It wasn’t a protest, but a defense against a protest. For much of 1989, the year I turned seventeen, I would wake up on Saturdays, at around 6 a.m., and head to a local abortion clinic. The clinics in Buffalo, New York, where I lived, had recently become ground zero in the battle over abortion. Each day, anti-abortion protesters showed up, armed with signs showing images of what they claimed were aborted fetuses, and tried to blockade the clinic doors to prevent clients from entering. Our counter-protest aimed to get there first, and to form a moving picket that kept the protesters away and allowed clients to pass through.
By the end of the eighties, the war against abortion was in full swing. It had been revitalized by Reagan’s rise and the platform that his Presidency provided for a growing evangelical right. Gaudy televangelists decried “feminazis” and argued that abortion threatened women’s traditional roles as caretakers and mothers. A street movement of anti-abortion activists engaged in intimidation tactics, attempting to stop women from entering clinics. In upstate New York, the most prominent activist group was called Operation Rescue. Randall Terry, a former used-car salesman who became a born-again Christian in the nineteen-seventies, led it. Terry likened his crusade to the civil-rights movement and welcomed comparisons between himself and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an interview in 1989, he remarked, “The blacks were demonstrating for their own rights, and we are rescuing other people and standing up for babies’ rights. . . . There can be absolutely no compromise on this, any more than there was compromise on whether white southerners should have slaves.”
Failing to persuade women through conventional forms of protest, the anti-abortion right adopted increasingly violent tactics. In 1989, Terry said, “I believe in the use of force.” He added, adopting a more moderate tone, “I think to destroy abortion facilities at this time is counterproductive because the American public has an adverse reaction to what it sees as violence.” But the inflammatory rhetoric of Terry and the right in describing fetal tissue as “unborn babies” justified in the minds of protesters the growing use of force. According to Susan Faludi’s classic book “Backlash,” “between 1977 and 1989, seventy-seven family-planning clinics were torched or bombed (in at least seven cases during working hours, with employees and patients inside), a hundred and seventeen were targets of arson, two hundred and fifty received bomb threats, two hundred and thirty-one were invaded, and two hundred and twenty-four vandalized.” According to the Times, men opposed to abortion killed at least eleven people, including abortion providers, at clinics between 1993 and 2015.
A few months before my seventeenth birthday, my mother bought me a subscription to Seventeen magazine. It seemed an odd choice, given its conventional makeup ads and utterly normative portraits of white girls. I was in the midst of coming out as a lesbian and found the whole thing jarring. But, in the mix of ads and grooming tips, there were articles that captured my attention, including one about the erosion of rights for teen-agers. A small sidebar noted, as an example, that teen-agers were required to get parental consent before receiving an abortion. The issue struck me viscerally. I had been fighting constantly with my father and stepmother about curfews, smoking, and the socialists I was hanging out with. The idea that they might decide whether or not I had a baby was enraging, obliterating any notion of self-determination.
I had never thought much about abortion before, but I had thought often about pregnancy; my mother had said, almost in a whisper, that her grandmother had told her that, as soon as girls have their periods, they can’t let boys touch them. In Texas, where I had spent junior high, everyone knew that when some girls suddenly disappeared from school they were probably pregnant. During my freshman year of high school, a friend wore a coat every day until she, too, eventually disappeared. She had hidden her pregnancy for months before finally delivering a baby. It seemed to be only women and girls who suffered any consequence for pregnancy. Girls, not boys, disappeared from school. Girls, not boys, carried the weight of social stigma. Girls, not boys, had their entire lives turned upside down if they carried the pregnancy to term. It was terrifying; it was also radicalizing.