A Concern for Silence

Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic during the January 2013 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Clinic escorts wear brightly colored vests to distinguish themselves from protesters.
Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic during the January 2013 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Clinic escorts wear brightly colored vests to distinguish themselves from protesters. © Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

“The misrepresentation, ridicule, and abuse heaped upon this as well as other reforms do not, in the least, deter me from my duty. To those whose name is cast out as evil for the truth’s sake, it is a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment.” —Lucretia Mott (Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice)

My feminism and Quaker faith are identities and values that I have always seen as interconnected. It is from these twinned routes that I have been led to ministry in reproductive justice. In looking back, this leading seems to have always been in me. “The right to choose” sounds inherently Quaker to me. It is through a witness outside of abortion clinics that I was led to form my own reproductive justice organization, Midwest Access Coalition, and form a concern for a particular kind of silence.

During 2013 and 2014 I volunteered as a abortion clinic escort in Chicago. About once a week, I would stand outside a clinic, acting as a buffer between those attempting to access the clinic and those screaming bible verses and forcing pamphlets, baby booties, rosaries, and all manner of unsolicited opinion. Clinic escorting isn’t loud work and to me has always carried the tone of spiritual work. It’s attempting to create the space (often literally) for safety and dignity. Growing up, my Quaker mother wouldn’t even say “God bless you” in response to a sneeze, for fear of imposing her own spirituality. The anti-­choice individuals outside the clinic imposing their religiously based views on others always grated on my Quaker sensibilities.

Those attempting to access the clinic usually arrive in twos or threes; one person is usually protective of the other who often seems willfully disconnected from the throng. Braced as they are against intrusive bullying, I would sometimes be mistaken as part of the heckling anti­-choice group. Escorts wear clearly labeled bright vests so that we can be easily distinguished. Still, people come to the clinic anticipating a public shaming and don’t anticipate a friendly face holding the door open for them. Escorting is deliberately not loud. It’s clear that most people seeking access to the clinic are already overwhelmed and doing their best to shut out everything, which can include the marginal voice of those supporting them.

Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic during the January 2013 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Clinic escorts wear brightly colored vests to distinguish themselves from protesters.
Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic during the January 2013 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Clinic escorts wear brightly colored vests to distinguish themselves from protesters.

People walking into an abortion clinic in America anticipate the vitriol of strangers upon arrival. And for most, being subject to this public shaming is only the final indignity. Clues to earlier hardships are observable; as an escort I started to realize people are hardened upon arrival. It can be hard to hear the calm voice saying “you don’t have to take their pamphlets”; “they can’t touch; they know that, but I’m here to make sure they don’t”; “would you like assistance crossing the street?”

Friends talk about “creating a space” or “holding a space” largely so that others can find their own way, but this is difficult to achieve in the din outside an abortion clinic. My Quakerly aversion to imposing my morality on others initially seemed in conflict with following my leading further. How does one respond in a Friendly way to the angry screams of fundamentalists? My quiet witness in clinic escorting slowly made it impossible to shy away from my leading.

The longer I escorted, the more I started to notice that the license plates came from all over. Illinois respects the right to abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, so around 3,000 Chicago abortions are provided annually to people traveling from other Midwestern states. Conservatives have not managed to federally outlaw abortion. The current anti­-choice tactic is to make it increasingly inaccessible state-­by­-state.

This legislative trend further perpetuates the link of race and class, because those who need abortions tend to be people who were already disadvantaged by inadequate access to birth control and other self-­determining resources. In addition to paying for a medical procedure, they must shoulder the burden of so many additional logistical costs. These include the expenses of childcare for their kids, time off work to travel out of state, gas money or bus fare, lodging, and eating on the road.

By the time I’m holding the door for a woman and her mother from Kentucky, the deeper systemic issues that forced them here make my small gesture nearly invisible. Systemic oppression is a complicated thing, and despite having a strong leading to do more, I was filled with uncertainty as to how I could without compromising Friendly principles. This changed when I heard about the Haven Coalition in New York City. New York has long been a haven of hope for those seeking an abortion, but when one is forced to travel a great distance for one’s abortion, the transportation and housing can be a huge burden on top of a hefty medical bill.

I shared my new knowledge of the Haven Coalition with my friend Leah Greenblum, whose simple response was, “Why aren’t we doing this here?!” The path of my ministry became instantly clear. For the past year, Midwest Access Coalition has held fundraisers to support the cost of transportation and accommodation for those who are forced to travel to Chicago for their abortions. We are a coalition because we are around 20 volunteers that host travelers here in Chicago while they visit for their abortion.

