A while back I asked people who had been affected by anti-choice protesters to share their stories with me for a project I was working on. That project was put on the shelf, but I am posting this story as a standalone piece because it is unique; it comes from someone who had an experience on the other side of the sidewalk – as a protester.
This story comes from a reader who was raised Catholic, although her mother was pro-choice. She was surrounded by anti-choice propaganda in church. Once, at the age of 14, she was peer-pressured into attending a sidewalk protest at an abortion clinic by a friend and the friend’s mother.
This interview was conducted by email.
I didn’t plan on going–I was 14, and one of my Catholic friend’s mothers decided it would be a good morning-after-a-sleepover activity. My friend AGREED, but didn’t bother to tell me until late the night of the sleepover. I was given the option to stay home, but it would have meant revealing my uncertainty about where I stood on abortion, and therefore coming out as NOT A GOOD CATHOLIC to a very Catholic friend and family.
I was a coward, and I went, and it was horrible. Thankfully the clinic didn’t have many visitors that morning, and for the most part the people we bothered were the cars driving by and seeing our signs. But still… vile. One of the worst things I’ve ever done.
Would you share what type of protesting you did? – You mention that you held signs for passing cars to see. Did you pray? Did you sing? Did you approach any of the patients?
We mostly held signs, and the adults prayed. I mostly stared at my feet and wished I was elsewhere. One of the adults yelled at the few patients who did come in, something along the lines of “god loves you and your baby and he wants you to know you have other choices!”
How many people were at the protest? How many were adults? Kids?
It was small…my friend, her mother, and I met our church youth group leader and one of the other girls from the group there. So 3 teenage girls, one late-20s youth group leader, and one middle-aged woman.
Can you describe the mood among the protesters?
It was… awkward. Even if I hadn’t been on the fence about the abortion issue myself, I was shy and very NOT comfortable being in a position that had the potential to be confrontational, even though that never happened. The two adult women were very enthusiastic, very sure of themselves that they were doing the right thing. But it’s hard to get a lot of enthusiasm going in such a small group, so their efforts to get us more engaged just seemed strange to me.
Do you remember if the protest was organized by an organization?
My youth group leader planned it. Apparently more people were supposed to show up, but most of the teenagers didn’t come. I’m not sure if that was because they didn’t want to protest or because they didn’t want to get up and do anything on a Saturday morning.
Did any specific interactions stick with you from that day?
Nothing too specific. I remember people shouting at us from cars, some supportive and others not, and feeling ashamed regardless of the tone of the shouting. Even at 14 and unable to fully articulate why, I felt the gory pictures were a cruel and unfair way to make our argument.
Did you ever go to protest again?
No. My mother was furious that my friend’s mother had taken both of us, and she forbid it. My mom is catholic but pro-choice and more importantly just doesn’t like the idea of children being used for protests like this. My dad is pro-life but he was on her side about me being used in the protest, especially without the parent who took me notifying my parents first. I also had no interest in going back.
What are your thoughts about abortion these days?
If I got pregnant right now, I would have one. I think everyone else should have the right to make that choice as well.
Would you describe yourself as a pro-choice supporter?
Have you done anything recently to support the pro-choice movement, reproductive rights, health care, or access to abortion?
I’ve donated to places like Planned Parenthood, and I try to educate friends/family about reproductive rights issues, particularly around elections. I’m the only science person in my family and among the group of friends I had in high school, so I’m kind of the lay expert on anything health-related, and I try to leverage that to get people to rethink their opinions.
And other thoughts or information you’d like to get out to those who will read your story?
My parents are fairly liberal Catholics and really didn’t touch the abortion issue at home, mostly because at the time my parents were not in agreement on it. (To my knowledge, my father is now pro-choice at least politically). They also didn’t discuss sex with us ever, so all my education in both arenas came informally from friends or directly from the church by way of the youth group I was required to attend until I was confirmed.
The night we learned about abortion, about 50ish teenagers sat on the floor of the church rec room and watched a movie projected on a large screen. It was mostly images, the goriest imaginable. Most of them were of 2nd or 3rd trimester abortions, definitely. There was an authoritative sounding voiceover spouting ‘facts’, including a detailed description of a ‘partial birth abortion’ and lots of numbers of how many babies/ “members of our generation” had been slaughtered. I wanted to close my eyes but we had been instructed beforehand that it would be hard to see but this was reality and we needed to see it so we would know what was out there and what we were fighting for. I feel like the movie went on forever, but in retrospect it couldn’t have been more than 30-40 minutes.
When the movie ended, the lights came up and a family with an adorable 2-year old came in and sat on the side of a room. Then a a pretty twenty-something stood up and told us her very sweet story about choosing to give up her baby for adoption instead of having an abortion and how glad she is because–looks at 2 year old–he is so beautiful and she found him such a perfect family.
Afterwards, they sent us home with a bunch of pro-life propaganda, including glossy prints of some of the goriest images, as well as a tiny plastic ‘baby’ doll that was supposedly a 1st trimester fetus. (It was about the right size, but obviously the features were more developed than they should have been). My mother took all that trash away from me and threw it away when I came home, saying that she couldn’t believe they had exposed us to such things.
That Life Night (what they called meetings of our youth group, which was part of the national LifeTeen organization) was traumatizing. The emotional appeal worked well on me, in that I very much wanted to be pro-life afterwards… but at the same time I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the cruelty of the church teaching that birth control was wrong and so was abortion–so no way to avoid pregnancy and no way to get out of it, regardless of complicated or dire circumstances. I professed to be pro-life but also pro-contraception in front of my church friends, but even that didn’t really sit right. Because yes, dead babies are sad… but so are pregnant pre-teens, or mothers in mortal danger because of their pregnancy.
Eventually I worked all that out for myself, and now I think abortion should be legal in any case and in all stages of pregnancy, because the rights of the woman to bodily autonomy trump the rights of the developing fetus. But I STILL, ten years later, have those dead-baby images and stories pop into my head, and I resent the church for putting them there and for causing teenage me so much emotional strife.
At my undergraduate institution, Purdue University, there was a yearly ‘protest’ where the pro-lifers would (without permission from the school) turn the quad into a baby graveyard by littering it with a few hundred white cross grave markers, each of which was supposed to represent some number of dead ‘babies’. They’d post people at the edges of the quad who would whisper abortion statistics at you when you passed. After 4 years there I numbed to it a lot, but at first the display always made me very emotional, as it would leave me with images of bloody infant corpses floating through my head all day.
Thanks to reader K, who shared her story here. Clinic protesting and street harassment are cruel, abusive acts and can have a negative effect on everyone who experiences them, even those who experience them from the other side of the sidewalk.