Perspectives from the Abortion-Rights Front, from Mischiefmanager and Baraqiel.
Mischiefmanager: I started volunteering as a clinic escort almost 20 years ago. I was a stay-at-home mom with two young kids and I wanted to get out of the house and do something useful. There had been a series of violent and destructive attacks on clinics here, so I signed up to escort.
Baraqiel: I got into escorting through my wonderful and courageous mother, MM, who’s been escorting for as long as I can remember. I didn’t start until I got into college, because she didn’t think it was safe for me as a young teenager. At the time, I didn’t believe her — now I do.
MM: I’m so proud of her!
The purpose of escorting is to provide patients and their companions safe passage into the clinic. This is different from clinic defense, which is protection of the actual physical premises of the clinic itself. Here in Pittsburgh, we’ve never done that, believing that it’s the job of the police to see that the clinics are safe. I’ve done it once or twice, but I much prefer escorting.
Escorts walk with patients and companions from sidewalks, parking lots or garages to the entrance to the clinic. In doing so, we endeavor to keep the patient moving briskly towards the door. Generally there are at least two escorts for every patient, so that we can help her feel safe and protected from antis whose goal is to prevent her entry into the building. Every clinic is different in its physical location and layout, so the actual process of escorting will change to reflect those factors.
Baraqiel: Escorting takes place on Saturday mornings because that’s when a lot of abortions are actually performed, although of course the clinic provides other services and is open all week. Normally I escort at a private clinic although I might start going to the Planned Parenthood close by once a month. The private clinic has a very smooth protesting situation. We have about 6-8 cops who come every week and get there before we do (which is impressive since we’re supposed to start around 6:30 am) and they set up a line of sawhorses to keep the antis under control. This is very helpful, but their presence also means that we can’t be very aggressive with the antis when they get too feisty.
By contrast, I went to escort at the local Planned Parenthood once last semester on an emergency call and it was a total madhouse. There were only two cops, one of whom was sitting in a car doing nothing. The antis were free to harass the patients as much as they wanted, which of course was a lot, and the other escorts were being much too timid about stopping them, so the patients had to fight their own way through the protesters. It was very upsetting.
MM: I used to escort both at a private clinic and at a PP one; now I only escort at the private one, since I decided I had earned a few Saturdays off a month after all this time. We rarely have cops on site unless someone calls them. They don’t even drive by, although they should. A good cop can be hugely helpful; a bad one is infuriating. Generally women are more helpful than men. Pittsburgh is a very Catholic city and it’s clear that some of the male cops are not comfortable with the clinic.
Antis come in three flavors, all disgusting. The least troublesome are the pray-ers. These are people who come to pray (no surprise there). They generally stay well away from the clinic door and go through their ritual without interacting with us or the patients at all. They can be Catholic or Protestant, although here they’re mostly the former. We get groups from local universities and church groups, and there are usually priests in full regalia with the pray-ers. They’re annoying in principle – it’s not their business – but they don’t bother anyone directly and often the patients don’t even notice them. They get on our nerves after a while – as a Jew, it does not make me proud that I can recite large chunks of the rosary.
The second kind is the sign-and-literature people. They will stand up and down the sidewalks that lead to the clinic door. They either hold signs or try to give away literature to patients and passersby. The signs can be either gory and disgusting (and fake) or cutesy-Gerber baby pics, traditionally of white babies but lately including some babies of color, as it seems only recently to have occurred to the antis that black women get abortions. Often these signs are huge-3-4 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide. They are frequently used to block the sidewalk.
