The piece below originally ran in June 2014 following the Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley which invalidated Massachusetts' buffer zone laws surrounding women's healthcare centers that provide abortion services. The piece's emphasis on fear of violence and intimidation when receiving medical care that is women's right was punctuated, again, in Friday's shooting and murder of three individuals at a Colorado Springs, CO Planned Parenthood.
When I moved to Massachusetts in 2007, UMass Boston health insurance did not kick-in for several months. Hence, while I could drop the titles “Doctor” and “Professor,” I could not afford medical attention. A multi-state move and graduate school debt had my credit cards burning and my bank account hovered around zero after I paid my first, last, and seemingly every month’s rent upon my arrival in Boston. Unlike many American women at the time, my health insurance gap only lasted a few months. Like many American women though, I required healthcare. It seems my lady parts did not get the memo we were uninsured.
As one in five American women will do in her lifetime, and like the 82% of patients who are over 20 years-old when they do so, I headed to Planned Parenthood. The closest locale to me happened to be the one on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University that was one of the clinics at the center of the Supreme Court’s ruling against buffer zones last Thursday. It’s not a welcoming facade. Imagine if your worst experience in airline security married a pay-day lender location. Go colder and more solitary. That’s the feel. Steel tones dominate and one has to go through heavy metal doors, talk to volunteers through bullet proof glass, and send your bags and self through airline-style security all to gain entry to the main waiting room. Security is present and deeply felt. Now add that the reason you’re experiencing all this is because your basic medical welfare, your right to accessible women’s healthcare, has been semi-criminalized. In liberal Massachusetts, a state with one of the best records on women’s reproductive health and freedom, accessing this care feels like a criminal offense. The workers were lovely but: metal doors, bullet proof glass, electronic screening. Buying condoms, getting the snip, or a prescription for Viagra do not come with this aesthetic. And the difference is shaming. And scary. One feels small entering the Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue.
I research and teach in the field of women and politics. I recognize that comparatively speaking women in Massachusetts are increasingly unique in their ability to even walk into a clinic as their very existence is under attack – especially in the South. Mississippi, for instance, has one clinic in the entire state that performs abortions and nuisance laws threaten its ability to stay open. Poor women and women of color are most deeply affected. Yet, this comparative advantage does little to negate how the security measures Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue must take make many women feel when they consider entering (nor does it negate the fact that the issues in Mississippi and Massachusetts both rest upon the twin pillars of patriarchy and class hierarchy with racialized overlays).
And just why is this security state necessary? Because there have been some 17 attempts to kill doctors who provide abortions since 1991. Because women’s health clinics that include abortion amongst the medical services they provide have been bombed and their workers stalked. Because in 1994 at the Brookline Planned Parenthood John Salvi murdered two workers. And because, in places like the Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue, anti-choice/pro-life activists blocked entrances, caused public spectacle, hurled insults, and generally created an environment that shamed women seeking to walk though Planned Parenthood doors. So in late 2007, with strong support from the MA delegation, Deval Patrick signed into law a 35 foot buffer zone surrounding women’s clinic providers that allowed protesters to do their thing but disallowing such direct access to women potentially seeking care. And let’s be honest here: most of the protesters are fully aware that they are not going to change a woman’s mind by hurling comments at her on the way in. Rather, they know that a public spectacle can intimidate women. Walking the gauntlet is something people rationally avoid. And the gauntlet outside Planned Parenthood operates to intimidate and shame women. Importantly, the women who consider doing so seek the full array of Planned Parenthood services: preventative screenings, birth control, treatment of chronic conditions, STD testing, and, yes, abortion.
Women’s healthcare clinic protesters win then not in changing women’s minds but in changing their calculus. Protesters with such intimate access inculcate fear and shame amongst women seeking to receive the healthcare that is their right. Protesters win even on days when they are not there by inculcating the mental anguish potential patients feel when thinking about their presence. They win by necessitating bulletproof glass and screenings for weapons upon to enter a healthcare clinic. They win by making the threat of violence a part of accessing women’s healthcare.
The day I needed Planned Parenthood, the protesters were not there. But their markings and possibilities were. And that made it more difficult to claim the basic care that is my right. And here is the thing: it’s no one’s business why I went to Planned Parenthood. Sure, I get the curiosity. I have more than a passing interest in US Weekly. I do not withhold to be provocative. Rather, I withhold because I do not believe in reifying a “deservedness” hierarchy among women who get the “acceptable” women’s healthcare and the “shameful and silencing” kind. The research indicates that this divides women and does so all too often along the lines of privilege. All women need preventative screenings. Most women utilize birth control while fertile. Nearly half of American women in fertile years since Roe v Wade have received an abortion. The point is Planned Parenthood provides all these services and the buffer zone law made it easier for women to access their full reproductive rights.
Once my healthcare kicked in, this professor did not need Planned Parenthood for my healthcare services. And, tellingly, when I go to my provider I no longer have to worry about protesters and buffer zones. The privilege my education, occupation, and whiteness affords me makes this possible. But, it just got harder for women considering Commonwealth Avenue, and these are the very women least likely to have the resources I enjoy.
In Thursday’s decision invalidating the Massachusetts buffer zones, the Supreme Court said okay to shame, yes to fear, and affirmative to making women’s reproductive health contingent upon these threats. And it said absolutely for women’s healthcare where protesters only greet women who receive healthcare at “those” clinics. Massachusetts had it right. SCOTUS got it wrong.