Em-URGE-ing Voices

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“I Work at an Abortion Clinic” – Life as an Advocate

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November 18, 2013

“What do you do for a living?”

This is not always the easiest question, especially if you work at a health clinic that provides abortion care.

Recently I read this article about people who work at abortion clinics (presumably patient advocates and doctors) being pressured to leave their jobs by anti-choice groups.

In many ways, pressuring patient advocates to leave reminded me of my own position as an advocate at a domestic violence shelter, and my overall activist work in reproductive justice. Although I cannot speak for patient advocates, in certain ways, I can empathize with their struggles of navigating life in a job that makes you feel awkward at dinner parties and is highly politicized (I acknowledge working at a shelter definitely has less of a stigma, but the similarities are parallel).

In this space, an advocate is often defined as a person who listens, provides support and options. Advocates are often found in sexual assault crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and abortion clinics. We do not provide formal counseling, or legal advice. The most essential part of being an advocate is listening, and trusting people to make their own decisions, whether it’s choosing an abortion or going back to their abusive ex-partners. Patients and clients are the experts in their life, not you. They have the power in their own lives. In addition to all of this, advocacy work is almost always gendered. Advocates in these fields work primarily with women, although people with a range of gender identities may request services.

The part that bothers me the most about encouraging patient advocates to leave their jobs is how manipulative it is, towards a vulnerable group of people. Advocacy work can already be draining and has a high burnout rate. It emotionally wears you down to hear depressing story after story. As an advocate, you often hear the worst of the worst.

And this doesn’t include the possible violence and harassment you may experience as an advocate. At an abortion clinic, you may have to worry about protesters when you walk in, taking your photo and posting about you online, or harassing you at home. When I go to work, I worry about what abusers may stalk the survivors I work with, or which ones just lost custody of their kids and are seeking revenge.

A there’s almost always the issue of people not knowing what you do. People always know what a nurse’s, doctor’s, therapist’s role is. But “I’m meeting with my advocate today,” it’s not exactly something that is easy to understand.

Similarly, it’s difficult in social situations.  As an advocate, you have to mentally prepare yourself for explaining what you do. Even as a reproductive justice activist, I have to have “the talk” with a new partner and ask if it’s okay if I’m honest about the work I’m doing with their family and friends.  In certain situations, you can slightly alter the truth. You can say you work at a “health clinic” or “shelter for women” without going into the politics of reproductive rights or the politicized, gendered nature of violence. But this sidestepping often eliminates the joys and the rewards of the work, and further creates stigma around the advocacy position.

What can you do to be supportive of advocates? Be an escort at a clinic. Volunteer or get involved with reproductive justice.  Or simply enough, thank them. Send a clinic, shelter or center a thank you letter or card. Let them know that they’re appreciated.

We need our patient advocates at clinics to keep fighting for abortion access for all. They are ultimately, the ones who help us make important decisions in our lives, and we need to be grateful for them.

This post is dedicated to Johnanna, my awesome fellow advocate, who is pursuing research around the stigma of advocacy and inspired today’s blog.

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