During morning rush hour, the scene near Affiliated Medical Services, a Milwaukee abortion clinic at 1428 N. Farwell Ave., would stop traffic – if it weren’t so commonplace. In the shadow of a Clear Channel-owned billboard featuring a pro-life message, raging anti-abortion activists spill into the street, thrusting signs with pictures of mangled fetuses in the windshields of passersby.
“Abortion is murder,” they scream.
After rush hour, the crowd generally disperses, leaving only a massive and grim-faced fellow with linebacker shoulders. On a recent visit to the site, his stature was accentuated by two tiny, older women – Planned Parenthood volunteers – who stood sheltered from the cold in a nearby doorway.
Just a few feet away the hulking protester’s car was parked on the street – a junker littered with trash. A dirty pink baby blanket covered part of the back seat.
The two women are “escorts,” they explained. They accompany patients into the clinic and back to their cars in an attempt to shield them from demonstrators. I watched as one of the shivering women walked a patient from the clinic to her car, the protester following a few feet behind them.
“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Why do you do this?”
“Would you like to share your point of view?” I prodded.
My questions were met with stony silence and withering stares. The protester produced a camera and asked my name in a rumbling sotto voce. I gave it to him and smiled. He snapped my picture. One of the escorts shook her head, signaling that I’d just made a grave mistake.
About halfway through the encounter, a homeless man appeared and asked everyone for change. I declined politely. The protester gave a brusque dismissal that elicited an angry response.
I wanted to ask the man why he was so committed to helping embryos but so dismissive toward a person in peril. But I said nothing. By now, I was intimidated, too.
For all the love they have for zygotes, embryos and fetuses, radical pro-lifers have little affection for people. A small percentage of extremists occasionally bomb abortion clinics and gun down their doctors and support staff. From 1998 to 2009, the National Abortion Federation recorded more than 50 arsons, bombings, shootings, stabbings and other attacks on abortion providers.
Perhaps the best-known incident occurred in May 2009, when Dr. George Tiller was shot to death by a pro-life activist while attending a service at his church in Wichita, Kan. Tiller was one of the only physicians in the country willing to provide late-term abortions.
While pro-life activists focus on these procedures as if they’re undertaken frequently and willy-nilly, they are extremely rare (slightly over 1 percent of all abortions) and medically necessary. They all involve tragic, heart-breaking stories.
A few years ago, I caught up with a childhood friend on Facebook, and we met for lunch in a Southern city where she’s made her home since graduating from college. As we filled each other in on the events of the past three decades, she began to cry.
Some years ago, she said, she’d had one of those rare pregnancies in which the fetus was badly deformed and destined to die prior to birth or shortly thereafter. The pregnancy also endangered her health.
Normally outgoing, my friend said she became pathologically depressed and withdrawn. She, her husband and her physician finally decided to end the pregnancy before it went any further.
But because the pregnancy was advanced, no one in her area would help her. Then she found Tiller.
“He saved my life,” she tearfully told me. “And they killed him.”
My friend and her husband went on to become supporters of Tiller’s work and personal friends. They also went on to have healthy children.
Stories like my friend’s will be featured at the event “Our Lives. Our Stories. Our Celebration,” organized by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin to mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 27 at Madison’s Majestic Theater.
“The centerpiece of the event is storytelling,” said Linda Neff, vice president of development for PPWI. The goal is to present the compelling stories of women who have gratitude for the availability of safe abortions.
“Six people will share their stories, and the stories are just humbling and powerful and so incredibly brave,” Neff said. “It is an event where everyday people are going to be sharing their stories about how they needed to access this essential health service … and what it means when women are demonized and not allowed to access reproductive healthcare.
“If you don’t walk out of there feeling that we need to continue to be vigilant at the most basic level for the access to this most essential healthcare, there’s something wrong with you. I think all of us, at the end of the event, are going to say, “I wish I had invited so-and-so – they really needed to have heard this.”