Crosses to Bear
At the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, questions of faith, conscience, biology, and politics collide every day on the front lines of the new war over abortion.
WITH HER ARMS WRAPPED TIGHTLY around herself, answering the nurse’s questions. The nurse knew only the facts stated in the medical record: The patient was twenty years old, African American, a single parent. Carefully, the nurse elicited the information she needed to know.
“So when did you realize you were pregnant?”
“About three weeks ago,” the woman said. She was tall and poised, and she wore her hair back in a tight ponytail. Although she was barely out of her teens, she spoke with the resignation of an older woman.
“Have you thought about bringing this pregnancy to term?”
“I have a three-year-old, and we’re really struggling,” she said. Her face was solemn. Behind her glasses, her eyes had begun to water. “I want to give my daughter a good life.”
“Does the man involved know that you’re pregnant?”
She nodded. “He’s not too concerned.”
“Have you considered other options, like adoption?”
“No,” she said. Her voice hardened. “No. I wouldn’t be able to give my baby away.”
The two women talked for what seemed like a long time. When the nurse was satisfied that she had gone over all the alternatives, she explained how the abortion would be performed: what risks were involved, the instruments the doctor would use, how much pain should be expected. “Are you sure this is the right choice for you?” the nurse asked.
The woman looked tired in the morning light. “I’ve prayed on it, and I’ve prayed on it,” she said. Her tone was weary but firm. “I’ve come to peace with what I need to do.”
EVERY WEDNESDAY, JUST PAST DAWN, women from across East Texas arrive at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan. Some have traveled only from their dorm rooms at Texas A&M University, in the neighboring town of College Station. Others have taken more indirect routes, through the outlying farmland of the Brazos Valley or from the Piney Woods as far north as Nacogdoches, more than two hours away. The clinic is the only place women who live in East Texas can get an abortion, unless they are able to travel as far as Houston, Beaumont, or Baton Rouge. They come however they can—with borrowed money, in a friend’s car, with a child under their arm—to the south side of Bryan, to a nondescript building at the end of a stretch of strip malls. Here, tucked between fast-food restaurants and drive-through banks and other banal conveniences of modern life, the war over abortion wears on. Seven days a week, ten hours a day, picketers line the sidewalk, trying to change hearts and minds. On Wednesdays, when abortions are performed, they hold placards (“Please pray! 1654 babies have been killed at Planned Parenthood in Bryan”), beseeching each woman who arrives to turn back. “Mom, we want to talk to you!” they cry, or “Please don’t kill your baby!”
What anyone passing by the squat, beige building on Twenty-ninth Street cannot see is the human drama that plays out each day inside the clinic. This is not just a place where questions of faith, conscience, and biology collide. It is also a place where a task as simple as opening the mail is done with caution. Here, the fear of violence has lingered for so long that its presence has become almost ordinary, as much a part of the fabric of life as the bulletproof vests that are casually slung over the backs of staffers’ chairs. What rattles employees more than the protesters who stand at the gates is the enemy they cannot see—the people in their community who have, for four years, waged a campaign of intimidation. “Wanted” posters bearing a photograph of the clinic’s doctor have been tacked to telephone poles all over town. Postcards with pictures of dismembered fetuses have been sent to clinic employees’ neighbors, warning them of the “baby killer” in their midst. Nurses have been followed, volunteers harassed. Even clients have not been spared. The parents of several A&M students have learned of their daughters’ abortions from postcards that arrived in the mail.
That the clinic is the only medical facility performing abortions for nearly one hundred miles in every direction is not an accident. The practical reality of operating a clinic, thirty years after Roe v. Wade, is grim. The terror tactics of anti-abortion extremists—seven murders, 41 bombings, and a barrage of acid attacks, anthrax hoaxes, and death threats—have generated a war of attrition. In Texas, the number of abortion providers has decreased since 1981 by more than half, from 135 to 65. Few medical students learn how to perform first-trimester abortions anymore, and only 12 percent of ob-gyn residency programs require it. The majority of the doctors who do know how to perform abortions are 65 or older, putting them at, or beyond, retirement age. Of those doctors who are schooled in the procedure, few are willing to take the risk of becoming “abortionists”—so few, in fact, that only 15 of the 254 counties in Texas now have abortion providers. Rural areas are not the only places hard hit; many mid-sized cities, like Amarillo and Wichita Falls, do not have a single clinic where a woman can get an abortion. Though the national debate focuses on whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade, the reality on the ground is less abstract. Abortion has been slowly pushed to the margins, shuttled off to clinics, like the one in Bryan, that are under siege.
