This is a guest blogpost from Jeni Putalavage-Ross.
Has your body ever reacted to something before your head understood what was going on? Maybe your heart pounded in your chest as you slammed on your brakes because the car in front of you stopped short? Or you’ve had tears well up while you were watching a commercial and it surprised you because it was just an ad?
I have been having visceral, body-driven responses on an almost daily basis lately as everywhere I turn I see an attack on women’s rights. I open Facebook to share a picture of my kids with family and friends and I see a CNN post about a dumb remark from a politician about abortion. I’m unwinding at the end of the day watching TV and I see clips of Cecile Richards being bullied by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. I look at my Twitter feed and I see women sharing deeply personal stories using the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
All of it makes my heart stop and my palms get sweaty as I read the hate the “pro-life” people spew towards anyone trying to respect women’s rights for bodily autonomy. So, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised last week when I was walking back to my office in downtown Austin from a brief lunch break. I was with a new male colleague, enjoying our discussion about a work project when I spotted a commotion on the corner of the street. At first, I couldn’t make out what was going on.
As I walked a few steps closer, I saw a small group of protesters wearing red shirts and waving signs at the cars driving down Congress. “Honk if You’re Pro-Life” read one sign. I really didn’t see any of the others as my heart started racing, my mouth got dry and I felt my body quiver. I felt like they were yelling at me directly. I quickly thought through various options of yelling at them or shaking my fists as I walked by or just seething silently as I went back to work. I chose the silent path. I was with a male colleague and I didn’t want to stand out.
I couldn’t stop my physical reaction though and my eyes got teary and I was shaking a little, so I said something to my colleague about how much those types of protests bothered me. He told me not to let them get to me and went back to his desk. After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to Skype him a link to a Texas Observer article sharing my personal abortion story so he could understand my outsized reaction to the protesters outside. He was kind and supportive and we had coffee later that week to discuss what I’d shared with him via that article.
So, my heart stopped again, a week later, when someone in my office posted to a private women’s Skype group, “watch out ladies, those planned parenthood people are back today. this time with more people and pamphlets.” I was confused for a minute because the Planned Parenthood supporters are sometimes in the way when they’re trying to get you to donate as you walk down the street, but they wouldn’t be worthy of a warning. “Do you mean the anti-abortion people?” I asked. “Yes. The defund planned parenthood [folks]”.
I work in the Bank of America building and as I now understand it, the CEO of Bank of America contributed to Planned Parenthood, so now these protesters have decided to show up weekly to urge people to shut their Bank of America accounts as they shove pamphlets in people’s faces, yelling and waving signs at all the people and cars on Congress.
Last week when they ruined my day, I’d written a note about my experience with a supportive group of women who have also had medical terminations. We have a private Facebook group to support each other as we all trudge on through our lives post-abortion, confident in our decision to end our pregnancies, but often facing harsh judgments from others. A few of these ladies offered some creative ideas about recording the protesters or trying to reason with them. I had them in mind as I decided to quickly print a few copies of my Texas Observer article and silently hand it to the protesters. I had no delusions of changing anyone’s mind, but I also couldn’t let another week go by where I felt powerless and trapped as I went about my normal work day.
So, I Skyped my work group my plans (including a link to my article) and headed downstairs. I handed three of the protesters my article, silently, and then walked to buy a sandwich. On my way back to the office, I stopped to silently photograph each of the protesters, wanting them to maybe feel a hint of the harassment I felt in their presence.
When I returned to my office, I was surprised by the reaction in my work’s Skype group. One person shared an article a good friend of hers had written about his wife who was not able to end a wanted pregnancy after she was found to have an incompetent cervix at 20 weeks and doctors advised them a medical termination might be a humane answer. They were not able to go that route because Texas had passed a bill against abortions after 20 weeks. Others thanked me for sharing my story and offered to go down with me to hand my article to the protesters.
“I just got back from handing them my article,” I shared. “Our building’s security guard rode back up the elevator with me and said one of the men read my article out loud and started laughing,”
That got the women in my office riled up. I was surprised. I’ve just started this job and as a busy working mother of three, I haven’t had much time to socialize or get to know anyone. While they were sympathetic to me, I think this touched a nerve that has been exposed for many by the constant attacks on our rights. It was spontaneously decided that we would create some signs of our own quickly and stand along side the protesters for 30 minutes or so – it was still lunchtime and most people at my office work right through lunch, but a few of them decided this was important.
We made our signs and marched downstairs. I had conflicted feelings. I wondered if we were just feeding the bullies the drama they were seeking. I was also feeling exposed for sharing so much with people I have to see every day. One of the protesting men (they were mostly male) started loudly talking directly at me, goading me about the Planned Parenthood videos. Had I seen them? Did I support selling baby body parts? I reminded him I was the woman who had shared my personal abortion story with him 30 minutes ago. “I understand abortion. More than you ever will.” He continued to harangue me up close and I had tunnel vison on his face, so I was shocked when a male colleague of mine stepped between us to tell the protester to get out of my face.
“I’m tired of the constant attacks. I worry about the future my three little girls are going to have to face. I’m a goal-orientated person and my goal is to protect bodily autonomy for all women. So, I’m going to do my small part. I’m going to share my personal story with anyone who will listen, without shame. I will comment on Facebook posts to correct misinformation. I will stand up to the bullies who ruin my day when they stand in front of my office building.”
I felt a tinge of guilt that someone I work with was jumping to my defense. I thought it was a little bit crazy for me to be standing on the street with a manila folder in my hands with a quote from Hillary Clinton scribbled in Sharpie, “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.—Hillary Clinton (our future President)” I’m a professional woman, a mother of three… what am I doing on the street with a bunch of crazies?
But, I’m tired of the constant attacks. I worry about the future my three little girls are going to have to face. I’m a goal-driven person and my goal is to do what I can to protect bodily autonomy for all women. So, I’m going to do my small part. I’m going to share my personal story with anyone who will listen, without shame. I will comment on Facebook posts to correct misinformation. I will stand up to the bullies who ruin my day when they stand in front of my office building.
My supportive husband is worried about me “Remember, they only care about fetuses. You’re past that stage. They might hurt you.” He’s right, but I think I need to do this. If anyone wants to join me (RSVP here), the protesters say they will be back next Wednesday, 11am-1pm, in front of the Bank of America building on the corner of 6th and Congress in Austin. I welcome backup.