During your commute to school you may have noticed the bench across from the Tim Horton’s on Water Street, which depicts an image of an infant with the phrase: “Take my hand, Not my life.”
These signs, brought to you by the Peterborough Pro-Life group, can be found on benches around the city.
In lieu of these signs, and the recent decision by the city to allow anti-abortion advertisements on our buses, I conducted an interview with a Peterborough local, Janet Barch, about her experience with abortion, both as a patient and as a clinic escort in the United States.
[Janet Barch is a pseudonym used to protect the interviewee’s identity. Barch is a character from the late-90’s TV show, Daria; a crude, but humorous stereotype of the ‘man-hating feminists’ of the second wave. We thought the pseudonym ironic and somehow fitting.]
***TRIGGER WARNING: this interview contains graphic description of murder and discussion of the emotional impact of abortion on the patient***
Kaz: Tell me about being a clinic escort.
Janet: I became a clinic escort for the first time in 1998 in New York. At the time, there were groups called ‘Operation Rescue’ and ‘Operation Save America,’ these horrendous anti-abortion groups that would stand outside the clinics and scream at women.
As a clinic escort, I got called names, occasionally spit on. When you’re escorting someone you just talk to that person so they can try and ignore what’s going on around them. That’s so important, because for some people, just knowing they will have to go through that kind of harassment is enough to make them not come to the clinic.
That October was when Dr. Slepian was shot. Death was this thing that was threatened all the time. Anti-abortion groups had doctors on Internet hit lists, where they would say, “These are baby murderers, go and get them.” Dr. Slepian was shot in his home; he was standing in his kitchen with his family, and this murderer named James Kopp shot him in the head and he bled to death in front of his family.
Luckily, in New York we had doctors that stepped in right away to take Slepian’s place … but his murder changed everything. Suddenly, people were wearing bulletproof vests and doctors kept their curtains closed at home. It was brutal. It was like death reinforced to these groups what they were doing. Those websites crossed off Slepian’s name within hours of his death. It’s terrorism.
There came a time in my life when someone asked me if there was anything I was willing to die for, and I realized I was willing to die for the lives of women. If someone shot me, but I was helping to keep abortion access available, that was something worth dying for.
Kaz: What was your own experience with accessing abortion?
Janet: I was very lucky; I kind of already knew what to do because I had worked at a clinic. I was 19, I was living in Pennsylvania and I was in college. I was dating a guy, our birth control failed and I got pregnant.
There was a part of me that thought, “Do I want to have this baby?”
But then I realized: I’m 19, I’m in college – and what kind of life could I give this baby? Am I going to resent them forever? I would have a 15-year-old today, and I wouldn’t be living here in Canada, I wouldn’t be married, I wouldn’t have an education … I can’t say I wouldn’t have a child that I would love, but I wouldn’t have a life that I would love.
I went to Planned Parenthood. I thought I could handle it myself because I’d been an escort, but it was really hard. As an escort, you don’t yell at protestors. Your job is to get people in and out, and try to keep them as safe as possible. But when you’re going into a clinic and people are yelling at you, you just want to flip out.
At Planned Parenthood, they explained to me what they were going to do. They did an ultrasound. They said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And I said, “Yes.” It’s about choice. If I had said to them, “I want to have this baby, and I’m scared,” they would have said, “Let’s talk about your options.”
In Pennsylvania I went to a lot of pro-choice rallies, but I never got back into escorting. It sort of became, for a long time … this mental hurdle that I couldn’t get over. Now I knew what other people went through, and I felt like I couldn’t …
Kaz: Like you couldn’t close yourself off, the way you were able to before?
Janet: Exactly. So I started to work in different areas of Choice: going to rallies, writing a letter to my congressman, donating money, not voting Republican … just trying to be an educator.
Kaz: What are your thoughts on abortion access in Canada?
Janet: It’s not something I can speak to in great detail. The fact that it’s covered under provincial healthcare is huge. In the States, it can be prohibitively expensive. The fact that whole provinces here don’t have doctors willing to perform these procedures is shameful, but that’s something that’s not uncommon in the States. Restricting abortion kills people. Abortion is taking the potential for life; it’s not pretty, it’s not easy, but it’s a fact. And we have a right to it.
Janet: What’s important about my own access is that I had student loans, and I got the ‘father’ to give me half the amount of the cost of the procedure, which was $400. At the time it didn’t occur to me that there is a whole subset of women who don’t have this access. Four hundred dollars is a dream to some people.
I went into social services in Pennsylvania when I was unemployed to ask if I qualified for food stamps, and they literally said to me: “You don’t, but should you find yourself pregnant in the next six months, get back to us.” When you’re pregnant you have access to all kinds of healthcare. There must be desperate women out there, thinking: “I don’t know if I’m going to eat today, maybe I should get pregnant,” or, “I need dental surgery and I can’t afford it, maybe I should get pregnant.”
And all of this is something I didn’t really think about at the time of my procedure and I didn’t think about for a long time after. It’s something I’m learning now with intersectionality. I didn’t understand why women of colour feel excluded from feminism. Now I understand that the feminism that I subscribed to was white feminism, middle-class feminism. I was able to get out of my situation, but so many people can’t.
K: Do you feel that it’s downplayed, in feminist spaces, the emotional toll an abortion can take on the person going through it?
Janet: Absolutely, and that’s excellent marketing on the part of anti-choice groups. They always carry signs that say, “WOMEN REGRET ABORTIONS.” So many women wish they could have their babies, but it’s not the right time, or they aren’t able to be a parent. Ultimately, it’s not that they regret their abortion, it’s that they wish their life were in the right place for this baby to be a part of it.
Anti-choice groups capitalize on women’s emotions. They try to convince you that you’re a murderer, and that’s not true. But could you feel a loss after having an abortion? Of course, I felt a loss after mine. It wasn’t intense, but it was a loss. Some people feel a deep grief. And the fact that there is sometimes nowhere for people to go but into the arms of the anti-choice movement who say, “See? Abortion is bad,” or into the arms of feminists who say, “Shh! Don’t talk about how you feel, or you’ll set us back,” – that is so fucked up.
Kaz: Why do you think it’s important that anti-choice propaganda be confronted in our community?
Janet: If we don’t confront it, they control the conversation. We should never be complacent about our rights. They can so easily be taken away. Speaking out against anti-choice groups helps to take away the stigma of abortion and allows for informed discussion. Groups like the ones putting ads on the buses are relying on ignorance to bring people to their way of thinking.
Abortion was decriminalized in Canada in 1988, but the inaccessibility of clinics is still a fundamental problem in many provinces and territories. Barch and myself encourage all Trent students to learn how we can improve its accessibility for all those in need. We wish everyone a Happy Women’s History Month!