This is where the real politics of abortion play out—not in the Texas Legislature or the U.S. Supreme Court, but on ordinary streets of ordinary towns. And while extremists in Bryan and elsewhere may have drawn the battle lines, most people who oppose abortion do not condone their terror tactics. In Bryan the pro-life community is made up of decent, law-abiding, churchgoing people who believe that what takes place inside the Planned Parenthood clinic each Wednesday amounts to murder. They have made their voices heard through the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life, a group of parishioners from sixty churches that has staged boycotts, demonstrations, and daily prayer vigils outside the clinic in an effort to shut it down. As coalition members stand in protest each day, the clinic’s staff eyes them warily. Both sides see their struggle as a last stand in a battle they are committed to fight. “I’ve always felt that God will bring an end to abortion here,” said the coalition’s director, David Bereit, who has led the charge against the clinic. “There’s a bigger plan for what’s going on in this town, and we’re just players in that bigger plan. I truly believe that this place is anointed. Maybe our little town is where the beginning of the end will come from.”
SHE HAD PRAYED ON IT and prayed on it, she told the nurse. She had come to peace with what she needed to do. And so she signed the necessary paperwork and waited. After she had her vital signs checked, she was led into the procedure room, where she undressed from the waist down and put on a thin blue smock. The room was well-scrubbed and brightly lit, and a radio played Top 40 songs in the background. She lay on the examination table, shivering. On the wall, there were two posters. One, labeled “The Female Reproductive System,” had an illustration of the uterus and the pink, sloping arches of the fallopian tubes. The poster next to it read “Parenthood. Plan It.” A nurse spread a blue blanket over her. “If you need a hand to squeeze, that’s what I’m here for,” the nurse said. The patient thanked her and stared up at the ceiling, studying a purple mobile from which several fish dangled. Two nurses moved around her, efficiently laying out the necessary instruments. She closed her eyes and waited.
ANYONE WHO ROUNDS THE BEND ON Twenty-ninth Street and pulls into the clinic’s driveway arrives at a building that looks like a military outpost in enemy territory. “No firearms allowed” warns one sign on the front door. “Trespassers will be prosecuted” reads another. An eight-foot black security fence rings the clinic and the parking lot. Nine surveillance cameras watch the perimeter of the building, which has been fortified with a fire-retardant roof and windows made of bullet-resistant glass. If the perimeter is breached, the exterior doors can be locked with the push of a button. Planned Parenthood has taken these precautions even though abortions make up only 7 percent of the clinic’s workload. Except for Wednesdays, its nurses spend their time dispensing contraceptives, testing for sexually-transmitted diseases, and performing Pap smears. One of the ironies of this battle is that the clinic, by making birth control available to poor women and patients who lack health insurance, is likely reducing the number of women seeking abortions. “People forget that our goal is to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” said clinic director Dyann Santos. “We provide women with birth control so they will be less likely to have an abortion later. But abortion has muddied the water. That’s all we’re known for now.”
On Wednesdays, an average of fifteen women arrive to terminate their pregnancies. Each patient is met in the parking lot by two Planned Parenthood escorts, who briskly walk her past the protesters that line the fence. “Mom, we’re praying for you!” they might call out as she walks by. Inside, the chaos recedes. The clinic is sterile, white, and orderly, its linoleum floors polished to a glossy sheen. The walls are lined with pastel Georgia O’Keeffe posters, displays of sex-education brochures (“Teen Sex? It’s Okay to Say No Way!”), and the occasional feminist exhortation (“You vote, girl!”). A sign next to the Coke machine proclaims “We respect our clients’ dignity and intelligence.” The waiting room is crowded with a cross section of society, from middle-aged Hispanic women with children in tow to ponytailed students, a few of whom lean into the crook of a boyfriend’s arm. Some absent-mindedly flip through fashion magazines or stare at the TV, taking in the gauzy romance of The Young and the Restless. All around them are the mixed messages of a culture that says sex is good but pretends that there are no consequences. “Guys Tell What’s Sexy (And Not Sexy) in Bed” announces a worn copy of Glamour, while Redbook promises to teach “The Secret Sex Move He’s Got to Feel to Believe.”
