Handmaid at the 2018 Life Chain

The Life Chain is an annual, one-hour pro-life demonstration that takes place on the first Sunday in October. In 2017, over 1500 cities and towns had Life Chain demonstrations. The organization behind the Life Chain, Please Let Me Live, doesn’t seem to consider itself a demonstration, but more like a prayer vigil. “Life Chain is a time for prayerful self-analysis, repentance, and serious commitment to helping end abortion in our nation. Accordingly, LIFE CHAIN is not chiefly a demonstration, and its witness is not intended for the viewing public only. Instead, its first goal is to minister to its own participants—to those who call Christ their Lord and hold pro-life messages that declare abortion a grave evil that defames the name and holiness of God (Leviticus 18:21).”

The Life Chain in Black River Falls, WI is run by the Jackson County chapter, led by Pastor Samuel Faust, of the Wisconsin Right to Life. Faust and a few of the people that participate in the Life Chain had stood out in front of the Essential Health Clinic until that location closed using the same signs distributed by the Life Chain organization. From my perspective, the Life Chain is just a bigger version of the demonstration that was held in front of the Essential Health Clinic and lacking in frustrated patients to potentially harass with verbal scripture or anti-abortion handouts.

This was my third year counter protesting the Life Chain.

Due to some poor planning on my part, I was unable to get anyone to join me in this year’s counter protest. Still, I had already decided far in advance that I was going to make a bold statement whether I counter protested alone or with others. Thus, I began the construction of the “Handmaid’s Tale” costume about a month or so before the Life Chain.

For the uninitiated, the story of The Handmaid’s Tale revolves around a dystopian United States where women as a whole are suppressed by a patriarchal society while the few fertile women that are left are forced into child-bearing slavery for the ruling class as “handmaids” because of an extremist interpretation of scripture. Women right’s activists have drawn comparisons to the themes of the novel and television series to the continued attacks on women—particularly on reproductive rights—by conservatives. About a month after the television series debuted on Hulu in 2017, 20 women dressed in the red capes and white bonnets similar to those worn by the handmaids on the show gathered in the halls of the Texas state capitol building to protest several anti-abortion bills that were on the legislative calendar. Since then, the handmaid attire has become popular for pro-choice activists when representing reproductive rights and bodily autonomy during protests.

The scarlet dress and cape was certainly striking against the backdrop of the cloudy, grey October afternoon. Judging by some of the looks I was getting as I approached the bottom of the bridge, I imagine it was a sight to see for the pro-life representatives. Possibly even more so when I displayed the sign I had made criticizing their lack of “pro-life vigils” for post-fetal children.

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The sign I held had an additional message on the other side and I had an extra one-sided sign with me, but I must admit my anxiety got the best of me and the other two signs were not made visible. Sometimes being an activist with anxiety issues sucks. (Here are the signs for your viewing pleasure.)

I wasn’t surprised when a pro-life representative chose to stand beside me and try to chat. What did surprise me was that he acted in a way I haven’t seen from a pro-life supporter participating in a demonstration. He wasn’t preachy, sarcastic, or acted like he was morally superior for taking on an anti-abortion view. Heck, he even offered me hand warmers in case it got too cold for me despite me being what some might call a “pro-abort”. Maybe “respectful” is the word I’m looking for?

Another thing that wasn’t surprising was being approached by Faust. He introduced me to the man standing beside me and acted like he was my friend, even declaring as such to the man I was chatting with (“I consider her my friend…though I’m not sure if she thinks the same” in that cheerful yet sarcastic tone of his). He recognized my attire from the Handmaid’s Tale, stating he had started reading the book yet never finished it. He didn’t say anything about my signage other than an “Oh…yeah” that sounded artificially cheerful, but also like he was holding back what he really wanted to say.

But Faust being Faust, he spouted one of his more well-loved anti-abortion arguments in a sarcastic tone after explaining I was chatting with a doctor. “Since there seems to be some…confusion…on whether it’s a baby in the womb, he would be the man to know that it is its own person and not a part of the woman’s anatomy… or that a woman doesn’t have two heads or male reproductive organs during a pregnancy”. Ugh, I haven’t talked with Faust for so long that I’d forgotten how unbearable he could be. If I hadn’t decided beforehand to try not to get into a heated argument, I might have taken the opportunity to ask the doctor questions about fetal viability even with the assistance of modern medicine or if fetal life is indeed completely separate from the mother as Faust suggests (placenta, absorption of nutrients that the mother intakes, growth pushing up mother’s internal organs, pregnancy possibly agitating existing health issues, etc.) Besides, this doctor had been nice to me so I wasn’t going to be a dick like Faust and use this doctor as bait for an argument.

