3 Abortion Clinic Volunteers Share The One Thing They Want You To Know About Their Jobs

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The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States in 1973 — 45 years ago this Jan. 22. Today, abortion providers and office staff work courageously (and tirelessly) to make sure patients seeking abortions feel comfortable enough to receive the medical services they need. However, the unsung heroes of abortion clinics — who play an essential role in protecting patients seeking abortions — are their volunteers. Bustle spoke with three abortion clinic volunteers about what they want you to know about volunteering at these licensed medical centers.

Though Roe v. Wade was passed over four decades ago, reproductive rights — and abortion in particular — are still under constant political attack in the United States. In 2017 alone, 431 anti-abortion bills were filed by state legislators across the country. Luckily, the legislative attacks on abortion by this administration — which is widely considered to be the most anti-choice in American history — largely have not played out.

Unfortunately, those who work and volunteer at abortion clinics often face the brunt of the backlash from anti-abortion protestors. Volunteers face potential violence because of their positions, and confrontation is almost guaranteed. However, those who volunteer also find the work extremely rewarding, and they help hundreds of people receive reproductive health care. This is what they wish you knew about their jobs.


There is real, potential danger for staff and patients of abortion clinics

Since 1993, at least eleven people have been killed in attacks carried out against abortion clinics in America. Hundreds of more instances of violence at clinics have also been recorded since 1977. Though many anti-choice protesters simply stand outside the clinics with graphic posters and bother patients in non-violent ways, their is a a very real threat to being a patient, staff member, or volunteer at an abortion clinic.

"The protestors would actually take pictures of the employee license plates parked in the lot, and post them to their 'Pro-life' Facebook sites to spread awareness on who is 'murdering babies,'" Melissa, a college student who volunteered at an abortion clinic in a Chicago suburb for two years, tells Bustle. "I once was randomly called out at a grocery store by some ignorant anti-choicer who must have been protesting at the clinic. They get pretty invasive, so the least interaction at the site, the better." Abortion clinic volunteers brave both risks of violence and invasion of privacy when working at clinics.


Counter-protesting can be harmful

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Counter-protesting at abortion clinics — aka, when pro-choice actvists protest against anti-choice demonstrators — can actually increase the risk of potential danger, and can make the environment more stressful for patients. "When we think about a counter-protest happening, even folks with the best intentions, all it takes one person to react to an ‘anti’ and things can escalate very quickly," Adrienne Verrilli, Associate Vice President for Public Affairs of Planned Parenthood of New York City, told Cosmopolitan in 2017.

"It's best to go to pro-choice rallies and events like that where you can fight with the protestors in a more public area with more people surrounding you," says Melissa. "Trying to take on a solo mission and explain your side to the protestors outside of clinics is a lost cause at best."


One of the main duties of volunteering is escorting patients to the clinic

It may seem obvious, but it's important to note that volunteers don't perform medical duties. One of their primary duties is to escort patients to and from the abortion clinic. "Depending on the location of the clinic and where protesters are permitted, we often need to literally get between the protesters and the patient," Cinda tells Bustle, who has volunteered at abortion clinics for about six years. "A lot of the escort role is to talk directly to the patient and keep her distracted from these foul comments as she makes her way to the front door."

Cinda adds that because of how volatile some anti-choice protesters can be, the volunteers and escorts must follow pretty strict rules. "Escorts may not talk back to protesters. When it rains, we cannot even use umbrellas lest we be accused of carrying weapons. We cannot touch protesters in any way because they have in the past accused escorts of assault for minor touches," she explains. "Protesters tend to push the limits on exactly how close they may get to the clinic door. They will claim the county right of way allows them closer to the front door than what the property owner has dictated. Escorts cannot fight with them about this — we can only say 'please step back.'" Being an abortion clinics escort isn't easy, and it requires a lot of patience.


Not all patients are women

It's commonly thought that only women seek out abortions, but abortion volunteers are actively working to debunk that cisnormative mindset. Not all patients of abortion clinics are women, or gender-conforming. "It is important to me to support Planned Parenthood, because as a transgender man, it's often the only available source of gender affirming treatment," says Judah, an activist and Planned Parenthood volunteer who organized a rally to support of a Washington clinic that was firebombed in 2015. "The folks that showed up to the rally were of a huge variety of ages, genders, classes, sexualities, races, and educational backgrounds." When talking about abortion, it's important to make your language gender-inclusive, and remind people that not just women receive abortions.


But also, not all patients are teenagers

Despite what mid-2000s television would lead you to believe, the majority of abortion clinic patients in the United States are not teenagers. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute estimated in 2014 that patients between the ages of 20 and 24 made up 34 percent of abortions, while patients between 25 and 29 obtained 27 percent of abortions. Their study estimates one in four women have an abortion by age 45.

Moreover, Guttmacher Institute also found in 2014 that 59 percent of abortion patients already had at least one child. "It is surprising how many women with children come in for abortions. They are keenly aware that another child could affect the wellbeing of the entire family," says Cinda. Abortion can and does impact everyone: There is no one type of person who may receive an abortion, despite the stereotypes that exist.


The volunteer and staff try to make the clinic kid- friendly.

Patients sometimes have to bring their children to the clinic — especially if they are a working-class parent or traveling to receive an abortion — but Judah says volunteers and staff go out of their way to make the clinic child-friendly. "I once took my 10-year-old nephew to meet Governor Kate Brown at a Planned Parenthood event, and on our way out, [anti-choice protesters] tried to stop and pray over our car," says Judah. "But inside the building my nephew was given snacks, age-appropriate activities, and there were other children happily running around." Abortion clinics get a bad rep thanks to anti-abortion propaganda, but people who work at these health care centers are family-oriented.


They love volunteering

Despite the possible challenges of volunteering at an abortion clinic, volunteers help to ensure the patients have a safe and comfortable experience overall — even in the face of anti-choice protesters. They are on the frontline in the fight for reproductive justice. "I fought the abortion and birth control battles in the 1960s, and want to do my part now to retain those rights," says Cinda. "If the [anti-choicers] can brave the cold and give their time, you’d better believe I’m going to be out there helping patients get past all that negativity."

Abortion clinic volunteers, though not often recognized, play an important role at these health centers. So on this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, don't forget to thank abortion clinic staff and volunteers who help make sure every person has access to safe reproductive health care.