday and Friday, they have taken the time to endure death threats and malicious name-calling and have endlessly tested their beliefs, while many of us have only typed our names on petitions from the comfort of our fashionable mid-century furniture. They care; how much do you?