Commentary Abortion

‘I Never Thought Hanging Out in a Parking Lot Would Be So Rewarding’: Reflections on Clinic Escort Appreciation Day

Carolyn McMahon

No matter where they’re from or why they’re there, patients at the only health center in Missouri that provides abortion care are greeted by the same things: a group of angry protesters clamoring around the public sidewalk that borders the parking lot and a smiling face to walk with them from door to door.

Every Saturday, I put on a blue vest and spend my morning walking women from their cars, across a parking lot, and through the front doors of the only health center in Missouri that provides abortion care. Some of the patients I’ve met drive hours from the far reaches of the state—and even neighboring ones like Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—to access abortion care. Others come from closer by to get their birth control prescription renewed, an annual exam, or a sexually transmitted infection screening.

But no matter where they’re from or why they’re there, they are greeted by the same things: a group of angry protesters clamoring around the public sidewalk that borders the parking lot and a smiling face to walk with them from door to door.

At this last standing Missouri clinic, we oftentimes see large coordinated protests planned on Saturday mornings, which are scheduled full with patients seeking abortion care. This Saturday—which was, in fact, Clinic Escort Appreciation Day—we saw a larger-than-normal crowd of protesters present as a part of the nationwide #ProtestPP actions at Planned Parenthood health centers all across the United States (though this time they were met by Planned Parenthood supporters out in force to show their support for the organization’s work). This isn’t the only time we see increased presence of protesters. Events such as the Roe v. Wade anniversary and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt last year also had an effect on the number of anti-choice protesters we experienced.

For decades, clinic escorts have been allies of women seeking abortion care. The anti-choice protesters create this chaotic environment and the need for teams of volunteers, like me, to dedicate our Saturday morning to escorting patients so they aren’t deterred from getting the care and aren’t forced to deal with the intimidation from protesters without support.

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I became a clinic escort volunteer after anti-choice extremists released untrue and heavily edited videos in an attempt to smear Planned Parenthood in the summer of 2015. While I had long been a quiet supporter of reproductive rights, these videos made me realize that wasn’t enough: I needed to get off the sidelines and become a public and vocal supporter of our basic constitutional right to access legal abortion care.

Getting involved in the fight to expand and protect reproductive freedom is more important than ever in a state like Missouri, where anti-choice politicians control the governor’s mansion and state house. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s election, they’re now more emboldened than ever to pass restrictions that do nothing to protect patient health and everything to make basic reproductive care more difficult and expensive to access. This year, there have already been more than 15  anti-choice bills introduced, including the “Missouri Right to Life Act” which, if passed would ban abortion entirely in the state.

Because of that extreme anti-choice agenda, reproductive health-care access in Missouri is already severely restricted. Consider, for example, the combination of a 72-hour waiting period between state-required counseling and patients’ actual appointment, and unnecessary, often financially prohibitive regulations on clinics that other medical professionals aren’t required to meet. These laws exist solely to make it more difficult for women to access abortion care.

As a consequence, many women have to empty their pockets for gas and hotel rooms and even put their jobs on the line to access abortion care. Or they’re forced to make multiple trips—which can mean driving hundreds of miles for hours in the dead of night.

Politicians don’t seem to understand that making abortion care illegal or harder to access doesn’t make the rate of abortion go down. It just makes the number of deaths and injuries for women who try to access abortion care go up. And stigmatizing and restricting access to abortion care empowers anti-choice extremists to act out against women seeking care. It also puts the lives of doctors, nurses, and clinic workers looking to provide their patients with basic reproductive health care at risk.

On New Year’s Eve, the clinic I volunteer for was put on lockdown after an anti-choice extremist told an employee walking into the clinic that he had planted multiple bombs inside the building. While this particular threat was not credible, tragedies like the shooting at Planned Parenthood of Colorado Springs show us that they are very serious and very real.

But nevertheless we persist. No matter how cold it is or how many protesters are yelling at us through the vinyl covering the wrought iron fence, every Saturday I think the same thing: I never thought standing in a parking lot would be so meaningful and so important. Now more than ever, the patients visiting our clinic need a friendly face that won’t judge them or substitute a dangerous ideology for sound medical advice. In the age of President Trump, I have no plans to stop walking that distance from door to door with women just looking to live their own lives and make their own decisions without interference from politicians.

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