In a pro-choice town in a pro-choice state, abortion clinic patients cannot reach the clinic door without negotiating a pathway of screams, hostility and lies.
"Mommy! Mommy, don't kill me!" "Don't let her murder your baby, man!" "Abortion and birth control cause cancer!" Every Saturday morning, outside of an abortion clinic, these words fill the crisp air. Bodies, often hostile, fill the sidewalk, brandishing signs and unscientific pamphlets, desperately trying to shame or outright scare patients out of entering the clinic. Patients walk through a pathway of screams and hostility that puts any haunted house to shame.
This all happens in a pro-choice town in a pro-choice state.
Every Saturday morning, I volunteer as a clinic escort at an abortion clinic in New Jersey. Nearly a dozen fellow escorts and I stand outside of the clinic, donning neon yellow vests, and we walk with patients and their companions past the scores of protesters to the door of the clinic. We do not engage with the protesters. We are not there for the protesters. We are there for one reason: get the patient and her companion in the door safely.
I've been seriously involved in abortion-rights advocacy for the past year. I've dedicated some of my graduate research to abortion rights; I've written publicly about abortion politics and the war on reproductive freedom; most recently, I joined the board of the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund, which helps fund abortions for those in need. Despite all of this, I had no idea the protests at abortion clinics were such a pervasive problem in New Jersey. What a rude awakening that first Saturday on the sidewalk was.
The clinic where I escort is on a public sidewalk, which makes it difficult to know if a person approaching the clinic is indeed a patient. Sometimes, the patients and companions are confused; they think we are there to harass them. After asking if they are going to the clinic, my first statement is clear: "I am not a protester. I am a volunteer with the clinic, and I can walk you to the clinic, if you would like." Most often, they accept the invitation, and we walk toward the door. An escort walks on either side, trying to physically shield them from the gruesome signs and deceit-filled pamphlets being shoved into their faces. I try to speak in a calm, reassuring voice, reminding them that they don't have to listen to anyone or take anything handed to them, that we are almost to the door. I tell them I'm sorry they have to experience this harassment.
Clinic escorts are trained in non-engagement; no matter what the protesters say, whether they are friendly or hostile to us, we do not speak to or make eye contact with them. This is for multiple reasons, but most importantly, we are not there for the protesters. We are there for the patients. We are not out there to advocate for abortion rights, but to simply help patients access the choice they've already made. Engaging with the protesters is a waste of our time and energy, and it distracts us from our actual goal of helping patients and their companions.
I've been called every name I can possibly think of: murderer, baby killer, "deathscort," even a "stuck-up bitch." I've been told I’m going to Hell, that I have a wicked heart, that I am an evil woman. I have even been sexually harassed by a male protester. But no matter what, I do not respond. None of us respond. We don't even make eye contact with the protesters. We have learned to tune it out, more or less. But when these horrific insults are hurled at patients, I won't lie: It sometimes becomes difficult to bear.
Clinic escorting is a difficult and conflicting experience. On the one hand, you feel empowered - you literally are helping someone access the safe and legal abortion care to which they are constitutionally entitled. At the same time, you feel utterly powerless. I can walk the patient and her companion to the door, but I can't stop the vitriol. I can't silence the shameful screams or erase the horrific signs. I can't make the protesters go away. I can't bring the door any closer to the patients.
At the clinic where I escort, there are several groups simultaneously vying for dominance on the sidewalk. The first group is a small group of protesters who stand quietly on the opposite side of the street, praying to themselves. They don't talk to patients, nor hinder their entrance to the clinic. They are quiet and respectful, and we have had no problems with them thus far. Unfortunately, they are not representative of the majority of our protesters.
The second "group" is a tenuous coalition of the extreme anti-abortion group Abolish Human Abortion and other small, factional street preaching groups. Abolish Human Abortion is well-known for for its extremism; they brandish horrific signs and scream into the faces of patients and their companions. They are cruel and aggressive. At the same time, the "street preachers" yell loudly for three hours straight, decrying abortion, shaming those who try to enter the clinic. Members of this loose coalition stand on either side of the sidewalk, sometimes outright blocking the sidewalk, forming a tunnel of screams and stigma through which patients, their companions and clinic escorts must try to weave. All to get inside a safe, legal health care facility.
For those who claim that anti-abortion protesters are "plump grandmas" who are exercising their right to free speech respectfully, this second group eviscerates that argument. They aren't there peacefully praying like the first group. They stand and scream for three hours, often directly in the faces of patients, companions and protesters. They follow patients from the moment they exit their car up to the door, and they continue screaming even after the patient has entered the clinic. This is not constitutionally protected free speech; this is harassment.
While the second group terrorizes the sidewalk, the last group is perhaps the most pernicious. Affiliated with the Crisis Pregnancy Center directly across the street, this group of mostly women runs after patients and their companions, follows them for blocks, hands them pamphlets filled with unscientific lies, and tries mightily to dissuade them from entering the clinic. Occasionally, they succeed.
What makes this group so deleterious is that unlike the Abolish Human Abortion/Bread of Life coalition, they don't scream or yell. Instead, they speak in a calm, soothing tone to inhibit access. They claim that "Abortion hurts women" and that help is across the street, where they can receive a free sonogram in a parked van marked "Save the Storks." They shove pamphlets into patients' faces filled with junk science about fetal pain, the mythical post-abortion syndrome and the thoroughly debunked link between abortion and breast cancer.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are a powerful anti-choice tool. They are typically associated with Christian charities and often mask themselves as health care providers when they are not. They often use deceptive names, similar to genuine reproductive health care clinics in the area, and they are often located near an abortion clinic, as is the case with the abortion clinic where I escort. Theytellblatantlies about abortion, contraception and reproductive health care, and they perpetuate shame and stigma around female sexuality. The goal of CPCs is simple: to convince the patient not to have an abortion.
I certainly don't want any person to have an abortion if that isn't the choice they've made. But I also believe that every person has to the right to be informed with genuine, proven facts, not shame-filled, vacuous rhetoric. That is perhaps what is hardest about being a clinic escort - I can't refute the horrendous lies that the screaming protesters or the CPC affiliates hurl at patients and their companions. I'm not out there as an ambassador for abortion rights. I'm not out there to refute the lies, to erase the ignorance, to end the shame around abortion. I'm just out there to walk with the patients.
So while I know that abortion is actually safer than childbirth, I know that one in three women in the United States will have an abortion by the time she's 45 and I know that the abortion providers inside the clinic are qualified, compassionate medical professionals, I can't say any of that. I'm not there to say any of that.
All I can do is walk the patient to the door and hope that next Saturday is a little easier.