My Morning As a Clinic Escort

Robin Marty

Back in April, I promised myself if I got pregnant I would go clinic escorting once I was huge and obviously pregnant.  Now, almost six months later, I felt like it was time to follow through on my promise.

Back in April, I went to the Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, Minnesota to cover the Good Friday protest and counter-protest events that happens every year.  While talking with some of the women touting signs in support of the clinic, I joked, “You know, if I ever get pregnant again, I’m totally going to try out clinic escorting while I’m huge.”

Little did I know I was actually pregnant when I said that, and now, almost six months later, I felt like it was time to follow through on my promise.

This Saturday morning I sneaked quietly out of the house to head downtown to the Midwest Women’s Clinic, to sit in on a clinic escort training session and test the waters a bit on escorting.  I found that much of what I assumed about both escorting and the protesters I would encounter was quite different from what I saw in real life.

We met in a conference room in a non-descript building off of Nicollet Mall.  And by non-descript, I mean that I missed it the first time and had to go back through my emails to get directions.  There is no identifying marks on the front, no signage, no names.  Unlike other clinics, where the escorts tend to have to provide more of a buffer for their clients, here we acted more as signage for the clinic, letting the women with appointments know exactly where they are supposed to be.

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There are reasons that Midwest doesn’t get the attention that many other clinics in the area receive from anti-choice protesters.  And frankly, one of those reasons is that the people who want to “sidewalk counsel” simply don’t want to pay for parking. 

It’s really not surprising.  The main “sidewalk counselor” who shows daily at the clinic is paid for his efforts, as is one of the semi-regular protesters.  It never occurred to me that clinic protesters might be paid for their work, in comparison to the escorts who volunteer their time to take the women past their pleas and jeers.

A majority of our training consisted of us being shown anti-choice literature that will likely be handed to the clients, and an explanation of the rules that escorts need to follow when it comes to dealing with protesters.  Some made a good deal of sense when I considered them more: don’t talk to or engage with a protester — it can confuse the client who is unsure of who to trust (especially true for clinics where protesters may put themselves in vests to make women believe they are also escorts, although that has yet to happen locally).

Other rules confused me more.  We had to be sure that as we escort a client we do not stand between the client and protester and interfere with the protester’s ability to talk to the woman.  In fact, the regular “counselor,” Charley, had threatened to call the police on an escort earlier in the week for “blocking his access” to a client by standing in between the two of them when walking her into the clinic.  It began to feel like there was a legally sanctioned right to harass, with protesters having more protected rights than the woman seeking an abortion.

The morning I was escorting, Charley was relatively mild.  Because of the training session, most of the clients had already entered the building before I went out to train with the other escorts.  I’d been told Charley has many standard tactics — one favorite is to hand cigarettes out on the street in an attempt to draw a crowd (including, bizarrely, to underage teens, showing a confusing disconnect between wanting to help “babies” and actually harming real children.

Then, on most days, he carries around a batch of “baby” dolls, small plastic dolls made to look like curled up 14 week fetuses.  He tries to pass them out to the women entering the clinic, picking pink ones for the Caucasian women he sees, and little brown ones for any woman of color who comes by.  When he can, he follows the women to the door, shaking his “babies” at them through the big glass window while they wait in the lobby for an elevator to take them up to the clinic.

Because of these stories about him, I felt I was prepared for anything he would do. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was Debra.

I was sent to the far end of the street, by a paid parking lot, where I stood with another trainee and two veterans.  A small, gray-haired, be-speckled, frail looking old woman was standing in the entrance to the parking lot.  At first I thought she had a stack of diapers in her hand (which, frankly I thought was rather clever) but once she came closer I saw it was a very large batch of brochures.  She walked the sidewalk up and down like she was marching a picket line, and the veterans just told me “Oh, yes, that’s Debra.  She’s much worse than Charley.”

I got to see her in action a few minutes later.

While we were still being trained, the patients were already starting to arrive, and one woman showed up with two other women for support, each of the friends wheeling an umbrella stroller with a toddler inside.  The training stopped for a minute because we could hear shouting through the open door, which went on for quite some time.  Later I found out one of the women who was providing emotional support got her stroller stuck in the door, and the full group was being shouted at by both Debra and Charley as they tried to get everyone inside.  It was what I had expected.  “You don’t have to do this!  You have other options!  Please don’t murder your child, he already loves you inside the womb!”

Now, the two women who were friends or family of the patient were leaving the clinic, still pushing their young children in strollers.  I watched as Debra ran to the parking lot and grabbed a sign I hadn’t seen earlier, with a 12 week fetus next to a picture of bloody tissue.

Debra yelled.

She called them murderers.  She asked them how they felt to have blood on their hands.  She told them that they couldn’t even look at her sign because they knew that what she was showing them was the truth.  She told them they were more guilty than the woman inside, because they already had children and know what was being destroyed in that building.

She chased them down the street, following them to the parking lot.  She continued berating them as they put their children in car seats, packed away the strollers, climbed into their seats and pulled away.  She continued as they paid for their parking on the way out, stood next to the window shouting while they paused, trying to figure out which way to drive down the street to get out of the maze that is downtown Minneapolis.

The Debra put down her sign, picked back up a stack of pamphlets, and began her incessant march, back and forth up and down the street in front of the clinic.

I was in shock.  In my head, although I didn’t agree with them, I could justify a lot of what anti-choice activists did under the umbrella of “Well, to them, it’s justified to ‘save a baby.'” I don’t like or in any way condone the tactics being used to try and make it more difficult, both physically or emotionally, for a woman to go inside and have an abortion, but the motivation at least made sense: saving a “life.”  I often wondered how they thought that yelling, name calling and the like would make a woman change her mind, rather than simply antagonize her, but at least I thought I understood there was in fact a reason behind it.

But Debra’s tactics aren’t like that.  I learned that she is the only protester at the clinic who stays the full day.  She waits for the women to come out, and that’s when she attacks.  Once it’s already done.  Once there is no longer choice still to be made.  Once there is no nothing left to “save.”

She’s not there to advocate.  She’s not there to counsel.  And inherently, she’s not there to change a person’s mind, although if she managed to, no doubt it would be heralded by Pro-Life Action Ministries as a victory.

Debra, and people like Debra, are there to punish women.  To try to make sure that they are somehow hurt emotionally by what they have undergone.  They need more women to regret their abortions so that they can justify their own actions in front of the clinics and to bring in more recruits.  Why else would you go out of your way, waiting for hours, simply to argue with a woman who has already done the thing you claim you are trying to stop her from doing?

It was the Debras of the world that I wasn’t prepared for, the protester who isn’t trying to stop what she sees as a murder, but instead gleefully takes the opportunity to hurt someone who is already at a time of emotional upheaval.  I wasn’t prepared, and I don’t know if there even is enough training to make me able to accept her type, or that I’m not there to defend, to protect, but just to act as much like a buffer as I am legally allowed to be.

I’m officially trained as an escort now, but I’m not sure if I can actually be one.  Silence is not something I’m equipped to handle, especially not while pregnant.  Injustice and unfairness rankle me in a way that I find easier to ignore otherwise.  However, I am considering a trip to Fargo in the next few weeks to do a clinic defense for Red River Women’s Clinic, which is in the middle of a 40 Days for Life onslaught.  If I think I can hold my tongue for an entire day, I might try it again.

Otherwise, I think that after I have my own baby, I may return to Midwest, and perhaps go through Patient Advocacy training instead.  I want to help someone through the process, provide emotional support to her, and at the end of the day feel something more healthy than anger and frustration. 

I’m not made to be a buffer, I don’t think.  I’m made to be a helping hand.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.