By Rae Hodge–
I’m not pregnant.
It’s a quarter past eight and I’m at a stoplight at 2nd and Jefferson with the hands at 10 and two and it’s freezing cold because my truck has no heat. I don’t feel cold, though; I’m sweating and shaking. My lip is trembling. I bite down hard. My eye twitches. My stomach is clenched into a fist, ready to expel its contents at the first sign of danger. I’m revving the engine. I’m steeling myself for what I’m going to do next. I’m about to take a long walk down the sidewalk into one of only two women’s clinics in Kentucky which provide abortions.
The red light won’t change. I’m thinking about parking, whether I have quarters, whether it’s safe to park on the street with so many angry people around, whether they’ll write down my plates or bash in my windows.
I’m getting dizzy so I repeat the numbers to myself. Even though I’m not pregnant, the protesters outside the clinic won’t know that. They won’t know if I’m one of the 1,500 or so reported rape victims in Kentucky (according to the Disaster Center’s 2011 count), or if I’ve been raped by a family member (with such a decided lack of statistics about incest, it’s hard to imagine anyone at all would know), or if I’m one of the 10-15 percent of women still carrying the remains of a no longer viable fetus (worse yet, an incomplete miscarriage which threatens me with a fatal infection).
The light changes and I turn down the street, forcing myself to slow down in front of the clinic. The ACLU says that the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville is one of the worst in the country when it comes to harassment of patients. I think about this when the protesters come into view.
The protesters are all white today. How differently this would play out if I weren’t also white? What kind of psychological warfare would I be walking into right now? Statistics show that of the 74,900 Kentucky women who were pregnant in 2008, 4,430 received abortions. Of those women, 30 percent identified as black non-Hispanic, 25 percent as Hispanic and 9 percent as other non-white racial backgrounds. I imagine an angry group of white people screaming at a lone woman of color walking down this sidewalk, and realize that the image adds a dimension to the scene that is critical to consider and one which my feeble text is powerless to describe.
An open meter is squarely in front of the clinic where the protesters are holding signs. I tell myself to park there. I fight the voice. The voice says “Do it because you have a right to.” I tell it to shut up, that I’m brave right now, when I’m not knocked up. I tell it if I were pregnant, I’d be parking six blocks away, camouflaged as a male priest, marching right passed the protesters, holding my sign and singing my Hail Mary’s, all the way up to the welcome mat, then quickly ripping off my collar and Groucho Marx mustache at the last second, darting in the door.
I’ve been down this street on a hundred different Saturday nights, counting myself Queen of Elusive Parking Spots. But this Saturday morning, I can’t find parking, and can’t remember which streets meet where. I’m pulling onto one-way’s and taking blind alleys. I swallow hard. Pull it together. Eventually, a parking space emerges. I’m almost three blocks away by now.
Freezing winds as I get out of the car. I keep my head down. I think about what would be said if someone recognized me going in, whether I could get fired, whether the protesters are going to pin a scarlet A on the front of my hoodie.
Today might be the ideal day to get an abortion in Louisville. There are fewer protesters than usual. This is because 600 miles away, in Washington D.C., a march is taking place. Thousands of their spiritual kinfolk are rallying and holding signs and praying down the National Mall at the March for Life. I’m back home, pulling my collar up over my ears, a march of one.
By the time I reach the block, I can hear a few singing softly. It’s 8:35 am. My heart stops for a second when I look up and realize that I don’t see a single one of the ubiquitous orange vests worn by volunteer escorts. I’m on my own here. Some snarling animal instinct uncurls itself in my spine and sends a bright bolt of rage hurtling through my body. My adrenaline levels are at DEFCON one. Fight-or-flight cues make my fingertips ache, and my hands knot into hard fists. I take a deep breath and let my legs carry me into the fray.
I’m getting closer to the small assembly. They hold signs accusing me of murder. The signs have pictures of huge fake fetuses with their limbs hacked into odd angles, and their Hollywood-red, corn-syrup blood pooling into a stainless steel tray. They depict the accuracy of an abortion the way b-grade horror flicks depict a head being chopped off; it’s all so ridiculously out-of-proportion and biologically nonsensical that it might as well be in a spaghetti western. It might even be comical were it not such a slap in the face to someone who’s just trying to get a hypothetical incomplete miscarriage out of her body before the infection sets in and kills her too.
They begin by trying to make eye contact. I let it happen. They’re buying it. They think I’m pregnant. I should clarify here. I mean, biologically speaking, I’m not pregnant. That much is true. Politically speaking, though, I might be pregnant. If I were in Arizona, where you’re considered pregnant two weeks before you conceive, then yeah, I’ve been pregnant since I was born. According to some people, though, I was a person before I was born. That means that I was pregnant while my mother was pregnant with me. I’m not sure, but I think that also means that my as-yet-unconceived child might also be pregnant. But this creates an endless black hole of Russian nesting doll preg-ception type scenarios that I can’t even begin to describe unless I have Christopher Nolan on hand to lay it all out for you.
I’m getting close enough to hear strains of their group prayers. I hear the words “thou shalt not kill.” It’s confusing: I’ve never seen this type of prayer circle at U.S. military installations, slaughterhouses, animal shelters or any place where humans actually come into intimate contact with death on a regular basis. I’m not sure why they’re invoking this commandment here. Is this the only one in Exodus which, when broken, warrants public protest?
I’m hitting the thick now. Seems like more people than there are. Voices everywhere. Muttering, humming, singing, building. Irrational fear of losing my glasses. Push them back up my nose. Woman’s voice says something about “free ultrasound.” Chin up. Look them in the eye. Keep walking. Man’s voice: how I am I going to sleep tonight? Prayer chain holding hands. Man’s voice calls down God. Somebody is talking to the clinic window. Another woman’s voice praising Jesus. I tell myself it’s OK to forget their faces. I’m closer and closer to them. Kentucky has no laws creating a buffer zone. They can get as close as they want. Sometimes they grab women. They don’t grab me, though. They let me pass, staring sharply, eyes predatory. This isn’t protest. This is a public shaming.
Make it in the door. No one is manning the registration window. Second door to my right. Pull handle. Doesn’t move. Locked. Or maybe the wrong door. I don’t know. Glance into the waiting room. A few people. They must’ve been let in. Maybe I could call a nurse to the window. I don’t. Glance back at the sidewalk outside. Tingly, hot panic. I stop. Realize I haven’t been breathing. Breathe. Look into the waiting room again.
I see a woman in a chair, reading quietly. Her hair is pulled back and I can see that she looks young. Something calm comes over me. My thoughts start coming back together. Everything slows down.
Her puffy jacket is saddled around her waist. Her elbow rests on the arm of her chair; her head rests on her hand. Her eyes look tired, and they scan the hardback lazily. My face grows warm. It’s so quiet in here. Peaceful. Safe.
She leans back, yawns widely, rubs sleep out of her eyes. She stretches out her legs a bit before reconfiguring her frame in the stiff little chair. She shifts her weight back into a comfortable position and settles. Then, returning her gaze to the book, she fingers the top of a page a moment before turning to the next.
I wheel around, and face the sidewalk. Why did it seem like there were so many? Seems now there are so few. I can’t hear what they’re saying from behind the glass. I push the door out and emerge into the open air. I don’t even notice them now. I walk back to the car, their faces forgotten.
Photos courtesy of The Louisville Cardinal 1973