[Content Note: War on agency; harassment; intimidation; hostility to consent; reproductive coercion; violent imagery; racism; heterosexist and cissexist language; ableism.]
Sometime this summer, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of buffer zones around abortion clinics. Buffer zones keep protesters out of the immediate vicinity of the clinic, and allow patients and staff to safely access clinics. Many of them are fairly small—15 to 30 feet wide.
Opponents of buffer zones claim that they infringe on free speech: If people want to talk to the clients of abortion clinics, if they want to protest the operations of the clinic, it is their constitutional right to do so. The figurehead of this opposition is Ellen McCullen, a charming grandmother of four who claims she just wants to "walk and talk gently, lovingly," with clinic clients.
The New York Times, the Associated Press and NPR have all allowed this narrative to stand unexamined. In refusing to report objectively on the conditions outside abortion clinics, the media reinforces the idea that anti-abortion protesters are eminently reasonable, while pro-choicers are overly sensitive bullies who want to stop loving grandmothers from having polite conversations with clinic patients.
But this image—of protesters respectfully engaging with clients—is nothing like the reality I see every week in front of my local abortion clinic.
I am Ellen McCullen's counterpart: A clinic escort.
Every Saturday, I wake up at five in the morning, bundle up in warm clothes, and take a forty-minute subway ride to a NYC reproductive health clinic.
Once I arrive inside the clinic, I put a white lab coat over my coat, pin a "clinic escort" button on my scarf, and go back outside to join my fellow escorts. We spread out to cover the sidewalk. Most protesters know me by now; as I walk by them, they demand to know how I can kill babies with a smile on my face.
The protesters only come on Saturdays. Most are from the same Brooklyn-based church, led by an aggressive pastor with a penchant for sarcasm. Usually, we see about 15-20 of them, but we've dealt with as many as fifty. The past few weeks, we've had between 30 and 45. The protesters always come in two waves: One around 7am, and one around 9am.
This doesn't mean we have seven protesters from 7 to 9 and seven from 9 to 11, by the way. It means they have two waves of 15. Escorts stay the whole time—we simply don't have the manpower to organize different shifts. Usually, there are about eight of us. On good days, we'll double that. On bad days, there might only be five of us.
My job for the next four hours is to get patients into the clinic with as little harassment as possible. If anti-choicers like Ellen McCullen are to be believed, this should be an easy task.
I usually position myself on a corner near a four-way intersection. Most clients have to pass this corner to get to the clinic entrance. Once they've passed my corner, they have to walk sixty feet—the length of four parked cars—to get to the clinic entrance. Sixty feet sounds like nothing—ten, fifteen seconds of walking.
It sounds like nothing. But I'm not alone at my corner: There are four or five protesters standing next to me, holding giant pictures of bloody fetuses. One of them is always preaching at the top of his lungs, telling anyone in earshot that the clinic "butchers children." It's not exactly an inviting image.
And then the clients arrive at the intersection. The protesters will start yelling at them, begging them not to go into the clinic. Now, this would be one thing if the protesters stopped when clients moved away from them, but they don't.
They don't stop if clients walk away. They don't stop if clients tell them to stop. They will follow the clients and continue to talk with—or yell at—them as they move towards the clinic entrance. Many protesters get in front of the clients: They're not allowed to stop anyone from accessing the facilities, but that doesn't stop them from trying to be as imposing as possible.
On top of the cortege of protesters following them, clients have to walk by five or six more protesters on their way to the entrance. Most are holding more horrific signs. Others are screaming at you. This last weekend, the pastor was standing on the back of a pickup truck, yelling at women who entered the clinic that we (the escorts) were taking them straight to the pit of hell.
The worst Saturday was when 45 protesters came, lining both sides of the sidewalk, forming a veritable gauntlet through which patients had to pass to get to the entrance. Our security guard ended up calling the police to ask them to clear part of the sidewalk, and, as we waited, escorts walked back and forth through the "gauntlet," making sure there was enough room for patients to pass through the rows of protesters and signs.
Some protesters will try to get in the clients' way again and force them to engage in a conversation or take literature. Others will do anything to keep clients from making a beeline to the entrance. Those holding signs, for example, will move in the middle of the sidewalk to force the clients to look at the pictures; this move conveniently blocks the way to the clinic entrance. Worse yet, the protesters will occasionally bring a camera and film clients as they try to get into the clinic.