Faust probably wasn’t there to specifically try to provoke me into a debate, but rather I happened to be there while he was gathering signatures for Scott Walker, claiming the governor has the power “ban abortion tomorrow” in Wisconsin due to an existing law. However, by doing this, Faust was breaking Life Chain principals. The manual put out by the organization behind the Life Chain (Please Let Me Live) states, “PLML does not minimize the importance of politics. We in prolife must be politically involved. Yet we must not combine our politics with the LIFE CHAIN. To do so would weaken our emphasis on prayer, it would lead readily to disunity in our ranks, and it would sharpen media attacks against us. It is, therefore, urgent that all LIFE CHAINS refrain from political activity.” Additionally, its list of principals for coordinators (like Faust), says, “Avoid all political activity! Only God can end abortion and meet our nation’s vital needs.”

Besides Faust engaging in political activity, there were other things about the Black River Falls Life Chain that didn’t fit in with the official rules. Another Life Chain principal is “Insist on a true “prayer chain,” free of frivolity, idle chatter, and interaction with motorists.” I witnessed people forming into pairs and groups to chatter with each other and the kids were running around with each other for a bit. Another Life Chain principal that was broken was, “Maximize your Life Chain. Space your participants up to 100 feet apart (only 53 people will cover a full mile; 215 will cover 5 miles; 530 will cover 10 miles).” I counted 40 people when I first got there and more arrived afterwards so I would say there was probably 50-55 people total. This would mean the Life Chain should have started at the bottom of the bridge and extended all the way to Culver’s had they spaced themselves out properly in accordance with principals. Instead, there were two “chains” due to the group deciding to take up both sides of the road and both were concentrated on the .2 miles of bridge with very inconsistent spacing due people to breaking off into smaller groups to chat or keep each other company. By the rules of the Life Chain, this was a pathetic, broken, and improperly managed chain.

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An example of the improper spacing of participants. Too many people grouped together in one space. There’s a huge gap in-between the group that ends on the left side of the photo (partially hidden by a car) and the group that starts in the middle of the photo. 

 

I chatted with the doctor for most of the Life Chain. Some of it was idle chatter like the weather. We both commented that we weren’t really sure if the honking from cars was positive or negative. “I guess it depends what finger goes up,” the doctor said with a chuckle. He asked if the statistics about children on my sign were United States statistics and lamented it was worse in some other countries, describing a time he had gone to an orphanage in the Philippines.

“It was bad. You almost wanted to grab all of them and take them home.”

“Well…why didn’t you?” I asked. I don’t know why I asked. Maybe I was half-expecting the pro-lifer BS of making excuses as to why they won’t take unwanted children while telling others to put their unwanted babies up for adoption instead of aborting.

“Unfortunately, there’s a long process involved with adopting a child from another country. And its insanely expensive.” I can’t say I disagree with him there.

“So what do you think is the solution to these issues?” he asked. I think he was being sincere when he asked.

“Do you mean about abortion or my sign?”

“The statistics on your sign.”

“Well, I wouldn’t cut assistance programs like our governor has. Universal healthcare. Birth control readily available to everyone so there’s less children like this.” I admit it wasn’t the most eloquent sounding answer, but anxiety issues make it hard to form words especially when you’re not expecting to be asked such things.

“I think we’re on the same side,” he said. I think he meant we both care about the well-being of people even if I don’t necessarily agree on fetal life having personhood.

“You agree? Even with the birth control?”

“Of course! I agree with doing the sensible thing!”

“Really? That’s interesting because…well, in my own experiences…pro-lifers have been against birth control.” I had thought about a discussion I had with Faust some time ago about contraceptives. He claimed “We aren’t against birth control”, but further discussion indicated that he was against the pill, IUD, etc.—“unnatural” birth control. In his mind, acceptable birth control means fertility based birth control, abstinence, and maybe pulling out. Another anti-abortion activist I’ve exchanged comments with on Facebook believes contraceptives like the pill are abortifacients.

“I’ve never had an issue with them. I have never had a problem with prescribing them to women. In fact, when they came out with it, I thought it would be the answer to abortion! I thought ‘This is great!’” Well, this was insanely interesting: an anti-abortion supporter prescribing birth control pills to women and thinking it’s the sensible thing to do rather than keep women in the dark and insisting they just close their legs to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. Even more so considering what I learned after the Life Chain: the organization considers certain contraceptives, like the pill, to be abortifacients. One of the principals for Life Chain coordinators is “Educate your participants about abortifacient birth controls (use an appropriate handout)”. Though I don’t think Faust would get very far trying to educate a doctor on birth control.

