After reading some of my recent posts about clinic escorting Aspen Baker emailed me asking for more focus on the nonviolent philosophy behind escorting. Aspen, Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, is an inspiration in the way she brings philosophies of peace to reproductive justice organizing. In her writing Aspen argues the abortion debate has become a polarized war of ideology and politics that has little relationship to the lived experience of abortion. To bring peace to this conflict and break out of this debate, Aspen advocates basing our work around the voices, experiences, and needs of women who have actually had abortions. This “pro-voice” philosophy is very much connected to my thinking around the nonviolent approach of clinic escorts.
The atmosphere outside reproductive health clinics when antis are present is tense. The threat of physical violence is always present, and verbal harassment is all but guaranteed. Many antis are obvious in their attempts to engage escorts in debate – they’d love to piss us off, get us angry, and get a chance to spew their rhetoric in a verbal battle with someone on the opposite side of the abortion war. They want the outside of the clinic to have a toxic atmosphere (er, I mean, be a space “full of saints and angels”) that gets in the way of women accessing abortion.
As an escort in the DC area I have agreed to WACDTF’s nonviolence policy. When escorts make a commitment to nonviolence we are deliberately deciding not to engage with antis in the way they want. We recognize that fighting with them does nothing to help women access reproductive health care, and instead contributes to making reproductive health clinics frightening or even dangerous to access. When we practice nonviolence we are refusing to engage on the antis’ terms.
Our goal is to de-escalate the situation outside the clinic so women can access reproductive health services. Sometimes we have to step in to stop physical clashes between antis and patients, those accompanying patients, and passers by on the street. We wouldn’t be able to do this if we engaged with the antis on their terms. We are trying to create a space free of conflict, and thus our work needs to be grounded in nonviolence.
Nonviolence connects us to a history of struggles for justice. It is a way to step outside conflict as the framework of a debate and model a different approach. It also gives us the tools to do the necessary work instead of get distracted by a conflict that’s not actually about the needs of real people. When met with nonviolence those behaving violently (verbally or physically) are often at a loss. It doesn’t match their expectations and doesn’t engage with them on their own terms so it throws them off and, if they’re actually interested in a productive outcome, makes them behave differently. At the very least it keeps antis outside clinics from getting to define that space on their own terms.
Nonviolence is a tool to model a different approach to abortion. I don’t want to be locked in a fruitless debate – I want women to be able to access reproductive health services, including abortion, without coming up against barriers. The abortion wars do nothing to help create this reality, and in fact get in the way of realizing reproductive freedom. Nonviolent clinic escorts are simultaneously dealing with a sad reality by working to help individual women access abortion and living an approach to abortion that represents our vision for a world where abortion is not understood through a violent conflict that has little to do with actual women’s health care.