Many of the clients will tell the protesters to leave them alone. Legally, the protesters are obligated to stop at this point, but I've never seen it happen—they'll just keep talking over, or yelling at, the client.
My first day, I helped shield a family from a group of protesters. One of the women in the family told the protesters to "stop harassing my daughter." The protester kept screaming at the younger woman. "You are breaking the law by harassing my daughter when I have asked you not to," her mother yelled back.
Protester: "No, I'm not!"
They will not stop harassing clients, no matter how they are asked.
At the entrance, clients encounter another group of protesters screaming at them, begging them not to kill their baby. One is standing on a box and holding a cross. As clients cross the threshold, the cortege of protesters starts screaming, begging, yelling: "MOMMY, MOMMY, PLEASE DON'T KILL ME!" "PLEASE DON'T KILL YOUR BABY!" "THEY'RE GOING TO KILL YOUR BABY!" "MOMMY, MOMMY, I ALREADY HAVE A HEARTBEAT."
Then the door closes, and the clients are safe.
So yeah, it's a sixty-foot walk from my corner to the clinic entrance. But those sixty feet are a nightmare. A client might have to go through forty protesters before they can reach the door. And that's not counting all the clients who are accosted before they hit my corner. Since the protesters outnumber the escorts, they can usually afford to have a presence along the sidewalks that lead to my central positions.
Protesters tell us all the time that they're "exercising their free speech," so let's check out what that speech looks like.
Blatant lies: "They won't give you all your options in there. They won't talk about adoption. How can they call themselves choices when they don't give you any choices?" "Abortion gives you breast cancer. We're having a breast cancer epidemic because of abortion." "Abortion will make you depressed and suicidal. You'll always regret it." "Women who get abortions become schizophrenic!"
Then we move into the accusations. These are the most common: "You know abortion is murder." "In your heart, you know they're going to murder your baby." "Your baby already has a heartbeat." "You're already a mother." "You have to protect your baby." "This is the coward's way out." "You are making a selfish choice." "They're going to rip your baby into pieces. It will feel so much pain." "Your baby is innocent." "
One protester has taken to handing the clients tiny rubber babies and saying: "These are twelve-week-old babies. This is what's inside you. I want you to keep it."
The more aggressive protesters will move straight towards the punishment aspect, telling patients that they'll "have to face God's judgment someday," or yelling that they're making a wicked choice. A few will tell clients that they'll regret their decision when they end up in hell.
Often, protesters start talking like they're the babies: "Mommy, mommy, please don't kill me." "They're going to throw me in the fire, Mommy. I'm going to burn. Your baby is going to burn." "They're going to rip my arms off, Mommy."
If a man walks into the clinic with a woman, the protesters assume that they're seeking an abortion, and that the man is the father. The man then gets a special round of gender-based bullying. The protesters will tell him that he's already a father, that he has an obligation to protect women and children. They'll tell him to "stand up" and take care of his woman. They'll tell him that he's allowing his child to die. "Be a man!" they yell, while accusing him of being a "sissy." Our cross-wielding protester screams at them as they enter the door: "You're a coward, sir!"
Protesters target clients who come with children, asking the children: "What if Mommy and Daddy had aborted you?" or telling them: "In there, they murder babies like you."
Protesters also specifically target women of color, telling them that they're "destroying their race" and "contributing to the genocide of black and Hispanic people."
Just as a reminder, it's not one or two people harassing patients with this rhetoric. It's at least five or six people competing for the patient's attentions—usually more. "Intimidating" doesn't begin to describe it.
This is a "gentle" and "loving" conversation at my clinic.
Clients react in all kinds of ways. Some find the situation so ridiculous that they start laughing as soon as they see the crowd massing to stop them. Others are just as combative as the protesters. Two women were leaving the clinic a few weeks ago; one of them told the protesters that her friend would be back next week: "And if any of you give her trouble, I'm going to find you and have you all arrested."
Often, clients will try to stop the harassment by telling protesters that they're not there to get an abortion. Indeed, the clinic provides everything from prenatal care to pap smears, birth control appointments, and breast cancer screenings.
