For the first installment of The Lily’s new series, “Talk Different to Me,” we asked two women on different sides of the debate over access to abortion in the United States to ask each other five questions. They sent us the questions and we facilitated the exchange.
Here are their questions and answers to each other, answered over email and presented in full:
Ann Scheidler: What drew you to support abortion? Was it a personal experience with an unplanned pregnancy, yours or someone close to you? Was it hearing someone give a talk about reproductive freedom? Was your family or a close friend involved in support for abortion?
Robyn Swirling: Whether they realize it or not, everyone knows someone who’s had an abortion — one-third of women in this country have — but having a personal connection to abortion care isn’t necessary for someone to be pro-choice. I have had an abortion, but my support for abortion rights predates that experience. I was raised by pro-choice parents to know that a woman’s ability to choose when and with whom she has children is an essential component of her self-determination, economic future, and the ability to lead the life she wants to live — and that it is never the role of government to force someone to carry or to terminate a pregnancy.
As far back as I can remember, I have known that all people deserve the right to decide if and when they will become or stay pregnant, to have the children they want to have, to parent the children they do have safely, and to be well-supported in doing so. I learned later that there are terms for this, and an entire framework called Reproductive Justice which speaks to these concerns, centered on the experiences and needs of women of color, which includes abortion as one piece of health and well-being. Accordingly, I support not just reproductive rights, but reproductive justice. As a central piece of that, I support and advocate for abortion rights.
AS: What is your understanding of the purpose and services of Planned Parenthood? That is, please tell me what services Planned Parenthood is providing that cannot be found at community health centers or public hospitals.
RS: Community health centers and public hospitals do great and important work, but they cannot replace Planned Parenthood. 56 percent of Planned Parenthoods’s health centers are in rural or other medically underserved areas. That means Planned Parenthood provides primary and reproductive healthcare to patients who otherwise have nowhere else to go. In 2015 Planned Parenthood provided care for 2.4 million patients, ranging from breast exams and pap smears, to sexually transmitted infection treatments and prenatal care. Also: abortions. Planned Parenthood is essential, in part, because of the abortion care they provide, not in spite of it.
Federally Qualified Health Centers (which include community health centers) and public hospitals are simply unable to meet that demand. Amid ongoing cuts to reproductive healthcare throughout the country, and not just to Planned Parenthood, it’s disingenuous at best to suggest those health centers could provide the essential services for which patients turn to Planned Parenthood. Take contraception; getting Federally Qualified Health Centers to meet Planned Parenthood’s services would mean sites that offer contraceptives would have to at least double their patients in 27 states, at least triple their capacity in nine of those states, and take on at least 2 million additional patients nationally. In many cases, community health centers refer their patients to Planned Parenthood to meet the needs that they can’t.
AS: Why did you decide to become an escort at a Planned Parenthood? Did you have some kind of connection or relationship with Planned Parenthood that motivated you to volunteer as an escort? Why Planned Parenthood instead of an independent abortion facility?
RS: I first became a clinic escort when I was 19, as co-founder of a Planned Parenthood group on my college campus. I have now escorted in three cities at five clinics, at a mix of Planned Parenthood locations and independent clinics. I became an escort because I wanted to be a supportive and non-judgmental presence for patients and help them enter clinics safely. I have continued volunteering as an escort over the last 12 years because of attacks on abortion rights, and on providers and clinics. When clinics are surrounded by increasingly hostile and intimidating protesters, trying to block patients from accessing care, I feel it is essential for those patients to be met by a visibly supportive presence outside clinics, as well.
AS: What is your understanding of the purpose of pro-life sidewalk counseling advocacy at Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics? Why do you think pro-life counselors come to an abortion facility?
RS: I understand that many protesters feel they are there to provide patients with other options, and to dissuade women from choosing abortion. I know many people stand outside clinics to pray. I strongly disagree, though, that what happens outside clinics can in any way be considered counseling. For one thing, a counseling relationship requires consent, and patients have not asked for or agreed to this “counseling.” For another, what kind of counselor tries to trick someone into missing a medical appointment by misdirecting them to a crisis pregnancy center? Or belittles a patient’s husband’s masculinity? Or screams at a woman who is forced by medical necessity to terminate a pregnancy she very much wants that she is going to hell? Though I know protesters feel called to try and “save” babies and women, often due to deeply held religious conviction, the actual outcome is that patients are angered, traumatized or kept away from seeking medical care. In all of my days escorting, I have never witnessed a truthful, calm, consensual conversation between a protester and a patient or her companion. I have seen and been subjected to countless instances of harassment, stalking, intimidation, screaming and grabbing of patients and escorts.
AS: How do you respond to a pregnant woman who comes to Planned Parenthood, but says she does not want an abortion? Do you expect Planned Parenthood to meet her needs with prenatal care or referral? Would you support her decision or try to convince her that abortion is a better alternative that parenting or placing her child for adoption?
RS: As an escort, my interactions with patients are brief — greeting them, opening the door, sometimes putting my body between them and a protester who is touching them or screaming at them — so I don’t often have substantive conversations about why they are there. I expect health care providers at Planned Parenthood to uphold the same medical ethics as any health care provider, which is (to paraphrase the AMA Code of Ethics) to facilitate patients’ meaningful participation in decisions about their health care by providing information and helping patients understand their medical condition and their options. Anyone seeking an abortion at Planned Parenthood or any other clinic receives (actual) counseling, and if a patient tells the counselor they are uncertain or want to pursue other options including adoption or parenting, the patient is given the appropriate care or referrals. Some Planned Parenthood locations do provide prenatal care.
