On The SCOTUS Buffer Zones Decision: My Personal Memories of Anti-Abortion Violence, & The Politics Of Regret
Women’s rights activists are still reeling in response to last week’s two Supreme Court decisions which substantially threaten women’s access to healthcare. In the first, the McCullen decision, the court struck down the 35-foot “buffer zone” that protected clinics that provide abortion services in Massachusetts.
In my 20s, I had an abortion in a Massachusetts clinic before the protection law was in place. It was like going to the doctor in a war zone. People were screaming and verbally attacking us, as well as showing us gruesome images that did not represent the actual procedure we were having.
If that were the extent of it, their protesting might not have been so intimidating. However, given the wave of bombings, murders, and bioterrorism attacks on abortion clinics at the time, the very real threat of violence also served to terrorize us.
However, Eleanor McCullen, the plaintiff in the case, represents a new generation of protesters, those who use “street counseling.” They "maintain a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact." Yet their goal is the same as previous protesters: "Petitioners say they have collectively persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions."
In RH Reality Check, Jessica Mason Pieklo draws a connection between McCullen and a developing legal precedent "based on the unsubstantiated idea of abortion regret." One justice wrote in a previous decision that, "It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained...” Pieklo questions how "a Court...assumes to know what women do and do not regret..."
Certainly there are significant free speech issues in McCullen. There are dangers in establishing a precedent that curtails conservative free speech and not to expect it can be twisted and used against progressive free speech, as well.
But the McCullen decision has dangers of its own. In general, in our society, the social contract is such that strangers don’t have widespread permission to identify those pursuing a confidential medical service and seek them out en route to offer “counseling,” based on the possibility that they might “regret” the decision.
For example, no one stands outside the office of the elective surgery doctor to counsel patients that they might “regret” that nose job or breast augmentation. No one stands outside wedding ceremonies “counseling” the bride and groom that half of all marriages end in divorce. Or perhaps their “counseling” would be better done outside the office of the wedding planners, before the couple spends tens of thousands of dollars, and has even more to regret.
For the most part, these examples are not matters of life and death. However, a case could certainly be made for standing outside military recruiting offices and counseling young people that they might “regret” their decision to enlist. In light of the recent VA scandals, we have legions of stories of how our returning military servicemen and women have received regrettable treatment.
In the case of reproductive decisions, no one stands outside the offices of prenatal care offices, counseling women that they might regret not getting an abortion. Yet, a significant proportion of women seem to regret becoming mothers, as evidenced by the high rates of child abuse, abandoned children, and -- in the extreme -- tragic cases of infanticide. Just this week, police arrested the young woman who abandoned her baby in the NYC subway.
McCullen and her colleagues consider it a victory that they have "counseled" women out of abortion. Have they done any follow-up to make sure their dissuasion success stories have worked out well in the long term? Have they declared victory too soon?
As for my own abortion, I have never regretted it for a moment. I believed in my right to choose, I hadn't been raised with religious beliefs that abortion was sinful or bad, and I knew I wasn't ready to become a mother. Although I had finished college, I was precariously employed and in an unstable relationship. And I had effective support to process the experience emotionally. I grieved intensely at the time, because I had always wanted to become a mother.
But in my value system, it was more important for me to be able to honor a child’s life than simply provide it. At the time, I had recently begun counseling, and had become aware of the depth of the trauma I had experienced as a young person. I knew that I couldn’t provide the type of stable, patient, loving parenting I thought a young person deserved.
I would have regretted becoming a mother. I would have intolerably regretted giving a child up for adoption and letting someone else raise her/him. I did not regret terminating a pregnancy.
Rather than regret, I resented living in a wealthy industrialized country, which has the means to resource mothers and children, but stingily withholds those resources. Without maternity leave, subsidized day care, or any generous safety nets for young parents, I made the only choice I knew I could live with. Today, nearly two decades later, I’m loving motherhood. And although I'm in a much better individual situation to parent, it’s still hard under the economic and social conditions in the United States.
Particularly for low-income young women, becoming a parent can make it nearly impossible to realize career goals or escape poverty. If Lucy Flores becomes the first Latina Lt. Gov of Nevada, we can credit access to safe, legal abortion for that victory. Win or lose, Flores is a bold win for abortion rights because she is unapologetic about her decision to end her unwanted pregnancy.
When I went to that Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts, I had to endure a line of people screaming at me. I will never forget the exact words: “God will never forgive you for killing your baby.” But the screamer was wrong. God has forgiven me for killing my baby. In the days leading up to my abortion, I cried and cried, and I prayed a great deal. I didn’t pray for forgiveness, but rather for the strength to honor the life I already had, mine. I had dreams and goals, but was only halfheartedly pursuing them. I had let myself become distracted by relationship dramas and sidetracked from my life’s purpose. I prayed to become the woman that I wanted to be, and that included becoming the mother that a vulnerable new person deserved.
This is not to say that young or struggling people don’t have the right to become parents. I can’t say what kind of parents other people need to be. I can say that I wasn’t prepared to parent until I had broken some of the cycles in my family that had been so harmful to me as a child: divorce, disconnection, addiction, abandonment. I knew my kid would be destined to have her/his struggles. I just wanted them to be different from mine.
Over a decade ago, when I was consulting in social services, I conducted a training at a Planned Parenthood near my home. On the wall was a clock that looked like it belonged in a Salvador Dali surrealist painting. It was drooping and melted. At first, I thought it was a piece of art, but then I read the plaque. It was memorial of an anti-abortion firebombing that took place in the 1990s.
I have been witness to the anti-abortion movement’s violence. I’ve been the target of verbal abuse as a patient, and I’ve seen the chilling aftermath of bombings as a professional. Given what I’ve heard and seen, I can’t imagine prioritizing unsolicited counseling above safety. If this decision emboldens the radical wing of the anti-abortion movement, I hope that we won’t be looking at more murders of doctors and clinic workers, more bombings, or more bioterrorism.
In other words, I hope this isn’t a legal decision that we will all live to regret.