On my first day at my job doing intake at an abortion clinic, the manager mentioned that because I had already worked in an abortion clinic for three years, she didn’t have to give me “the shpiel about the difference between being pro-choice and working pro-choice.”
“That’s right!” I replied, nodding sagely, as I thought to myself: “What the hell is she talking about?”.
You see, the clinic I used to work at was the only game in town. Well, in province, actually. In New Brunswick, we are still fighting against illegal restrictions on abortion, and we are still fighting for access for rural women and poor women and women living in Prince Edward Island where there is no abortion at all. My job at that clinic evolved from being a volunteer clinic escort; I went into it out of a commitment to the cause more than a need for a job. As one of only four non-medical staff, I did a lot of activism through the clinic around the issue of access. After having media training, I became pretty much the go-to person for local media to interview about abortion issues. Activism was part of my job.
Here in the big city, there is a difference. Some people work at abortion clinics because they need a job. Full stop. I went out socially with some of my co-workers one evening, and they were talking about how the work we do (intake) just does not work out for some people. There are the people who think they are pro-choice but they find out they are not, of course. But one of my co-workers also mentioned the “starry-eyed feminists” who come and go. As a feminist – and one who could certainly be considered “starry-eyed” from time to time – this hit me in the gut. Was this the difference? Am I too soft, too idealistic to work in abortion care, here in the real world?
But I’m starting to understand the difference between myself and the people who can’t hack it. The kind of person my co-worker was referring to is the kind of person who, when I was a part of the Wiccan community, we used to call a “fluffy bunny.” Someone whose naivete does not allow them to see the whole picture; whose natural high on the goodness and light of what they are doing is too easy to puncture with one bad experience, one nasty person.
It is easy enough to say you believe that all women should have a choice, and should be respected. It is harder to focus on that lofty ideal when a very unpleasant woman is yelling at you over the phone because you cannot schedule her for an abortion until next Wednesday, and yes she will have to drive twenty minutes to get here, isn’t that terrible, sorry we couldn’t bring the doctor right to your living room, we’ll have to work on that. Some people are just assholes, and it’s easier to fight for their rights when you don’t actually have to talk to them for a living.
I don’t want to appear ungrateful for having a job in this field, because I am not. I love my job. But it’s true: there IS a difference between being pro-choice and working pro-choice. One is not necessarily more difficult than the other, or more valuable; but certainly, they are different. Beneath the ideal of safe and accessible abortions is a group of people, with varying levels of pro-choice fervour, who work very hard and deal with some very unpleasant people and situations, all the while having to fear for their lives every working day. That is the reality of working pro-choice. It is grim, yes, but also very exciting for the starry-eyed feminists like me to be able to earn a paycheque doing something I really believe in.