It is the first day of the Lent “40 Days for Life” campaign, so there are more protesters than usual. On most days, we only have three or four at a time, but today, there are as many as twelve people on the sidewalk in any given hour. (They come in shifts.) Among them are two middle-aged women with black smudgy crosses on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. One of them holds a sign that reads: “I Regret My Abortion”. A box on the sidewalk displays gaudy plastic models of fetuses at various stages of development. One of the fetuses has fallen out of the box, and a postal carrier absentmindedly steps on it as he walks by. None of the protesters seem to notice. They are too busy approaching cars leaving the clinic's parking lot. They motion for the drivers to roll down their windows. If the drivers do so, the protesters shove pamphlets, rosaries, and little plastic fetus key chains in the window and say, "Life saving information! God bless you."
A bilingual protester approaches any Hispanic patients who walk out of the clinic, offering to take them to pray for “los son estan sufriendo” (those who are suffering). An elderly protester takes photos of our volunteers as he walks the perimeter of the clinic property. He seems convinced that we are up to something especially sly, so he hides behind the bushes where he thinks we won’t see him. He peers out at us, hoping to catch us doing I don’t know what. (Butchering late-term fetuses right there on the sidewalk? Performing nude Satanic dances?) He wears a baseball cap over his thick blue beanie. On the front of the cap, Jesus of the Cosmic Rays is embroidered in neon oranges, greens, and pinks. The strange thing about this seemingly conservative old man: he drives a little blue and white Smart Car. Goes to show that you can’t lump people into generic categories, right?
A man in his late twenties keeps coming out of the clinic to smoke cigarettes. His girlfriend is inside, about to have an abortion. He is visibly distressed. I offer to accompany him across the parking lot so the protesters won’t bother him, but he makes it clear that he’s not interested. The fourth time he comes out to smoke, the protesters motion him over and he goes and talks to them. They give him some kind of pro-life newspaper, and he vents to them for a while. He tells them how he and his girlfriend already have one baby, and have also already had one abortion. He’s not happy about his girlfriend having another one today, but she’s made up her mind, and there's no talking her out of it.
Half an hour later, he comes out to smoke again. This time he starts talking to me. “She just had the procedure. I just watched my baby get sucked out and plopped into a little cup,” he says. “A little bloody mass, plopped right into a cup.” I try to comfort him by giving him some thoughts I've picked up from Buddhism. I tell him that any soul that gets sent back will return to this earth someday, even though I don't really believe in that. It seems to comfort him, and he relaxes a little. His jeans are sagging over purple boxer shorts. His teeth are crooked and look unbrushed. He is wearing a black t-shirt that says, “Stupid People Need to Be Shot”, and he laughs bitterly over the inappropriateness of that being the shirt he chose to wear today. “I just grabbed what was clean,” he says. “I didn’t even think about it.” Soon his girlfriend comes out. There is palpable tension between them as they smoke their cigarettes angrily. I hear the girlfriend say the word “fuck” several times.
Fifteen minutes later, the boyfriend’s mother pulls into the parking lot to pick them up. Their little girl is with her. The kid is eight months old and wearing a fuzzy hoodie with pink rabbit ears. Her cuteness brings us all together--patients, volunteers, and protesters--to "ooooh" and "aaaawwww" over how adorable she is. We all forget the discomfort we felt earlier in the morning, if only for just a few minutes.
If anyone assumes they understand all sides of the abortion debate, I say they don’t. I have been volunteering with Planned Parenthood for eight months now, and I am only beginning to understand how complicated it is.