I’m watching CNN. There is an active shooter at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and the exact number of casualties is unknown. They don’t know much other than the gender of the gunman: male. People on Twitter think he’s white. I can’t help but feel numb, watching talking heads bicker about if this could be related to Black Friday shopping at nearby stores, as if this isn’t one attack in a series of attacks across decades of violence against women’s health clinics. It’s so soon after Paris. The talking heads don’t call this man a terrorist.
I used to volunteer for Planned Parenthood. Every Wednesday morning the summer before my sophomore year of college, I arrived at the clinic at 9am still rubbing sleep from my eyes. My position was a plain-clothes job, and the protestors clustered on the curb often confused me for a patient and tried to convince me I was making a mistake. I ignored it, stepping into the busy boulevard to avoid engaging with them. Some weeks the protesters had little kids with them, clutching poster-board signs in their tiny hands. Some weeks it was just one old man with a megaphone, intense and creepy. At the end of the summer, this man realized I was a volunteer and not a soul in need of saving. I went from a needy victim who could be reasoned with to a murderer. I think that was my last day working at the clinic because classes started the following week. I don’t remember being afraid; I was mostly annoyed by how absolute he was in his misunderstanding of what was happening behind those doors. He had no idea. Neither did I, but I came a little closer.
In many ways working at Planned Parenthood was exactly what I expected it would be. There were a lot of tears, some heaving with runny noses and staggered words, some silent and steady into the sleeves of sweatshirts. There were the shell-shocked teenagers who complimented my skinny jeans and asked me for more ginger ale. My main responsibility was to sit with patients in a private waiting room before they went in for their procedure. We practiced breathing together. If they asked me to, I would stay with them and pretend I was not a nineteen-year-old girl unable to relate to what they were going through.
Every woman* was different, with her own life story that had led her to the clinic and would continue on long after she left. For some, the day would remain in their memory, tinged with loss or relief. For others it just was, and there were busses that needed to be caught and kids who needed to be picked up from the sitter. Some women had friends, family members, lovers worrying about them in the waiting room who asked me with white faces if everything was okay. Other patients arrived alone and left alone to wait for cabs. There were a lot of text messages sent from the recovery room to update and reassure, I’m fine, everything’s fine.
I learned a lot about myself that summer, and about what it means to be pro-choice. Pro-choice is listening, is being supportive, is a stranger’s brittle arm woven through mine as we walked slowly down the hall. Sometimes pro-choice is getting down on your hands and knees to mop up vomit, and sometimes it’s being terrified. Pro-choice is understanding that you cannot know another person’s life but that they know it absolutely, and you must trust them. Pro-choice was every mother or boyfriend or cousin in the waiting room who would never consider abortion themselves but sat watching shitty daytime television for hours as the person they loved did what was right for her. And sometimes pro-choice is watching the news, hurt by your own lack of surprise.
Planned Parenthood provides STI testing and treatment and birth control and cancer screenings and, yes, it performs abortions. Everyone should have equal access to the health care treatment they need, and abortion is a medical procedure, not a crime. Many of my readers are anti-choice, because herpes doesn’t exactly fall along political lines, and some of you have quite respectfully tried to change my mind. But I am who I am because of Planned Parenthood, and I know it will be there for me whenever I need it, full of kind doctors and nervous but generous volunteers. I stand with Planned Parenthood. You should too.
*not everyone who has an abortion is a woman, and Planned Parenthood offers services to individuals of all genders.