Being aware of a need and serving a need are two very different things. Getting the word out and connecting to those who need transportation and accommodation assistance is difficult in a culture that silences the subject of abortion. Part of our work is to strive against the very secrecy that once kept us safe. From 1969 to 1973, “Janes” (anonymous women in Chicago) ran an underground network called the Jane Collective. Through their clandestine work, they provided safe but illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade. But today we are now in a time when the perpetuation of silence on this subject is toxic.

Precisely because abortion is legal, it seems to be a ridiculous throwback that the work of the Midwest Access Coalition is still necessary. Instead of struggling to keep things under wraps as Janes did, we struggle to get people talking about abortion. This points to our having gotten back to a place where a coalition is needed for access to be possible. Abortion is quickly becoming only ostensibly legal because it is too easy for those who respect the right to choose to be squeamish about speaking as loudly as those who are anti­-choice.

Through my ministry with Midwest Action Coalition, it has become all the more apparent that abortion is still often spoken about in hushed tones, even among progressive people. This doesn’t make for the respectful circumstance of a “private decision”; it makes for the isolating experience of bearing broad social burdens alone. One in three women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, and yet this is still a taboo subject. To not make the space for people to share their experiences is to be complicit in isolating, shaming, and burdening women, and to passively allow the space for further stigma and legislation that corrodes justice.

When I started to write this piece, the first thing I did was turn to my copy of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, which my meeting provided me in my teens. When the book was still new to me, I noted the limited lines on abortion: a ragged and sun-­faded scrap of a sticky note flags one of only a handful of subjects that resonated with me during that first reading. As a teenager, I was not aware of knowing anyone who had a personal history with abortion. I think I was just proud that we were bold enough to speak on the subject. Now I hear too much silence: a silence in our testimonies on the subject of abortion that reflects the silence in our communities and in our country.

Hosting people through their abortion feels like a more involved level of escorting, but I have found that even while inviting weary travelers into my home, the work is still unfinished. I cannot be a buffer between them and the shaming society they have brought with them and that we all bring with us. I’ve heard women say that they “wish they had been aborted,” that they “can’t be alone with this rape baby,” that they “deserve this for not being careful.” Apparent in these statements is self­-blame and isolation, which is compounded by our cultural affinity for putting responsibility on the individual and ignoring the systemic issues that force the individual into terrible circumstances. That is why I have a concern for our responsibility to that broader pattern of silencing.

Similar to escorting, the support and solidarity Midwest Access Coalition provides is nearly invisible because the shaming and stigma one faces when obtaining an abortion is intentionally loud and intentionally silencing. Creating safe space is spiritual work that is about more than the spare room I can provide someone overnight or the conversation I make as I attempt to casually drive a guest past toxic shouting.

Most of the people we host don’t see the factors beyond their control that are shaping their circumstances. They are very focused in on the narrative of self-­blame and shame that society constantly feeds women, as well as other marginalized communities, especially regarding abortion. Struggling to find resources to pay for an abortion can lead to the abortion being performed later at increased expense. This can necessitate further expense for traveling out of state for the procedure.

These are expenses Midwest Access Coalition helps mitigate by our grassroots funding and volunteers. Yet these resources are a mere Band-Aid to the systemic issue of our society’s silence and complicity in burdening the already marginalized. Providing a safe place for a woman to lay her head does not change the narrative that’s already in that head. I believe there is a silent majority of people who support choice. A conversation needs to be had around reproductive justice so that those who stand in solidarity are not made invisible by those who shout the loudest. I have a concern that we many need to say loudly to those whose name is cast out as evil for the truth’s sake, “I don’t think you deserve this.”

Bridget Anderson

Bridget Anderson is a lifelong Quaker raised within Downers Grove (Ill.) Meeting. In 2014 Bridget co-founded Midwest Access Coalition with Leah Greenblum. The group’s mission is to provide accommodation and support for those traveling to Chicago for access to a safe, legal abortion when legislation limits access.

4 thoughts on “A Concern for Silence

  1. I have always been conflicted about the subject of abortion – recognizing that it ends a life, yet there are most always terrible costs – personal, social, economic – in bringing an unplanned pregnancy to term. So, personally, I resonate with the statement that abortion needs to available, safe and rare. Part of making it rare is encouraging societal, as well as individual, responsibility for our attitudes to sexuality, availability of birth control, resources for supporting/raising children – and yes, adoption as an alternative in some (but not all) “problem pregnancies.”

