Holding Anti-Choice Protesters Accountable

According to 40 Days of Life of Pittsburgh, a non-profit which connects pro-life protesters with clinics to protest during Lent, there are 70+ churches which support 40 Days for Life. 40 Days for Life of Pittsburgh provide a pdf listing all of them here.

When I walked into the clinic Wednesday to volunteer phone banking for pro-choice candidates for local office, I had to walk past half-a-dozen men and women with signs depicting exploded fetuses, informing me I would regret going into the clinic, and directing me to Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Pittsburgh, most of which employ no doctors, no nurses, and no medical equipment other than store-bought pregnancy tests. It’s cruel and it’s common enough that most women who I escort into the clinic put up with the harassment without showing anger.

I kept thinking about this website, run by extremist anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, which lists the work and home addresses of Planned Parenthood doctors, board members, and staff. And thinking about the ways in which First Amendment speech can also be harassment. The reason Operation Rescue gives for providing such intimate information about people who support access to abortion is to hold all pro-choice people accountable.

I would no more want to force Operation Rescue to take down its site or the 70+ churches to stop sending protesters outside my clinic than I would want women to be banned from accessing abortion. But I like this idea of accountability, in a vicious kind of way.

I was just going to grumble and make cake (a quick way to cheer myself up), but then my friend Lilly posted this article on my wall. Briefly, it tells the story of a man who rents a building to an abortion clinic and whose young daughter was then targeted at school by anti-choice protesters. Members of his family, including siblings and in-laws, were called at home by protesters.

This man got a group of friends together, and started recording the phone numbers of the people who called him to harass him. Then he gave the numbers to his friends and supporters to call back: unlike the protesters, this man and his friends have very strict, G-Rated rules on what counter-protesters can say on the phone. No threats, no cruelty, just a reminder than a phone call goes both ways. While the political is for women often the personal, this man made it equally personal to his harassers.

A lot of folks are talking about getting the politics out of women’s healthcare, but I don’t think of it that way. I agree with Roy Cohn as imagined in Angels in America. He says that politics is “the game of being alive.” What I want is to get the cruelty out of women’s healthcare.

Forced ultrasounds (penetrative or otherwise)? Cruel. Forced readings of anti-choice scripts written by legislators before women can ask for an abortion? Cruel. Forced waiting periods which cost unpaid days of work? Cruel.

Following presumably pregnant women down the street, pressuring them to reveal their personal medical information in public, calling them murderers, harassing their children and partners, touching them without permission, trying to intimidate pregnant people? All cruel.

Laws like these and the protesters who lobby for them treat women’s bodies like public property controlled by the whims of legislators. Protesters often treat women walking into my clinic as if our bodies are blank billboards waiting for their messages.

I don’t talk back to the protesters most of the time but I am afraid this has given them the mistaken impression that what they are doing–getting in my face, shoving violent photos at me, following me down the street–is acceptable behavior. I get the feeling the protesters don’t think it matters how they treat me: I have certainly never seen protesters at my clinic chastise each other for being uncommonly cruel.

Letter writing time.

I have some extra envelopes and heart-stamps left over from writing thank you notes for Matthew and my wedding, and I have a permanent supply of personalized stationary as gifts from my Mom. I also had the afternoon free–Matthew started his job with Amazon last week and I took him to the airport that day on his way to Seattle. I found the websites and mailing addresses of a selection of the those 70+ churches as well as the names of their chief pastors. I have written them each a note, reading:

Dear [Priest’s name],

Members of your parish were cruel to me and women like me as we walked into a health clinic this month. I use Planned Parenthood because it is the kindest, cheapest medical care available to me. I look forward to the day when I can get my yearly check-up without being intimidated by members of your church.


Jessica Dickinson Goodman

They’ll probably disregard my letters. I’m probably not the first person to be offended that they are supporting a style of protest which is, at its very heart, intimidation of pregnant women. I hopefully won’t be the last.

But I wanted these pastors to know: I see you and I am ashamed of you.

Inspirational Quote:

“Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.”–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


  1. Brava, Jessica! Beautifully written and WELL SAID. “What I want is to get the cruelty out of women’s healthcare.” I couldn’t agree with you more.

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