A glance around the waiting room makes it clear that unintended pregnancy is a great leveler. Whether women are privileged or poor, black or white, Catholic or Baptist, they all occupy seats in the waiting room. A few of the youngest ones, the teenagers among them, have braces and chew bubble gum. Not all of them agree with the notion that abortion should be readily available; some tell the nurses they believe abortion is a sin but say that their particular circumstances warrant an exception. Each woman has her reason for being in the waiting room: She does not want to drop out of school; she has just filed for divorce; she does not believe she can provide for another child or raise one alone. They are there because of slipped condoms, forgotten pills, faulty IUDs, wishful thinking, or just plain ignorance, which observes no boundaries of class, race, or education. A few teenagers swear they have never had sex or believe that the sex they did have could not possibly have resulted in pregnancy. “It was my first time,” they explain, or “We did it standing up.” The poorest women among them have never had so much as a pelvic exam. They all share a sense of urgency. A few seem truly desperate. The nurses still talk about the waitress who saved up her tips and paid for her abortion in cash, mostly in $1 bills.
Before a woman can see the doctor, she must have a sonogram to determine how far her pregnancy has advanced; the clinic does not perform abortions past the first trimester. She must also meet with a counselor—either a social worker or a nurse—to discuss her options. If the counselor believes she has been pressured by a boyfriend, for example, the clinic will send her away, with a referral to an adoption agency if it is requested. “Some women will say up front, ‘I believe this is murder and it’s wrong,'” said Santos. “Or it can be more subtle. They won’t make eye contact, or they tear up in the waiting room. I say, ‘What are the tears about?’ and we talk about it. If she is hesitant, I’ll send her home and tell her to think things over.” The emotions that rise to the surface in the counseling room are not easily labeled. Some women cry; most are resolute. A few agonize over whether their decision is selfish. All speak of the relief they expect to feel afterward. Some pose the questions that they would not dare ask anywhere else: “Is there a heartbeat?” (Yes, from seven weeks on.) “How big is it?” (The counselor will hold up a ruler.) And occasionally they ask, “Will God forgive me?” (Counselors reply, “Do you believe God is a forgiving god?”)
Before the clinic began offering abortions, in 1999, the questions were simpler. It first opened one block from the Texas A&M campus in College Station in 1975. Women had recently begun attending the historically all-male military school and had few ways to obtain low-cost birth control. Santos, a sturdy, no-nonsense woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a dry sense of humor, has worked at the clinic since 1980, when she started out as the receptionist. As she moved up the ranks, she saw the need for a clinic that would offer abortions. “Women in this part of East Texas had to drive to Waco or Houston,” she said. “We felt they should not have to travel hundreds of miles for this procedure.” In the mid-nineties Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas began a capital campaign to raise the necessary money for a larger, more secure clinic in the Brazos Valley where abortions could be performed. Santos knew that the BryanCollege Station area was, like most of this stretch of East Texas, politically conservative and deeply religious, but she was not prepared for the resistance she met. When no one in College Station would rent property to Planned Parenthood for the clinic, the organization bought land in Bryan.
“Local businesses were pressured not to work with us,” Santos said. “Electricians turned us down. The security company backed out. The plumber would not park his company van outside. The gates, the fences, the roof—everything came from out of town. The contractor drove in from Houston. Even people who had done business with us for twenty years were afraid.” She did not know at the time that it was the beginning of a long and ugly war.
THE DOCTOR WALKED INTO THE room and sat down on a stool at the woman’s feet. He was a portly, white-haired man in green scrubs who smelled like soap. He had the genial manner of a doctor who listens well. He smiled and introduced himself.
“Are you from Bryan?” he asked her.
“No. I live in _____,” she said, naming a small town in East Texas.
“What do you do there?”
She worked at a discount store, she said.
“Do you like it?”
“No. I get a headache every time I walk in there,” she said. “I want to go back to school.”
“What do you want to study?” asked a nurse.
