Across the Street: Planned Parenthood rally

I have been a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, giving regularly and willingly because Planned Parenthood is the single reason I didn’t get pregnant in college.  Because here’s the truth; in the post free-love seventies, I was sexually active. I should say it louder.  I was sexually active.  (Does bolding the letters do it?) Not just active but maybe frenetic. Gosh, I loved sex. To my credit, I was monogamous, having only two boyfriends through college and post college, but I got a lot of mileage out of those two boys.  For that reason, I have been especially grateful for the inexpensive support and birth control (the pill) that Planned Parenthood provided. And it continued that function, keeping my young career woman self unpregnant until I was making enough money or had medical insurance fom work.

My beat up Honda turns the corner toward our Planned Parenthood building on Eighth street in Traverse City, Michigan.  Dozens of people already gather, pink hats blazing, more folks coming, many carrying the mass produced pink “Support Planned Parenthood” signs, but just as many carrying clever handmade slogans. I will be with them.  On the other side of the street, the Defund Planned Parenthood people are also gathering. I recognize them as I drive past.

I came from that side of the street.

I was raised in a Roman Catholic household.  In that household, abortion was the sin of sins. A form of murder.  It was breaking the ten commandments and signing an eternal contract with the devil. (Faust for girls?) I don’t take abortion lightly; I don’t think anyone should.  I have misgivings.  According to statistics, most American do.  But why do people think that because I support Planned Parenthood, I am easy with abortion?  Actually, I can’t imagine anyone being easy with abortion. It’s like being easy with getting both legs amputated.  No, it’s way harder than that. Nothing really compares. That said, it’s my body, and it’s a deeply personal and difficult moment with that body.  What I decide, in its deepest emotional, psychological, and spiritual sense, is mine to decide.  I can gather advice, I can listen to views, I can consider many sides, I can think about that fetus, but it’s my decision, and that right to decide should be protected.

So why is Planned parenthood the culprit?  Planned Parenthood is not the abortion agency.  For the most part, it’s an organization that provides desperately needed services to people who can’t afford them. One fact from a carefully researched NPR article about how the funding actually works: “The overwhelming majority of Planned Parenthood’s services involve screening for and treating sexually transmitted diseases and infections, as well as providing contraception.” The contraception part—that would have been me.  Over time, through hard-won life experience, I have come to appreciate Bill Clinton’s long-ago description that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  Especially, it should be rare, but it should also be legal and safe because no one can know the interior moment for the woman who experiences an unwanted pregnancy. Planned Parenthood is there, a practical service, not to make it easy, but to make it safe and legal. Rare but available.  That’s what I want.

I park and walk toward the Planned Parenthood block. All along the way, people pull over. Doors slam, trunks open, signs rise into the winter air.  I shortcut into an alley. A frail looking woman stands with her small dog on a leash in a snowy back yard. I nod and give a little wave.

She calls to me, “You going to Planned Parenthood?”

“I am” I answer.

“You be careful.” she says.

“Oh.” I say, unsure what she means. Then I ask. I have to. “Is there trouble?”

She shakes her head, “Oh I don’t know about that.” She smiles, “I’d be there with you if I didn’t have these bad knees.  Can’t stand that long.”

“Ok. Thanks.” I am unsure what else to say.  “Hope you get better.”

“You just be careful,” she says again.  I nod and walk on, thinking about what she means, and trying not to think of what she means.

We line up along the sidewalk. It isn’t a march, just a rally—a stand in, stand up thing.  Almost immediately, I run into my old friend Karen, from the DC Women’s March, standing with her sister and their daughters. Karen tells me where to get the pink signs, and I traipse to the table, passing a boy making a large snowball in a yard. He has a missionary tenacity about his snowball—by god this will be done.  Go for it, my young friend, I think. I sign in, pick up my pink Support Planned Parenthood sign, walk back to Karen’s family.  More people arrive.  We line the block, now two and three deep.  We are bundled in our down coats, scarved against the cold—it’s February in Michigan. I pull my hood over my beret to block wind.  We introduce ourselves to strangers, compliment the better slogans, and wave to the people who drive past on the street. They honk and offer a thumbs up.

When is it that I see, really see, the group across the street, the Defund Planned Parenthood people?  They are not very many, maybe twenty, but more gathering. A woman with curly gray hair walks in from a side street dressed in a dark pink parka—does she know the significance of that color for women in these times? She carries a framed picture larger than our pink signs. It has a chain on the back as though it has just been removed from a hook.  She turns my way, holding the picture up; she wants us to see. She holds the image of the Blessed Mary, a DaVinci-esque painting, before her like a shield. I know these pictures, devotional images that grace dining rooms and particularly, bedrooms in traditional Catholic homes. One did in my childhood home.  This woman chats with an older man who unfurls an Irish flag and holds the flag up to his neck so the Irish colors drape down the front of his body. Odd but colorful.

As I watch, a young bearded man dressed in the traditional habits of a priest or monk joins their crowd.  At some point, he calls across the street to us, “God Bless You.”  And without thinking, several of us call back, God Bless you.  What motivated this exchange? The line down the block is too long for us to hear all that is being said between those demonstrators who stand directly across from the Defund folks. Did someone insult him and he felt compelled to say this, or did he say it as greeting? I hope the latter.  Minutes later, another young man, this one clean-shaven but dressed in the same priest habit joins the group. The bearded priest stands in the center; the clean-shaven one stands on the corner of the street, kitty corner across from where I am standing with Karen and her sister and daughters. He stands in that familiar stance I remember from the religuese of my childhood, a centeredness that comes from being utterly secure. I wonder what it’s like not to feel human doubt, or even too much coffee on an empty stomach. They look like they’ve never had acid reflux in their lives.

