by Mary Lou Greenberg
The action starts at 7 a.m. every Saturday when volunteers start arriving, women and men, some who get up at 5 a.m. and travel far on the subway to be there, donning white lab coats and positioning themselves on the sidewalk. They come to help escort women patients through the gauntlet of physical and mental harassment outside into Choices Women’s Medical Center, so they can get the abortions, birth control, or pre-natal or routine gynecological exams that Choices offers to about 40,000 patients a year.
After being evicted from its two prior locations, in April 2012 Choices moved to Jamaica, Queens into an all-new 1800-square-foot facility. As soon as it opened, Christian fundamentalists from a Biblical literalist church in Brooklyn began showing up every Saturday morning, the busiest day for appointments. They wear pink or blue vests (yes, women in pink, men in blue), with the words “Unborn Baby Advocate” printed on them. Some prop up big signs (3’x5′ or larger) with enlarged, full color photos of supposed fetal parts, bloody and gruesome, and the word “Choice.” Others, unencumbered by the big placards, are poised ready to pounce on everyone – especially women – who dares weave their way to the clinic entrance through the signs and insistent shouting.
Shortly after the protesters appeared, Choices began working with NOW NYC to recruit volunteer escorts. NOW has sent volunteers to escort at clinics in Brooklyn and the Bronx in the past and still does. But when the chapter heard of the critical need for escorts at Choices – to counter at least 15-25 protestors every Saturday – it put out a special call for volunteers to go to Jamaica. Generally, there are anywhere from 6 to 12 escorts on site, mostly young and very passionate about women’s rights.
As someone who has worked with abortion providers and defended clinics for many years, I have learned that the only way to prevent anti-abortion protesters (or, “antis”) from physically interfering with women (and their accompanying partners, relatives or friends) going into a clinic is by relying on our own efforts – and not laws which may or, more frequently, as in the case with Choices and many other clinics, may not be enforced and which in any case are disregarded by the antis.
At Choices, where the antis have the legal “right” to roam the public sidewalk leading to the entrance, photograph people entering and leaving the clinic and accost women – including those with small children who come for appointments, our protocol for escorting women is to form a protective “cocoon” around them, with several escorts physically walking on each side and taking them to the clinic door, acting as a barrier between them and the protesters.
We spent some time figuring out how to differentiate ourselves from the antis. Women coming for appointments just want to get inside the clinic – they don’t want to stop and talk to anyone. That’s where the lab coats come in. We have the escorts wear white lab coats and big round buttons (four inches diameter) that say, in large letters, “Choices Clinic Escort.” The white lab coats can be seen from a distance, and when patients make Saturday appointments they are told to look for the people in white who will walk with them to the entrance.
The lab coats for the escorts were a new tactic after an experience I had when I approached a woman outside the entrance to Choices last summer. She vehemently told me to “get the f*** out of my way,” and strode determinedly to the door. When she later realized I was with Choices, she apologized profusely and said she thought I was with the people with the signs.
I told her not to feel bad – her reaction was fine. More women should respond loudly and angrily to anyone who is trying to bully them away from having an abortion or other needed healthcare. And while there are, indeed, more than a few women who do just that, for others the signs, the accusations that they are “murdering” their “baby,” and the intrusion on their privacy – especially in the present climate when abortion has become so stigmatized – is, understandably, upsetting.
This is precisely what the antis want. A notorious anti-abortion figure, Joseph Scheidler, known by some as the “father of the right-to-life movement,” once bragged in his book, Closed/99 Ways to Stop Abortion, that the complications rate during abortions (in actuality, extremely low, as having a legal abortion in sanitary conditions is statistically safer by far than carrying a pregnancy to term) goes up when loud “sidewalk counseling” is going on outside. Whether or not there was any truth to this, the antis’ words, lies and aggressive actions are designed to create upset and anxiety which Choices’ social workers and trained counselors must take time to address when counseling women on Saturdays. (Every woman is counseled before any abortion procedure.) It is noteworthy that the antis outside Choices recently handed out literature from Scheidler’s organization, the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action Network (also known as Pro-Life Action League).
Sometimes Choices only has a small number of escorts compared to the number of antis, and when that happens the antis are emboldened to be even more vicious and aggressive. But no matter how many escorts are “on duty,” they provide necessary protection and support for the patients
Laws on Paper, Harassment in Reality
Despite Federal and NYC laws that legally prohibit harassing people seeking to enter women’s health facilities or obstructing the entrance, this is a “gray area,” according to some lawyers, and some laws have not been tested in courts. Protesters often stand with their big posters only a few feet from Choices’ entrance, try to force literature into women’s hands and turn them away from the door, while shouting “Don’t kill your baby,” “children are precious” and other things that deliberately and wrongly equate fetuses with babies and are aimed at making women feel guilty. Black women also are accused of committing “genocide” if they have an abortion, and I was admonished by the pastor of the anti-abortion church that I, with the last name “Greenberg,” should understand “the connection between abortion and the holocaust.” Supposedly, if people say they don’t want to talk, protesters are supposed to stop. But this does not happen.
I’ve actively supported and defended abortion providers and clinics for decades, since the first attacks by the organized anti-abortion forces in the mid-80s. It’s bad enough reading the statistics about how difficult obtaining abortions has become, 40 years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal throughout the U.S. But to see in person the cruelty and guilt inflicted on women coming to clinics is chilling – and even more infuriating.