“Broadcast journalism,” she said. She smiled for the first time that morning. “Put me in the spotlight and I shine.”
The doctor was busy now. He examined the grainy black-and-white sonogram before him, which indicated that she was seven weeks pregnant. A tiny white oval, the size of a small coin, lay at the bottom of a dark sea that rose and fell.
LONG BEFORE THERE WAS A clinic, there were prayers. Before the grassy patch of land on Twenty-ninth Street was surveyed or the ground broken or the foundation laid, Christians gathered in protest. The property was still shaded by scrub trees when demonstrators first assembled there, holding candles in the winter chill. They came on Valentine’s Day of 1998, after the BryanCollege Station Eagle ran an article about Planned Parenthood’s purchase of the land. During the weeks that followed, people gathered there each night to declare their opposition. Students strummed guitars and sang worship songs. Church groups stood in the cold, bearing witness. People passing by stopped to bow their heads and count the rosary: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. “We were angry that Planned Parenthood was bringing abortion into a community that is so family-oriented and traditional,” said Lauren Gulde, a 27-year-old mother of two who believes that the clinic’s work involves the taking of human life. “People here want to live good, wholesome lives,” she said. “We couldn’t just let this happen. We had to do something.”
Gulde, who was then working as a church secretary at St. Mary’s Catholic Center, organized a strategy meeting for like-minded people that February—a call to action for the pro-life community. She had reserved the St. Mary’s library for the gathering, but so many people showed up that the crowd was moved into the main sanctuary. All told, 450 people from thirty churches of varying denominations attended. “People overcame major differences about doctrine to unite over this issue,” said A&M English professor Bedford Clark, the faculty sponsor of Aggies for Life. “It was a triumph of ecumenicism.” The conversation continued late into the evening and sparked the creation of the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life. Gulde became its executive director, and that spring she set up shop in a donated office space up the street from the Planned Parenthood property. Like most people involved in the coalition, she felt that she was answering to a higher power. “That’s what God’s plan was for me,” she said. Gulde and a new board of directors settled on a guiding principle: that life is sacred from conception to natural death. (Execution is murder, they hold, because man is not the author of life.) Their mission statement read, simply, “To love, respect, and protect life.”
During the final phases of the clinic’s construction that fall, Gulde penned a fundraising letter to coalition members that showed the depth of her devotion to the cause. “What I’m about to tell you will make your blood boil!” she wrote. “My Friend for Life, imagine a savage killer who has vowed to destroy your children right here in Bryan/College Station! Is there any expense that you would not spare to make sure that you STOPPED him? Of course not! You’d DO anything, GIVE anything, and SACRIFICE anything to save the precious lives of your babies!” She went on to ask for their prayers, but despite her efforts the clinic opened the following spring, in 1999. “We stood outside and prayed on the first abortion day,” recalls Amber Matchen, an A&M graduate who joined the ranks of the coalition as its outreach coordinator. “There was an ominous feeling of death around. We were awestruck by what was taking place inside this ordinary-looking building. Lives were being taken right here in our town.” The powerlessness that she and many coalition members felt as they looked on, week after week, was demoralizing. Though protesters still turned out on days when abortions were performed, many had a sense that their mission was foundering.
But the coalition’s walk through the wilderness was soon followed by redemption. The group found new inspiration and resolve in David Bereit, a pharmaceutical salesman and A&M graduate in his early thirties with a gift for impassioned oratory. A coalition board member, Bereit (pronounced like a directive: “Be right”) became the executive director in 2001, when Gulde left to be a full-time mother. In him, his supporters see the promise of victory. “He is David fighting Goliath,” said Clark. “He has a slingshot, but he has very sharp, precise aim.” His detractors at Planned Parenthood are less generous, characterizing him as an opportunist who looks pious for the camera and a self-promoter who is using the coalition to advance his own national ambitions. “The kinder, gentler Randall Terry” they call him, referring to the charismatic and radical former leader of Operation Rescue. Always upbeat, Bereit takes criticism in stride. “My job is not to be liked by everyone,” he said. “The role of the coalition is to bring abortion to the forefront of people’s minds so that they must come to grips with it. As a result, we are stretching people beyond their comfort zone, through peaceful means. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that there is a certain amount of nonviolent tension that is necessary to bring about change in a community. We are creating that tension.”
