After President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, protesters have been limited in their ability to interfere with people who visit abortion clinics. For example, they’re no longer allowed to physically block the entrances to clinics. But they still do their damnedest to convince clients to not to go through those doors on their own. And so there are clinic escorts.
Clinic escorts give clients the strength to walk past the protesters, to ignore the offensive, lie-filled literature that is thrust at them. We make it okay for them to avert their eyes from the little plastic fetuses, the swinging rosaries, the gory pictures that are held up as they walk by or are posted in their line of sight. We give them an excuse to not listen to the prayers, the hymns, the questions and accusations that are thrown at them. We are a psychological barrier between the clients and the protesters.
On Saturday I was escorting at Whole Women’s Health in downtown Minneapolis. When I showed up there were 13 protesters lining the narrow sidewalk that leads up to the clinic entrance. Two were active protesters (antis who rush up to heckle the clients) and the rest were passively praying, singing, touching the beads on their rosaries, and walking up and down the sidewalk. This later group had four kids who looked to be under the age of 12 with them. It always makes me sad to see kids with the protesters.
The location of WWH is a bit tricky; it’s on a city street in a office building that houses several different businesses. Protesters are perched on the edge of the sidewalk right next to oncoming traffic; there’s nowhere else for them to stand that wouldn’t obstruct the flow of pedestrian traffic. Because it’s a public city street, we can never be sure who is and isn’t coming to the clinic, but after a while you start to recognize potential clients. When I think someone might be coming to the clinic I mosey over to meet them. I usually don’t hurry up to people because they’re already being rushed by an anti-choice protester. Our protesters seem to take pride in beating us to the clients, and if we’re outnumbered (more protesters than escorts), they’re usually going to “win”. Better to let them; my slow pace is one more thing that differentiates me from the frantic, fast-talking protester.
I often get there several seconds after the protester has started their spiel. I raise my voice just enough to be heard over the protester to say “Hi. Are you visiting the clinic today?” If they are they’ll usually nod and I’ll smile and say, “Welcome. I’m a volunteer with the clinic. You can follow me this way to the entrance if you like.” Or if there’s a long way to walk (if they park at the north parking lot they’ve got to traverse a half city block with a protester at their elbow) “Would you like me to walk with you?” Always, always, always we seek consent from clients to walk with them. It’s one of the many differences between protesters and escorts: If a client doesn’t want us near them, we back off.
I had more than my usual share of interesting encounters this Saturday. To begin with, my escorting partner wasn’t able to make it. *sigh* Me against two active protesters, with 11 others forming an intimidating presence. Joy.
My first encounter: I approached a single woman who was being heckled and she nodded that she wanted me to accompany her to the entrance. The woman was walking with her right shoulder to the building wall and a protester on her left side. The client looked scared and was shrinking away from the protester. I couldn’t get between the client and the protester, nor could I get on the other side of her since she was pushing herself against the wall as she walked. So I tried something new: I placed myself directly in the line of the protester, turned my back to her and stopped walking. She had several seconds to avoid me but was so focused on the client that she *slammed* into me and actually knocked me forward a few steps. Instead of apologizing she started screaming about how I wasn’t allowed to touch her. Sadly for her the client kept walking and I fell in line next to her. The client had a small smile on her lips, and we walked into the lobby together, chatting about little nothings. When I came back outside the protester who had knocked into me was waiting and she started screaming as soon as I opened the door. After about 10 seconds of her shouting I broke my usual rule of not speaking to protesters.
“Hey!” I fixed her with a hard look but kept my voice low. “When you’re driving and you rear-end someone, who’s at fault for that collision?” She sputtered and I continued “You rear-ended me. If you do it again I’m reporting you to security.” She glared and looked like she wanted to argue, but instead spun on her heels and stomped off to whisper with the rest of the protesters.
It felt so good. I’m usually awesome at deescalation and diplomacy, but at least I got her to stop screaming.
I ended up using that trick twice more. Here’s the end product, my signature Protester Deflection Move™: A client is walking toward me with the protester glued to their side. I plant directly in the path of the protester, but give her enough time to see me and to avoid a collision. The protester is thus forced to stop or move to the outside as the client walks by me. I’m now physically between the protester and the client, and the protester can only cajole the client from behind us, across from me, or from in front (as an aside, this protester was not good at walking backwards). It’s a beautiful thing.
My second encounter: A man and woman were walking up the sidewalk. The man was shielding the woman with his body, so the protester started addressing him, begging him not to let her do this, etc. At one point she said “You have a chance to be a real man, to stand up for your unborn baby!” The man glared at her and shifted his weight like he was going to move toward her. I loudly and waaaay too cheerfully announced “And we’re here! Go ahead and step right inside this door if you like.” He continued to glare at the protester, but walked inside. In the lobby the client placed her hand on the small of his back and he took a huge breath. He was furious. He looked at me and said “Thank God you were here. If you hadn’t been here I would have punched that woman.” I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say to that, so I just nodded and walked back outside.
That he said that to me didn’t make me feel good. It didn’t make me feel like a hero. I was mad at him, that he saw me as the reason why he didn’t hurt somebody. And I had a sick feeling that a really bad situation had almost unfolded. If he had punched the protester, the cops would have been called and he could have been charged with assault.
Some clients feel threatened by protesters and lash out. Some companions feel extra-protective of clients and feel like they have the right to threaten the protesters. Sometimes the client or the companion is having a bad day, or feels the need to defend their choice to seek an abortion, or is just asshole who wants a fight. In those cases maybe knowing that a clinic volunteer is there watching the whole thing helps them decide to not escalate a conflict to physical violence.
My third encounter: Every once in a while a woman will be so strong and brave on the sidewalk that it makes me proud to have a second X chromosome in common with her. On this particular morning a woman came striding down the street and a protester approached her. The woman waved her away and said firmly, “I’m here to visit the clinic and I don’t want to listen to any of your bullshit. My reasons for being here are none of your business. And you can take your religious guilt and shame somewhere else; I had quite enough of that as a child, thank you very much.” She kept up her litany of dismissal and distraction down the entire block. I made eye contact with her and she shook her head, so I stayed out of her way. At the entrance I opened the door and she swooped inside. I followed her into the lobby to make sure she saw the elevator and she was just standing there. She looked drained and had tears in her eyes. She looked at me and asked, “Can I please have a hug?” I felt a rush of emotion, but I just nodded and held out my arms. I don’t know how I managed to not break down. I thought I might. She squeezed me really tightly for a good five seconds, let go and brushed away a few tears. She smiled and said “Thanks.” And then she stepped on the elevator and was gone. I was really angry with the protesters when I went back outside. I wish they could understand that they’re not changing women’s minds; they’re just making a emotionally trying doctor’s appointment even more difficult.
Being a clinic escort is frustrating. And clinic escorts wouldn’t be necessary if protesters didn’t harass clients on their way to doctors’ appointments. But since they do, we show up, and despite the frustration it is fulfilling. If you’d like to become an escort you can inquire with local clinics in your area.
Of course, if you’re in the US, good luck finding a local clinic in your area.