Resistance and Resilience in a
Portland Abortion Clinic
– By Britt Munro|November 8, 2016
Image by Douglas Muth
Resistance is a battle cry. Resistance can move mountains. Resistance, in many ways, has defined the shape and limits of the modern world. But what occurs within its contours?
In his book Alter Politics and Radical Imaginary Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage explores the difference between resistance and resilience. Whilst resistance is born of anti-politics, resilience emerges from alter-politics: that which is not simply against the political order, but outside of it. Resilience is to be found in those pockets of normalcy forged during crisis; in the humility and complexity of the everyday within structures of oppression; in the spaces which, whilst affected by politics, cannot be easily reduced to them.
One example Hage gives is that of a woman he interviews in occupied Palestine, whose husband has recently died as a martyr in the resistance. Through placing pictures of him around the house and creating a shrine to his memory she celebrates his resistance, and therefore commits an act of resistance herself. But through tucking her children into bed at night with an apolitical children’s story and a big warm kiss she is also choosing to create a space of resilience; a space that is in a sense outside of politics, where they can experience a normal childhood not governed by their political situation or the death of their father.
Another example Hage offers is the sense of belonging that he himself has developed in Australia after moving from his native Lebanon. Despite a lifetime of alienation, displacement and ‘Othering’, Hage experiences a strong sense of what he describes as ‘rootedness’ in this country. This mode of belonging does not answer to and cannot be altered by political or governmental concepts of his place within the nation. It has grown independently of the political exclusion he has experienced, and stands outside of colonising logics.
All people in long-term politicised or crisis situations know the meaning of resilience. Resilience lies in the everyday; the humble acts of care, love, and routine; the determination to live life quietly in accordance with one’s values irrespective of the surrounding turmoil. It is the space in which one ‘carries on’ and perhaps even manages to flourish despite (and not in reaction to) the political landscape. Hage calls this the space of ‘heroic normality’.
In my own, more humble, experience, one example of heroic normality stands out to me.
Two years ago I began work as a counselor at a private abortion provider in Portland, Oregon. The first time I arrived at the clinic had been years earlier, and it was as a patient. I remember being surprised, as I pushed past a throng of protestors and was ushered through the doors, at the resounding normalcy of the scene. The muted radio. The friendly receptionist. The beige walls and carpet. The raft of glossy magazines. Around me women of all ages, shapes and dispositions thumbed idly through the pages. At twenty-four, I was the youngest in the waiting room. Throughout that entire appointment, what made the strongest and most indelible impression upon me was the complete normality of everything I encountered. For the first time since I had first considered the issue it occurred to me that an abortion was perhaps not an inherently political act at all, but – like any other issue or decision to do with my body – an entirely personal one, essentially uninteresting to anyone but myself.
Such is the power of heroic normality. It allows us to think outside of the current political paradigm, and to imagine reality, not as it is not, but as it could be.
I assumed for a long time afterwards that it must have taken a concerted effort to produce such a normal atmosphere in the midst of such chaos. In a way this is true. Abortion in the US is a political battleground with real casualties. The recent Planned Parenthood murders are only the latest in a string of professional healthcare workers who have lost their lives doing the work they believed in. Abortion clinics – the clinic I worked at is no exception – are under extreme pressure to comply with inflated medical standards and stay afloat whilst serving patients on Medicaid with minimal rebates. Clinic workers have to operate with the stress of daily protesting, vitriolic media attacks, the constant shadow of political change and threats to their personal wellbeing. With the US election looming, the future of abortion care is once again hanging in the balance.
However, the truth is that such normalcy is also necessary and inevitable. As a clinic worker, one simply cannot afford to function constantly within the political space of resistance. It is exhausting. Perhaps more importantly, it is in a large sense distracting to the work that you do. Once you are working day in and day out inside the clinic as a healthcare professional, your gaze expands beyond the political to the individual sitting in front of you. My primary concern was the care of my patients. In order to be there for the individual, I had to forget the political furore surrounding their decision. I had to embody the knowledge that, whilst access to abortion is a political issue, abortion itself is not. It is an intimately personal one.
Hage argues that effective resilience within a politicised situation demands the ‘temporary forgetting’ of the political. To illustrate this point he gives the example of his young academic colleague, who had been living in Palestine for only a couple of years yet was able to pinpoint ‘in great detail all of the outrageous things that the Israeli colonialists were doing’, and seemed ‘very clearly affected by them’. By contrast, Palestinians who had spent all of their lives living within the confines of the wall (and who did not have the luxury of leaving) appeared outwardly far less affected. When Hage asked an older Palestinian colleague what he thought of this, he replied ‘we have families to feed and look after. We cannot spend our time thinking about nothing but the wall. We have to try and forget‘.
