A year ago, I received my first abnormal pap result. I was terrified. The nurse practitioner who called with my result was kind and informative, and through my distress she calmly scheduled me for the next procedure to better assess what was going on. I hadn’t been in to get a well woman’s exam for several years because I didn’t have health insurance and wasn’t sure where to go. Life went on and before I knew it I couldn’t even remember my last annual appointment. Luckily, I had a good female friend who, upon finding out that I was very overdue, sent me a link to Planned Parenthood’s website where I could book an appointment online.
No woman wants to go for an annual exam. My last male ObGyn had joked about how the instruments they use are obviously designed by men who have never had a speculum in their vagina. So it is understandable why I avoided it for so long and felt guilty when the results were not good. After receiving a colposcopy and biopsy of the cervix, I was recommended to receive a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) where an electrified wire is used to burn the abnormal layers of the cervix. Fun. Stuff.
On the first Friday of a new year, my mom and I took an early morning trip to Sarasota. Though an hour away, this was the only Planned Parenthood in the area that offered this relatively common procedure, despite there being two closer clinics. We watched the sun rise, sang, and helped me forget that I was about to receive a procedure that I had been terrified of for a year. But, my reproductive health has become increasingly important as I have gotten engaged and we are talking about family planning. A big part of my motivation was to get my cervix back in shape so I could make a healthy baby one day.
The LEEP included having a speculum in my vagina for twenty minutes while the male doctor, who I wished was as gentle as he was kind, pushed, pricked, cut, and burned my cervix. I was ready to go home and curl up on the couch while getting well over my money’s worth of Netflix. But, my distressing journey wasn’t quite over.
When we walked out of the building, we were met by two smiling strangers in pink vests who asked if we would like an escort to our car. Escort to our car? It was a nice building and all, but I didn’t think the place was that fancy. I later learned that these two people were volunteering to protect the patrons of this health care provider from the harassment awaiting them.
Then I saw them.
Across the sidewalk was a line of about twenty protesters with signs telling us that we are murderers, that all women regret abortion (because, presumably, all women entering Planned Parenthood have them) and that since we are walking out of the doors of this building we are supporting the devil’s work. The DEVIL’S WORK!? I’m trying to get my reproductive system healthy so I CAN HAVE A CHILD! What about the women who are walking into this building for prenatal check-ups? What about the women who are walking into this building following a miscarriage? What about the women who did once have an abortion, but who are now walking into this building for general female health care?
I am one of the latter women.
Ten years ago, on January 3rd, I chose to terminate a pregnancy. It is not something I regret; I do feel like it was the right choice for me at the time. But, this doesn’t deny the sorrow and anguish that I felt upon leaving the procedure. When I made the appointment to have the LEEP, I realized it was just three days after the anniversary of my abortion. I would be traveling to Planned Parenthood on January 6th, the Christian holiday of Epiphany.
Epiphany in Christianity usually refers to the meeting of Jesus and the Three Wise Men, but symbolically it represents the physical manifestation of God being revealed to humans. More broadly, “epiphany” means a sudden revelation or manifestation of the divine in the form of an experience or even another person.
As we began to whisper quietly with the two volunteer escorts, there on the steps of the building on that Epiphany morning, I began to take in what was happening. I quickly found out that we would need the pink vest protection. At first we laughed as one of the volunteers politely explained that these people are here to tell us that we are going to hell, yada, yada, while rolling her eyes compassionately, if such a thing can be done. Lightheartedly, we began to walk by with the same level of curiosity and bafflement one might feel in a curio shop. Just when we got past the line, a female protester the same age of my mother, wearing a full-body placard called to us, “Abortionists are murderers.”
A jolt of electricity shot through me. I had the same feeling I’d had when I walked out of the woman’s clinic ten years ago, and no longer pregnant. I could see the faces of all the women who have walked out of this building having had an abortion or some other reproductive health care, and all the faces that just went through an uncomfortable medical procedure like I had. I could feel every cell in my body, every X chromosome vibrating with the history of women who have made the decision or not, women who have put their will upon another woman’s body, and every woman who has felt helpless as a result.
