I’ve been volunteering one Saturday a month as a clinic escort for a clinic that’s some distance from where I live. This clinic has to draw volunteers from some distance because the town it’s located in doesn’t have enough of a population of activists to have volunteers every Saturday.
I don’t know where the protesters come from, maybe they are driving the same distances we are, but they are there every Saturday. They draw some perky women protesters. They have a smile plastered on their faces even as they tell us escorts that we’re helping kill children. At this location the protesters will also talk to (harass) the escorts when there aren’t patients around. It takes a strong constitution to ignore them. It’s a good reminder what it’s like for a patient to have strange people talking at you.
I know mostly pro-choice people read this blog, but I also know that not everyone who does is. So I want to spell out where escorts differ from protesters in a way that might not be obvious. Escorts are not the salesmen of abortion. We’re not standing outside to sell women on abortion. We’re there to make sure they’re not harassed if they want to walk into the clinic.
It’s a distinction that I doubt the protesters ever get; that we’re not salespeople of competing products. They’re not selling “con” while we’re selling “pro.” They’re bothering people while we’re trying to make sure they’re not bothered. But if women entering the clinic (or anyone really) want to talk to the protesters, we’re not there to stop them.
It’s something I had to remind myself after a recent incident. A car pulled up literally right in front of the clinic door. Inside is a couple, with a baby in the backseat. The couple might be in their late 20s perhaps even early 30s – for certain they aren’t teenagers.
Immediately one of the perky female protesters goes to the driver’s side and the man rolls down the window. The protester “Gail” wedges her head right in front of the window. I notice the man stares straight ahead and the woman in the passenger seat turns her face into her partner’s shoulder. But the man doesn’t turn off the engine or roll up the window. I try to talk to the couple, I tell them these are protesters and I’m happy to escort them into the clinic if they’d like. I tell them that this woman will talk to them for as long as they allow it. (I sometimes wonder if people assume that if they just explain that they’re not interested in their spiel that the protester will walk away. They don’t realize the protester will never voluntarily end the conversation.)
But the couple never acknowledges me. The man stares straight ahead but eventually the woman starts talking to Gail. So I stand back, it’s not my role to wedge myself into the car either. I try to make eye contact with the woman, to see if she wants to talk to me. But in the end, if they want to talk to her I’m not there to put myself between them. I wonder if the protesters understand that’s part of “choice.” If patients want to talk to them – and to be fair some do, if only to tell them off – we don’t get in their way.
I’m not going to deny it bothered me that day because while I can’t hear all of Gail’s side of the conversation, I know what she’s telling them. It’s the usual lies about what the stages of fetal development look like, that fetuses feel pain. Maybe that abortion causes breast cancer, depression and sterilization.
But I have to remind myself, escorts are not there to counter lies the protesters tell women. The sidewalk in front of a clinic is not the place for a lengthy debate about the so-called “facts” about abortion. Escorting means just that; we “escort” someone as they walk from their car into the clinic. Whatever we say to patients while we’re walking them to the door is just to drown out epithets hurled at them. Despite what anti-choicers might think, we’re not there to tell patients anything about abortion at all.
The couple never got the out of the car. They gave Gail their contact information and accepted some diapers from her. Eventually they drove away.
I don’t know what decision they’ll make. They may come back to the clinic another day. They might not. But I’m not an escort because I want to peer into women’s lives and tell them what they should do.
The beauty of being pro-choice is that our slogan is “trust women.” “Trusting women” means that I have faith that this couple, and indeed all the women that come to the clinic, know what’s best for them. I’m not a salesman for the clinics I volunteer at — I’m a salesman for self-determination.