The purpose of this article is to establish the context for design of an intervention to change the outcomes for participants in the processes that occur here. It arises from our — Charles Brass and my - participant-observer experience at the FCC since early July, 2011. We are there, by choice, on the pro-choice side of the struggle. There are no rules about who can be there, so we have been working to understand the dynamics of the patient-protestor interactions.
Our goal is to improve the FCC patient experience by reducing the negative effects of the protestors’ manners and methods. To do so we have to take into account all the players, direct and indirect, in the public theatre of the patient experience. Anything we do that increases patient stress is not a viable strategy. By chance, so far, the net effect of our presence has been an unintended positive for patients. Our presence appears to constrain protestors’ harassing behaviour. We did not set out to do that at the start. We do now.
The Theatre of Protest — a gauntlet to run
There is a set of regular players in this drama — the protestors, the security guards and the large number of local residents and local office workers who pass through the frontline the five work days the FCC is open. The sixth is quieter.
The typical ‘facts’ are simple. This is what you might see repeated perhaps twenty times a day:
The set: a two way black top with one lane access in the middle; one verge marked with a white line the other corralled by a 6 foot stone wall; midway is a recessed gateway with Fertility Control Clinic advised in large letters.
Onto this set six days a week between 7:30 and 10am a pregnant woman, accompanied by her partner or family member(s), walks along the footpath to the gated entrance of the Fertility Control Clinic. If she is coming for an abortion, she may be filled with conflicting feelings, amongst which anxiety, shame and guilt may predominate. She may also have been told to expect watchers in wait for her — the ‘pro-life’ protestors who will explicitly and openly disapprove of her walk. Their aim is the reversal of the recently legalised practice of abortion in Victoria and to persuade women who may consider safe, legal abortion as an option, that their choice is morally abhorrent.
As the woman approaches, the protestors first appear standing on the curb side of the footpath. A couple, both men, have display boards dangling from their shoulders, like spruikers for a year 8 sex-education class… 3D plastic portrayals of the early stages of foetal growth and screen prints of ultrasound scans. A security guard, whom she perhaps has not even noticed, signals to her that she does not have to talk to the protestors.
Next, the patient encounters an ‘offer of help’, often from a female protestor, to see her experience in the light of the only Catholic option — birth. She accepts it by stopping to talk or refuses by walking on, sometimes with a verbal clarification of her rejection. Some protestors, unless physically blocked, push their offer beyond the patient’s refusal, to the point of attempting a verbal assault. The patient’s last message from the uninvited outside world may be “Don’t kill your little baby…” as she’s entering the inner world of the Clinic. Its door is always locked. Only a guard can admit her.
The ‘set’ — an emotional portrait
At times I have been just an observer, standing with the security guard for the Clinic, watching the watchers. Other times, I have explicitly protested their protest by physically blocking their access to arriving patients who have made it clear they do not want to hear from the protestors.
The mood of this setting is just below the threshold of physical violence. The guards and protestors have faced each other across the footpath for months, in some cases, years. Each day is a stream of boredom, with sharp irruptions of rough water, as a patient comes into view and a dance of offer and protection is stepped out.
The boredom produces a slow build of inexpressible energy, which, in moments of baiting the guards, even the protestors occasionally fall victim to. For protestors and guards, this is an experience of fear and anticipation. Fear roused by possible conflict, runs from slight discomfort, to irritability, thru frustration and on into anger and occasional rage. It is expressed in a running background struggle between protestors and security for judicial ascendancy: who can prove who is harassing who? Who can catch who fudging local short term parking rules?
Anticipation of a fight adds an edge to the fear - a situation poised for action; players waiting to take up their roles; the boredom of no patients being present holds all in suspension. This edgy experience fills about 2 of the 2 ½ hours each morning. The ½ hour of action is approximately 20 little 1 minute flurries, each event having its own specific, unique dramatic energy, as the dance of entry plays out.
The protestors and the guards both see the other as more powerful and more threatening. The guards have physical and legal power on their side, though they have very limited right to use the physical — much less so than in other security contexts , like night clubs. The protestors have persistence, baiting and the niggling stretching of behavioural limits of public protest on theirs. Both spend time trying to catch the other out in derelictions of rules. Hence the role of cameras, in the daily drama, especially at moments of patient arrivals.
Patients walk into this set already tuned to the potential of assault from without, by the assault from within of their own feelings. Refusing a protestor’s offer is culturally more difficult for some than others, as it is psychologically more difficult for some than others. The simplest evidence for the acceptance that is not acceptance, is the number of protestor leaflets handed on to the guards by the patients. The guard’s slow, ritual shredding of the handouts in the protestors’ faces completes the loop of patient refusal.
Behind the scenes…
All of the regular players — protestors, guards, local residents and local office workers - are aware that this clinic is the symbolic centre of resistance to Catholic, and other (religious) fundamentalist, “pro-life” protestors. It is not a playground. 10 years ago a guard died here at the hands of a madman, armoured in part by the same beliefs the protestors have today (see Dr. Susie Allanson’s Murder On His Mind).
