Commentary Abortion

New York City’s Embrace of Volunteer Clinic Escort Program Sends Anti-Choicers into Meltdown

Amanda Marcotte

New York City is helping train volunteers for a clinic escort program that will help patients seeking abortion get past anti-choice militants who crowd around clinics slinging invective. Anti-choice whining about this is unintentionally revealing. 

New York City, in response to concerns about aggressive harassment and stalking  by anti-choice militants at clinics, has launched a program to train clinic escorts, volunteers that help walk women into the clinic and offer support in the face of the bile being spewed at them by people who misleadingly call themselves “protesters.” The reaction from anti-choicers is telling. As reported by Robin Marty here at Rewire, was livid:

“It doesn’t make sense. She’s supposed to be my representative,” said Monsignor Philip Reilly, a Catholic priest who led the protest. He called for her to depart City Council, saying, “If she wants to do that, she should resign.”

[S]ome say the Council is sending the wrong message by getting involved at all. “This says it’s okay to have an abortion, and it’s not okay,” said Antoinette Wolske, a retired nurse from Queens who participated in Saturday’s protest. “We should not have this idea promoted.”

What comes across here is tremendous entitlement. The only way you can think that it’s outrageous that the city would help shield women seeking abortion from direct harassment is if you think that those women owe the harassers an audience. Not surprising, of course. The anti-choice philosophy is based in the notion that women are public property. If you think you’re entitled to control a woman’s reproductive decisions, of course you think you’re entitled to her time and attention when she is acting out on those decisions out of her own free will.

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The narcissism on display here is also stunning, with this woman, Antoinette Wolske, seeming to think it’s just obvious that abortion is wrong and that everyone just simply sees it that way. Of course, in the real world, her belief is not obvious at all, nor a given in any way. Not everyone thinks it’s wrong to have an abortion, by a long shot. The fact that it’s a legal right should be enough for anti-choicers to realize that, but this woman, at least, is so mired in her own way of thinking that it appears not to occur to her that other people may think differently on this issue.

The reality is that a balance has to be struck between allowing anti-choicers their freedom of speech and also protecting women, who are equal citizens after all, from being harassed. Clinic escort programs obviously aren’t a perfect solution, but they are one of the best strategies we have for reminding narcissistic right-wingers that freedom of speech doesn’t entitle you to an audience or mean that others don’t have a right to disagree.

The notion that freedom of speech entitles conservatives—and only conservatives—not just to an audience, but also to be free of criticism is widespread. Here is John Rocker at WorldNetDaily claiming that freedom of speech means that a conservative gets to express his opinion without being scorned or ridiculed, i.e. a conservative’s “freedom of speech” is dependent on depriving liberals of their actual freedom of speech. Here’s Michael Kinsley implying that Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech rights mean he’s entitled to an audience, a radio show, and millions of dollars in advertising. Here’s Sarah Palin arguing that conservative freedom of speech means that conservatives are entitled to customers for their businesses. If anti-choice militants believe they’re owed not just a right to spew their bile but also owed women’s attention, it’s no surprise, considering how often this bad argument comes from major pundits and politicians on the right.

The reality, however, is that the government recognizes that your freedom to express yourself does not entitle you to an audience. For instance, sexual harassment is banned on the subway in New York City. Laws against stalking and restraining orders depend on the notion that the stalker’s right to free expression doesn’t mean he gets the audience of his choosing. As anti-choicers know very well, clinics have a zone around them which militants can’t enter, because while they’re free to hate on women getting abortions, they don’t have a right to get right in women’s faces. The clinic escort program, which is volunteer-only, is just another extension of an already-existing understanding that your freedom of speech doesn’t mean you get to control another person’s environment.

More cities should do more to offer these kinds of programs and services to women seeking abortion. Anti-choicers have done a really good job of creating an environment where abortion feels only quasi-legal, both in terms of throwing up so many restrictions but also in staking out clinics so they can treat the patients like they are criminals being put in stocks. But abortion isn’t just legal, it’s a right. The government needs to step up more and take actions that send the message to women that they are ordinary citizens who are exercising their legal rights, and as such, they will get government support and protection. So good on New York City for stepping up, and I hope to see other cities do the same. 

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