'Abortion Saved My Life': The Activist Who Shields Women from Clinic Protesters

As a clinic escort, Michelle Kinsey Bruns helps women get past belligerent anti-abortion protesters trying to shame or scare them out of accessing reproductive care.

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Oct 17 2016, 6:25pm

In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100-year anniversary, we're taking an in-depth look at the history and future of reproductive rights. Read more of our coverage here.

A few years ago, Michelle Kinsey Bruns found herself on an Amtrak train with 55 Catholic high school students on their way back from the March for Life, a massive annual anti-abortion rally in Washington, DC.

As her stop drew near, she approached the group and started speaking, her voice shaking with nerves. "I had an abortion when I was 18," she told them. "I had been an abused child; I had just gotten out of a place where I often went to school with two black eyes. And that abortion saved my life."

Read more: Stronger than Ever: Cecile Richards on the 100-Year Fight for Reproductive Rights

In an essay about the experience, Bruns later wrote that she had struggled with thoughts of suicide when she learned she was pregnant, telling her boyfriend "that I would kill myself, but if he wanted to raise a child, I would wait to give birth, then kill myself." For her, the right to choose was literally a matter of life and death: She wanted to share her story so that the Catholic school students could "hear, for perhaps the first time in their lives, a positive, no regrets, post-abortion narrative."

"The abortion I had at 18 happened at a time when I was recovering from the violence of my childhood, and trying to find a way out of the poverty of my childhood," Bruns tells Broadly. She's been adamantly pro-choice since she was in middle school, and she's certain that she wouldn't have survived and thrived in the way she has had it not been for her choice to get an abortion. But it wasn't until the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions in Kansas, that Bruns became seriously involved with reproductive rights activism.

"I realized the fear this would cause, for clinic patients and clinic staff, and that was just intolerable to me," Bruns tells Broadly. She began volunteering as a clinic escort, helping patients make it through the gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters who often throng outside of providers, brandishing signs bearing graphic, zoomed-in images of embryos and pamphlets about the evils of abortion. She says she's heard protesters shout outlandish claims, such as "Don't go in there, that doctor rapes women on the table!" Today, she serves as board chair for the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation.

She's also told her own story at rallies, on talk shows, and in writing, in an attempt to combat the stigma around abortion. Statistically, one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and Bruns emphasizes that there are no right or wrong reasons for choosing to terminate a pregnancy—simply put, women don't need a justification for maintaining their own bodily autonomy. "More women who were trying to escape abuse or poverty by having abortions feel safer in openly telling their stories than women who had abortions just out of their God-given free will," she says. "But a woman who has every advantage in the world has no less of a right to un-coerced decision making than a woman whose life has been harder."

When asked about the future of reproductive rights, Bruns seems both anxious and hopeful. Like many American women, she is concerned about the deeply unsettling possibility of a Trump presidency. "Trump has taken every imaginable position on abortion over time, but the first response he had when asked about it in this campaign was [that] women must be punished. That was his instinctive, unrehearsed answer, and that's terrifying," she says. Perhaps even more horrifying is his running mate, Mike Pence, whom Bruns calls a "totally knowable threat." She notes that Pence has "already punished women for not carrying pregnancies to term": While Pence was governor of Indiana, a 33-year-old woman named Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of "feticide" after having a miscarriage, causing outrage throughout the country.

Despite the looming threat of Trump, Bruns notes that the pro-choice movement has made significant advances in the past year, and there's much to be hopeful about. In July, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' onerous abortion restrictions, which had forced over half the clinics in the state to close and inspired a slew of copycat laws throughout the South and Midwest. She also points out that Hillary Clinton's official platform calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a law that allows for legal discrimination against low-income women seeking abortion.

No matter what happens on Election Day, Bruns will continue her fight, and whatever the outcome, her demands will remain the same. "No one should be compelled to sacrifice her own life or livelihood or health or safety or future for the sake of a pregnancy, under any circumstances," she says. "Not by force of law, not out of economic desperation, not out of social stigma. Not for any reason at all, other than her own consent."