Pro-choice rights in crisis
For safety’s sake, the only name she goes by is Deb.
Her talk in Wilder, sponsored by Students United for Reproductive Freedom, was advertised as “an inside look at abortion clinics.” Her experiences reveal a chilling reality which some of the Oberlin students in attendance may not have been prepared for.
Deb started out on Monday night with a question for the audience: did anybody know about the proposed change to Ohio law regarding abortion rights? A handful of students nodded; one volunteered a summary. Under the current law, minors only need parental notification to get an abortion, but the new law would require them to demonstrate parental consent. The law would also affect abortion access for all women by requiring an appointment with a doctor 24 hours prior to having the operation performed. On Sept. 9, when the law suddenly went into effect, “all the clinics went into a panic,” Deb said. Although the law was switched back on Sept. 23, its status is fragile and it could change back at any time.
“What this means is that poor women will begin dying again in the state of Ohio in large numbers,” Deb told her audience in the first of many statements that pointed directly at the seriousness of her work. “It’s women who are poor or homeless who are going to be penalized.”
As to whether or not the new law was likely to be reinstated, she said simply, “We are not expected to win this.”
There are three things Deb does as a pro-choice activist. She recruits and organizes escorts, people whose job is literally to accompany women into abortion clinics and to provide support in the face of anti-choice protesters who may try to block entry. She arranges transportation and housing for women who have to travel to the city of Cleveland to get an abortion. And she hosts a weekly radio show at Case Western Reserve University called “Voices and Choices,” the only talk show in the world, she believes, dedicated specifically to pro-choice content.
Deb devoted the first half of her talk to the history of abortion clinic conflict since approximately 1992. She gave specific attention to the dynamics between anti-choice activists and their pro-choice counterparts, and the different methods anti-choice activists have developed to prevent abortions from taking place.
“They would barricade the doors with their bodies,” Deb said. “They would put chains around their necks or bodies and attach themselves to cars or bumpers to stop abortions from happening.” She acknowledged that these were “smart tactics” because it took time to remove the barricades.
To make matters worse, “the police would indulge these tactics,” Deb said. “The police took their time arresting [the anti-choice protesters].”
Deb’s personal experience came into the story when she talked about the pro-choice response to what are called “sieges,” in which anti-choice activists choose a city and spend a week harassing its abortion clinics, as well as bars and bookstores catering to the gay community.
“People saw and heard of this and decided no, this isn’t going to go down anymore,” Deb said of the sieges. “They were ordinary people who got organized to learn to form shields...to form human corridors and bubbles to get people in and out of clinics” during a siege.
Deb then took time to name every episode of violence against abortion doctors in a five-year period in the 1990s. It included not only names and dates but also commentary on the weak efforts that were made to investigate abortion-related murders.
“The media isn’t going to cover abortion anymore except for brief bits [about local protests],” lamented Deb. “But these aren’t brief bits. They’re women’s lives.”
What Deb was able to provide the most unique perspective on was the day-to-day life of abortion clinic employees and doctors. Her talk was peppered with references to the dangerous nature of the job; many doctors buy bulletproof cars if they can, or at least bulletproof vests.
Employees have to learn to suspect abandoned cars near the clinic, people (especially white men) who loiter nearby for extended periods of time and anyone who walks into the clinic with a lot of questions or a request to speak immediately with the doctor. Any time a letter arrives in the mail, they have to consider that it might be anthrax; if a package comes, there’s always a chance it could be a bomb.
“Clinics were dealing with anthrax threats way before 9/11, dealing with red alerts way before 9/11,” she said. “Security measures are taken at every clinic in this country.”
At the same time, she cautioned, “you can’t afford to get too paranoid because that can paralyze you.”
Throughout her discussion, Deb described the events that led up to her founding the Cleveland Pro-Choice Escort Service, which recruits volunteers to guide women needing abortions into clinics. Oberlin students now and in the past have served as escorts in Cleveland through Deb’s organizing.
As others started to file out of the room, Deb made one request: that
everyone who had attended that evening “spend two to five hours a month to
do something about abortion