That tension is felt most keenly along the fence that surrounds the clinic, where picketers now line the sidewalk from dawn until dusk, in shifts that the coalition assigns to volunteers. They keep watch in the snow, the driving rain, and the dog days of summer. “We are witnessing,” explained A&M student Austin Riddle. “We’re witnesses to the truth, like witnesses in court. We are witnesses to murder. We will not be complacent, like people were in Nazi Germany, and look the other way.” Like many of the protesters who stand outside the clinic, Riddle is clean-cut, white, and devout. A few eccentrics stand among the crowd; until recently, one protester wore a Grim Reaper costume. Another man holds up his cross whenever he sees the clinic’s staff, as if warding off vampires. But most of the demonstrators are just regular people who go to church on Sunday. Women with babies on their hips stand beside clean-shaven men holding worn black bibles. Children stand hand in hand, waving at the traffic. They pray silently or kneel or count the rosary with such devotion that the lacquer on their prayer beads has worn thin. Drivers passing by honk and smile, giving the thumbs-up sign. Others yell, “Get a job!” or “Go home, bigots!”
Over the roar of traffic, the protesters try to appeal to the women who come to the clinic on Wednesdays. “It is hard to scream love,” lamented Marilisa Field, a blue-eyed, blond A&M student with a beatific face. “But even if we save one child, it’s worth it.” She and other “sidewalk counselors” walk along the fence, calling out to clients as they stride across the parking lot: “Good morning, Mom! We care about you. We want to share some information about your options. We want to help you. We’re praying for you.” The sidewalk counselors do not condone the less charitable comments other protesters have spoken in anger. Men entering the clinic have been scolded with “Hey, Dad, be a real man!” and women leaving the clinic have, on occasion, been told they are going to hell. “That’s un-Christian behavior, and it does not help our cause,” Field said. But the rage behind those insults is felt quietly by many of the people standing outside the clinic. “Life is not something that just kicks in at the end of the first trimester,” said Professor Clark. “The oak tree is in the acorn.” Their belief that abortion is unethical is without ambiguity; cases of rape and incest, for example, do not merit exclusion. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Matchen explained. “And once you start making exceptions, where do they end?”
Members of the Coalition for Life gathered together on a brisk evening in late February for their annual fundraiser. The civic center was filled to overflowing; the final tally of attendees was 860, a testament to Bereit’s ability to rouse people to action. (Two years ago, 275 people attended.) The event had the convivial feel of a church supper. Baptist and Catholic groups sat at long folding tables, dining on roast beef and sweet tea. Priests in collars mingled with the all-American crowd. Bereit did not deliver his most vitriolic speech, in which he compares Planned Parenthood to a murderer on the loose, punctuating his lecture with the sound of recorded gunshots. (“While you were brushing your teeth and making sure you look real pretty in the mirror”—bam!—”the killer cuts down another child before her time.”) That night, he was more subdued, simply reminding his audience of the context of this battle. “In Texas, we have a very unique responsibility in this American struggle against abortion, because it was just over thirty years ago that it all began right here, in the Lone Star State,” he said, his voice rising with emotion as he surveyed the room. “Just three hours up the road, in a little restaurant on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, a young woman named Norma McCorvey sat down with two ambitious attorneys who told her that they wanted to overturn the laws in Texas that prohibited abortion. They convinced her to sign on the line as ‘Jane Roe.'”
But it was the guest speaker, a young woman named Gianna Jessen, who brought people to their feet. She told them of her mother’s unsuccessful attempt to abort her during the last trimester of pregnancy and of how she had survived. At the end of her speech, she asked the audience how much money they should all pray for to help with the coalition’s mission. “Two hundred thousand dollars?” she said, fielding suggestions. “Whatever it takes. Okay, should we pray for three hundred thousand dollars?”
And then a voice rose from the crowd. “Let’s pray to close Planned Parenthood!” a woman cried. The auditorium erupted in whoops and applause. “Amen!” people shouted. “Amen!”
