The hardest thing I’ve ever done is carry a sobbing 14-year-old rape survivor from the door of a women’s health clinic to the door of the van that would take her back to a women’s shelter, while a crowd of men stood around us and screamed that she could never be forgiven.
The hardest question I’ve ever been asked is, “Why are they doing this to me?”
I don’t know.
I’ve volunteered as an escort at an abortion clinic for two years. A friend had read about a clinic in the area that needed escorts for their patients and didn’t have any, so she called them and offered to help. Then she called me and asked, “Can you do this?”
The job, on the most basic level, is to bring a patient from their car to the front door of the clinic, shielding and distracting them from protesters in the process. I know now that it’s hard work; the emotional and physical rigor required can burn you out. But at the time I didn’t think about it, because I didn’t know there was anything to think about. I just said yes.
I completed the training, and a few weeks later I was standing on a sidewalk at 7 a.m. in five layers of clothing (it was very damn cold) and a bright yellow vest with CLINIC ESCORT VOLUNTEER printed on it in large block letters, staring down a gauntlet of people ravenous for fear. It wasn’t their volume or their numbers that surprised me. It was their rage. It was how firmly, totally, and viciously they seemed to hate me, and my fellow escorts, and the women we were there to protect.
When you agree to become a clinic escort, you are agreeing to shield someone with your body from people who wish to hurt them. There are protesters who claim they are there out of love, and maybe some of them are. But the protesters I saw that day, and many days since, were not.
Most mornings, the sidewalk leading to the entrance of this particular clinic is lined with people whose goal is to scare women into leaving. A few of the protesters are women, who usually don’t scream, but they do follow patients around, shoving literature and scientifically inaccurate models of fetuses into their faces. They call them “Mommy.” They say, “God loves you. God loves your baby.”
Mostly, though, they are men, and the men scream. They scream things like, “Black babies’ lives matter!” They scream things like, “God will punish you! You will go to hell!” They scream things like, “Mommy! Don’t kill me!” Sometimes they add something like, “A pregnancy from a rape is a gift!” They consider it a victory if they terrify a patient enough that she flees to her car. They consider it double the victory if she is crying, because that means repentance. Doesn’t it?
When you’re there on the sidewalk, you become strongly aware of the solidity and mass of your body. You are, after all, a living shield. When you meet a patient at one end of the sidewalk, you try to make yourself smaller: You want to indicate that you’re not a threat, that you’re here to protect them if protection is what they want.
Some of them will refuse you and walk through the gauntlet alone, shoulders squared and eyes front. Some of them will agree to be protected. (Some will also get to the door and decide this isn't what they want, and that, of course, is a choice we support them in, too.) You speak to every woman quietly and calmly. You avoid asking how they are or telling them it’s going to be OK.
You observe: The weather is beautiful today. Beyoncé’s new single is so good. Your sweatshirt is so cool; I bet that’s really comfortable. We’re 10 feet from the door. The door is right up here. We’re 2 feet from the door. Here we are. We made it.
You ask for and give permission: Would you like me to walk you to the door? You don’t have to take what they’re trying to give you if you don’t want to. Would you like to hold onto my arm? You don’t have to listen to them.
And you apologize: I’m so sorry you have to deal with this today. I’m so sorry there are so many of them. I’m so sorry he’s screaming at you. I’m so sorry.
Watching the debate around reproductive rights is hard for me. So much of it happens between people who have never stood on a sidewalk shielding the body of a child from people who insist they are screaming at her out of love. So much of it happens in a volley of statistics. So much of it happens in the abstract, away from the reality of our bodies and the choices we have made and the stories we tell about our own experiences — 95% of which, by the way, are not about regret.
We talk and we talk and we talk and a bunch of people, many of whom who do not have the ability to bring life into the world, disregard what we have to say. They hang onto their beliefs with a tenacity that exhausts and sickens me, that makes me sure that the root of the beliefs is that we are not really people, that we cease being people the second a pregnancy test says “yes,” that our humanity is second-class, second-rate, silenced.
I wish those people could have heard one of the protesters tell a tearful couple that she knew of a doctor who could cure their wanted child’s open spina bifida. I wish they knew that some of the escorts keep tissues in their pockets because you can hear the screaming through the door, where women stand, steeling themselves to leave the clinic. I wonder if it would be as easy for them to think about us in the abstract then.
My body is not an abstract when I put it between someone who needs a shield and someone who wants them to hurt. The women I watch marching into the clinic with their jaws set and their fists curled are not abstracts. In another place they might not have to be this brave; they could just walk in, see their doctor, and walk out. But the sidewalk is fraught, so they are courageous.
Every person who thinks that this particular kind of protest isn't harassment should have to witness this particular kind of courage. Every politician with a platform against abortion should be required to see what happens outside of the clinic.
These women are not just statistics. They are stronger than the people who think of them as numbers believe them to be. They are more real. They have a right to be there. The path that brought them to this sidewalk with me, whatever that path may be, is tangible. And all I can do is offer to hold their hands.