Unfortunately, protesters never care why clients are trying to go to the clinic. They'll justify their harassment by saying that:
1. Women are lying about not getting an abortion.
2. Everyone who comes into the clinic is a "candidate" for abortion. (I'm not sure exactly how this works if the client isn't pregnant, but I don't ask.)
3. People who perform abortions aren't "doctors," because a doctor is a healer, and an "abortionist" is a killer, so the medical professionals inside the clinic are just going to hurt you.
4. You're supporting abortions by using a clinic that provides an abortion, and you "wouldn't get a medical procedure in a crack house, would you?" (Actual quote.)
Some clients hesitate. They're confused by the sheer chaos around the clinic; they're not sure what's happening; they don't know who is from the clinic and who is with the protesters. They're afraid the clinic is closed. They're scared by the protesters or by the cameras. They stop, which gives the protesters a chance to surround them. And very few people feel comfortable just shoving their way through a group, at least if they haven't been prepared for it in advance.
Usually, those incidents end okay. The escorts get to the client and explain the situation; they'll encourage them to keep moving and tell them that they don't have to interact with the protesters.
But sometimes, it can get ugly.
The first day I escorted, a young woman started screaming when she saw the protester's pictures of dismembered fetuses. The escorts asked if she still wanted to go to the clinic, and she said yes. She covered her eyes, and we led her through the protesters.
Sometimes, patients start crying. "You wouldn't cry if you were doing the right thing!" the protesters say, oblivious to the fact that their terror tactics are often responsible for making people break down.
Once, the protesters managed to "herd" a patient against the clinic wall, using their own bodies and their signs to block her from leaving. As they kept screaming at her, she crumpled to the ground. The escorts forced the protesters to move away. One of the escorts used our sign to block the cameraman's view of the patient.
A few moments late, the client got up and walked into the clinic.
Let me remind you: protesters say that all they want to do is talk. Lovingly and gently.
While the protesters yell, I stand on my corner, swiveling every few seconds to check the four streets from which clients come. When I spot likely clients, I ask them if they're going to the clinic with a big smile. Most of the time, I'm wrong—they're just passers-by, confused by the protesters and the signs.
When someone says yes, they are going to the clinic, I'll point to my big "clinic escort" button (to differentiate myself from the protesters) and say: "I work with the clinic. I'm here to walk you to the entrance because, as you can see, there are protesters, and they can be a bit intimidating. Is that all right?" Most clients answer in the affirmative.
The protesters, by this point, are already surrounding us, trying to get the client's attention. As we walk towards the entrance, I position myself so that I'm blocking protesters on at least one side. In the best scenarios, we've got two or three clinic escorts per patient, and then we can surround them (and their companions) so the protesters can't get right up to them. It's not much of a buffer, but it's a lot better than having a group of protesters harassing you on three sides.
Although the protesters aren't supposed to be physical, they will try to push me out of the way, or "herd" clients so that they can't enter into the building. I've gotten very good at sliding my body between a protester and a client, or standing in such a way that a protester can't get past me. One protester, Curse Lady, likes to call me "the linebacker."
Then she tells me that God curses me with dreams of all the babies I've murdered. Fun!
In many ways, escorts are miniature buffer zones. The first week I went to the clinic, for example, a client was coming by car. The anti-choicers immediately surrounded her vehicle and tried to prevent her from getting out. The escorts inserted themselves in the middle and got them to move back. Then we stood in a semi-circle around the car until the client felt safe enough to walk in.
I always talk to the patients as we move through the "gauntlet"—I want them to have something to focus on other than the screaming protesters. I adopt a cheerful, calm tone of voice to explain the situation. I get a bit irreverent: "I'm really sorry about the protesters. They refuse to stop screaming at people; I don't know what their problem is." I'll remind clients that the protesters don't know why they're here; I'll apologize for what they have to deal with; I'll let them know when we're getting close to the door. I explain where registration is; I crack terrible jokes. I even talk about the weather.
By being as cheerful as possible, I hope to remind the patients that they're not doing anything wrong: it's the protesters who are behaving ridiculously. At the very least, I can provide the clients a bit of a mental shield from the protester's accusations.
