We all have to be brave

May 14, 2014

Michelle Farber, a midwife at women's reproductive health clinics, describes the impact of anti-choice protests on abortion providers and the women seeking their services.

FOR THE first time in my life, I gazed out of two large windows in my office and the thought drifted through my mind, "I wonder if these windows are bullet-proof?"

I am a nurse-midwife, and I work for a large system of clinics that provides all kinds of reproductive and primary health care, from birth control to well-woman exams. But we also provide another type of reproductive health service that makes us a target for anti-choice demonstrators: abortion.

I live and practice in a state where nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives and physician's assistants can be medication abortion providers. I am proud to be an abortion provider and feel grateful to be able to provide this vital service to women who chose to terminate their pregnancies. Medication abortions account for roughly a quarter of all pregnancy terminations in the U.S today after the "abortion pill," mifepristone (mifeprex), came on the market in the U.S. in 2000.

Recently, the clinics I work for endured what is knows as "40 Days for Life," a biannual demonstration in which anti-choice activists picket abortion clinics for the 40 days of Lent in the spring, and again in the fall.

Members of Seattle Clinic Defense make a stand for the right to choose
Members of Seattle Clinic Defense make a stand for the right to choose (Leela Yellesetty | SW)

But this 40 Days for Life campaign was not my first bout of dealing with protesters. I have been a member of Seattle Clinic Defense for years, and a reproductive justice activist since high school. I had assumed that facing anti-choice protesters as a provider would feel similar to how it did every Saturday morning, when I stood out in front of the clinic.

As a clinic defender, I would have no qualms about biking up to the clinic and using my name loudly when introducing myself. I wouldn't think twice about driving to the clinic. I was just another activist. They were just some more bigots. I would sip my coffee, chant and sing with my comrades, smile and wave when cars "honked for choice." I even made a sign one spring while I was still in nursing school: "Nursing students for choice."

I STARTED my first job as a midwife a few months before 40 Days for Life began. But that didn't mean that my clinic didn't encounter protesters. Somehow, the anti-choicers know which days are in-clinic abortion days, and I was still in my training period when I encountered them for the first time. I had arrived at the clinic before they got there, but I didn't need to look outside to know that they had arrived.

On in-clinic abortion days, my job is twofold, one medical and one emotional. My first task is generally straightforward: I see women to give them necessary medications before their procedure, talk to them about what to expect, and get them settled with a birth control method for afterward.

My second task, helping a woman through her emotions about the day, is anything but straightforward. The wide range of emotions I see is astounding, and I feel grateful for each woman who shares her story with me. We tell all women that any number of emotions, from sadness to relief, from grief to empowerment, are all normal and expected.

But there is one emotion that creeps into my exam room, which I know would not be there if the anti-choicers were not there.

"I'm scared," a tearful young woman confides in me.

"Tell me more about what you're scared of. Is it the procedure, or something else?" I try to coax out the crux of this woman's feelings.

"I'm scared I'll hate myself."

I hear this often.

"What if those people out there are right?"

"Do you think I'm going to hell for this?"

"They said this will hurt for the baby, is that true? Will the baby feel pain?"

I spend the precious few moments I have to try and undo the damage--the self-doubt, self-loathing and slut-shaming that the anti-choicers have rolled into a science.

That first day was emotionally draining, and while I have gotten better at comforting women through these difficult emotions, I have not gotten used to it.

As I left the staff entrance that day, I had completely forgotten that the protesters might still be there. I looked up and saw their giant crosses and posters of "aborted" fetuses and an unexpected shock of fear and intimidation shot through my core.

I stopped dead in my tracks as I locked eyes with an old man who was praying and singing. He watched me walk to my car. I watched him take a photograph of my license plate. I immediately wished I had removed my nametag before exiting the clinic.

I seethed in rage as I drove home. In all my days as a clinic defender, I held a healthy anger in my heart that pushed me and my comrades to stand up to this type of harassment. But that day I felt different. This was personal.

This man, and all those like him were the reason many of my patients sat in puddles of tears in the chair next to mine throughout the day. He was protesting the individual choices of the women that I cared for that day. He was protesting my very existence as an abortion provider. He and those like him were not only there to harass and intimidate the patients and staff--one of his aims, I quickly realized, was to scare me.

After that day, I had a long talk with my partner about driving to the clinic in my easily recognizable car versus biking. My mother, to this day, tells me to leave the clinic with the rest of the staff.

I WAS unexpectedly shaken up by their presence that day, but I am glad I got to experience it before the onslaught of the 40 days of constant harassment that ensued a few months later.