Then, every woman who has felt powerful, every woman who has used her voice, every woman who has stood up for what she knows is right, who got silenced and yet still persisted, shouted with me when I turned around and defiantly yelled, “Oh. My. Fucking. God. I am here to get health care! You cannot tell me what to do with my uterus!” There was probably more, but it is all a blur.
I had an epiphany at that moment. I realized I had forgotten we live in the world we live in, with a grand variety of expressions and opinions that can vary drastically with mine. It is so easy to isolate oneself in a like-minded community where events like this don’t occur every day. But, they do occur every day, or at least every Friday at the Sarasota Planned Parenthood.
Sometimes I don’t want to fight anymore. Sometimes I don’t want to have to be a feminist, or explain why an issue is solely important to women, but I also cringe every time I watch TV or see a billboard because of the obvious patriarchal bias and subtle messages that dismantle my rights as a woman. I can’t even go to an affordable procedure for my reproductive health without being harassed and judged. We live in a world where there are people who stand outside a women’s clinic as if they have the right to say what these women can do with their bodies. As if they have the right to judge them.
But, a more enlightened epiphany occurred moments later. As we approached our car, even more baffled than before, a woman was following closely behind us. In the moment, I thought she might be a protester who wanted to engage some more, and if I got into a physical brawl on a quiet sidewalk on a Friday morning, I wouldn’t regret that either. But, she was really God in disguise.
“I’m sorry to be following you, but I just had to come apologize,” the woman hesitantly said. “I’m a Christian and teach Sunday school and I was just dropping my daughter off for school across the street and heard what happened. These people shouldn’t be out here and they have no right to be harassing you. I just want to say I’m sorry and they do not represent my Christianity.”
We had a deeply genuine exchange. She admitted to having had her tubes tied, which means she would be considered a sinner by the protesters, too. I didn’t know pro-life supporters could be that extreme in their position, and most likely many aren’t since we don’t see protests outside of hospitals where they perform hysterectomies. But, it appeared that she too had faced criticism for her decisions on her reproductive health. I told her that I did have an abortion a long time ago, which is why I reacted so strongly, but that I am here to get healthy so I can have a child. I also told her that I love God, and that as far as I am concerned, Jesus and I are on good terms. She smiled and affirmed for me that these other people are wrong to tell me otherwise.
This woman was my sudden appearance of the divine. Perhaps, she recognized the pain of being a woman in my voice, or that she also heard the voices of our shared histories in my outburst. Perhaps, her voice wanted to join in and tell me that I am not alone. Or maybe, she was a woman with a good heart who didn’t want other people to hurt. In other words, a Christian doing God’s work in the world.
That is what we really need: the people who will be the bridges between perspectives and worldviews, the people who will reach across and hold the hand of someone different, the people who know and see that the difference between us is less than the greatness we all share. I wish I could have been that for those protesters, but I’m not there yet. I am still healing.
When we drove by, I shouted my truth, “God loves me even though I had an abortion!” That one wasn’t for all women. That one was just for me.
* * *
It has been over three months since this encounter, and I strongly feel that these stories need to be told. Since the Women’s March and the variety of responses to it, it seems clear to me that the clash of ideologies is ever present. When I went through my abortion and the healing that followed, I found the best support in my academic community at college, particularly in Religious Studies and Women’s Studies. Both of these disciplines lent themselves to the expansion of worldviews and belief systems. In these classes, I learned the power of the story and how a narrative can transform our awareness.
I still think back to the woman who came to console me on that Sarasota street. We could see ourselves as quite different: she, a single mom who teaches Sunday school, and me, a still single and childless self-acclaimed Episca-Pagan. Sharing her circumstances that led to her decision to stop her body from having future children, we shared a sense of common ground.
I think that what we need now more than ever is a revival of storytelling. I want to hear the stories of those who think differently than me, perhaps stories that reveal why they think the way they do. Even though I was not in the space to hear the stories of the protesters that I faced in Sarasota, with some time now passed, I see that as one of the only ways forward.
That also means telling my story, too. I do not expect to change minds on the issues here. I only wish to share in hope that someone else going through this also knows that she is not alone, and no one can say what is between her and God.