As the mid-day traffic builds, more drivers honk, offering a thumbs up, and perhaps we all feel a little surprised not to be taunted. Karen asks, “How can so many of us feel this way and not have an effect?” But we’ve already seen enough of this new Republican administration to know that having more people doesn’t mean you will be seen, heard, or your opinion will be recognized as anything other than a “professional protester.”  But still, are there really so many of us who feel this way? Had we all wondered if we should be careful? I feel solidarity with our manyness.  In the end, the head count for the people on our side of the street is about 300.  On the south, across the street, about sixty.

Across the street, they sing hymns.

      Holy God, we Praise thy Name. 

      Be Not Afraid

      Amazing Grace

On our side, the antiphonal chants begin.

Call: What does democracy look like?

Response: This is what democracy looks like.

 Where is separation of church and state?


I’m grateful.


In college in 1973, the morning after the first time I made love with my boyfriend, I felt a chill of fear race through me.  I wasn’t sure if I was pregnant but I knew this; I loved having sex.  I mean I really loved it, and I loved him, and I knew I was going to do this a lot—even if this relationship didn’t last, though I hoped it would.  Asking me to abstain would have been like asking me not to eat.  And I knew, given a strain of fertility that seems to run in my family like blue eyes and bad teeth (proven by 36 cousins) that I would eventually get pregnant—if I wasn’t already. That would mean leaving college—which I loved because I was having a ball, and learning some too. That would mean going home where, even if my boyfriend married me, I would live with the got-herself-in-trouble stigma in my farming community for the rest of my life.  I couldn’t go to my mother about this one—she was a devout Catholic (untouched by the so-called sexual revolution), as were my aunts and godmother.  Even if they felt sympathetic, their only help would be to pray for me—which is lovely but not the help I needed.  I couldn’t ask my boyfriend about condoms—too embarrassing.  I couldn’t afford to spend what little money I had on a city doctor, and I knew that if I went to my family doctor, my parents (and the entire town, including the local priest) would know in about ten minutes—it was that kind of community.  I wasn’t even sure what Planned Parenthood was: in my rural culture, planning parenthood had only one rule, it had to come as quickly as possible but not less than nine months after the church ceremony.

In that far away city of Grand Rapids, on a spring morning, I found my way to the Planned Parenthood office, tentatively entered a plain but clean suite, and asked about contraception. The Planned Parenthood people explained my options, guided me to a healthier awareness of what it meant to be sexually active, helped me find the right pill.  I learned I was not pregnant. I had no STD’s.  I got on the pill.  This is 98% of the work Planned parenthood does.

I stayed in college because I didn’t get pregnant.  Later, when I was starting to teach, one sister (at about the same age I had been) came to me. She too had become sexually active, and she too knew she wasn’t turning back. Did we all love having sex? I drove her to Planned Parenthood where she got the same guidance I had been given.  Eventually, my mother found my sister’s pills and when my sister told her who had helped her—my mother’s first reaction was to be really angry with me! Not at my sister, but at me for taking her to Planned Parenthood.  She thought it was a place where they only did abortions.  She thought that I, her already lost daughter, had taken my sister down with me. My mother didn’t understand what it was.  My mother told me once that she and Dad had practiced rhythm. All five of us were born within 18 months of each other—so we know how well that worked.  She would be angry with me still. She would be on the other side of the street.  But I have a feeling she liked sex too; there are five of us after all.

Now it’s 40 years later and my feet are cold.  We stamp our boots in the wet snow.  I go for coffee, watch the progress the boy is making on the snowman.  He has a big base, and he’s shaping another snow mound for the body. I fill my cup, blow the steam, turn back, and I realize the people across the street are singing again.  Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Really? The Battle Hymn?  Is that what this is?

Glory, glory, hallelujah….

We scuff the snow. The planned parenthood people walk up and down the sidewalk, donation can rattling, clipboards in hand.  Young Ivy turns to her mother Karen, and out of the blue says, “Look how many men are over there.”

From the mouths of babes… because as I look, I realize that of the maybe sixty folks standing across the street, at least two thirds of them are men.  I count to make sure. Yup.  I step into the street and look at our side, estimating genders. Roughly the opposite ratio.

Karen says, “Good observation.”  We all nod.

I am astonished and sad.  Astonished that a twelve-year old sees this and I missed it. To have a child point out the power ratio… I’m thrilled she is sensitive to this at her age.  And I’m sad that it has ever been mostly men who have decided these things for women, in place of women, since the beginning of this nation.  I like men; I married a wonderful man. I want them as equals in my life, not in power over me.

And then it happens, the people across the street start my favorite patriotic so, America.  Oh beautiful for spacious skies… I think to myself that we should sing it with them.  Because we are patriots too, even though we are on opposite sides of this street.  Amber waves of grain… And then, as I rejoin my friends, I hear it. For a few quiet measures, then for half a verse, then a full chorus, our side sings it too. Across the fruited plains…Our voices, from both side of the street, are joined in an American patriotic song, a song that belongs to all of us. America. It holds for just a bit longer, then fades, ends. Of all the songs sung in the next hour, we never again find that unity, but for a moment, I felt it.  We were all on the street.  God shed his grace on thee.

When I finally turn to leave, I see that the boy has finished his snowman, and the adult, who must have been nearby all along, who must have been helping as the boy shoved snow here and there, that adult man has armed the snow woman with a sturdy Support Planned Parenthood sign, upraised in the cold. The boy leans against the plump and oddly feminine shape as he would his mom, to rest for a minute before running off again.  In the background, the Battle Hymn rises again.