THE DOCTOR BEGAN TO ADMINISTER a shot of lidocaine. “You might feel a little pinch,” he said. “I’m going to numb your cervix now.” When the anesthetic had started to work, he slid a succession of thin, tapered dilators into her cervix. The woman flinched only once, rustling the white paper beneath her. When her cervix was dilated far enough, the doctor threaded a thin plastic tube through it, into her uterus. The tube was connected to a small pump that he held in his hand. Once he was ready, he would begin squeezing the pump, which would empty the contents of her uterus.
DYANN SANTOS FIRST SAW THE “Wanted” posters as she drove to work one morning in the summer of 1999. They were hard to miss. Every time she stopped at a red light or took a right turn on her route from College Station to Bryan, a poster bearing a photo of the clinic’s doctor fluttered at eye level from a street sign or a telephone pole. “Someone knew my way to work,” she said. “Someone had planned this out for me to see.”
Soon her neighbors began receiving postcards. “Under current Texas law, abortion providers, like convicted sex offenders, are required by state law to register with the State,” they read, listing her home address. Farther down, the tone became more informal: “Please feel free to call Dyann at [her home number] or possibly catch her in the Wal-Mart parking lot. She drives a small 1999 silver Honda with Texas Tag [her license plate number].” Dozens more postcards arrived without return addresses. One listed the “body count” Santos was responsible for and the warning “God has his own way of keeping score!” And so she took precautions. She transferred her teenage son to a private school. She took different routes home. She changed her phone number, twice. She stopped taking walks at night.
Santos was not the only target of the mail campaign, which has continued intermittently over the past four years and has included hundreds of letters and postcards. Nurses have received photographs of mutilated fetuses, scrawled with handwritten notes like “Brandi, did you know that God sees everything you do and remembers?” Other nurses have been reported to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners for “the willful taking of human lives.” Clinic volunteers, like 77-year-old Barbara Anderson, have been sent poems: “My name is Barbara Anderson, and I love to see them die / They lose their arms, they lose their legs, and then they lose their very life / And all the time I laugh and sing, because I love the sight.” Escorts have received postcards that list familiar details of their lives. “Dear Jennifer,” read one. “Your Mom and Dad, as well as Matt and Cynthia, must really be proud of you, Jennifer. You attended the best university in the state, dress in the finest clothes, drive a great-looking new ’99 Blazer, and from all reports, did pretty well in school. But every [week] you go down to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic to assist in the killing of the most helpless of God’s creatures.”
Not all the harassment has been anonymous. Debbie McCall, the clinic’s community service director, was manning a Planned Parenthood booth at an A&M health fair two years ago when a man she had never seen before ran up and threw a note at her, then disappeared into the crowd. Across the piece of paper was written one word: “Murderer.” At another health fair that year, a man whom McCall had observed picketing the clinic before approached her. “I’m keeping an eye on you,” he said with a grin. “You should be careful driving home down that lonely highway.” McCall commutes from the town of Crockett, 72 miles away, along a two-lane road that threads through farmland. “I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” she recalled. Still, she had little recourse. As with the anonymous mail and the “Wanted” posters, no one had broken the law. No threats of “imminent bodily injury,” as the law requires, had been made. “They go right up to the edge of the law,” observed Melissa Reyna, a nurse who worked at the clinic for three years. “They keep pushing that line a little further. The concern when I worked there was that someday, someone—that one loose cannon out there—would step over the line.”
Planned Parenthood believes that the coalition has either participated in the anonymous mail campaign or knows who is carrying it out. “The coalition’s members stand outside the clinic and write down license plate numbers,” said Dr. Elizabeth Berigan, a local internist and a member of the Planned Parenthood board. “The postcards have slowed down, but when clients used to get them, it was always a few days after they visited the clinic, at the address their cars were registered to. This isn’t rocket science. If the coalition isn’t sending the postcards, they’re not keeping very good control over their notes.”
Bereit vigorously denies that the coalition has had any involvement. “The mailings are tasteless and uncharitable and go completely against our mission,” he said. “We are a Christian organization, and we adamantly oppose these tactics. Can I guarantee that whoever is behind the mailings is not someone who has stood with us outside the clinic? No. I wish I could police every single person who thinks as I do, because these mailings are counter-productive to our cause.” The coalition does, Bereit acknowledged, keep a logbook in which patients’ license plate numbers have been recorded. Its purpose, he explained, is to collect information that can be handed over to the police “in case protesters are harassed and the police need to contact witnesses.” Now, coalition members make note of no more than the first three characters of clients’ tags. “We have to be above reproach not only in our actions but in our appearance,” he said.
