Everyone I worked with at Planned Parenthood believed in the mission. Of course we did; how else could we deal with the long hours and low pay? Or the fact that basic things we needed, like upgraded computers and furniture for the waiting room, just “aren’t in the budget right now”? Or the stressful working conditions?
Pro-life culture was particularly hostile at the time, and many of us felt under siege in our Texas location. We ran drills so we all knew what to do if someone released anthrax in our building. Being hated is often clarifying, and we all believed we were doing good, even if in a sometimes shabby way.
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It took a while to notice that the executive director was making six figures; that the administrative offices, unlike the clinic, never had broken chairs; that the clinic in the posh neighbourhood was nice and the clinic on the side of town where white people were a minority was not. Planned Parenthood was forever making headlines for testifying in front of Congress, or getting into a war of words with some hideous Christian fundamentalist who claimed abortion causes breast cancer (it doesn’t!). But it didn’t seem to be lobbying for healthcare expansion, or campaigning for compulsory training in abortion services for medical students. It wasn’t challenging politicians who claim to be pro-choice but only mention it when there’s an opening on the Supreme Court, instead of consistently supporting policies that would help the women who came to us in need.
But as hard as it was working in the hostile environment of Texas, back before people started to have hopes of flipping the red state blue, it also felt historically important. This is where American abortion rights were born, and this is where the greatest threat to those rights now lies. On September 1, the state blocked access to all abortion services for women beyond six weeks of pregnancy. Because most pregnancies are impossible to detect or confirm before the four-week mark, and because many women won’t realise they are pregnant until considerably later than this, the state has effectively blocked abortion access full-stop. The law was immediately challenged, and the Supreme Court has heard arguments, but so far it has not released any ruling. Still, with the way the court is packed at the moment, with a heavily conservative slant, it’s not looking good for supporters of reproductive justice.
It’s poetic, almost, that Texas is erasing a right that originated within it. Sarah Weddington was only 25 when she filed a lawsuit, in 1970, against the Dallas district attorney. She was acting on behalf of a pregnant client who was seeking to obtain an abortion, pseudonymously known as Jane Roe. Before long, Weddington found herself in front of the Supreme Court, making the argument that finally gave American women the legal right to terminate a pregnancy. But the focus of this landmark case, and the way it was handled by the professional feminist community, showed that it was only a matter of time before the pro-choice project came crashing down. Because from the very beginning there existed a gulf — one that I noticed on the frontline of Planned Parenthood — between the empowering rhetoric of the professional activists and the realities of those who found themselves pregnant and vulnerable, caught in the middle of a political battlefield.
The Planned Parenthood promotional materials always exhibited the bright smiles and shiny hair of healthy young women, confidently making the healthcare choices that were right for them. They aren’t the ones who needed our help. I remember a week of repeated calls from a young man describing his girlfriend’s symptoms over the phone, all of them suggesting pregnancy. “But she’s not pregnant right?” All I could do was say it’s impossible to diagnose pregnancy over the phone and urge him to tell her to come into the clinic. I could hear him telling her, “They say you’re fine,” and I wondered how long he pressured her not to get help — and if, by the time she was “allowed” to take a pregnancy test, it was too late to choose whether or not to end it.
The people who most needed assistance, then, were not the independent and beautiful poster children of a Planned Parenthood ad campaign. They were much more like the woman at the centre of Roe v Wade, whose name was actually Norma McCorvey. She already had two children. Her first became the centre of a custody battle between McCorvey and her own mother; her second was adopted outside the family. When McCorvey realised she was pregnant for a third time, she tried to get an illegal abortion, but she found the clinic had recently been raided by authorities.
Her young, idealistic attorneys immediately recognised the potential McCorvey’s story held. It was the kind of case that could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, due to her already troubled maternal history. But they also knew that this wouldn’t help her individually: if she stayed in the spotlight, McCorvey would have to continue the pregnancy. She made the sacrifice, in the name of women’s rights. But she found that the feminists who championed Jane Roe, a legal persona, had very little time for Norma McCorvey.
