We have a pretty active protester presence at the Planned Parenthood I work at. We are very lucky in that the protesters here mostly stick to yelling and being obnoxious as their main form of intimidation, as other health centers have to deal with individuals who are more willing to break the law. However, the fact that our local protesters are law abiding doesn’t mitigate their attempts to intimidate and shame our patients.
So, what should you do if you have to deal with abortion protesters?
Here at Planned Parenthood, we practice a non-engagement policy with anti-choice protesters. This means that we practice and promote avoiding any contact with the protesters ranging from physical, to verbal, to even non-verbal communication (i.e. no making faces or rolling eyes!) Before working here, I would have questioned the effectiveness of this policy. Often times when I tell patients or people visiting the health center that this is what we promote, they are confused. So, I think it might be time to explain why the non-engagement is awesome, and why it works so well for our health centers.
Pretty frequently, patients and their guests feel motivated to yell at the protesters, to try to defend their decision so that the protesters will know that their situation is different. It is an understandable desire to make someone see your side, especially when you have come to a decision that may have been very difficult to make. The words of the protesters are cruel, demeaning, and don’t reflect the individual life situations of our patients. The protesters aren’t taking into account financial situations, emotional states, health complications, or anything else related to the specific patient. They are making blanket statements about motherhood and fatherhood, and ignoring complex issues. However, it is important to remember that it is no one’s burden to change their minds, and that they are probably not the type of individuals who can easily have their opinions changed. They’ve heard lots of stories, from lots of people, and they are still stuck in their convictions. That is their right, just like it is our patient’s right to receive comprehensive, safe, and non-judgmental health care. By engaging with the protesters, by even acknowledging that they are important enough to talk to, they gain a certain level of power. Their opinion is important enough to get a rise out of someone. I have observed from working at the clinic that ignoring these individuals is the best way to take their power away from them.
When I talk to patients I try to frame them as “small people.” They’re not monsters or demons, they’re mostly just bullies. People who come to abortion clinics to yell at and intimidate individuals getting abortions are hoping they will catch someone in a vulnerable position. Does somebody who yells at strangers during a possibly difficult time seem like someone who is following a path that isn’t based on direct confrontation? It is generally not worth engaging with individuals who are just seeking to rile up emotions and rely on guilt and fear for their tactics.
At our health center, individuals receive time with staff and volunteers trained in non-judgmental options counseling. They have their space to speak their truth, and come to a decision to that is truly right for them. This time is much more important than the unfortunate and misguided insults and abuse that they have to face from clinic protesters.