Although the law has been slow to protect women’s rights to enter a clinic unharrassed, it has been quick to make access to abortion more difficult. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research organization, restrictive laws have been passed in nearly every state, with a record number (92) in 2011 and another 43 states last year, 2012 (yes, both during the Obama years). These laws cause tremendous hardship and suffering. And the fact that women entering clinics have to experience such hostility from protesters even in New York, one of the few states with very few restrictive laws and where abortion is available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy – as it is at Choices Women’s Medical Center – should be a slap in the face for anyone who supports abortion or “choice” but somehow doesn’t think that this fundamental and essential right is seriously threatened.
The antis propagate fear-inducing lies about abortion that play on totally unscientific notions and misconceptions that exist far too widely in society. The antis claim – in complete opposition to scientific studies – that abortion causes women to have “emotional distress” and to “likely engage in self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, drinking, eating disorders, suicide, etc.” This in addition to equating fetuses with children and abortion with “murder.” (After the horrible murders of young children at the Connecticut school, one of the sidewalk preachers equated that with women coming to get abortions!) To counter these lies, Choices developed material with the real facts about abortion and has copies readily available in the waiting rooms.
Overall the Escort Program has made it very difficult for the fundamentalist patriarchs (both male and female) to force their anti-woman lies on clients. Their accusatory voices still boom about hellfire, but they are prevented from physically accosting women. Every escort who’s come has made a difference in a woman’s life, as well as themselves getting a vivid education in just how fragile access to abortion really is. And how keeping it depends on US!
With bold words, determined actions, and an uncompromising spirit, women and men need to defend abortion providers and clinics under attack and protect women going into the clinics from harassment and assault, verbal or physical. People need to be in the streets protesting abortion restrictions and confronting politicians and others who spout ridiculous and harmful lies and who counsel compromise instead of firm opposition to everyone and every institution that would ban or limit abortion and intimidate women who refuse to be incubators. And all people who want to protect women’s right and ability to access abortion need to speak up and ACT, with conviction and not a hint of apology. And that’s the point of this article. Protecting the fundamental right and access to abortion is up to us!
Why I Am A Clinic Escort
“I am a recent graduate from the University of Utah with a BA in theater studies and a BA in gender studies. I have always been a feminist but it wasn’t until I truly started to learn about feminism in college that I really began to see how women are objectified, belittled and demeaned every day and in every way in our society. One of the reasons why I moved to New York in August was to follow my dreams of being an activist for women’s rights. I had learned about NOW in my classes and wanted to get involved.
When I started receiving emails about volunteering at Choices I knew it was something I would be very much interested in doing. My first time volunteering was in October 2012 when there was the big Catholic protest. I was amazed at how devoted these people were. They went so far as to kneel on the hard concrete to pray for the end of abortion. As baffled as I was by the behavior of the Catholics, nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous freak show that is the [fundamentalist Christians]. It was hard for me to stay silent and try not to engage in conversation with these ignorant people as they preached and waved their absurd literature in the faces of anyone who walked by. To them, women are good for one thing and one thing only: to make babies. According to them, women must accept their place as the bearers of humanity whether they want to or not.
“I volunteer because I believe in a woman’s fundamental right to do whatever she chooses with her body. I volunteer because I want to make sure that the women who are trying to get into the clinic (whether it be for prenatal or for an abortion) gets in safely with the least amount of verbal harassment possible. I volunteer because I care about women’s bodies, their health and their right to choose whether or not to be a mother. Women do not deserve to be told they are wrong about their choices. Especially not by a bunch of brainwashed screaming zombies standing on a sidewalk with grotesque outdated signs of aborted fetuses.
“The fact that Choices has had to go so far as to get escorts to help women get into the clinic shows how out of hand and how ludicrous this situation is. Women should not need an escort to see their doctors. And I will keep volunteering and showing up on Saturdays until these preaching bozos realize they can’t win. Which could take a long time.
— 21 year-old woman, New York City
“I volunteer as an escort at CHOICES because I believe that access to reliable healthcare is a basic human right and that women are capable of making their own decisions about their bodies. The “pro-life” protesters who stand outside CHOICES are there to intimidate low-income women and restrict their abiilties to control their lives. While it’s incredibly frustrating that CHOICES needs escorts, it’s rewarding to know that women were able to receive the care they need because we were there to guide them through the chaos the protesters create.”
— 23-year-old woman who works in Manhattan
I first started volunteering as an escort at Choices after my own experience with an abortion a year ago. I went into my abortion experience with confidence and knew that it was the right decision for me. This is not the case, however, for a lot of women. When I realized what an ordeal it was for me to even enter the clinic I visited, I could finally sympathize with other women who were going into this procedure with anxiety and grief. I was so angered by the presence of these protest groups at this clinic that, following my own procedure, I set out to figure out a way to make sure other women understand that they are not alone in their experiences and that there are people who believe women should be trusted to make decisions that are best for themselves and for their families. My experience at Choices has been so incredibly meaningful to me because I see it as an act of solidarity. I want to be there not just to escort the individuals entering the clinic, but also to assert myself as a positive presence in these people’s lives, even if it is for just one minute. As volunteers I believe that simply showing up to the clinic is an act of solidarity. Our presence there shows women and men that there are people who are on their side and trust them to make their own decisions.
— — Woman in her late 20s