Every day, I parked my car in a slot right in front of the protesters so a patient wouldn't have to listen to their shaming lies. Every day, I had patients ask me why the protesters were still there. Every day I had protesters yell after me, "Miss, miss, we can help you! We can save you from doing this work." Every day, I faced a bundle of little crosses, surely meant to signify graves, that the protesters placed in front of the entrance to the parking lot.

And on every day that I helped women begin the process to terminate a pregnancy they did not want, I tried to undo the damaging lies the anti-choicers hurl at them. I tried to remind her that she's making this decision because she is the expert about her own life. Because she just had a baby and isn't ready for another one. Because she fears her abusive partner will never let her leave if she has this child. Because she's about to go on active duty.

Because she is not ready to be a parent.

The Supreme Court will decide in June whether or not a Massachusetts law creating buffer zones around clinics is constitutional. These buffer zones, the opponents say, infringe on the right of free speech of anti-abortion protesters.

Over the past few decades, the radical anti-choice movement has shifted strategy from one of firebombs and threats (although these still occur with startling regularity) to one of peaceful "sidewalk counselors." Those who oppose the buffer zones paint the protesters as friendly old ladies, too fragile to hurt a fly and merely concerned about young women and babies.

I and the rest of the clinic staff felt a wide range of emotions over those 40 days. Some days brought bloodcurdling anger due to the miniature grave one protester set up. Some days, we laughed at the fact that they have nothing better to do, and some days, we had patients walk right up to them and cuss them out.

Some days, I would catch one of them taking photographs of my license plate and the plates of other cars in the parking lot, and the fear I felt on that first day would creep back into my bones, unwittingly. One day, a sweet-looking child called me a "baby killer" as I rode past him and his parent as I started my bike commute home.

Not all of the days were painful, though. Some of the most heartening experiences came when we received community support. An older lady brought by flowers and cookies, with a card detailing her knowledge of the years when abortion was illegal.

A few pro-choice clinic defenders stood out in the pouring rain for hours, and we each rotated going out and thanking them for standing up for what we do. That one day sticks out in my mind, because each of our spirits was so lifted, it was as though the heavy blanket of opposition was made lighter, even if just for a moment.

ONE EVENING in late March, about halfway through the 40 Days for Life protests, I sat with a heavy heart on my commute home one evening. I was listening to the story about how Susan Cahill's clinic in Montana was vandalized and subsequently closed.

Cahill has been providing family medicine and abortion services in Montana for almost 40 years, and the collective hearts of every abortion provider were broken along with hers that day. Her clinic had been vandalized in a violent manner by the son of one of the founders of a crisis pregnancy center, the so-called "peaceful sidewalk counselors." The vandal "meticulously destroyed" everything in the office, from exam tables and the ultrasound machine, to art and family photos hanging on the clinic walls.

This act revealed something clarifying about the anti-choice movement today, and something that those of us who work in abortion services know all too well: that there is a thinly veiled cloak of "God's love" and "saving babies" that is backed with much more sinister propaganda and hate.

The kind of intimidation and harassment the clinic staff and I endure in order to provide a vital, life-saving service should be anything but legal, let alone condoned by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the kind of slut-shaming, judgment and harassment that each and every one of my patients faces while attempting to access health care should not only require a buffer zone but, in my eyes, should be outlawed as hate speech altogether.

I debated whether or not to run this article under my own name and discussed it with my partner, and what writing openly as an abortion provider means for our lives. I am lucky in that I am not targeted personally by the anti-choice attacks. They do not picket my place of worship or my children's schools, nor put my face on "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters and circulate them throughout my community--all of which have been documented against other providers across the country.

In the end, I knew that I must step forward and make the call to all other abortion providers to speak out against the harassment and intimidation we face in order to do our jobs. I draw immense inspiration in the bravery of Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who flies down to Mississippi twice a month to keep the doors of the state's last clinic open, and speaks publicly about his work often.

My wish is that we all be as brave--and feel as safe to be as brave--as he is. Not only to counter the narrative of the granny sidewalk counselor, but to shed light on what kind of fighting movement we need to battle back against such an organized, anti-choice, anti-woman movement. To shed light on what kind of harassment these so-called "sidewalk counselors" actually engage in, and to expose their greater political aims: to move the U.S. back to a time when abortion was illegal, an agenda they will try to push through by any means necessary.

We owe it to all the other abortion providers who have been targeted. We owe it to our patients and their families. We owe it to Susan Cahill. We owe it to George Tiller.

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