The lit people will do anything they can to get their propaganda into the hands of patients, including throwing it into car windows and sneaking it into pockets or purses. No clinic that I know of allows this stuff in the clinic, so escorts remind patients that they are free to decline it. We will also take it from patients before they go into the clinic, letting them know that they are free to come out and read it if they’d like, but that it’s not allowed inside. Never once have I had someone ask to keep it or come back outside to read it. In fact, most patients who end up with some anti propaganda are only too happy to get rid of it. We used to rip it up and throw it away, then I started taking it home to recycle, but now we put the date on the pamphlets and keep a file. This is because our clinics have been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit which, among other things, claims that we are interfering with the First Amendment rights of antis by stopping them from getting their lit to the patients. The First Amendment rights of the patients never enter their heads.
Finally we come to the sidewalk harassers, who have given themselves the comforting-sounding but entirely specious name of “sidewalk counselors.” These are the people who are trouble. Their goal is to stop the patient before she gets to the sidewalk and do or say whatever they can to turn that patient around. They will push, shove, stand in front of patients, surround them, grab them-you name it. They’ll scream the most vile things you can imagine, from the basic “don’t kill your baby!” to “I’ll take your baby!” (as if), to “you are a whore/slut/lesbian,” “you’ll get AIDS/breast cancer/you’ll be infertile/you’ll die in there,” to “the doctors have AIDS” and “you’ll burn in hell.” All this stuff they then claim to be doing out of love. But it’s about power, pure and simple – the sight of women controlling their own bodies enrages them. It’s their worst nightmare.
At our clinics, antis fall into several demographic groups. There are the long-time regulars, who are older, white and strange. We call them “the goon squad”. Then we get college kids. At the private clinic, vanloads of kids come from a Franciscan “university” an hour or so out of town. These kids get college credit for sidewalk harassing. The women tend to have that Stepford wife demeanor – smiling and saying “Hi!” when they arrive and “Have a great day!” when they leave, as though we’re all sharing a fun outing. The guys tend to be pushy and preoccupied with manliness issues. Then there are always a few random ones, some of whom are women who want to tell everyone that they “regret [their] abortion,” some of whom are religious crazies and some of whom don’t seem to know why they’re there.
The response of patients and companions runs the entire spectrum, from terror to outright contempt. I’ve had patients who break down in hysterics and freeze on the street, which is the saddest response. It’s like red meat (if you will) to the antis – they see fear and weakness and jump all over it. When that happens, we generally make a circle around the patient, get her attention (the mom voice works brilliantly for this) and tell her clearly and calmly that we’re going to get her inside now, and that we won’t let anyone hurt her or get in her way. Then we do it.
Then we have patients who think the antis are ridiculous and simply laugh at them, which is our favorite response. Some are just indifferent and walk by them without interacting. Many say no to their offers of literature or “counseling” and just keep walking. A few get angry, but it’s more often companions who lose their tempers. We frequently have to stop boyfriends and parents from laying antis out. It’s not surprising, since the antis know very well how to push their buttons: “Be a man! Don’t let her kill your baby!” to the boyfriends, “Grandma/Grandpa, don’t let her kill your grandchild” to the parents.
And the stories…antis tend not to be too smart, and they do all kinds of stupid, crazy, laughable things in addition to the cruel and ugly behavior which is their forte. There was the guy who tried to exorcise a manhole cover, the one who sprinkled holy water on the sidewalk on a frigid day, then knelt and kissed the spot and his lips froze to the pavement, the ones who threw a fit when someone came and handed out condoms one day, the one who claims that “birth control is for fags” and that women wearing trousers causes abortion…It goes on and on.
Baraqiel: The worst thing I ever saw at the clinic was on my first really busy day. A couple pulled up in a very expensive sports car. The woman was sobbing her eyes out, absolutely hysterical, and the antis went right up to the car and started shouting at her and wouldn’t let her get out of the car. We eventually got enough escorts over to help her to the door, but this poor woman was clearly terrified and the antis were more excited about her than they had been about any patient all morning. It was sickening – like watching a pack of wild animals smelling fear.
