During arguments for the recent Supreme Court case McCullen v. Coakley, which eventually led to the court striking down Massachusetts’ buffer zone protecting abortion clinics from protesters crowding the door, it was revealed that many abortion clinic protesters think of themselves less as protesters and more as “sidewalk counselors.” Jill Filipovic of Cosmopolitan decided to go to Massachusetts Planned Parenthood clinics to find out, exactly, what these protesters want to counsel women about. The answer turns out to be a little more complex than “don’t get an abortion.”
“Men and women are made different,” Father Andrew Beauregard explains on camera while protesting at a clinic, “in that women, as the church teaches, reach their full potential in motherhood.” There’s a tight if inhumane logic to this thinking: Women exist to give birth. Thus, if a woman is choosing not to give birth, she is not working as she is supposed to. Which means she must be broken and needs fixing. Ergo, “counseling.”
As Filipovic found, none of the self-described counselors she spoke to actually “had any educational background or credentials in psychology, therapy, counseling, or mental health,” but they do sincerely believe that something is deeply wrong with women who want to exert control over their own fertility or who want to have sex on their own terms. And they felt absolutely free to share that point of view with Filipovic.
“If women want careers and education and everything and they don’t want children,” one protester named Ruth explains in the video, “what are they doing having sex?” She also told Filipovic that her profession is “having been a mother and a grandmother.”
This attitude extends well past a position on abortion. While the Planned Parenthood doctor Filipovic interviewed highlighted contraception’s known ability to decrease abortion numbers by preventing unwanted pregnancies, the protesters do not endorse this route. “I don’t believe in access to birth control,” protester Evelyn said. “It’s very harmful. It’s very harmful to the woman.”
“Well, the way to control it is not to hop into bed with every Tom, Dick, and Harry,” added Ruth. “That’s one way to control it.”
Nostalgia for a time when women were more submissive and stuck to traditional gender roles was a common theme at the Worcester clinic.* “That’s where equality comes: where the mother stayed home and raised the children in God’s light, and the husband worked, and everything was great,” protester Fred Delouis told Filipovic. “When I grew up, there were no problems.”
What is remarkable about this video is how much it shows that the controversy over abortion—and increasingly over contraception—is not about the complex balancing of women’s rights and embryonic life that it’s so often regarded as. As these interviews show, the real point of struggle between anti- and pro-choicers is the simple question of who should define a woman’s life. Should it be the woman herself? Or traditional “roles” that these protesters cling to? Sadly for women who are just trying to get some reproductive health care, this debate (that is amazingly still ongoing) is happening right in front of the clinic door.
*Correction, Nov. 17, 2014: This post originally misspelled the city of Worcester, Massachusetts.