The protestor’s case against the FCC sits, in part, on a complete misunderstanding of what the professional councellor’s role is at clinics like this. That role is first to assist the patients’ understanding of their fertility issues and second, to help sort through the personal impacts of pregnancy, checking that all implications and options have been, considered, including that of proceeding to normal birth.
It is professionally unethical to promote a particular patient conclusion, just as it is to hide any medically understood, socially viable and legal option. If they can possibly avoid it, those charged with the welfare of patients, promote neither option. There are no complaints suggesting the FCC’s counsellors have compromised their role. Fulfilment of that role does not include any assumption of what the right resolution is for any patient, other than that patients’ unintentional ignorance of factors and options may produce sub-optimal resolutions.
Reality photo shoots??
Think of yourself being paraded before an avowedly prejudiced audience, which seems likely to judge you as falling short in some painful regard. An audience which will record your shame and then fortify that shame by relating stories of it to their families and friends. And, they’ll have a photo record of it, too!! Welcome to celebrity health in the name of the lord.
One protestor always has a hidden camera in her dress. This also occurs in other protest sites in Australia and the US. The concealment indicates that the protestors are ashamed of their actions - there is no legal reason. to hide the cameras. The protestors know that photography is an unwarranted intrusion. Private photographs of anyone are just that, until they are made public, at which point pay-for-use and defamation issues arise immediately. The protestors know this, too. We’ve discussed it explicitly them.
Onto this stage patients appear solo or in couples, in widely ranging states of disarray, from the wholly contained, to open crying. The core cast of protestors (in bunches of five or more) and guards (always only one at a time) can see them coming from 100 meters away. The guards almost never mistake a patient for an in-transit local. The protestors, though more experienced than the guards (some being on deck at this site for 18 years) often do so. And if rebuffed by an actual patient, they are too likely to persist with a plea like “please save your little baby…” and, unless blocked by the guard, follow the patient to the repeating the plea over and over. At the same time, in the background, a visual assault is ongoing. We know from the guards and patient reports that protestor actions are more invasive in our absence.
Disapproval and disenablement are the weapons of moral intimidation. The disapproval is obvious. The, disenablement that happens between the time the patient leaves her car and enters the Clinic is more veiled. The agent of disablement is shame, with a backdrop of guilt. Shame is the public face of guilt and the passage from transport to clinic aggravates its power. Patients arrive in a context in which they are, at best, amateurs and are confronted by an established order, a working practice, where role players are thoroughly at ease with their purposes and moves, (though not with each other!)
Vulnerability and intimidation — the harassment equation
This makes the very presence of the protestors — physical, visual, and verbal –invasive. It is especially so for those most deeply affected by an unwanted pregnancy. They are the most vulnerable and the least able to defend themselves. In my recent conversation with even the most articulate and sympathetic of the protestors , there was no recognition of the immense power imbalance that patient vulnerability gives the protestors, perhaps because they are so often unheard themselves.
The protestors are aware that harassment is a matter of perception, but not that some perceptions of harassment have ethical priority over others. Clearly in counselling, patients’ perception of their own vulnerability always comes first. This is also the medical rule.
The bigger picture
We guess that, for the protestors, the patients are both individuals making their personal way through life challenges and symbols of mistaken pathways at the same time. That is, the patients are representations of ideas, they are not people. I know that some protestors label patients, and us, as evil. They see the patients as being bigger than their own reality and therefore justly open to any influencing method. The protestors would not present assaultive materials if they wanted low-emotion responses from patients. High emotion responses result in automatic defensive reactions that is likely to elicit a concomitant rejection of the protestors’ offer — the reaction of someone feeling punished by unreachable others.
Because protestors are confused about their aims — helping the patients vs. helping the church achieve its mission of repealing the law — they assault as often as they solicit. One could say that any offer by a “protestor” under such circumstances is always a potential assault.
The protest is executed through invasions of patient between the time the patients leave their cars and they enter the Clinic They feel harassed visually, verbally and physically, 20 once-a-week participant observations by Charles and I support this claim. Research makes this observation more than a passing or stereotyped perception of ours (see Hilary Taylor’s Parliamentary Intern Report “Accessing Abortion — Improving the safety of access to abortion services in Victoria”, June 2011).
I know the protestors are open to moral intimidation because twice I have quietly threatened to threaten them morally, and the reaction was faster than the twitch of an eye. So they should understand their effects on patients, but the powerful seldom do, except as benefits to themselves. When I aim an openly held camera at them they shy away, while training a hidden one on me. Shame is a wondrous thing.
Our fantasy is negotiating an agreement between all the players. Whatever form that might take, it will have to respond to the factors above. The prospects of that fantasy materialising seem slim. So our original objective of reducing patient harm from harassment remains paramount for us. Developing non-violent counter protests will be the means. Some of our threats may become daily tools. Anyone looking for a bit of personal development in non-violent counter-protest in a context as violent as this one, please get in touch!! (SMS to 0419362349 or Skype at ‘torreyo’).