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On the Picket Lines: Defending Abortion Rights

Police! Arrest her! She hit my friend! I saw it.”

This cry shook me out of my early morning stupor on July 1, 1989, two days before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. I was escorting patients into the Northeast Women’s Center, an abortion clinic that sits on the outskirts of Philadelphia, as I had done for the past three and a half years. Nearly everything about the anti-abortion protesters — their legal rights, their tactics, their plaintive “Hail Mary’s” recited on a picket line in front of the clinic, even some of the names — were familiar to me by now. So the appeal to police to arrest caught me off-guard on this particular Saturday morning.

I had not hit anyone, but had violated an unspoken rule between anti-abortion protesters and escorts: I had walked outside of a police barricade erected to keep protesters off the clinic property, in order to guide a patient into the clinic. She and her partner had missed the driveway to the clinic and were now rolling slowly through the parking lot of an adjacent shopping center, besieged by protesters engaged in “sidewalk counseling:” pressing pictures of “fully developed” nine-week-old fetuses against the windows of the red Datsun, dangling two-inch “white” plastic fetuses in front of them and telling the woman she’d regret having an abortion for the rest of her life.

When the car stopped moving I walked over to it, in full view of a civil affairs cop, and pointed the way to the clinic entrance. Then I walked back onto clinic property. A minor disturbance ensued. The patient got inside the clinic, but the protesters were furious and attempted to have me arrested.

I often claim each woman who gets safely into the clinic for an abortion — 18 to 22 each Saturday morning — as a small victory, a vindication for having to interrupt my Shabbat by waking at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the distant reaches of Northeast Philadelphia and stand in a parking lot, at least six months out of the year in darkness. Escorting is the most concrete form of activism that I know. By helping a woman literally gain access to an abortion, I know that I am helping to preserve her options.

In December 1985, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) contacted the Feminist Task Force of New Jewish Agenda to ask for help maintaining access to the Northeast Women’s Center on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception when protesters were expected to appear in full force. Earlier that week I had heard rumors that Jewish feminists were planning to daven Shacharit (recite morning prayers) in front of the clinic and to engulf patients in talesim (prayer shawls) as they entered. From the start, however, it was clear that a visible Jewish presence was not only impractical and irrelevant to the needs of the women we were there to assist, but would only serve to exacerbate existing religious and ethnic tensions. Rather than participate in a public ritual, we simply walked patients up a long sidewalk and through the clinic doors.

In the course of escorting, I have been in the company of other Jewish women who volunteer at this particular clinic. For almost four years approximately 20 of us, including a handful of rabbis, rabbinical students and New Jewish Agenda activists, have shared the responsibility for escorting on a monthly basis. The 20 of us have kept track of important events in each other’s lives: coupling and uncoupling, pregnancy, childbirth and the death of a parent. We have evolved certain private rituals that have helped us face hostile protesters month after month. The most important of these is the breakfast we share at Tiffany’s Diner upon leaving the clinic on Saturday mornings. On occasion, when the clinic has been besieged by hundreds of protesters, women among us have created women-centered rituals at sunrise in the clinic parking lot. On other occasions, women have attended Shabbat services on their way home from the clinic.