In March I underwent clinic escort training for a women’s health center in Minneapolis. I am a strong supporter of a woman’s right to obtain affordable, confidential and safe abortions, and I believe that all people should have access to and information about sexual and reproductive health care. Being a clinic escort is one way for me to show my support for these issues and for the people who take advantage of these rights.
At the women’s health clinic at which I volunteer, a pro-life group has paid staff who stand outside and intercept women who have come to the clinic to have an abortion. These staff members hand out pamphlets filled with pictures of bloody tissue, stories from women who were “crippled by dispair and depression” because of their decision to have an abortion, and dubious or disproven claims about the links between abortion and breast cancer or future reproductive and sexual health. They walk alongside potential clinic patients and quote statistics at them or tell them to consider adoption or other alternatives to baby killing.
The women and men who come to the clinic often become exasperated, angry or distressed when these protesters get in their personal space and start speaking at them about abortion. They may yell back at the protesters, making a tense situation even more loaded. And as a clinic escort, do you know what I get to do in this situation?
I get to smile.
When a client approaches the clinic and is accosted by a protester, I get to stand off to the side in my bold yellow jacket that proclaims “clinic escort” on the front and smile, open the door to the clinic and motion them inside. That’s it. Nothing really world-saving there. I’m an unpaid doorwoman and it’s really easy work. But the relief on the clients’ faces at seeing a friendly, welcoming smile and having a guide past the aggressive in-your-face tactics of the protesters is the most incredible thing.
Last Saturday was my first day of escorting. There were two of us escorting and four protesters, all of them regulars who are well-known to the clinic. We were all pretty nice to each other, considering we were diametrically opposed about the issue at hand. It felt very much like “you’re here to do your job, I’m here to do mine.” (and again – they’re *paid*, so they very literally were there to do their jobs).
At some point one of the ladies gently tried to hand me a pamphlet and I said “Look, while we’re out here together I’ll talk to you about anything you like except abortion.” She shrugged and we actually talked about the weather! She tried to slip abortion back into the conversation now and then, but each time I averted my gaze and sealed my lips. Then she’d sigh and go back to talking about her garden or grandkids. When a person or couple would approach the clinic, I would walk right next to the client(s) and distract them with chit-chat so the protester was relegated to speaking loudly at our backs. As soon as the client was inside the protestor and I would go back to discussing the weather.
It was an odd detente and I imagine a pretty good protester experience to have on my first day of escorting. I’m guessing they won’t all be this genial.
I learned about volunteering as a clinic escort from a twitter user named – appropriately enough – @clinicescort. Many Saturdays @clinicescort posts a tweet or two from the front lines about protests occurring at the clinic where she or he volunteers. I am always astounded by the spiteful, ignorant, close-minded vitriol that @clinicescort endures, but I am grateful that she or he is there to play interference for the clients of the clinic so that they can go about their day with less harassment. So far it seems like the protesters at my clinic are pretty benign – they don’t scream or unduly harrass, so small favors.
If you want more information about escorting, let me know in the comments or shoot me an email. And if you’re ever in downtown Minneapolis and you see me standing around in front of a building wearing a bright yellow jacket, make sure to give me a smile. I’ll certainly smile back.