When she heard anti-abortion protesters mock her personal abortion story, Jeni Putalavage-Ross got angry, prompting her to rally friends and coworkers into spending their lunch breaks standing on a downtown Austin sidewalk on Wednesday.
Jeni, an Austin mother of three, works in the Bank of America building on Congress Avenue, where a handful of anti-abortion protesters organized by Pro-Life Waco have been gathering every Wednesday afternoon for the last month or so, intent on protesting the bank’s purported support of Planned Parenthood — a sufficient enough crime to prompt the protesters to hold “Bank of Abortion” and “Close Your Account” signs outside.
I first met Jeni earlier this year, when she shared her story with me: in 2010, she terminated a pregnancy at 21 weeks due to her fetus having a rare, lethal genetic disorder. We published the piece in May, around the same time anti-abortion lawmakers were debating legislation that would eliminate the fetal anomaly exception in Texas’ 20-week abortion ban, as well as a bill that would have prohibited private health insurance plans from covering abortion services. Both measures would have affected families like Jeni’s, but ultimately, neither bill passed.
Jeni got a job this summer at a software engineering company with offices inside the Bank of America building. A few weeks ago, she and her co-workers were warned by another colleague that anti-abortion protesters had posted up on the corner outside, holding signs that read “Honk if You’re Pro-Life” and “Bank of Abortion.” Group members wore red T-shirts reading “Lifeguard” on the front and “Rescuing Babies, Moms, Families” on the back.
Each time she passed them, Jeni said she she had a stressful physical reaction: heart racing, palms sweating, mind reeling. She has the same reaction, she told me, when she sees news reports about the latest attack on reproductive rights, or when allegations about Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation protocols make headlines on social media.
“I feel like it’s in my face all day, every day,” she said when we caught up Tuesday evening.
Despite her anxiety, the anti-abortion protesters’ presence outside her building moved Jeni to share the story I wrote, first with her co-workers and then with the protesters themselves.
Among her colleagues, she found support.
“It felt good to be heard and understood,” she said. “To tell the people I work with was a big deal for me. It’s a big deal to be back at work full time, because of what I experienced when I was going through my termination. I thought, I’m just going to put all my cards on the table right now.”
Jeni also shared the story with three male protesters last week. She said she calmly approached them on the sidewalk, handed them print-outs of the article, then walked away to get some lunch. When she returned and got in the elevator to go back to her office, the security guard mentioned that he’d heard the men reading the story out loud and laughing.
“That was going to be my piece, my way to push back, to just to hand them the article,” she told me. “When he told me that the men were laughing at my story, I was pissed. I was really really mad. When I came back and shared that with the group in my office, everyone else got mad.”
That afternoon, Jeni and a few coworkers headed downstairs with their own signs to stand on the corner next to the anti-abortion protest. One man approached her, asking if she had seen the undercover videos filmed by an anti-abortion group, purporting to show Planned Parenthood illegally profiting off of fetal tissue donations. Jeni reminded him that she was the woman who had given him the article just half an hour before.
“I understand abortion,” Jeni told him, according to a blog post she wrote this week for the reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “More than you ever will.”
Still frustrated, Jeni and her coworkers organized another counter-protest for today. Their cohort eventually grew to about two dozen people, many of them Jeni’s friends and coworkers, along with Planned Parenthood supporters and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas representatives. By noon, they outnumbered the Waco-based activists. I found an out-of-the-way spot on the sidewalk and watched as several passersby issued Jeni and her supporters a “Good job!” or a nod of encouragement. Drivers honked their horns and waved.
Jeni’s co-workers told me they felt harassed by the protesters outside the building.
“It’s really frustrating, especially when it’s mostly men, to walk past this while you’re trying to get to work,” Kirby Satterfield said. “They’re very aggressive. Unless you can push a baby out of you, go away.”
I listened as members from each group grew closer over the hour I spent at the protest, at times exchanging heated words familiar to anyone who’s ever been to an abortion-related rally: It’s a baby, a life. What about the life of the mother? Abortion is wrong. It’s a woman’s choice.
One woman, who told me she had just closed a Bank of America bank account, stood on the sidewalk and begged of no one in particular: “Let me die and let that baby live.” A friend of Jeni’s countered: “You can’t take away choice without taking away everyone’s choice.”
Anyone familiar with public conversations about abortion knows how tense these conversations can get. But they’re also personal. People like Jeni put their most private experiences out there for other people to hear, read and judge. And, as Jeni and her friends experienced Wednesday, anti-abortion protesters can use that candor as an opportunity to intimidate or humiliate others.
Jeni said that she’s not trying to change anyone’s mind about abortion when she shares her story. She says she knows that’s impossible. But she wants people to know, the anti-abortion protesters included, that these types of decisions are intimate and deeply personal.
“I want people to be empathetic,” she told me. “I think sharing my story could open people’s eyes, that’s why I continue to do this. I wish it would just go away as a political issue.”