Bereit’s denials have done little to convince the clinic’s employees that the coalition will not use underhanded tactics if proven effective. Inside the clinic, a mood of fear and suspicion prevails. Santos often stands in her office behind the half-drawn gray blinds, surveying the fence line. Outside, the clinic’s escorts stand at attention, poker-faced, staring back at the protesters from behind dark sunglasses. As in war, the women who work at the clinic share a fierce camaraderie. They gather on breaks to talk in the kitchen, where a pot of coffee is always brewing, finding solace in conversation. They do not talk about the toll that this battle has taken: the nurses who have left because of the harassment, the therapy that employees have sought to manage the psychological stress, the nightmares about people—real or imagined—who might do them harm. Instead they talk about the news, their children, their plans for the weekend. Every effort is made to keep up appearances. “There is a constant siege mentality,” Berigan said. “It wears on all of them. Dyann feels responsible for the safety of everyone who works there, and that is a big burden to carry.”
If the women who work at the clinic agonize over the question that some of their patients do—when does life begin?—they do so privately. The intensity of the opposition leaves no room for ambivalence. They all share the conviction that women, not the protesters outside, should have the right to control their own bodies. But they do not spend their time in abstract discussions about ideology; their days are consumed by the practical realities of providing a medical procedure that no one else in this part of East Texas is willing to offer. They feel a responsibility to do so despite the personal cost. Just as the coalition finds purpose in the sonogram images of the fetus, so the clinic’s employees find purpose in the stories of the desperate women who come to them: the college student who was raped, the woman in an abusive marriage, the pregnant twelve-year-old. When asked why she does her work, Santos did not cite familiar arguments or political slogans about a woman’s right to choose. “We provide a service that is needed,” she said simply. “The people who want to shut this clinic down have not walked in these women’s shoes. Women don’t struggle with these decisions lightly. They do a lot of soul searching. They—” she gestured toward the protesters outside—”try to make the complex simple. In what I do, I see the complexity of life.”
WHILE THE DOCTOR WENT ABOUT his work, the nurse kept the patient engaged in conversation. The light sedation she had requested had begun to flow from an intravenous tube, and as it eased the tension of the morning, she began to relate her story. “I used to have my life all planned out,” she told the nurse. She had been an honors student in high school, she said, and she had planned to go to college on a scholarship. Then she had gotten pregnant when she was seventeen. “So I never got to go to college,” she said. “I had my daughter.” She sighed and gazed up at the ceiling. “I love her so much. She is so precious to me.”
“How old is she?” the nurse asked.
“She’s three. She’s so smart.”
“Do you read to her?”
“All the time.”
Below her, out of her line of vision, the plastic tube that led from her uterus filled with blood. The trail of red sputtered along until there was no more. When the doctor was finished, he pushed his stool away from the examining table and looked up at his patient. All told, the procedure itself had taken little more than a minute. “We’re done,” he said. “We’ll do an ultrasound just to make sure.”
She closed her eyes. Under the blanket, her body slackened. “Thank you,” she said.
ON A HUMID MORNING IN early May, when the heat was already starting to rise off the pavement, the Coalition for Life held a Mother’s Day prayer vigil next to the clinic. Hundreds of tiny white crosses stood in the grass along the sidewalk in a makeshift memorial to the unborn. Around them stood a crowd of nearly one hundred people. Young women in sundresses fanned themselves. Towheaded children sat, flushed, in the grass. Retirees in folding chairs shaded themselves with umbrellas. Tied to several strollers were balloons that read “God is pro-life.” After prayers and songs and testimonies, David Bereit, wearing a dark suit in spite of the heat, fired up the audience. He stood atop a plywood platform and launched into a litany of grievances against Planned Parenthood. “For more than four years this organization has poured out lies and misinformation!” he cried, gripping the podium. “For more than four years they have poisoned our community with harmful messages and ‘lifestyle choices’ that result in death and destruction!” His speech was a call to action, an exhortation to each of the coalition’s supporters to continue protesting during the hot summer months that lay ahead.
