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May 24, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Katherine Irwin says goodbye to her daughter, Rylee Irwin, as she drops her off at day care in Jefferson City. After dropping off Rylee each morning, Katherine commutes to Columbia for her classes at MU.
Columbia’s Planned Parenthood is closed to the public this morning. The only service the clinic offers today is abortions.
Katherine Irwin parks her battered green Honda at the clinic and steps out of the car while carrying a bottle of Mountain Dew. Her sunglasses keep her blond, wavy hair out of her eyes as she steps toward the door. She pulls it open to reveal a police officer standing guard. Katherine disappears inside the building.
Outside, a dozen protestors pace the sidewalk, pray with rosaries and hold cardboard signs that read, “Babies are being killed here now.” A few minutes later, Katherine, wearing a blue smock draped over her long-sleeved shirt, walks out the door. The vest reads “Planned Parenthood Clinic Escort.”
For two hours almost every Thursday, 23-year-old Katherine walks clinic patrons from their cars to the door of Planned Parenthood to shield them from the protestors. When she volunteers, she’s helping women take the first steps toward a life-altering choice. It’s something she says she wasn’t able to do six years earlier. Katherine got pregnant when she was 17 years old — too young to get an abortion without parental consent in Missouri. Instead, she became a mother.
If she had been 18, Katherine says she would have had an abortion.
Irwin listens to the lecture in her women’s literature class. Katherine double majored in women and gender studies and psychology. She graduated from MU in May and is searching for a job in the mental health field.
Every time Katherine left the house in high school, her mother made her recite: “No sex, no drugs, and sometimes rock ’n’ roll.” That became her mantra, but she says repeating the phrase so often desensitized her to what the words meant.
Other than the daily recitations, she never got much sex education at home. Her mom left the discussion at “Come talk to me if you want,” but Katherine found the conversation and her mom intimidating.
The summer she was 17, Katherine’s boyfriend broke up with her, and she got careless about taking her birth control pills on time. A month later, she and her ex reconciled. After they had sex, her boyfriend urged her to take Plan B — he wanted her to avoid an accidental pregnancy. Katherine decided it wasn’t necessary and that she was too busy. But she got pregnant.
Several of her friends had already gotten pregnant, too. Katherine’s mom knew one of them well. “I saw how she took that,” Katherine says. “She was just, you know, the very disappointed motherly figure, and so I hated that in high school. It was the worst thing ever.”
Asking her parents to sign the consent form was not something Katherine took lightly; she labored over the decision for a month and a half before deciding not to ask them. She figured the answer would have been no, so there was no reason to ask.
With the option of abortion ruled out, she entered a period of denial. She waited five months before telling her family. She says she totally shut down and denied what was happening. Part of her hoped the pregnancy might just go away.
Katherine has never asked her parents if they would have signed an abortion consent form, and she doesn’t plan to do so. But after she told her parents she was pregnant, Katherine’s mom commented that “there could have been more options.”
“I still highly doubt,” Katherine says, trailing off. “I highly doubt that would have happened.”
Irwin stands near the “Free Speech Board” displayed in Lowry Mall by students protesting an anti-abortion exhibit on campus. Students were petitioning for the exhibit to be moved to a part of campus that sees less traffic.
For a while, cars rumbling along Providence Road create the only noise outside Planned Parenthood. Then, a man in a Ford Explorer pulls up to the clinic.
The protestors, who have remained silent until now, congregate on the sidewalk. In hushed voices, they begin to form a game plan. They tell a man named Bruce it’s his turn. Bruce steps up to the edge of the grass, the barrier between the protestors and the parking lot. The others give him space and let him take the lead.
As the man from the SUV exits his car and walks to the door of the clinic, Bruce calls out to him: “Sir, you can talk her out of it. This is your chance to do the right thing.”
Columbia’s Planned Parenthood introduced clinic escorts in the summer of 2011 because of situations such as these.
Kathy Forck, 62, leads the protests, which she prefers to call prayer vigils. She recruits participants from across Missouri who come to read their Bibles, pray and sing hymns outside Planned Parenthood.
She says, in some ways, her goal is similar to that of the clinic escorts. Both want to do what’s best for women.
“I think they feel that they’re helping women, and we feel that we’re helping them, too,” Forck says. “It’s all about choice. If it’s all about choice, why won’t they let them talk to us?”
As a clinic escort, Katherine isn’t allowed to engage the protestors, though the clients like to talk about them, she says. Because her job prevents her from sharing her thoughts, she just thinks about what she would say if given the chance.
When she’s not volunteering, though, she’s quick to say the protestors have picked the wrong place to voice their opinions. Her dislike for the protestors was one of the primary reasons she decided to become a clinic escort, she says.
Half an hour later, when the man from the Ford Explorer exits the clinic, a woman walks out with him. Katherine walks alongside her as they head to the car.
“This day is gonna change you,” calls Forck, who is kneeling on the grass near the clinic’s driveway. Three men on the sidewalk begin praying aloud.
But the woman doesn’t seem to be listening. She’s laughing at something Katherine said.
One of the tougher parts of Katherine’s job is making conversation with abortion patients while attempting to keep them calm. Katherine tries to stick to neutral subjects such as the weather or movies. The clients seem to appreciate the gesture, but they’re usually pretty quiet.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff going on in their heads,” Katherine says.
