When I was growing up, I was told that Lent—the period
commemorating the days before Jesus’ execution—was a period for believers of
self-denial in the service of self-reflection.
I’m not a Christian, but I always had respect for the idea
of Lent, from its usefulness in helping people break bad habits by giving them
up for Lent to the idea of taking time out of your life for self-reflection and
contemplation of your own mortality. Anti-choicers, on the other hand, have
taken this venerable tradition and turned it into a circus of avoiding
self-reflection. On Ash Wednesday,
a traditional day for believers to repent, anti-choicers kicked off the “40
Days for Life” protests, so believers can avoid focusing on their own sin and
instead scream at others for perceived sexual sin, while also avoiding thinking
about their own mortality by demanding others give life against their will.
I spoke with a number of clinic workers and escorts about
how they and the clinic patients they assist react to the 40 Days protests and
to protests in general, and, not surprisingly, no one noted that the protesters
were engaged in self-reflection or repentance for their own sins.
It’s hard to make the mental space for repentance and self-reflection when you’re aiming your ire at others who you believe must be doing
something wrong according to your own moral assessment. Martha Stahl of Planned Parenthood of
the North Country New York noted, “[I]t is heartbreaking to see the look on the
face of a patient, someone just trying to get the health care she needs and
deserves, when she is told she will go to hell if she comes into our
building.” Stahl also noted that
the heavy judgment that anti-choicers express towards women scares many women
off in her small community; the fear of having to face your neighbors as they
judge you for a strumpet has that effect on them.
The overall impression from clinic workers and escorts was
that the 40 Days protests do not increase the amount of self-reflection and
repentance on the part of protesters; they simply increase the number of people
who are willing to donate time to harassing women over private medical
choices. My interviewees noted
that the protesters that come out are younger than the usual crew, and far more
aggressive. In many cases,
protesters judge and shame women in the most passive-aggressive manner
possible, praying and generally trying to lay a guilt trip on them.
But for the 40 Days, you get a lot more
aggression. An abortion counselor
at one clinic described the difference: “They have big billboards with obscene,
gruesome, scientifically inaccurate images. They try to physically touch
patients, which is illegal.”
Patients are quite aware that what’s going on is not outreach (as
anti-choicers claim), but pure judgment and abuse. “Patients usually react in one of two ways: visible anger
that the protesters are so disgustingly disrespectful, or terror that the
protesters will physically harm them in some way.”
Escorts from the Washington
Area Clinic Defense Task Force noted that the main effect of the 40 Days protests
was simply to make life harder for women seeking abortion care as well as other non-abortion related health
services provided by women’s clinics in the area. Even though a younger
crowd does come out, they mostly stick to the passive-aggressive methods of
trying their hardest to guilt-trip the female patients they perceive as
patients and escorts have good reason to fear for their safety, since there are
also some lone operators who show up unaffiliated just for the sheer pleasure
of harassing women. One escort (you
can read more from her here) noted, “The unconnected protester, the one who
is a loner, those are the ones that pose a real danger typically to a
clinic.” Danielle Geong, from the
same organization, noted that 40 Days brings out one particularly worrying character. “She runs down the sidewalk to try to
get around the clinic escorts beside the patient, she’s pushy (like pushes you
to get close to patients) and accuses us of illegally blocking her path in a
twisted interpretation of the FACE Act."
One thing that came through clearly in all the accounts is
that anti-choice claims that clinic protests are about love and outreach ring
false not just for escorts and clinic workers, but also for the patients
themselves. Patients have no
illusions about being “loved;” they know exactly what’s going on—they’re
being shamed by strangers who have an unhealthy obsession. The screaming, the passive-aggressive
praying, the physical intimidation doesn’t really send that love vibe.
Patients react like you do when ugly
people judge you unfairly. Some,
as one escort said, “recognize the harassment for what it is, and dismiss it
accordingly.” Others are upset at
being judged, but proceed anyway.
Some avoid the clinic on heavily protested days, but more because they
don’t want to deal with judgmental blowhards, and not because they’ve been hit
with a love bomb and repented for living a fairly normal life with some sex and
sexual health care in it.
While I’m not a Christian, the mobs of angry people eager to
judge women for their private sexual choices do remind me of a passage in the
Bible, in the book of John.
The teachers of the law and
the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before
the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of
adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you
say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis
for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and
started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning
him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without
sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
Jesus lets her go, telling her not to sin anymore. While Jesus and I may disagree about
what a “sin” is when it comes to sex, I can’t help but admire his willingness
to see through the misogynist motivations of this woman’s accusers. And how they would prefer to obsess
about a woman’s sexual choices than to look inward and attend to their own
sins. And I think how far from
this lesson are the angry mobs of protesters coming out to guilt-trip women in
what’s supposed to be a period of repentance and self-reflection.