And, sometimes, the clients don't make it the clinic. I've seen two people turn away from the clinic after being harassed by protesters. We can't and wouldn't make the clients go inside—that's fundamentally not the point—but it always feels like a punch in the gut. The second time it happened, the client stayed in the neighborhood for at least an hour, staring at the protesters. I asked her again if she needed any help, but she waved me away.
I hope she was okay.
It's always tough when protesters manage to intimidate clients. My second week, a young woman was mobbed by protesters before I got to her. She clearly was not expecting this level of harassment, and when I got to her side, I'm not sure she realized I was with the clinic. For some reason, the other escorts hadn't seen us, so it was just the two of us, walking through the protesters with five people behind us, screaming at her, begging her not to kill her baby. I kept telling her to keep moving forwards but she looked so terrified, I wasn't sure she would make it to the clinic. When she made it through the door, the protesters began screaming at me, telling me I'd "forced" her to go inside and that I was responsible for the murder of her child.
The protesters say that we're denying clients a "true" choice by not allowing the protesters to "talk" to them. Let's, for now, ignore the fact that much of what the protesters tell women are provable lies (abortion causes breast cancer, for example), and remember that the protesters don't want the clients to make a choice at all. If they did, they wouldn't be screaming at them, threatening them, harassing them, following them and intimidating them. The protesters aren't trying to create a safe space for the clients to make the best choice for themselves. They're trying to make the space as unsafe as possible, so there's only once choice the clients can make.
As for the hypocrisy of my "pro-choice" values, here's my theory: Once the clients are inside, they can make whatever decision they want without people screaming in their faces and calling them murderers.
Sometimes, when a client is visibly upset, I'll follow them inside to make sure they're okay and keep them company until they can get into the waiting room. I let clients know that there are counselors they can talk to in the building.
"Why are the protesters here?" the clients always ask me, and I have no real answer. It's unconscionable that the clients are forced to deal with this, and there's so little I can do to help.
You might ask why we don't call the cops when the protesters are clearly breaking the law.
We do, sometimes. We called them when the protesters started using a bullhorn—they aren't allowed to use anything that enhances their voices. We called them when 45 protesters showed up at once and blocked the sidewalk. We called them when they started using the camera.
But the police aren't always a positive presence. They don't like being called in, and they'll take it out on us as much as they will the protesters. Three escorts were told they would be summoned to court if they didn't move away from clinic property (even though the clinic welcomes us on their property). So we're hesitant to call them, except in the most egregious cases.
And a lot of the lawbreaking we witness is ephemeral. Sure, one protester has consistently been standing right in front of clients and trying to stop them from reaching the door, but if the police aren't there to witness it, we're not sure we're going to get anywhere by calling them.
Most importantly, our goal as escorts is to make the clients as safe as possible, and, as we know all too well, the police isn't a safe presence for a lot of people. Especially in NYC, in a neighborhood mostly populated by people of color.
The harassment doesn't stop when the clients get inside. When protesters are deprived of clients to yell at, they'll turn their wrath and frustration towards the escorts.
The backlash can be intense. My first day of escorting, I was walking back to my corner after escorting a patient, when I realized that six protesters had surrounded me. They screamed at me, calling me a bully, saying I was forcing women inside, telling me I was a murderer. They weren't getting too close, but, let's face it, being surrounded and yelled at is frightening.
Unfortunately, this "fun" game of "surround the escort" happens to me almost every Saturday. Which is why escorts try to stay in pairs or small groups—and why we often need to "rescue" fellow escorts who have been surrounded by protesters.
When we're not being ganged up on, we just get yelled at. We're asked how we can walk around with smiles when we're helping people murder their babies. We're called bullies, because it's "Five escorts against one! The baby can't defend itself!" We're compared to Hitler and the Nazis a few dozen times a day.
We're told that our hearts are "burning" or "callous." Some protesters claim that we could be forgiven by God if we turned away from our sins. Others say that we're already damned forever. One gentleman just likes following me around and muttering "wicked" under his breath.