I do not wish to draw a comparison here between the gravity of these two situations. What I am interested in is the logic. It is a logic that often comes between people operating out of a space of resistance versus that of resilience. It is a logic that has come to characterise the sometimes complicated relationship between abortion providers and pro-choice activists in the United States.
Whilst working at the clinic I often took calls from impassioned community members or activist groups, advising us that they were planning a counter-protest outside the clinic, or that they would be distributing pro-choice leaflets alongside anti-abortion protestors the coming day.
We would beg them not to.
‘But we are angry!’ they would say. ‘We are ready to fight!’
We would carefully explain that the more people gathered outside on the street the more intimidating it was for our patients.
‘But we can’t let them face it alone!’ they would cry, incredulous.
We would explain that women did not come to us to take sides in a political debate, they came to us for healthcare.
‘But we are trying to help!’ they would retort in frustration.
It was difficult to convey to the protestors that, whilst we understood more than anyone the importance of political resistance in the pro-choice/anti-abortion debate, we wished to operate in a space as distant from that dichotomy as possible. In order to care for the wellbeing of our patients, we had to attempt to create a depoliticised space; a space in which they could take the time out to make what is often a very personal and complex decision.
The truth is that, as with any aspect of life, the reality of abortion is far less exciting and far more nuanced than it appears within a political framework.
Every woman I spoke to at the clinic had a different story. This is something that is often said about abortion but rarely given proper consideration. What it means is that no two women are dealing with the same set of moral circumstances. No two women’s thought processes or reasoning are the same. No two women need the same thing.
Some were certain they wanted an abortion; many were not. In a space outside the black and white of politics, we understand that this is a normal, human way to feel about any large decision affecting your life.
Many women expressed the feeling that life is imperfect, and, whilst there was some chance of suffering through an abortion there would be certain suffering were they to attempt to raise a(nother) child. This reality – the imperfection and sacrifice that form a natural part of life – is something that the less-privileged are well acquainted with, but the wealthy can afford to turn a blind eye to. It is something the political debate largely ignores.
Nobody was a madonna or a whore.
Most women that I spoke to were making their decisions based on a milieu of factors: their family, their religion, agnosticism or atheism, the feelings of their partner or the absence of one, their financial realities, their own life goals and perceptions of parenting, amongst which the latest political push to the left or right of the issue had little sway. The truth is, no matter how much they rant and rave, men in shiny suits do not and – until they close every provider in the country – will not have nearly as much sway over women’s decision making as they would like to believe. For this reason, access to legal abortion care is primarily an issue of health and safety. No matter how many clinics are closed, how many regulations tightened, how much funding cut, women will continue to find ways to have abortions. This is the reality.
Inside the clinic, life slips back from black and white and becomes, well, normal. Abortion providers in the US, whilst often glorified as on the front lines of conflict, are in a sense not a part of the conflict at all. They are just healthcare workers doing what they do best; caring for patients. It is not work that feels glorious or grand. It is often thankless, and there can be little resolution. Often we saw patients who were dealing with problems far greater than their current pregnancy, and, whilst we referred them onwards, there was little way for us to know if they would be ok. There are no aims besides caring for the patient, no rewards besides knowing that we were, at a certain time, necessary. An abortion even a thoroughly desired one, is often a stressful and difficult time for a woman, and this is no cause for celebration.
These are the less simple truths that can only be understood within the nuanced, everyday space of resilience.
Whilst resistance to the power structures of sexism, classism, racism and colonialism has shaped the world and will continue to shape it for the better, resilience is the process by which people survive, live meaningful lives and get work done within such power structures. If we do not allow space for resilience, a space to momentarily forget, then we risk surrendering ourselves entirely to the terms of the game. The greatest frustration of any oppressive regime or politics has been the knowledge that, no matter with what cruelty or stupidity they attempt to oppress people, those same people will continue to live and die in meaningful ways without them.
Hage states that resilience, as opposed to resistance, demonstrates that ‘there are other spaces of experience in which politics….do not prevail‘, and in this he is right. Away from the reductive politics of power, resilience offers us the chance to dwell in places of complexity, places that challenge our simplistic assumptions about ourselves and each other. It is in these places that our greatest hope of understanding lies. Ultimately, through offering ways of defining ourselves and relating to each other that fall outside the logic of Us and Them, resilience offers the most fertile hope for a true alter-politics. If we are to emerge from oppression without replicating current dichotomies of power then it is this space from which we will need to draw.
Britt Munro lives in Coburg, Melbourne and spends her time writing fiction (this is a rare foray into fact), making music on her mandolin and working at a bookshop. She is a white cis woman and a feminist, and is forever learning what this means! She analyses things like an itch but believes the most in her creative work, as expression nurtures empathy across borders and it is empathy the world seems to need. Hopefully one day you will read a book she has written.