Protesters and counter-protesters outside a Planned Parenthhood clinic in West Glenwood, CO, March 2012.
From June 2009 until last year, I was an abortion clinic escort. A clinic escort is a volunteer who goes to an abortion clinic to help get patients and staff into the clinic safely and without conflict with protesters who are often standing outside. Not all clinics have escorts; some don’t have a significant number of protesters, and others have found that with their particular protesters, escorts make things worse. But under the right circumstances a clinic escort can help the patients a lot.
My home clinic was in New Jersey, which people tend to think of as being a blue state. But that clinic had a really bad protester problem for many years. I also volunteered as an escort in Pennsylvania and for short stints in Kansas, Nebraska, Maryland, North Carolina, and Kentucky. To be an escort at most places you’ll take a training class with the staff, and then you’ll sign a legal agreement about patients’ right to privacy. You also learn that you’re not here to tackle protesters in a physical way, you’re here to be eyes and ears and moral support. The class will often tell you not to engage with protesters. This is not a coutnerprotest, and you cannot deescalate anything by hollering at a protester. No matter how cold a burn you’ve got, you just have to shut your mouth.
The protesters vary somewhat from state to state and also according to their own beliefs, but a lot of their tactics end up being pretty consistent. It can be kind of a cat-and-mouse game for protesters in terms of what they can get away with. They know trespassing on clinic property is illegal, and technically it’s illegal to physically impede access to a facility. But they also know that if clinic staff calls police a lot, that tries the police’s patience. Usually trespassing is done kind of sneakily, but I certainly have seen protesters come up onto the property, and even try to get into the lobby. Sometimes they have gotten in and started handing out plastic fetus dolls.
In Kentucky, the regular escorts there said they used to come only on Saturdays, but they realized they needed to do it on weekdays as well because one of them drove past the clinic once and saw a protester physically blocking the door. A woman would try to step around him and he would step with her. The escort said, “In Kentucky we’re all so polite that the woman wasn’t going to make a scene.” But she needed help to get in.
You also can’t underestimate the impact of some of the hateful things that get shouted and screamed. In Pennsylvania there was a man who screamed, “Mommy, Daddy, don’t tear off my arms and legs.” A couple of guys in New Jersey would scream, “The doctor in there rapes patients on the table” (which wasn’t true). One guy screamed, “I should firebomb this place.” Or you’ll hear protesters waiting for patients to come out, and then saying things like, “Remember that today is February 13, 2013. Today is the day you killed your baby.”
“Be a man” is a very common derogatory phrase yelled at male companions. Protesters will say, “Don’t let her kill your baby.”
Anti-abortion activist Roy McMillan outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, January 2013.
For the patients, really just to be present with them helps enormously — anything so they don’t have to walk by the protesters alone. At many clinics, escorts will have handheld sign or barrier that you can put between the patient and protesters. Sometimes protesters will have a big big tripod and camcorder set up on sidewalk to record people going into the clinic — shielding the patients’ faces can be really helpful. Many clinics will do that shielding with signs with slogans on them, but my preference would always be to have something nonpolitical, because I think sometimes the signs make the whole thing a little bit more fraught for women than it needs to be.
Another thing that was really effective was if a protester was yelling at a patient, I would say, “You don’t have to listen to him, he doesn’t know what you’re here for.” Because they weren’t always there for abortions — lots of people came to the clinic for other things. I would give them kind of a mental shield, to help them feel like even if they were there for an abortion, the protesters don’t know that. It’s just one-size-fits-all yelling.
The power of small talk as a clinic escort is really not to be discounted. There was a study some years ago by a couple of psychology researchers looking at the after effects of antiabortion protesters on patients. What they found is that whether protesters were present made less impact on a patient than whether the protesters could be heard. So even if there was just one escort there saying dumb things about the weather, that would help. I would always find a way to compliment the patient — “Wow, that’s a nice coat,” anything. Honestly the need to physically protect a patient is — thank God — rare in this day and age. Before the laws prohibiting trespassing, my clinic staff tells stories of having to form human chains to get past blockades.
That said, there have been scary moments. In New Jersey we had a private parking lot, and one protester approached someone waiting in a car there. I planted myself in front of him and he kept coming at me and we were chest to chest. I thought about this escort who got beaten up by protesters two years ago — luckily it didn’t get to that point. And the reason I started volunteering as an escort was because of abortion doctor George Tiller’s murder. When he was killed, that was the first abortion provider killing since the Clinton administration. I had thought we were beyond this.
I think patients really expect, through the fraught, violent, shaming tone of the abortion debate in this country, that they will be shamed, judged, and treated badly inside the clinic too. What I found was sheer amazement from patients when that didn’t happen. They would be so grateful for the smallest acts of human kindness. That was the best thing about the job: being able to turn the abortion stigma on its head by treating these patients ilke human beings. You get such clear and apparent and visible gratitude from many of the people you would walk inside. You realize that they did not expect to be treated as a person with needs and feelings and vulnerabilities, and to hear thanks from patients and maybe have someone buy you donuts every now and then meant the whole world. It was the one form of pro-abortion-access activism that I have done where you have immediate knowledge that in that moment, you have made that person’s life easier.
As told to Anna North.