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A few days ago I did something I’d never done before: I joined a group of people praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington, D.C.

In fact, it was the be-all and end-all of abortion clinics, replacing various smaller Planned Parenthood facilities that had come and gone during my years living in Washington: a “swanky” (the word comes from a fawning Washington Post write-up) twenty-million-dollar, 27,000-square-foot concrete fortress that opened in September 2016 as part of an effort to gentrify a rundown semi-industrial, semi-sad brownstone corner of northeast D.C. The clinic replaced a defunct auto-parts warehouse. According to press accounts, the vast spaces inside the facility, which also serves as the local Planned Parenthood headquarters, are adorned with chic Midcentury Modern Revival furniture and tiny cactus plants whose thorns are supposed to serve as defensive weapons should abortion protesters attempt to scale the walls or break the thick, high windows tinted like limousine glass so no one can see inside. Planned Parenthood is nothing if not security-conscious.

I’d volunteered to join a prayer group at a Catholic parish not far from the clinic. The pastor had enlisted us to be “witnesses” outside the clinic on Saturday mornings once a month. Since I’m not very good at praying (my mind wanders) but I like to cook, I’d decided instead to help make lunch for the praying crowd—drop off homemade desserts, actually. But this past Saturday, after I’d delivered some strudels to the parish hall, my curiosity got the better of me. Soon enough I was standing in a raw and cloudy February chill on a muddy strip of grass flanking the sidewalk in front of the Planned Parenthood behemoth. There were about ten other “witnesses.” One of the women carried a handmade sign on a pole: “I Regret My Abortion.” Leading us was the pastor, who clearly had a keen sense of the performance that protests always entail. A large and imposing man, he had outfitted himself with an ankle-length cassock, a billowing white surplice, a biretta, an impressive rosary whose beads sparkled like gemstones, a crucifix, and a black-covered prayer book. Way to go, I thought.

Opposite us, fanning out on the other side of the sidewalk, were the “escorts,” the volunteers Planned Parenthood musters whose job it is to hustle the women coming for abortions inside the clinic doors as quickly as possible. There were eight of them, including two men, one young and sporting a man-bun, the other somewhat older. A very tall young woman with horn-rimmed glasses and coral-pink hair peeking out from a knit watch cap appeared to be their leader, patrolling back and forth from one end of the building to the other.

Chatting with each other now and then but mostly standing silent and grim-faced, the escorts didn’t look like a happy bunch. Perhaps it was the baggy orange tunics saying “Pro-Choice Escort” that they were obliged to wear over their clothes. I wondered why people would want to sacrifice their Saturday mornings working for free in the cold for a $1.3 billion organization whose recently departed CEO, Cecile Richards, raked in a cool $600,000 a year. Then I realized: Planned Parenthood had promised them high drama and excitement. Of course, they weren’t getting any. Recruitment websites typically depict abortion-clinic escorts heroically braving mobs of angry pro-lifers who shout “Slut!” and “Baby-killer!” at hapless young women and wave gruesome photos of aborted fetuses. Instead, the escorts got … us, with our rosary beads. What a disappointment we must have been. Just across the street sat a man in a car listening to rap music. At first I’d thought he was waiting for his girlfriend to get done with her abortion, but then I realized that his job was to keep an eye on us. I’m certain that he wasn’t a volunteer.

We said a rosary—the Sorrowful Mysteries, because it was Lent and this was an abortion clinic. The woman with the “I Regret My Abortion” sign led us in the third Sorrowful Mystery, Christ’s crowning with thorns, while tears ran down her cheeks. We said some other prayers and sang hymns. Saturday is supposed to be a major abortion day at Planned Parenthood, but in fact I didn’t see a lot of clients—perhaps six or so—shuttled inside the doors, giving the escorts something to do. Two of the women in our group were “sidewalk counselors.” They would shout, “We’re here to help you!” and try to pass pregnancy fliers to the entering women, but the escorts worked fast. One young woman did take one of the fliers, and about fifteen minutes later, she walked out of the clinic. I have no idea whether she had changed her mind about the procedure or was simply at Planned Parenthood to stock up on birth control.

Eventually the pastor led a procession of us around the perimeter of the building (public streets and public alleyways) to sprinkle holy water. Perhaps it was the pathetic fallacy at work on my imagination, but as we strolled down a shabby alley bordered by a not-yet-gentrified tire-discount operation, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the concrete was already crumbling at the rear edges of Planned Parenthood’s twenty-million-dollar building. Concrete must be properly “cured”—kept moist while it sets—or instead of lasting two thousand years like the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, it will start cracking and flaking almost immediately. Someone had apparently cut a corner or two. Perhaps it was a sign that this, too—this seemingly impregnable monument to a seemingly impregnable life-killing culture—would ultimately pass away.

I hope to be a “witness” again, at least occasionally. While I was standing on the sidewalk, the faces of the escorts had imprinted themselves on my brain. I wondered which of those people I’d see again, or again and again: Man Bun, Coral Pink Hair, Rap Music Man. It takes a lot of stamina to stay on task at Planned Parenthood.

Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Paul Sableman via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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