Recently encountering anti-choice protestors at a holiday party has made me think more about the role of protestors in general. After all, the activities of people who protest outside abortion clinics have been in the news a lot this year, from a Supreme Court decision that struck down Massachusetts clinic buffer zones this summer to a recent video showing a pregnant woman confronting anti-choice protestors outside of a London clinic.
In the U.S., state and local laws vary widely in regards to how close the protestors can come to other people, clinic employees, and the building itself. Some communities enforce strict limits, while others are more lax. But in addition to these regulations, many clinics also rely on volunteer clinic escorts to ensure that anyone needing to enter the clinic can do so with as much protection, and as little outside interference, as possible.
I recently spoke with a friend of mine about what he’s learned and seen during his three-plus years as a volunteer escort at an urban clinic in an East Coast city. (For security reasons, he will be identified with a pseudonym and his clinic will not be named.)
“I’m a pro-choice guy,” Norm says about his motivation for becoming a clinic escort. “I married into it—my wife is also very pro-choice, and I’m doing this on behalf of all the women in my life. Politically there’s not much I can do right now, [but] I wanted to get involved in on-the-ground volunteering, getting to meet people and help them directly.”
The basic job of a clinic escort, Norm explains, “is to get the patients in the door,” but when it comes to handling protestors, the clinics’ philosophies vary. Some are more “hands-on” with the protestors, but his clinic isn’t. “We think it’s futile to engage with the protestors, i.e. talk with them or convince them not to be so aggressive,” he says. “To the greatest extent we try to ignore them; our focus is on the patients and the people who come with them.”
At the clinic where Norm volunteers, there’s a barrier that protestors are not allowed to pass. The clinic escorts help get patients onto the side of the barrier that protestors can’t be on, and act as a “physical barrier … between the protestors and the patients. My personal philosophy is try to make the patient as comfortable as possible.” Norm has a script he recites to the patients: Here are our protestors. Unfortunately we have them, we will stay as long as they will stay, we have these barriers set up for your protection and convenience.
But, he adds, it’s not uncommon for patients to decline having a clinic escort, and in those cases, “we stay out of their way.”
So just what are those protestors yelling at the patients—many of whom might not even be coming to the clinic for abortions? Norm says it can be anything from ‘They kill babies in there’ to ‘Don’t kill your baby’ to ‘We have help for you and we can support you.’ In other words, “[i]t’s any type of pleading or veiled threats, basically.”
Indeed, after his years of pro-choice escorting, Norm says the protestors at his clinic seem to espouse two basic delusions. “First, they don’t really seem to know what medicine is, or what proper medicine is in the context of reproductive care,” he says, adding that this group includes medical professionals who insist that abortion causes problems—like an increased risk of breast cancer or so-called post-abortion syndrome—that have been consistently scientifically disproved.
And the other delusion, he says, is that the protestors assume that everyone shares—or should ideally share—their brand of religion. A lot of the protestors he encounters are Catholics who “believe that everyone should practice their religion the way they do.” No matter the religion of the patient, they’ll try to convince her that “god doesn’t want [her to do this,” he says. “But they mean the Christian god, and they don’t acknowledge that there are differences in theology.”
According to Norm, the protesters will often ask new volunteer escorts to ‘cross the barriers and pray with them’—”without stopping to consider that the escorts might not share their denomination, let alone religion, and also that the escorts strongly believe in what they are doing, to the exclusion of stopping to pray with the protestors.”
Yelling assumptions about someone’s religion doesn’t sound like the most effective way to convince a woman that you care what happens to her or that you’re willing to think deeply about her life. Neither does using intimidation and lies.
And for that matter, it’s jarring to be surrounded by protestors. It’s disturbing and unexpected—not something that anyone seeking medical care should ever have to deal with. I’m grateful for the work that Norm and his fellow escorts do, but I wish they didn’t have to be out there doing it. Because no one should have to deal with harassment and intimidation just to get to a doctor’s appointment.
Still, Norm makes an important point, one that stays with me long after we talk. More patients are, as he puts it, “weirded out” by getting past those protestors than by being in the clinic itself. “Once they’re inside, most of them feel fine, because they’re doing what’s right for them,” he says. “Most are much more relaxed there than on the street.”
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives with her family in Washington, D.C.