Abortion Politics in the Nursing Home

Linda Johnson went to a nursing home one day to visit her elderly mother, who was recuperating from heart disease. During this visit, Linda had two unexpected encounters. The thing you have to know about Linda to appreciate both these incidents is that she has run an abortion clinic in a mid-sized Southern city for many years. The first encounter was a very pleasant one. "This nurse, 'Fran' was on her nametag, came into my mother's room. She closed the door carefully, and hugged me! She said, 'don't you remember me?' I said, 'well, no I don't.' She said, 'I was your patient many years ago. You saved my life. I was in a relationship that was really bad, and you told me to do what I needed to do. And it all worked out.' She then turned to my mother and repeated, ' 'Your daughter saved my life. If there is anything you need, just let me know.' Then she left."

Linda and her mother didn't know how soon they would be calling on Fran to make good on her promise of help. The second encounter was hardly pleasant. As Linda tells it, "Not five minutes after the nurse leaves, someone else comes into the room -- it's Ann Marie Starr, my stalker!" This Ann Marie, it turns out, is head of the local antiabortion forces, and for years has not only protested at Linda's clinic, but periodically follows Linda around town. "If she sees me in the grocery store, she'll start screaming at me … I just wait for the manager to throw her out."

Ann Marie, a regular volunteer at the nursing home, apparently had seen Linda's car in the parking lot, and had tracked down the location of her mother's room. "She started hassling my mother, telling her she'd pray for her, but given what I'd done, she might have to go to hell anyway. My mother begged her to leave, but Ann Marie refused, and started yelling about her 'right' to be there." The bizarre episode ended when Fran, hearing the uproar, rushed back to the room. "Fran is a good-sized woman and she just physically dragged Ann Marie out of there."

In reflecting about this incident, I began to see an aspect of the unending abortion wars in America I had not fully appreciated before. That those who provide abortions, either as clinicians or administrators, can be relentlessly pursued in their communities by their opponents -- hounded not only at their workplaces, homes and churches, but virtually anywhere where they might be spotted, as this nursing home story shows -- is hardly news. And while presumably any nurse, whatever her personal history, would have stepped in to remove an unwanted intruder, Fran's participation in this drama reminded me that there are millions of supportive "civilians" aiding the abortion providing community in this war, many with a history of deep gratitude for the abortions they or a loved one once received.

Linda's recollections to me about the nursing home incident came in the context of a larger conversation about the various acts of threatened or real violence her clinic had faced over the years, and the many outsiders who were unwittingly drawn in. She told me of a sobering meeting with an FBI agent, which led to her informing her Fed Ex driver, her UPS delivery person, and her postman of the possibility that they might be handling dangerous mail. Indeed, when her clinic was among the hundreds of abortion clinics receiving letters claiming to contain anthrax, it was her postman who was the first to handle that letter. He was subjected to various precautionary medical procedures until the substance could be definitively ruled as harmless. When antiabortionists (led by Ann Marie, she suspects) attacked her clinic with an infusion of butyric acid -- a colorless liquid with an extremely unpleasant vomit-like odor -- it inconvenienced all the tenants in the building in which her facility leased space. When her clinic received a package that looked suspicious enough to call the bomb squad, again all those in her building were put on alert.

To my considerable surprise, Linda told me that in all in the above instances, these outsiders were very supportive and showed no rancor toward her or the clinic. The postman told her "he was just doing his job," and the other tenants in the building saved their anger for "the crazies" who were massively disrupting everyone's day.

To be sure, not all past abortion patients remain as grateful as Fran, the nurse in this story, as the existence of groups like Women Exploited by Abortionmakes clear. And even if most of the millions of former abortion patients do remain pro-choice, the beleaguered abortion providing community understandably wishes that this "silent majority" was more often outspoken, for example by pressuring politicians to support legal abortion.

Nevertheless, speaking with Linda made me realize that the antiabortion movement would be much farther along in its goal to stop abortion care were it not for the largely overlooked determination of many everyday decent Americans to stand with the provider community against its foes.

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