    As to the “abortion wars,” I had the privilege of participating in a Common Ground project in Oregon. Modeled upon the Common Ground projects originated on the east coast, we modified the model to fit our own circumstances. So here is the story – and evaluate for yourself whether the process accomplished anything worthwhile…

    Our small city was anticipating the opening of a Planned Parenthood clinic that would offer a full range of women’s and reproductive health services, including making abortion available, though it was exoected that would be a very small percentage of the services/health care visits offered. Both pro-choice and pro-life activists feared potential violence from agitators from outside of the community, This was not an unrealistic fear in the context of other recent events in the “abortion wars” nationwide.

    One of my “Quaker mothers” in my small Meeting read of the Common Ground model of bringing people (mostly volunteer activists) from opposite sides of the abortion issue together in a safe and neutral environment to really truly listen to each other. The objective was to hear how each other had come to their respective positions and seek out areas of agreement – like concern for pregnant women, concern for the quality of life for the foetuses, if they were carried to term, quality and availability of medical services through pregnancy and postnatal care, etc. This weighty Quaker elder suggested that organizing/sponsoring a weekend workshop for this purpose would be a worthy venture in peace-making for our Peace and Social Concerns Committee.

    As clerk of the P&SC Committee, I presented the Common Ground workshop model/suggestion. We were in unity that the project needed to be done, but we were too small a group to take it on – perhaps our Meeting would do it? The Meeting agreed the project was needed, but felt it was too small and already overcommitted. This would not let me go, so I took the suggestion to the community Ecumenical Peace and Justice Committee – same response: needed, but we can’t take it on as primary organizers – however, you do it, we’ll support you…Still, this would not let me go, so I contacted Planned Parenthood and Right to Life organizations.

    Turned out both organizations has been aware of and interested in the Common Ground model, but each was sure the other could not possibly be engaged. However, if I organized it, they would each send a representative. We met over lunch in the local Peace and Justice center. They felt a workshop would not be workable in the inflamed circumstances in the community, but women from both sides of the issue were interested in meeting with their counterparts and searching out common ground, possibly even some degree of understanding. We agreed to further meetings.

    I engaged a professional mediator who agreed to moderate the discussions. The women agreed to two representatives each from Right to Life and Planned Parenthood; also two each from NARAL and Feminists for Life. We met for about 2 hours every 4-6 weeks for over a year and a half.

    We had several ground rules that worked to provide a “safe container” for our process: 1. We would speak respectfully to one another. 2. Our process was confidential. Related to this, no one would speak to the media about the process. 3. None of us would attempt to convert another one of us to her position. Each of us would be allowed to speak to our respective boards about the project, and in my instance, I would be allowed to speak of it in general terms to my Meeting to ask for their prayers for the process. Also, with their permission, I asked several other faith groups from both sides of the issue to pray for the process, without identifying participants or other specific information,

    During the process, women from both sides became warm friends. All, irrespective of position, supported one of our number through her unplanned pregnancy and after her delivery, her new daughter came and cooed through our meetings. We did not arrive at agreement about abortion – but that had not been our purpose. We did find we shared common concerns about society and attitudes to sexuality, about the necessity of adequate medical care to women and children and families, about adequate resources for supporting families, and about many other concerns around promoting health and wellness and well-being for women of all ages, for children, for men, for communities…In fact, women who were legislative lobbyists for their organizations on opposite sides of the abortion issue agreed that in future they would lobby state legislators for laws to support healthy families.

    AND there was no violence when the Planned Parenthood clinic opened its doors, nor has there been in this state since that time – was that because of our efforts? Probably not directly, as organizations from both sides of the issue had been meeting with local police to avert violence. But I think that the climate we helped foster did something to help calm the situation…and crucial to all of this was the prayer container provided by my Meeting holding the process in the Light along with the other prayer circles and prayer chains…

    Blessings, Friends – may we all work for solutions, praying, holding in the Light, finding Common Ground and caring for hurting souls.

  2. I read these thoughts with care and concern for those involved. I do not understand how some Quakers are against capital punishment as I am and pro abortion. I am also a Pediatrician so aborting a fetus, or baby as in partial term abortions is the absolute most atrocious horrible event I can even imagine. My calling to become a Pediatrician has allowed me to care for the most beautiful living things in the Universe from the moment they open their eyes and cry.

    I will never agree with abortion BUT given that it’s a right protected by our rules and laws I would never stand in the way of a woman seeking this out nor would I ever judge the woman. My Quaker beliefs do not allow this.

  3. Thank you for your ministry. As an obstetrician/gynecologist, I see on a daily basis how important it is for women to have access to compassionate, comprehensive abortion and sexual health care. I wish all of my patients could benefit from the warmth and holding-in-the-Light you describe.

  4. The right to reproductive health care should not be an issue of money, access, or shame. I also believe open conversation must be had. I appreciate deeply the idea of finding common ground – I suspect there is more than is thought.
    Your ministry is greatly appreciated, Friend.

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