Content Warning: This piece contains references to sexual violence and violence against abortion doctors and patients.
I remember my first day as a clinic escort. My mom worked in reproductive healthcare while I was growing up, so I’ve been raised with an early understanding of its importance. Escorts have to be eighteen or older, and I had waited over ten years to do my part. Once I arrived at the clinic, it quickly became clear that an escort presence was important.
Putting on my neon-green vest, I stepped outside to see a patient headed to our front door. She wasn’t very tall, and the protesters had arranged themselves to form rows of shouts coming from both sides of the sidewalk. Anyone heading down the sidewalk, whether to get to the clinic or the restaurant next door had no choice but to walk this gauntlet. Every woman who looked to be under 40 years old—the demographic likeliest to be having an abortion—was harassed by the protesters.
This patient’s personal space was clearly being invaded as total strangers shook pamphlets toward her. She cringed and jumped away. As she walked past me through the door, one woman tried to stick her arm past my head to hand her a pamphlet. Rotating my body to block her, I found myself nose-to-nose with the woman who continued calling to her “You can always back out!” as she entered the building.
Later that morning, I looked down the sidewalk and saw a young girl approaching who couldn’t have been any older than fourteen. Almost in tears, half a dozen protesters started descending on her with their hands outstretched.
“Please don’t kill your baby!”
“Talk to us!”
“Don’t let her go in there!”
A man with his arm around her who looked like a father figure turned around as the swarm grew louder and bellowed, “She’s a rape victim! BACK OFF!”
Almost instantly, the protesters became silent. Some looked contrite; most simply took a step back. The girl entered the clinic and the protesters fell back to their original positions. Watching the protesters be shamed into passivity was refreshing, but I remember thinking, Why do they get to pick and choose who deserves harassment?
For background context, I come from four or five generations of North Dakota homesteaders, farmers, and small business owners. Our clinic-protester crowd is usually less invasive than groups operating in states like Mississippi and Arkansas, but the way protesters behave still creates a need for escorts. If they would leave our patients alone, we wouldn’t have to be there.
Because they stand on the public sidewalk, they’re allowed to conduct what they call “sidewalk counseling” – lines of people loudly chanting prayers, condescending men holding gruesome signs of “aborted fetuses” (which look suspiciously like plastic dolls cut up and smeared with strawberry jam) and occasionally teens from the local religious school systems whose adults-in-charge tell them to go protest.
Most protesters know they’re not allowed to touch patients or escorts – a couple more aggressive individuals have come close, but when that happens, we’re there to insert ourselves between them and their target.
Prior to the passage of the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act of 1994, there weren’t any laws to protect abortion clinics, doctors, or the patients they served. In Fargo during the 1980s and 1990s, anti-abortion extremists terrorized, harassed and intimidated patients and clinics.
Extremists also followed doctors and their families and in 1998, they firebombed the Fargo Women’s Health Center. Throughout the country, anti-abortion extremists committed even worse acts of violence—including murdering doctors who providing abortions.
Most current protesters won’t acknowledge that violent history, but they carry a well-documented legacy of harassing patients in hopes of preventing them from having abortions. In the past five years, threats and targeted intimidation tactics against doctors and clinics significantly increased—now more than half of all clinics in the United States have been victims of anti-abortion violence.
However, some local folks are supportive of the escorts. They see what a royal pain the protesters are, and often an individual will walk up, thank us for what we do, hand one of us a $20 bill, and tell us to buy ourselves doughnuts. During extreme weather, the restaurant across the street will sometimes send someone over with free house-made lemonade or coffee.
Since I hopped a plane to D.C. about a month ago, I haven’t been at the clinic since the Whole Woman’s Health decision came down. Often, when legal obstructions to abortion are threatened, more aggressive protesters will come out of the woodwork. Sure enough, the Fargo police had to be called because one protester (who has quite the history of extremist activity) decided to block the door to the clinic, a direct violation of the FACE Act.
While this intimidation and harassment can seem overwhelming, there are many, many ways you can help ensure access to reproductive healthcare.
One good place to start is the Adopt-A-Clinic Campaign. Through it, you and your campus group can show your support in a number of different ways, whether it’s documenting protester behavior, volunteering as an escort, or helping to mobilize public opinion in a positive direction.
As an escort myself, I have a couple of other thoughts to add.
Unless specifically asked to do so by the clinic itself, please do not show up to counter-protest on busy days. The goal is to keep the circus as small as possible. Not only does choosing to feed the chaos center the wants of even more strangers over the needs of patients, but it can lead to nonsense like this. Please save counter-protesting for days the clinic chooses – many will have a planned day of solidarity, like in St. Paul, Minnesota that includes crowd-pleasers like food trucks, t-shirts, and music!
“Know thyself” is a good aphorism to live by, and it’s especially true when you’re volunteering to escort. The one thing escorts absolutely cannot do is engage with protesters. It’s of the utmost importance to check in with yourself – if you feel you’re not able to practice non-engagement, that’s okay! You can still do meaningful work in other arenas – it’s more important to find a good fit for your activism.
Lastly, keep an eye out for fundraising opportunities, especially for abortion funds networks. Currently, only 15 state Medicaid programs cover abortion, so most women are forced to come up with the $500-$1000 for their procedure on very short notice.
Whether it’s as an escort, by a donation, or through policy advocacy, we can all work together to ensure folks are able to access their constitutional right to abortion care.