“Huh, I guess we do have some common ground!”

Even if we didn’t agree on everything, my conversation with the doctor was rather pleasant and I actually wouldn’t mind chatting with him on the subject again. I guess I have been so used to expecting pro-lifers to try and ream me a new one for supporting abortion (if women want one) that I wasn’t expecting someone to be genuinely respectful.

I can’t say the same for the old lady that arrived a little late to participate in the Life Chain and, having seen my sign earlier, had approached me to set me straight about what they do. She had a salty attitude to match the preachy, self-righteousness I was so used to seeing in pro-life supporters as she informed me that many of the people at the Life Chain have adopted or fostered children.

“I thought you should know we ARE taking care of children!” she snottily said.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s GREAT that people are fostering or adopting children. But I’ve noticed it’s been used as a defense when you call out pro-lifers on the hypocrisy of the pro-life movement not taking care of living, breathing, definitely viable children outside the womb with regularly firing brain waves. Basically they’re saying “Well! I’ve adopted/fostered so there!” as if adopting or fostering a child (or two) while telling women thinking about abortion they should simply put their unwanted babies up for adoption is helping ALL children in need.

I had told myself I wasn’t going to get into a debate, but I couldn’t help myself.

“So why aren’t these children the main focus of what you are doing then?” I said as I pointed to the statistics on my sign.

“We’re helping both!” she insisted, still salty AF.

“But you’re NOT focusing on these children. There’s WAY more children suffering from these issue daily than those that are being aborted. These numbers are MUCH higher than abortion rates.”

“I’m not sure where you get your statistics or if you know how many children are killed by abortion…”

“About 2,500 abortions everyday based on current statistics,” I said cutting her off.

“Oh, more children have been killed more than that!” she said, sounding sure of herself.

“Okay, 2,500 to 3,500 depending on the year.”

MY statistics don’t agree with YOUR statistics!”

“You…you don’t agree with statistics?”

My statistics are much higher than your statistics!”

She likely got her “statistics” from pro-life groups instead of doing any actual research. The post “Wooden crosses and abortion stats” explains how the pro-life movement has thrown around different numbers to describe daily abortion rates and where they likely got those rates. But seriously? “My statistics are much higher than your statistics”? I’m surprised she didn’t start singing the song “My God’s Bigger than Your God” by Anti-Nowhere League!

“Don’t you think those numbers would go down if we took of these children first?”

Look! Even if we housed all the homeless, there would still be abortion!

She stormed off in a huff before I could explain a couple of the issues I was pointing out on my sign could be factors in making abortion decisions and if helping solve those issues would help lower abortion rates. Or why abortion is more important than these other issues to the pro-life movement. Don’t people die from things like hunger, exposure to the elements due to homelessness, neglect, aging out of the foster care system with no safety net (and possibly facing hunger and homelessness), etc.?

“Wow.” I don’t believe she was looking for a fight yet I don’t believe she was expecting me to question her. I think she thought I would just nod my head, accept her answer of adopting/fostering children at face value, and become enlightened.

When everyone started to leave, I stayed put until everyone had left the bridge. I found it was quite easy to get their attention on their way out by not trying that hard, though situating myself directly across from the parking lot most likely helped as well. A bright red dress that’s a recognizable symbol for oppressed women and a high contrast sign criticizing the pro-life movement probably had same attention grabbing effect as holding an “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN” sign in front of a family planning clinic has. Those on my side of the street had to walk directly in front of me before they could cross the street to get to their car. I noticed some look at me or read my sign, sometimes with that pained look on their face that seemed unsure how to react. More notably, some looked at the sidewalk trying not to acknowledge my existence. I had seen this sort of avoidance from the patients of the Essential Health Clinic, which was picketed by some of the very same people participating in the Life Chain, and now they were doing it to me.

Good! I hope my presence was unwanted. I hope they felt uncomfortable, disgusted, frustrated, outraged, etc.. And if they complain about it in the opinion section of the paper, I will say things that sound similar to what Faust has said when confronted with opposition to the group’s presence outside the clinic: “An overwhelming majority affirmed my presence”, “If my presence wasn’t doing any good then what harm was it doing?”, etc. I hope I made at least one of these pro-lifers feel the same way they made women feel by picketing their healthcare and family planning provider.

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