We need clinic defenders

October 30, 2014

Escorts at women's clinics play an important role, argues Georgette Kirkendall, but we also need activists with an explicitly pro-choice message to help defend the clinics.

WINTER APPEARED to come early to Chicago on the first Saturday of October 2014. I had to wear my winter coat as I escorted patients into the Family Planning Associate's clinic in the West Loop. I worked with about seven other volunteers who are with the Illinois Choice Action Team (also known as ICAT, and under the auspices of NARAL Pro-Choice).

These days, we wear hot-pink vests with the phrase "NARAL Pro-Choice Clinic Escort" stenciled on them. This is very fortunate, since I don't know most of the other volunteers. We all said hello and leaned in to quietly whisper our names to each other. It is common for anti-choice extremists to find out clinic escorts' names in order to harass them, their families and their coworkers.

Our most disturbing group of protesters was there: two busloads of teenagers with their teachers. They come from the suburban Christian Liberty Academy. According to the school's website, students are required to perform volunteer work either on campus or off campus in order to graduate. For their off-campus volunteer experience, the students can work for an orphanage, a soup kitchen or an animal shelter, or perform "abortion counseling."

ICAT escorts face anti-choice bigots outside a Chicago clinic
ICAT escorts face anti-choice bigots outside a Chicago clinic (Benita Ulisano)

On this cold October morning, their "counseling" consists of lining both sides of the street where the clinic is located, plus its parking lot. Since the clinic sits at the top of the expressway's off-ramp, a few people stand there, flashing anti-choice signs at oncoming traffic. These extremists form a gauntlet that patients must walk through in order to access medical care.

Imagine the patients' ordeal: They are greeted by some of the protesters with patronizing terms such as "honey," "girl" and "sweetheart," as gift bags full of baby booties, pacifiers and religious pamphlets are shoved at them. Other protesters stand around silently condemning them with anti-choice signs. Some signs proclaim, "No abortion, no regrets." Other signs depict smiling infants or photoshopped images of dismembered fetuses. Another handful of protesters photograph pedestrians on the sidewalk and record motorists' license plate numbers.

The buffer zone is only eight feet, but the anti-choice protesters don't even respect that until an exasperated team leader calls the police on them.

What you can do

If you are interested in volunteering as a clinic escort, contact Illinois Choice Action Team at [email protected].

As an escort, it's my job to walk patients down the sidewalk, or from the clinic's parking lot (which is across the street), into the clinic. As I walk with patients, I tell them, "You have the right to access health care services without harassment. You are not obligated to speak to the protesters or accept 'gifts' from them." However, I cannot blame the patients for being skeptical about the part of my little speech where I tell them that they have rights.

This is the bizarre and terrifying world that women must navigate in order to access reproductive health care--a full 41 years after Roe v. Wade.

MEMBERS OF the anti-choice right are the greatest sculptors society has ever known, having chipped away at legal abortion, bit by bit, until it is barely recognizable. While the right to obtain an abortion has been around since 1973, the right to access it without being subjected to harassment, stalking or other methods of intimidation has never existed.

Author Zora Neale Hurston once said, "If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it." The silence of the pro-choice left has been deafening. In fact, the past two generations of the pro-choice left have wasted so much precious time voting for the Democratic Party (which is where movements go to die) and playing nice that the anti-choice Right has come dangerously close to winning the ideology war.

The left's lack of grassroots organizing and direct actions on behalf of reproductive freedom has allowed this aggressive and violent backlash against the human right to birth control and abortion to flourish. That backlash is being acted out upon female bodies--an overwhelming majority of which are poor, working-class, Black and Brown.

While bourgeois feminists peddle nonsense about "leaning in," secure in the fact that their high incomes will easily enable them to provide for children, appropriately plan their family sizes and terminate unwanted pregnancies, working-class women are saddled with stigma and forced to face mobs on their way to access reproductive health care which is (deliberately) cost-prohibitive to them.

The phenomenon of clinic escorting appears to be the only significant organizing that has occurred in the arena of reproductive justice. Clinic escorts, in their current capacity, are a great asset for any clinic to have! Without them, who knows how many people would be too intimidated to ever seek out reproductive health care? However, escorts that work with large Democratic Party-affiliated organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice are typically forced to remain a neutral body.

Escorts are not allowed to explicitly combat anti-choice sentiments with pro-choice signage (it was not until very recently that the term "pro-choice" appeared on ICAT's vests) or to engage with protesters. So, upon arriving at clinics, all patients are able to see is a bunch of extremists armed with disturbing literature and signage that seeks to shame and intimidate them--a force that is only balanced by a handful of people armed with nothing but brightly colored vests and nerves of steel. Such an environment is not empowering or affirming for patients.

So in addition to clinic escorts, we need to have clinic defenders. Contrary to popular misconceptions, clinic defenders' job is not to get into arguments or fistfights with anti-choice protesters. Clinic defense's job is to combat the ideology of anti-choice extremism. In their most simple form, a clinic defense could be a team of people holding signs with positive statements such as "Trust Women" or "Your Body, Your Choice;" this presence would likely serve as a huge morale booster for patients.

It's time for activists to get to work defending abortion clinics, so that we can start regaining ground on one of today's most pressing women's liberation issues: reproductive freedom.

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