The protesters also love policing our gender roles. A particularly aggressive preacher I call "Stand Up" (because he always tells men to "stand up" for women) tells me that my actions don't make sense because: "You guys, you're women! You're nurturers!" He also tells me that I'll be married and pregnant someday—or that I'll have unsafe sex and get pregnant—and then I'll understand.
Last week, he mocked me for escorting a man into the clinic: "He's a man! Why does he need protection by women?" His pastor, meanwhile, told our volunteer leader, "There are still true men who will stand up and protect women and children. I'm sorry you haven't found one, Volunteer Leader." This was after he'd yelled at a couple walking into the clinic, telling the man that he was a "coward."
Male escorts are told to "stand up" and "be a man." My male friend started coming with me to the clinic, and on his first day of escorting, he was told by a (male) protester: "You're a man. Why do you care about women's choice?" Another protester asked the aforementioned friend if he was gay.
Sexism and homophobia and racism aren't the only forms of oppression wielded by the protesters. Last week, the pastor saw me muttering under my breath, and he told me: "I'd be talking to myself too, if I was leading babies to their deaths. It would make me crazy." Thanks for the casual ableism, pastor!
There are moments of horrifying cruelty (as if constant harassment wasn't cruel enough). One of our escorts has a mobility impairment, and spends most of the morning sitting on a chair. A protester has told her multiple times that he can't wait until the day he sees her empty chair because it will mean that she's dead and has gone to hell.
Another protester made fun of two escorts who were talking about how they wished they could go to the funeral of Avonte Oquendo, a teenager from Queens whose body was found in January after a citywide search. "So you care about one kid!" he said, mocking them.
The protesters point us out to passers-by, calling us "baby murderers." Stand Up screams: "Those people in the white coats—they're murdering babies! They enjoy it! They're proud of it!" The pastor tells people on the street that we're proud of ripping 6-month-old babies from limb to limb. Their newest line: "The only people who wear white coats are doctors and butchers! And since these guys aren't doctors, they're butchers!"
To be honest, I'm always worried that the protesters will manage to rile up someone enough that they'll get violent. Indeed, my most frightening experience at the clinic came when an older man started talking with the protesters. After a few minutes, he started yelling at the clinic escorts, telling us we were murderers—the usual.
And then, as I started escorting a client in, I saw that he was barring our way. Before I could register what was happening, he got up in the client's face, pointing fingers at her and yelling. He grabbed at her; I stepped between them—and he slammed straight into me, knocking me back a foot.
Fortunately, the other escorts got the client in safely, and our security guard intervened, so I was safe. But yeah—when the protesters single out escorts and get random people riled up, it can have pretty frightening effects.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned many arguments between protesters and escorts. That's because we try not to have them. We know, from long experience, that this never ends well. And we certainly don't want to add to the chaos the clients have to deal with. Nor do we want clients to feel like they're pawns in a battle between escorts and protesters. We're here for the clients, not for the protesters.
That doesn't mean arguments never happen. Some escorts have perfected the art of engaging a protester just as a client passes through, effectively distracting them. And we all lose control sometimes. Stand Up was waving a rubber fetus in my face, telling me it was a twelve-week-old baby, and at some point I snapped: "I'm sorry, sir, but that's rubber, and if it was in someone's uterus, they would get a catastrophic infection."
Stand Up: "No, it's a BABY."
But mostly, we don't talk back.
When the protesters leave, after four hours of calling us names, telling us we're murderers, threatening us with hell, insulting our gender, accusing us of being "crazy," pushing us away from clients, harassing escorts and patients… they always say: "Goodbye. We love you. We're going to pray for you."
"Goodbye. We love you. We're going to pray for you."
Love, I'm told, is at the heart of the pro-life movement.
I've detected a couple themes from spending four hours a week in the company of pro-lifers, and honestly, love is not one of them.
Hostility for consent is a big one. Protesters will continue following and harassing patients and escorts no matter how many times they're asked to stop. They film escorts and patients without their consent; they take pictures without asking us. I've taken to going up to every camera I see and saying clearly that I don't consent for my photo or my image to be captured, or to be used in any commercial enterprise. It never stops them.
I know it's shocking that people who are trying to take away reproductive choices would be hostile to consent, but there you are.