I wasn’t present for this, but my clinic got blockaded during the second year I was escorting, over Thanksgiving weekend (so I was home for break). This was before the police had started with the sawhorses. Something like 150-200 protesters completely blocked the door, 3-4 people deep in front of the building. The police decided to let them stay there for an hour, when there were patients who were coming back for the second part of a 2-day procedure. The escorts couldn’t do anything about it. It was in clear violation of the FACE Act but if the cops won’t enforce it, there’s nothing we can do.
On the anniversary of this event, last year, someone sprayed foam insulation into the cracks between all the doors and into the keypad that locks the door in an effort to block entrance to the clinic. We just used a back door, and the stuff wasn’t difficult to get off (although the keypad was ruined – the landlord wasn’t happy), but what really got me is that they had tried to seal a fire door, too. The building that the clinic is in also happens to house a daycare center – and they tried to seal the fire door! The concern for the children is really staggering.
Oftentimes, though, we get patients that are much more assertive with the antis than we’re allowed to be. We basically cheer whenever we get a patient who straight-up tells them to fuck off and just struts in the door. This can turn sour, though; a lot of the patients come with their husbands or boyfriends and it’s not unheard of to have to restrain the boyfriend from punching the antis. Usually the cops do this for us.
And these are some of the things antis have shouted at me:
- “If you want to kill babies, why don’t you go to Iraq and kill Iraqi babies?!”
- “Have a nice day…LESBIANS.”
- “Watch your back” (this being in a market several blocks away from the clinic, about half an hour after escorting ended)
- “Oh, are you going to kill your babies too?” (this being after my boyfriend, who I got into escorting, and I exchanged a smooch)
And, during the a World Series that this city’s team was in (note that we didn’t figure out this guy was an anti until halfway through the conversation):
Anti: So…you guys been watching the games? You [team] fans?
Escorts: Yeah…sort of, I guess…
Anti: You know why there are no more black baseball players?
Anti: You know, there used to be a ton of great black baseball players and now there are almost none, and I’ll tell you why…it’s because they were all murdered at a place like this.
Me: Actually, the number of black basketball players has only increased, and I think basketball pays more, so they probably just started going into a different sport.
Anti:…………you just, you just go back to school and, and you think about that. :storms away:
MM: Finally, I want to say something about antis and children. Antis not infrequently bring their kids to demonstrate. The kids range from infants to teenagers. The indifference, not to say abusive behavior, they show to these kids tells you everything you need to know about how they really feel about children – the ones who are born, that is. I’ve seen the kids out in frigid winter days without adequate clothing, in the rain and snow and bitter river winds, and in the summer heat without any shade or anything to eat or drink for hours. I’ve seen kids running around on city sidewalks unsupervised. The antis let their kids get in the way of patients and pedestrians trying to make their way up the sidewalk.
Baraqiel: I’ve found this to be the case as well. It’s not uncommon for antis to show up with babies in strollers and stop in front of us just to say, “Don’t hurt the baby, okay? Stick to the ones in the womb.” It’s clear the child is just a prop for them to make a point.
Ultimately escorting is a pretty surreal experience a lot of the time. It can be fun to talk to other escorts and heartbreaking or hope – inspiring to see the patients but mostly it’s just scary interacting with the antis who are clearly so hateful. It’s a very rewarding way to volunteer, though, and if you can deal with the early mornings and the winter cold, I highly, highly recommend it. The difference for the patients is enormous. What makes it worth it is the grateful look when someone who was scared to even step out of her car gets in the door safely. Some patients don’t need us, but for the ones that do, it’s so important that escorts are there helping her access her rights, since a right you can’t access is no right at all.
MM: If you’re not sure if escorting is for you, give your local clinic a call and arrange to observe. You may think that you wouldn’t be able to keep your temper, but seeing how grateful the patients are, knowing that they might not get the services they need if you weren’t there-that makes it very bearable. I especially encourage younger women to get involved. Even one Saturday a month is an enormous help. Your moms and grandmothers secured these rights-now it’s up to you to keep them.