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.
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.