Kathy Forck (kneeling) prays in front of Planned Parenthood in Columbia. She says her goal is to communicate with women and help them make the right decision, but clinic escorts make that a challenge.
Katherine’s daughter, Rylee, is 5. Both live in Jefferson City with Katherine’s parents, where they share a bedroom. Rylee’s been offered her own room, but she crawls into bed with Katherine at night often enough that it wouldn’t make sense to move her.
Rylee’s father, who lives in Baltimore, isn’t in the picture, but he tends to contact Katherine every May around Rylee’s birthday. When their daughter was born, he refused to sign the birth certificate. Katherine maintains sole custody of her daughter and bears all financial responsibility, too.
For Katherine, school days begin at 6 or 6:30 a.m. She drops off Rylee at day care in Jefferson City and then drives to Columbia. She is double majoring in psychology and women and gender studies at MU. She spends the morning on campus doing homework or at her boyfriend’s apartment. After class, she tries to complete more school assignments, but she has to pick up Rylee from day care before 5:30 p.m.
Katherine spends her evenings having dinner with her parents, spending time with her daughter and doing schoolwork after Rylee goes to bed.
She and her daughter play board games together, and Rylee uses Katherine’s laptop for video games. Last fall, Katherine enrolled in a physiological psychology class, and she read the textbook aloud to Rylee.
Help comes from multiple sources. Katherine’s trust fund — the same one that covers her tuition — pays for Rylee’s day care. And sometimes her boyfriend, Andrew Gonder, whom Rylee calls “Daddy,” will entertain Rylee or pick her up from day care.
Andrew also helps shoulder some of the parenting responsibilities. He says Katherine’s philosophy is to let Rylee make choices for herself as long as it’s not a situation in which she could get hurt. If Rylee wears jeggings to day care and ends up being cold all day, she probably won’t do that again, he says.
When Katherine’s not on campus and Rylee’s not at day care, being with “Mommy” is Rylee’s first priority.
“If Katherine’s around, most of the time everybody else kind of gets kicked to the sidelines,” Andrew says.
The proximity makes it easy to see similarities between mother and daughter. They both want to be close to other people, they’re both shy when first meeting someone and neither hesitates before asking a question, Andrew says.
“They spend 90 percent of their time together,” he says.
Katherine is searching for a job in Jefferson City as a mental health facility worker or child caseworker. She says she might move out of her parents’ house and find her own place in Jefferson City, and she hopes to keep volunteering at Planned Parenthood.
She plans to work as a psychologist someday and is researching drug and alcohol abuse master’s programs.
“That’s ideally what I want to do with my life, but I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen,” Katherine says. “It’s a long way off. Right now, I’m more worried about next year.”
Irwin (left) waits to escort a clinic patient into Planned Parenthood. The escorts volunteer on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the clinic offers abortion services, an option they believe all women should have.
Being a parent doesn’t have a big impact on why Katherine volunteers at Planned Parenthood, she says. For her, the main draw is that she appreciates what Planned Parenthood does: It provides people with sexual health care they can afford and helps them avoid potentially dangerous health situations. So even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she says she would still probably be involved in the organization.
As a mother, Katherine’s thought a lot about what she wants to teach her daughter about sex, and she’s not sure what she will say. Although she wouldn’t advocate getting pregnant as a teenager, she doesn’t want to imply that Rylee was a mistake.
Having Rylee didn’t change Katherine’s views on abortion, either. She says she’s grasped the pros and cons of each side of the debate since before she got pregnant. In her opinion, the only people who should get to make the choice are those involved.
For instance, she says, many women opt to have abortions because they can’t afford to raise a child, the baby might be putting a strain on their health or it’s just not the right choice for them at the time.
Katherine says the protestors hold up signs that say “adoption is the caring option,” but she doesn’t think that’s realistic. The adoption system in America is vast: From Oct. 1, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010, 53,000 children from the United States and Puerto Rico were adopted, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But 107,000 children were still waiting for someone to adopt them.
Moreover, working with an adoption agency requires time and money. Plus many families choose to adopt children from outside of the United States. Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that someone will want the baby a woman gives up, Katherine says.
However, Katherine says there are cases in which it makes sense to keep an unexpected baby, and not all unexpected pregnancies are unwanted. For those women, there are resources that can keep them from being forced into relying on welfare or help them find housing.
The protestors try to hand out information on those alternatives to the women visiting the clinic. Forck has fliers with phone numbers and websites of places women can get free baby supplies, food and housing or find referrals for doctors and adoption agencies.
Planned Parenthood tells patients the same thing. Women contemplating abortions are required to come into the clinic for an informed consent day. They’re given a packet of information that explains the abortion procedure and details alternative options such as putting the baby in foster care or parenting. And at the end of the informed consent document, women sign off on a series of statements, including one that says they’re ending “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.”
After Katherine conceived, she felt she didn’t get to choose because her age made the decision for her. Despite those circumstances, she maintains she doesn’t regret having her daughter.
“I mean, I wouldn’t change it,” she says quickly. “But if I, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s one of those what-ifs.”