My response, personally, to anyone who I speak with who is considering abortion but expresses that they don’t want to terminate is to work with them to overcome the perceived barriers to continuing a pregnancy that they want. That could include identifying programs that can help alleviate financial concerns, helping them leave an abusive relationship, or finding information on adoption arrangements that meet their needs.
I would never try to convince someone to have an abortion, just as I would never to try to convince them to carry a pregnancy. I support people in the choices they make for themselves.
Robyn Swirling: People who have murdered abortion providers and who have set fire to or vandalized clinics have justified their actions using the same rhetoric we hear on the sidewalks outside clinics. How does it make you feel to see them using the same images and words as clinic protesters?
Ann Scheidler: First of all, we need to define our terms. There is a difference between a protester, a participant in a rally and a sidewalk counselor. I have protested outside of abortion clinics, including Planned Parenthood. I have attended and spoken at rallies opposing Planned Parenthood. But most of my time at an abortion clinic, whether Planned Parenthood or an independent abortion clinic, has been spent in outreach to the pregnant women who come there thinking abortion is their best or only option. You wouldn’t believe how often a woman tells me, “I have no choice.” Those are sad words. We have been told for over 44 years that women have freedom of choice, yet many women don’t really choose abortion. They settle for it. They agree to it. They are stuck with it, because they don’t have the support they feel they would need in order to choose life for their babies. As a sidewalk counselor I want to empower her to make a free choice for herself and her baby. If I can let her know that help is available, counseling medical care, material resources, sometimes just someone to listen to her, this may free her up to think of the pregnancy and her baby as something good and beautiful, not just a problem.
The fact that some people who claim to be pro-life and have turned to violence may sometimes use the rhetoric that a sidewalk counselor uses is unfortunate. There is no justifying violence, whether against an abortionist or against a helpless unborn baby. I have never spoken to anyone who has resorted to violence with regard to opposing abortion. But if I did, I would in no uncertain terms condemn violence as immoral, illegal and counterproductive.
RS: Many people choose abortion due to lack of financial resources and support. What proven policies do you support to make people more financially able to raise children, like raising the minimum wage or access to TANF and WIC?
AS: It is true that many women opt for abortion because of the financial burden of a child. But the fact that it will cost money to feed, clothe and house a child is no excuse to end his life. There are several government programs available to assist those individuals who are having a tough time making ends meet. But beyond that, there are over 3,000 pregnancy resource centers in the United States, whose sole purpose is helping women cope with unplanned pregnancies, providing material assistance, emotional support and mentoring. Many of these centers have residential facilities where a woman can live in safety, often with her other children, receive job training and build her confidence to go forward successfully with her life.
I do not feel qualified to comment on issues such as raising the minimum wage which have unintended consequences that could be detrimental to those with limited skills. But I believe encouraging continuing education and vocational training would benefit anyone trying to raise a family. It is also crucial that the men who father so many children be required to contribute to the support of those children. Far too often women are left to raise their children alone either because the father refuses to help, cannot be located, or as instilled a level of fear in the mother that she is afraid to demand his support.
Naturally I would heartily recommend that women avoid a sexual relationship with a man who has not made a serious long-term commitment to her, preferably by marrying her. Our culture minimizes the importance of commitment and those who suffer the most from this situation are women and children.
RS: The tactics clinic protesters use to dissuade those seeking abortions have a low success rate. Why do you continue to promote clinic protest?
AS:You are right. We do have a low success rate. But every life is intrinsically valuable, so if we save the life of one child it is worth it. When a woman arrives at an abortion clinic, she has emotionally separated herself from the baby in her womb. She just wants to be not pregnant. She doesn’t really want to end the life of her child, but that’s what abortion is.
There is no denying that many women feel pressured to choose abortion, as I explained above. So we come to the abortion facility in the hope that we can offer an alternative to those women who wish they didn’t have to go through with the abortion. And that does happen, so it’s worth the trouble of pro-lifers being there. Again we are not there in protest. We are there to offer help.
RS: One in three women in the US has an abortion, and studies show95 percentof them believe they made the right decision. How have conversations you’ve had with those who do not regret their choice shaped your understanding of the reasons people have abortions?
AS: The fact is that those women who stand by their choice of abortion don’t actually want to talk about it with a pro-life person. They make the statement that they have had an abortion and don’t regret it, but that’s as far as it goes. However I have had extensive conversations and listened to the testimony of so many women who desperately wish they had not made that choice. Just last week at a memorial service for aborted children, I met and listened to a woman tell her personal story of having had four pregnancies, but she has no children. All were aborted. She deeply regrets those abortions. She talked about how she never got to hold her children, to see them smile, to celebrate their birthdays. We don’t want women to have to go through that agony.
RS: How do you respond to patients who say that they feel intimidated by protesters’ tactics like following them to their cars, taking pictures of license plates, and displaying graphic images? Where do you, personally, draw the line in your attempts to be a “sidewalk counselor” for patients?
AS: I reiterate, sidewalk counselors are not protesters. I have never taken a picture of a patient’s license plate. Yes, I have followed them to their cars in order to offer them a piece of literature or a referral to a pregnancy resource center, or simply an opportunity to talk about their options and their reason for thinking abortion is the answer.
In general sidewalk counselors do not use graphic images of the aborted babies when we are trying to establish communication with a pregnant woman. It can be useful once a conversation is ongoing to show the woman what happens to her baby in an abortion, but the usefulness must be evaluated in the context of the conversation.
I do believe in the efficacy of showing the public the victims of abortion. And we have spoken with many women who told us they chose not to abort a baby because they had seen a graphic picture of an aborted baby. They hadn’t realized until then what an abortion really was. So, again, if it saves a life, it is worth it.