I was standing on Figueroa Street in the heart of Los Angeles, wearing a bright orange tank top emblazoned with the words "Pro-Choice Clinic Escort," when a young girl who couldn't have been more than nine years old approached me. She sweetly smiled, so without hesitation, I smiled back and said a friendly hello. Immediately, her kind expression slightly hardened, and with a stern authority that almost seemed inappropriate for her age, she uttered the words, "I'll pray for you." It was chilling.
That afternoon in 2011, I was volunteering as a clinic defender (also known as a clinic escort) with the organization L.A. for Choice. A clinic defender's job is to support patients entering a women's health clinic when it has been swarmed by extreme anti-choice protesters. Many of these protesters show up to clinics with plans to aggressively shame, harass, and intimidate women who are trying to make it into the facility, with the goal of making women too afraid or too uncomfortable to enter. Some protesters will even follow patients to the clinic doors and try to physically block the entrance.
The protest groups also often pass out literature that is filled with untrue statistics and claims, like that abortion causes breast cancer, psychological breakdowns, and almost certain death (all of these claims have been thoroughly debunked by researchers), in hopes that a woman will take one of the flyers, read it, and become needlessly terrified about the safe health decision that she has made.
It is the clinic escort's job to walk alongside the patient as she enters the clinic, so that she does not need to engage with the protesters — essentially, an escort acts as a barricade. Additionally, we provide words of support — the more we talk, the more we drown out any hateful rhetoric being thrown the patient's way.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was nervous to be around extremely confrontational protesters. I knew about the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller and the horrific violence often experienced by abortion providers. But I'd been far too angry about the state of reproductive rights in this country for too long to just do nothing. So I joined up with a group of other women and men from my university, chipped in for gas, and carpooled down to the clinic.
After arriving, we joined other escorts and L.A. for Choice organizers inside the clinic's waiting room to receive training — which included learning that this clinic was often specifically targeted by some protesters who hoped that the patients might be easier to intimidate, due to the fact that many of them did not speak English or did not have access to adequate sexual health education.
The organizers warned us about specific protesters who regularly showed up to these actions. We were told to look out for one man who would at first appear to not be part of the protest, but instead waited near the door in order to ambush patients as they approached the entrance. This was a tactic he deployed, they told us, to avoid appearing to violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act), which, as L.A. for Choice notes, "[prohibits] the obstruction of clinic entrances and the threatening of patients and/or clinic staff, [and some states] have an established 'buffer zone' that protesters must stay outside."
The most important part of training was learning to not engage with the protesters. As the site explains, "Escorting is done for the safety,
security and comfort of the clients. Clients don’t feel safer when their
escort is getting in a shouting match."
The primer also gave us a sample script for how to speak to a patient:
Hi, I’m an escort for the clinic; we have some protesters here today, but I’m here to get you inside safely and with as little harassment as possible. You don’t have to take anything they offer you, you don’t have to listen to them. This is your decision to make, and no one has the right to make you feel bad about it. Okay, here’s the door.
I couldn't believe that I had needed to receive specialized training, just to help women get into an office to see their doctors. We volunteers walked outside, and the unfairness of the situation overwhelmed me. I took in at least 30 protesters (many of whom had brought their children), crowding the sidewalk with graphic images, shouting into megaphones about Hell, "murder," and the supposed "dangers" of abortion.
We began escorting patients. The momentary connections that we shared with these women as we resiliently walked to the front doors together — surrounded by hate but refusing to waver — was a type of solidarity and partnership that I think every woman should experience. That's not to get all kumbaya on you, folks; there was nothing pleasant about walking through the protest. But feeling that we were taking part in an act of resistance was beautiful.
Some parts of the day were definitely harder than others. I was escorting a young girl, probably no older than 15, when a protester began screaming at her about the "link between abortion and breast cancer." The teenager became frightened and confused. More protesters gathered around us, and she froze. I didn't know what to do. Thankfully, the lead organizer noticed the cluster of protesters surrounding us, broke through, and helped the girl inside. I was shaken, so I can't even begin to imagine how she felt.
After hours in the L.A. heat, I walked inside the clinic to find water. Stepping into the waiting room, I recognized all of the women seated in the vinyl chairs. It was quiet, as it always is in doctor's offices, with patients anxiously awaiting tests and procedures. But in the waiting room, the silence began to drown out the cacophony outside. The clinic felt like a sanctuary to me. I thought, our bodies and our health are sacred. The places that protect our bodies are sacred spaces. And so, we must defend them.