By Jess Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Abortion and reproductive rights are in the news again this week!
But no, I’m not talking about the recently passed Georgia HB 481 which not only makes abortion illegal after 6 weeks, but also subjects women who terminate their pregnancy to life in prison and the death penalty.
Oh, I’m also not referring to the newly proposed bill in Alabama that would outlaw nearly all abortions and send doctors to jail. The issue I want to discuss is right here in Pennsylvania.
Dammit, no! I’m not talking about PA HB 321, the latest in abortion bans that was just voted out of committee this week. Earlier this week, Philly-area state Rep. Brian Sims recorded himself lecturing, arguably harassing a protester outside of a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. This was denounced by Planned Parenthood who’s CEO said of the incident, “While we do not condone Representative Sims’ approach, our patients deserve to have access to health care without shame and stigma,” Dayle Steinberg wrote in an email to Billy Penn, referencing their strict non-engagement policy.
I had conflicting feelings watching Rep. Sim’s initial video and his mea culpa. I’ve experienced anti-choice protesters in many contexts. In Erie, PA in 2010, an anti-choice organization was doing a bus tour across the country to thank legislators who voted against Obamacare. With a few others, I stood across the parking lot from Congressman Mike Kelly’s office, and held a pink sign that read “Don’t Take Away My Cancer Screenings.” Despite our distance, many folks from the rally approached us. An older woman pushed me and said “excuse me,” despite going out of her way to come into contact with me. A middle aged man looked into my eyes and said “you know, you should be really careful driving home today.” I felt my stomach drop. This was a pro-life person, and that was a threat. Just a year before, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in front of his church by another pro-lifer.
A couple years later, I was back in Pittsburgh and without insurance. I went to Planned Parenthood for my yearly check up and birth control, and at the time they also offered counseling. I went to therapy weekly, and each time I had to walk past at least a couple protesters. Thankfully by then, the Pennsylvania Women’s Law Project, PWLP, and the City of Pittsburgh had fought to install a 15-foot buffer zone. A yellow line creating a bubble; no one was allowed to linger or hang out inside the zone. This meant significantly less chance for physical bumps with protestors, but still allowed them to communicate and hand out their pamphlets as folks walked by.
It was something I had to mentally prepare for each time. “Don’t say anything. Okay maybe tell them that you’re gay. Ask them if they’re protesting you getting treatment for a yeast infection. Do they really think I’m getting an abortion every week?” I was 25 and still felt my heartbeat increase and my face get hot when I walked past these folks each time. It wasn’t lost on me that young women far younger and even less self-assured than me were coming down here for birth control or STD testing from a non-judgmental provider, but had to experience this bout of harassment first. Due to budgeting, after a couple years the clinic limited their counseling to pre- and post- abortion services. I missed my rad therapist, but certainly not the older white folks who tried to tell me about myself each time I went inside.
In 2015 I got my dream job; working in the Public Affairs Department at Planned Parenthood of Western PA. This meant a lot of face time with clinic protestors, or as they like to call themselves, “sidewalk counselors.” PP has a very strict non-engagement policy because protesters aren’t looking for a good faith debate, and escalated situations should be avoided at all costs. Over the course of my years there, depending on the folks that were there that day, different things would be said as I walked into the building, and all of my responses remained internal:
“Why do you want to kill babies?”
“We can get you a better job”? Oh really?
“You don’t have to do this! Jesus loves your baby!” Okay, this person must be new.
“You know you didn’t grow up dreaming to work in an abortion clinic.” Yes, yes I did!
“Jessica, I love the hair change.” Okay, that is creepy as hell.
The most memorable of these interactions took place in 2018. I had my car pulled up to the curb, and was carrying in boxes from an event the night before. As I walked in and out I saw a woman and her partner talking to some of the protesters in hushed voices. I was nearly done when I ran into the couple again, this time as they were waiting for the elevator in the lobby. The woman’s entire body was shaking as she cried hysterically. I asked if the folks outside were harassing her and if she wanted me to call someone. She shook her head no. “They made me want to die right there, where I was standing.” She said through tears. In the most gentle voices, they said things to here like “it’s just a shame that you’re sending your baby to hell… Do you really want to be a killer? This is going to haunt you for the rest of your life.” Feigning sweetness and care, these folks were actually shaming her and inflicting their world views on her. She continued “I wanted to walk away but they wouldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t get away.” She told me that she thought they were doing it on purpose so she’d have to miss her appointment. “Well that is NOT happening.” I said, and went upstairs with them and explained to the clinic staff the situation. I don’t know what ended up happening with that patient, if the emotional abuse she endured would forever paint her experience. Longitudinal studies show that the number one emotion woman associate with their abortions is relief. In fact, the strongest indicator for folks who had an adverse experience was due to shaming or lack of support from foks closest to them.
When folks say these are peaceful protesters and just want to help women, I think of that incident. Whether they truly believe they’re acting in good faith or not, the presence of folks with signs, fake fetuses, and pamphlets shaming abortion is not helpful. This is why I’m so frustrated with the viral video Rep. Sims posted. I don’t want to be sympathetic to that woman because I’ve seen firsthand what that “counseling” does, but he made it hard not to.
In additional to the buffer zone, on weekends there is an extra layer of support for patients; clinic escorts. Escorts are volunteers wearing bright vests that walk patients into the clinic, creating another barrier from the protesters.
I asked one of my clinic escort friends what he thought of the video and folks that engage with clinic protesters.
“The space in front of the clinic is not the place where we need to be fighting when it comes to this issue… To make that the arena where this debate happens hurts patients,” he said. “What Sims didn’t capture was terribleness that takes place outside of an abortion clinic. He captured a man yelling at an old lady with a rosary. What would have been useful is him showing what the actual patients deal with. As an escort you hear lots of horrible things hurled at patients- screaming, condemning, shaming. Whatever the opposite of love is.”
Clinic violence is a real issue. Less than two weeks ago, a protester tried to run over a clinic escort in Alabama. In 2015 a pro-life man murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. A recent study shows that nearly half of all abortion clinics experience extreme threats of violence. What’s most upsetting to me about this video is that its galvanized anti-choice folks to plan more protests and increased presence at clinics. Planned Parenthood patients will bear the brunt of this, and as another clinic escort told me, “We don’t need that on the sidewalk.”
I don’t fault Rep. Sims for his frustration, because I know how he feels. Without context for the clinic experience for patience and staff, well meaning people have tried to organize counter-protests in front of clinics, which are also disruptive to patients. I was shocked when Sims said he has been an escort in the past, because that means he should know better. “If someone pulled that when I was at PP, they wouldn’t be allowed to volunteer anymore,” I said to my coworker as we watched the video. Rep. Sims is in a position of power, and has so many tools in his toolbox to effect change. His voting record is stellar and he isn’t afraid to speak out and advocate on issues he cares about. He’s a hell of an advocate for reproductive rights in the PA legislature, but perhaps not a good fit in front of a clinic.
There is a place for these debates and confrontations; in front of a clinic where folks are walking in for their pap smears, breast exams, birth control, and yes abortions, ain’t it. Walking into a Planned Parenthood should be boring as hell and forgettable; like walking into the dentist’s or any other doctor’s office. If you walk by an abortion clinic and you feel annoyed by the protesters, resist that urge to yell at them, and throw some dollars at one of the groups below: