A Bit Of Background
Months ago, a friend sent an email to me and a few others to encourage us to consider volunteering as escorts at Planned Parenthood. Sadly, as is the case for many critical volunteer opportunities, PP is severely understaffed on this front. Though I have been volunteering with Middle Way House, the local domestic violence shelter and rape crisis center, for some time now, I felt that volunteering with PP would be my chance to be more involved in the fight to protect women’s (and all people’s) reproductive rights – abortion in particular. So, of course, I said yes.
Although I was legitimately out of town for part of the summer and then studying fiercely for my qualifying exam, I found myself beginning to make excuses for signing up for my first PP shift. “Oh, there’s no way I could get a parking spot on campus after 9am.” While that’s mostly true, in the end, I realized that the convenience of parking is a horrible, selfish reason to forgo volunteering. Following a recent renewed energy for activism, I finally signed up. Last night while chatting with a friend, I began to realize that part of my slow response was due to a fear of what volunteering would be like. Will there be protesters? What will the clients be like? Will I be entering a dangerous situation? Will I be safe? My friend assured me I would be fine and emphasized that my efforts are notable.
My First Day As An Planned Parenthood Escort
The first shift begins at 7:20am — sheesh, waking up at 6am to stand in the cold and, frankly, who knows what else. As I approached the Planned Parenthood center, I saw police cars that seemed to be blocking traffic. Inching closer, I could see a long line of people walking across the street, some holding signs. This line of people, being led by children in Catholic robes, blocked the entrance to the parking lot for PP. I also was not sure whether I could park at the center, so I decided to stop at the nearby grocery store to use the bathroom (get rid of that “nervous pee”) and purchase orange juice. I rode around the block to see if I would have any luck parking this time. Waiting at a stop light, a nervous cry came over me — “what am I getting myself into?!” I commanded myself to pull it together — “think just how nerve wracking it is for clients seeking services!” I opted to park at the grocery store and walk the two blocks to the center.
After waiting some time, I finally got in touch with a staff member who instructed me where to stand, gave a general overview of what to do, and provided me with the brightly colored “ESCORT” vest. Another, more seasoned volunteer showed up soon after — thank goodness! She explained that the 60 Catholics who were slowly marching around the center, chanting prayers was a rare event – maybe once per year – and that “the Catholics” generally exercise their right to free speech peacefully and unobtrusively. But, she said,”wait til ‘IRMA’ shows up.” She noted that IRMA – a woman who regularly protests because, as the woman notes, “I Regret My Abortion” – and other Evangelicals are louder, more aggressive, and often get into shouting matches with clients and their friends/partners/relatives. Indeed, IRMA showed up, holding a sign that read “I Regret Our Abortion” (I suppose “our” includes her two children who were with her), followed by “the gaucho lady,” and two others who simply paced around and stared at us and clients. “The gaucho lady” was likely the most offensive — shouting that Planned Parenthood is a racist organization when a Black woman entered, that Indiana University was involved in the “abortion agenda” when colleged-aged clients arrived, and that even the most radical feminists of the 1960s were anti-abortion, among other things.
Committed, Now More Than Ever Before
Indeed, I view my identity and ideology as a feminist as evolving rather than static. (That, itself, will likely become its own blog post soon.) With this experience, I have learned just how real the “war” over reproductive rights is. Voting is one thing, protesting is another. But, in this case, opponents are literally at “ground zero” to spread their message and prevent others from exercising their rights. Challenges to reproductive rights are at the level of cultural sentiment regarding morality and reproduction, in the classrooms, in the voting booth, and literally only a few feet away from Planned Parenthood. Despite a near or clear majority of Americans who are pro-choice (depending on the survey), it is pro-life groups who are most visible outside of PP — at least from what I observed today. I saw two young women holding a hard-to-read sign – “Women’s Rights” – but, they stayed for a very short time and were very clearly outnumbered by the 60+ pro-life protesters. My vote is one thing, my work as a scholar is another… but, I see the obvious, immediate need to be there on the front lines. Now to sign up for my next volunteer shift!