How Anti-Abortion Protesters Got Me: Letter From a Young Activist

How Anti-Abortion Protesters Got Me: Letter From a Young Activist

by Sarah Flint Erdreich

I was 13 years old during the anti-choice “Summer of Mercy” in 1991 when anti-choice activists laid siege to Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kansas. That was the beginning of my abortion education – my first awareness that there were people in this country who opposed abortion so strongly that they would leave their homes and spend days harassing and yelling at other people.

Prior to that, I didn’t realize that anyone could oppose a woman’s right to choose. A lot of this naiveté was due to growing up with liberal parents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an equally liberal college town. I vividly remember my mother’s “Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice” button; in my mind, those six words pretty much summed up the entire debate.

No doubt, part of my fascination with the summer siege arose from a deep, almost instinctive interest in anything that hinted at controversy. When I was five, I took great pride in the shocked reaction of adults when I spelled out the word “sex” during a Scrabble game; a couple of years later, I asked my Hebrew school teacher why everyone always thought God was a man. In the 8th grade, my best friend and I looked up the word “whore” in the thesaurus, memorized as many archaic-sounding pseudonyms as we could, and proceeded to proudly use them as terms of endearment.

So I was bound to be interested in the subject of abortion with its interconnected issues of sex, women’s rights and individual autonomy. But as a doctor’s daughter, I was also angry and scared that a physician actually could be in danger just for doing his job. I knew logically that my father’s work as a pathologist was highly unlikely to ever put him in danger, but then again, until that summer I never would have thought that any doctor’s work could stir up such passion and ugliness.

Touched by Post-Roe Passion

Back then, I had no idea that I would one day be encountering that kind of passion and ugliness on a regular basis. In high school and for most of college, I thought that I was going to be an attorney, albeit one that focused on women’s issues. It took me a long time to accept that being a writer was the only thing that I wanted to do with my life, and an even longer time to admit that, through my writing, I had become a pro-choice activist.

The activists who I’ve met are so engaged, passionate and just plain sure of themselves and the value of their actions; they set an intimidatingly high bar to reach. By contrast, I came to activism in a sideways manner. I applied to work on an abortion information hotline only because I was looking for a regular paycheck to supplement my freelance writing and editing work. But gradually, I realized that it was going to the hotline that I most looked forward to each day; helping women in an immediate, tangible manner gave me the most satisfaction. And the more I learned about just how tenuous abortion access is in so much of this country, the more I was drawn to the work.

I was scared
that a physician
could be in danger

I was surrounded by passionate and engaged activists who were talking about abortion on a much deeper and less politicized level than how the national conversation is usually conducted. These conversations became the basis of my book, Generation Roe, which can best be described as the antidote to the usual abortion debate. The book draws from interviews with activists and providers who speak about their own experiences, challenges and successes, as well as their thoughts on how to create a more effective and forceful movement.

This process gave me more than just pages of material; it also shaped my own beliefs about the pro-choice movement and made me truly feel like I could contribute. The activists I met were so committed and insightful; their voices and perspectives deserve to be heard, and their work belies the tired criticism that younger generations don’t care about reproductive rights. That’s simply not true.

During the course of writing Generation Roe, I continued with my own activism work. Several months ago I became one of the hundreds to help Todd Stave, the landlord of Germantown Reproductive Services in Maryland, successfully defeat anti-choice advocates who were harassing him and his family. In response, I received an email from one of these individuals that accused me of being an “American Nazi,” a slur that took my breath away. Then, this past holiday season, I attended a party for a pro-choice group. Protesters stood outside the door with signs, and as I walked into the building they stopped arguing with the police and began comparing abortion to Nazi war crimes. I hesitated for a second, distracted both by my desire to yell back and the idle question of why I, a Jew, kept running into people who equated abortion with the Holocaust. Finally, I kept walking. I’m still not sure if I made the right choice.

Sculpting My Own Ideas

But that’s part of the balancing act, and it doesn’t just extend to choosing when or how to engage with adversaries. Every person that I’ve interviewed has her or his own ideas about what direction the pro-choice movement should take and, as a result, I’ve spent way too much time wondering about alternative perspectives — including those of the established pro-choice organizations. From both my own experience in the movement and those of other activists, it seems that established groups aren’t as strong as they could be; too much energy is spent on reacting to new threats from the anti-choice movement, instead of taking strong stands and refusing to bow to political pressure or public ignorance.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged

It’s difficult to criticize any part of a movement that I admire, but, I’ve learned, that’s also part of being an activist: to look honestly and clearly at both the successes and the failures, and to learn from past mistakes and missed opportunities. Addressing ways in which we can improve internally can only strengthen our external actions.

That can be a pretty tall order, and honestly sometimes it’s hard not to feel discouraged. But then I think of the Summer of Mercy and the courage of Dr. Tiller and his staff, patients and every person who came out to support women’s choice. They showed bravery and dedication, but carried the conviction that there was nothing heroic or special about what they were doing: that they were just doing what was right, end of story. That simple belief propels me forward at the most difficult of times, helps me untangle complicated arguments and reminds me that, compared to battling hundreds of angry protesters in the scorching Kansas sun, I really have nothing to get discouraged about.

But I have to admit that there’s one other thing that propels me forward. That’s thinking about how pissed off those Summer of Mercy protesters would be if they knew that their repulsive activities inspired me – and countless others – to fight for reproductive freedom. Those people that I will never meet and whose motivations I will never fully comprehend helped chart the course of my life, and for that I say, thank you.

Sarah Flint Erdreich recently completed her first book, “Generation Roe,” about young pro-choice physicians, attorneys and activists. Her thoughts can be found at the Generation Roe blog and Feminists for Choice.

Also see: Anti-Abortion Harassment and Violence Still Stifle Access by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Letter to a Young Activist: Don’t Drop the Banner by Barbara Santee in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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