In the 2020 documentary AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey talked about how she was sidelined. She wanted to speak at a pro-choice rally, but the organisers were more interested in Gloria Steinem and other more professional, or photogenic, activists. McCorvey was poor, identified as a lesbian, and lacked formal education. Her story wasn’t one of triumph and empowerment; it was one of abuse by men, familial dysfunction, and addiction. She was in desperate need, but she wasn’t a particularly inspirational standard-bearer.
This same problem plagues the pro-choice movement today. In an attempt to “normalise” abortion, and thereby gain widespread support for reproductive rights, the movement focuses on an appealing minority: attractive, professional, financially stable women “shouting their abortion” on social media. It’s as if once we hear that the cute blonde girl got pregnant through no fault of her own and she really just isn’t ready for motherhood — she can barely take care of herself right now! — then we’ll finally understand that it should be fully legal and accessible. Lindy West, in a viral essay, compared getting an abortion to having a tooth removed, giving the sense that these decisions are easy to make, these services are convenient to access, and the procedure is comfortable to endure.
But pretending that the young, urban, middle-class woman who is choosing ambition over family is representative of those who need abortion services does nothing to help, well, anybody who isn’t that. And providing abortion access on the ground looks quite different from getting paid a couple of hundred dollars to write your personal pregnancy essay for an online magazine. It means dealing with death threats and harassment by protesters at clinics. It means putting your body on the line to escort clients from their cars to the clinic so they don’t have to face the screaming, praying, howling protesters on their own. It means listening to terrible stories sometimes, of people refusing to take responsibility for their own lives. It means seeing a woman coming in for an abortion six months after her last one and helping her anyway. It means letting strangers sleep on your couch because they drove for five hours to get to the clinic and didn’t have money left over for an AirBnB.
While I worked in the education department during the day, at night I often covered shifts for the abortion fund’s hotline, offering financial and logistical counselling for those who were pregnant and urgently needed to figure out how not to be. We talked about applying for credit cards, we compared prices at different clinics, we strategised places to stay if they had to go out of town. It was hard, draining work. Because often they felt compelled to explain how they got into their situation, and many ended up referring to our failings.
They went to Planned Parenthood to get an IUD but were offered no pain relief, and it hurt so badly that they vomited and passed out before the procedure could be completed. Or the clinic required a Pap smear before it would renew their Pill prescription, but when they came for their appointment, they could only wait for an hour before they had to give up and go to work, otherwise they’d be fired. And I listened to all this knowing that Planned Parenthood weren’t model employers. In fact, they have been the focus of multiple labour disputes for underpaying and exploiting their clinicians. The consequences for our institutional failings never affected our CEO, but it left me flat on the floor night after night.
In a recent essay for Harper’s Bazaar, Sarah Schulman wrote about her experience working with an underground abortion network in Seventies Fascist Spain. As an American, she could enter and leave the country without much notice, making it easier for her to smuggle in illegal contraceptives and other materials needed by the group. The activists were risking imprisonment in order to help one another end pregnancies, creating a kind of solidarity and sense of purpose that’s lacking in the American pro-choice community. Our professional feminists are heavy on the rhetoric and weak on hands-on action. They are focused on institutions, like the Supreme Court or Planned Parenthood, instead of the women who need them most. They have managed to squander support from the majority of the population and allowed our rights and access to fall in disarray. This time, we can’t only point our fingers at the religious Right and the patriarchal stereotype of Texas.
When I had to have an abortion in Germany, I was extremely nervous about the general anaesthesia. I had never gone under before. What would it be like? What if something happened while I was there all alone, in a country where no one knew me? I didn’t speak any German, but as the nurses and doctor moved around me in the room, I managed to squeak out, “I’m scared.” And immediately everyone stopped what they were doing and just put their hands on my arms and legs. They applied just a brief pressure before they returned to their tasks, but it was the most comforting and caring gesture I had ever experienced. I think of it often. Pregnancy is a crisis, and the only moral and compassionate response should be: all hands on.