Protesters claim to love women*, but they certainly don't act like it. When clients tell protesters that they aren't there for abortions, protesters tell them: "Well, a lot of women say that, but they're actually lying." One woman was walking down the street when a protester began begging her not to go to the clinic. She told him several times that she was just going to the post office and he replied: "That's good, but a lot of women say that and go in the clinic anyways." The narrative of women as liars is an unending theme. Women, whether speaking to a protester or making decisions about their body, can't be trusted.
*(Women aren't the only people who access abortions and other reproductive health services, but protesters act like they are.)
Male protesters will occasionally go on a rant about how being able to end a child's life "makes women feel so powerful." They tell women that they need to be "less selfish" and stop focusing on their careers and education (because apparently, the only reason people ever get abortions is so they can further their career).
Some of the most revealing moments are when protesters talk to community members. I've heard a protester describe pregnant women as "hosts" to people on the street. One preacher explained to a passerby that "the uterus belongs to the baby." When a woman told a protester that some people can't afford to have children, the protester replied: "Well, yeah, they can't be lazy bums. They have to get off the couch and work."
But protesters love women.
It's pretty clear that the protesters care more about shaming women than they do about "saving" babies/fetuses. In a telling example, a few weeks ago, a client told a protester that she was going to the clinic for a follow-up appointment: She'd gotten an abortion the week before because her fetus didn't have a heartbeat.
"Oh honey," the protester said. "They lied to you. Your baby wasn't dead. You murdered your baby."
I really have nothing to say about that moment that isn't a nonstop stream of profanities.
I was telling my boyfriend about this incident later, and I said: "I don't understand what the endgame is here. If you're trying to save babies, why would you even bother telling this woman that she's murdered her baby? Wouldn't you just be like 'oh, she's been tricked, how tragic, I'm not going to add to her load?' What's the point of making women feel like shit?"
Boyfriend: "Yeah, I think that is the endgame."
As if you needed any more proof of the profound disrespect protesters have for the people they profess to "love."
We always have trouble recruiting more escorts. One of us speculated that it's because escorting is a particularly depressing form of activism. There's no end to it, no improvement. We're not fighting the protesters. We're not making them go away. The victories are subtle. We don't often get thanked—we more often get screamed at and insulted.
I understand that point of view. Being an escort is exhausting. I hate waking up at 5 am. I hate standing in the cold for four hours. I hate being screamed at.
But by the time my first shift as an escort was over, I knew I would be back. I didn't want people to have to face the protesters alone.
On one level, buffer zones are a way of signifying what we care about as a society. We've decided that we care enough about the voting process that we'll put up buffer zones around polling sites. We've decided that the Supreme Court and other government agencies should have buffer zones to ensure their safety. We've decided that military funerals should have buffer zones.
But abortion clinics…not so much. Even though clinic staff, doctors, and patients have been murdered. Even though clinic staff and doctors deal with death threats. Even though clinics have been bombed. Even though every clinic has to deal with massive protests. Even though protesters have gotten violent, and clients feel frightened and intimidated.
Politicians and judges think that being harassed and fearing for one's safety is a fair price to pay for accessing reproductive services. People who need abortions just don't matter enough for a buffer zone.
Our government and our society has abandoned people who want reproductive healthcare. They've labeled them as abject; they've isolated them; they've decided they don't deserve safety. The protesters, meanwhile, want patients to feel ashamed of themselves. They, too, want them to feel isolated and abject, like their actions are something horrifying to feel guilty about.
To me, escorting is about breaking that isolation. Every time I take the subway to the clinic, I am telling patients that they are worth standing up for. Every time I stand out in the cold, I am doing it because I want clients to know there is nothing shameful about their decision. Every time I stay despite being insulted and harassed, I do it because I want clients to know that the community stands with them. When I'm getting pushed by protesters as I walk clients to the door, I'm doing it because I want clients to remember that they aren't the bad ones, that they didn't do anything to deserve this treatment. The protesters are the problem, not them.
I escort because people who want reproductive healthcare are worth standing up for.
And until we as a society realize this fundamental fact and do a better job of protecting access, I'll keep escorting.
If you're interested in escorting, I recommend getting in touch with your local abortion clinic and asking them if they have an escorting program. Otherwise, googling your state and "clinic escort" can often get you to the place you want.