On the Front Lines: Escorting at a Family Planning Clinic

"Jesus talked to prostitutes. I follow Jesus' teaching," said the anti-abortion activist, explaining why she was engaging in conversation with a pro-choice clinic escort. I was at a family planning clinic in Chicago, escorting women who had appointments for abortions that day. Bill Barclay and I have served as escorts for the last couple of years in teams organized by the Illinois Choice Action Team. My policy is not to engage with the antis; rather, I focus on the people who are coming to the clinic. But I overheard this anti's conversation with another escort.

Some clients come by car and know there's a parking lot. They're easy. We wave them into the lot, past the antis, who try to talk them out of having an abortion. Those who come by public transportation have to walk past (or through) the antis, who try to entice them over to their women's center for counseling.

According to the exhortations shouted by the antis, their center offers help to women. They care about the pregnant woman and her unborn child. They will offer her support and assistance through the pregnancy. But, as one of the fathers bringing his daughter to the clinic emphatically said, what they won’t offer is babysitting while my daughter finishes her education, food when she is short of money or a job that would allow her to be a single mother and make a decent living.

They also won’t offer information. One teenager who was headed for the clinic ended up at the women's center, where she was given an ultrasound. She and her mother were put off repeatedly when they called for the results. They were stonewalled until the girl had advanced into the next (more complicated and expensive) level of abortion legality, technological intervention and expense. Then, they were told the ultrasound showed she was pregnant. Other options foreclosed, she was headed towards delivery. Score one for the antis.

Most clients just come, park, enter the clinic and are served. The majority of the clients are young women of color. Some are accompanied by men; some, by women. Some cars have car seats occupied (or not) by infants and toddlers.

Many clients and their companions thank us for escorting. One client's companion asked how she could sign up for escorting. Most clients just pass through.

Some antis merely do their rosaries, kneeling around the perimeter of the clinic and its parking lot. One young anti apologized for the verbal abuse a grandmotherly anti had shouted at an escort. "I want apologize for her," he said, "because she will not apologize herself. That's not what I consider to be Christian behavior."

Occasionally there's more drama. One anti, an African American woman, makes a point to shout (especially to African American clients) that the clinic is engaged in genocide. One anti who entered the clinic in a threatening manner now has an order of protection against him. Some of the antis pray for us escorts. Some of them try to provoke us. One white male anti tried to talk about "racial pride" to an African American man who had accompanied a client. "Let me tell you about racial pride!" shouted the companion, walking toward the white anti. One anti shouted to a woman entering the clinic that God loved her baby, and they would help her. The woman shouted back, "God gave me a disabled fetus that cannot survive the pregnancy!"

Periodically the clinic staff call the police about the antis' behavior. Depending upon who comes, the antis and we are given different interpretations of the "bubble law" under which, within a 50 foot radius of the clinic entrance, an anti must stay at least eight feet away from clinic patrons and staff. Sometimes the responding police officer says the antis must stay well away from the entryway to the parking lot. Sometimes the responding officer says that the antis may wave a car down in the alley, blocking traffic, and hand out literature or engage in a conversation. If another car wants to pass through, the polite thing is that the driver of the car wishing to pass should tap the horn lightly and wait for the conversation to finish. Hmmmm.

One anti made an offer to a man who regularly escorts several times per week: if you join us antis, we'll pay you more than you receive from the clinic to escort. Well, we escorts volunteer our time.

As access to abortion narrows due to state legislation that will force the closing of clinics, clinics such as the one where we escort will draw from a wider reach. Already we've seen cars with license plates from Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi along with the usual ones from Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

I escort to provide a service but also to remain anchored in the lived experience of women who need this service.

If you want to act, consider these possibilities: 1) Find a group that is escorting at a clinic near you. 2) If you don't live near a clinic (as is increasingly the case), find out what the battles are in your community around sex education in schools and/or access to abortion and other reproductive health services in your state.

This war is not over. It is being fought on many fronts. Find one!

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Peg Strobel is a member of Chicago DSA and co-chairs DSA's Socialist Feminist Team.