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Choosing sides

Abortion clinic volunteer protects patients

Joseph Rushmore

They yell into megaphones, the word murder echoing between parked cars. They’re carrying crosses and waving posters featuring images of oversized “embryos,” scrawled with provocative messages like Child sacrifice happens here.

Three mornings a week, Susan Braselton stands between the line of screaming abortion protestors and the women seeking the services of the Tulsa Women’s Clinic. 

“I’m just here to shield you from some of that hatefulness,” Susan tells each of the women who, in shock, attempt to navigate their way inside. She places herself squarely between the women and the protest line, ready to defend the choice of the former. 

Braselton has been the volunteer coordinator for Peaceful Presence since 2015. In addition to her own three-day schedule, Braselton coordinates a network of volunteers every day the clinic is open. “I have been passionate about re-productive justice as long as I can remember,” she said. “I lived a privileged life, for the most part, and I didn’t even realize it. I wanted to use it for good.”

The Peaceful Presence Program, which is affiliated with the Oklahoma Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choices, focuses on promoting a safe environment for clinic patients. Volunteers are tasked with making patients feel safe and comfortable as they make their way from their cars into the clinic. Briefing volunteers, Braselton stresses discretion, compassion and safety.

She helps direct traffic into the parking lot, past the protestors lining the street with misleading signs: Women’s Clinic patients start here. Braselton says they do this to confuse clinic patients into stopping at the wrong place, taking their literature and hearing their message. She said the protestors have started wearing vests to mimic the volunteers. They swarm cars in the street. It’s enough to confuse and overwhelm anyone, according to Braselton.

“They’re just deceptive,” she said. “So we help get them into the right parking lot, offer them a smile and a ‘Good morning,’ and escort them into the clinic through the taunts and the verbal assault from the curb.”

Braselton enforces the property line: Protestors on one side of the curb, clinic patients and volunteers on the other.

Braselton said protestors have been present for as long as she has been volunteering. “Their main goal is to intimidate, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be intimidated,” she said. “So I’m out here, just as vocal as they are.”

“The women love that we’re here. They love that we’re supportive and they are really appreciative of us being here,” she continued. “They don’t realize what goes on—the deception and condemnation and judgment they’ll get. I think they’re told there will be protestors, but they’re dealing with so much when they call to make an appointment that it doesn’t resonate.”

She said she’s seen and heard it all from protestors. 

“I’ve been yelled at and cussed at. I’ve been body slammed by that man there,” she said, pointing to an aging white man, dressed in khaki shorts and a button-up shirt, his foot propped up on the curb marking the property line. “He was so adamant to get his literature to the woman I was escorting across the parking lot that he body slammed me to get me out of the way.”

But as long as the women still need her, Braselton will keep coming back: “I’ll say it again. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them intimidate me.”

Braselton said if she could make the activists listen, she would simply remind them: 

It’s a woman’s choice, not yours. 

About half of the volunteers are people who have come to the clinic for services, according to Braselton. “But you don’t have to have had an abortion to support a woman’s right to choose one,” she said.

“One in four women have had an abortion and whatever their reason is for having one is none of my concern. It’s none of the protestors’ concern.”

She added: “They act like they care, but they don’t … their lies are the most frustrating part. They give misinformation. They have misleading signs. They intimidate women by yelling. They even tell us, the volunteers, that we’re going to hell. They call us wicked; they call us Jezebels and harlots. They call us murderers, just for walking a woman to the door.”

She said most of the signs and megaphone messages are based in religion, but their approach differs depending on the patient. 

“If there’s a man walking in with a woman, they target him. They say, ‘Be a hero’ and ‘Don’t let your woman do this—be a man.’ With white women, they make it a moral issue. With black women, they make it financial and offer a free ultrasound.” 

But mostly they use religion. 

“It’s getting much, much worse. And it’s getting louder,” Braselton said. “This minority is getting emboldened. The average human being, the average citizen of the United States supports abortion. I know I’m on the right side of history,” she said. 

And in a message to the women daunted by the task of wading through the picket line, Braselton said: “Stand tall and be convinced that your decision for your life is the right decision. The decision is yours to make. Just don’t let the bastards get you down.”