As Bereit laid out his case, he invoked stark images of evil, speaking of the “awful darkness that blocks the sun from this place.” Behind him, coalition volunteers had hung an American flag at half-staff. “On Wednesday morning, Planned Parenthood brought their contract abortionist to town,” Bereit told the crowd. “And in the first few hours of the day at this facility, he went from room to room to room, systematically cutting seventeen tiny children, limb from limb, destroying their bodies before suctioning them out of their mothers’ wombs.” His voice grew more insistent as he spoke of the toll. “In a sense, we are all involved in the death of these seventeen children this week, because we tolerated the opening of this horrific facility here. We tolerated their poisonous rhetoric of choice. We tolerated the weekly slaughter of innocent children while going about our oh-so-busy lives. We tolerated the lie that human life is only sacred when it is wanted by another. We tolerated the intolerable!” Overcome with emotion, one woman kneeled on the grass before him and began to weep. Bereit urged the audience to show their opposition. “With God on our side, victory will ultimately be achieved!” he said, as the crowd cheered and applauded.
Several weeks later, the Texas Legislature handed huge victories to abortion opponents. Among the bills that were passed was the Prenatal Protection Act, which defines a fertilized egg as an “individual.” The act allows for criminal charges to be filed if a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus is killed. Although the act exempts abortion, it lays the groundwork for future court cases that could test Roe v. Wade. The Woman’s Right to Know Act requires a 24-hour waiting period for abortions; clinics must offer to show photographs of fetuses to women who are considering the procedure and inform them that abortion will possibly increase their chance of developing breast cancer—a claim refuted by the American Cancer Society. But the most sweeping action was a new law prohibiting organizations that provide abortions from receiving any state funding. Current laws already prohibit taxpayer funding of abortions. But the effect of the law will be to eliminate state funding for a host of non-abortion-related services offered by clinics like the one in Bryan, from Pap smears to birth control. For Planned Parenthood, at whom this bill was directly targeted, it will mean a loss of some $13 million per year in Texas. Many of its clinics will have to turn away patients who cannot pay for birth control. While the law is intended to deter clinics from providing abortions, the consequence will likely be a rise in unplanned pregnancies, thus defeating the intent of the bill. The rider was sponsored by Steve Ogden, the state senator from Bryan. Ogden spoke at a coalition event in January, and his father, Emil, is one of the coalition’s most generous donors.
And so the battle over abortion continues outside the clinic in Bryan. For a war, it has an odd predictability to it. Each morning the foot soldiers assume their posts on opposite sides of the fence. The protesters come in straw hats, smeared in sunscreen, with bottles of cold water and placards and rosaries. The escorts stand, stone-faced, at the entrance. Both sides keep logs, noting each other’s movements. There are moments, every now and then, of everyday humanity—the days when one side wishes the other a Merry Christmas or comments on the weather or compliments someone on a new pair of shoes. And then they remember that they are in a battle. It does no good to talk to the enemy. They retreat to their posts, where they stand and stare at each other, again, through the fence. Each night they leave, only to return the next day. The impasse remains. Lost in the shouting on both sides is the woman at the center of the storm.
SHE WAS HELPED INTO A wheelchair and pushed down the hall into the recovery room, where there were heating pads and ibuprofen and cups of apple juice. A nurse guided her into a recliner and draped a damp washcloth across her forehead. Two other patients sat nearby, exhausted, their eyes closed. She and I talked for a while—about her hopes for the future, her job, her daughter. “I want to do what’s best for her,” she said. Under the fluorescent lights, she looked much older than twenty. The strain of the morning was plain to see; her face was tired but softened by the comfort of conversation. We talked until the other patients had left the room.
Before I left her alone with her thoughts, she grew somber. “I talked to the baby last night,” she said suddenly, in a near whisper. “I used to talk to my daughter when I was pregnant with her. I told her stories and sang her songs. But I never talked to this one.” Her eyes began to water. “Last night I got into bed and I talked to it. I told it that I wanted to bring it into the world someday, when I wasn’t struggling so hard.”
The self-control she had maintained all morning vanished. Tears streamed down her face. “I’m struggling so hard right now,” she said. “I asked the baby to please forgive me.”