We are a group of volunteers who escort clients and their companions past anti-abortion protesters. We are not security or clinic defense. We are present to support people and create space for them to be empowered while accessing reproductive healthcare. The time escorting can be stressful and emotional, but we feel it is important to support a client's right to make the decision best for them. Abortion is not a dirty word and should be accessible to anyone. Read our blog to find out more.
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Yes. There have been times when we feel there is danger. The dynamics of the sidewalk are so chaotic and volatile, they can spill over into violence very easily. We take every precaution we can. We always work under a buddy system when we escort and never escort alone. We do have the police dispatch number on our phones for quick dialing if needed. There have been escorts assaulted by protesters. There also have been protesters assaulted by clients and companions who are angry with the protesters' interference on the way to the clinic doors. There was one incident last year of a gun being drawn by a companion in a threat to protesters. There is always a potential for real danger, but most of the time it is limited to yelling, harassment and some blocking of the path or shoving. We can work around those things.
Freely admitted. The word abortion has been so stigmatized over the course of the past 40 years, it is a word that will create instant division of viewpoints. That is why we say "abortion is not a dirty word." We want to bring the word out of the shadows and let people know there is no shame in using the word, thinking the word, or having the procedure. It is not a word we throw around lightly, but purposefully. People have always sought abortion and will continue to do so even if it is restricted. With 1 in 3 women having an abortion in the US, that is a lot of people having a medical procedure they cannot talk about publicly. By trying to de-stigmatize the word, we are trying to let people know they can let go of the shame associated with the word. When we say "terminating a pregnancy" due to rape, incest, fetal anomalies or to save the life of the mother, we are talking about abortion. When I first started escorting, I would ask clients if they were going to the "medical clinic" or "having a procedure" this morning. These questions were met with nods, frequently with downcast eyes and a blush. When I started to ask, "Are you going to the abortion clinic this morning?" the change was instantly apparent. Clients will look me in the eye and say, "Yes." Saying the word takes away the discomfort. If I am willing to use the word, they know I understand and support their decision. Abortion is not a dirty word, but it is a very powerful one.
Yes, but it is rare. There was an article in the NY Times opinion page September 2012 titled "Breaking Up The Echo" that pretty well sums up the impossibility of changing opinions on the sidewalk. Neither side is going to change the other side to their way of thinking. It is not what is said as much as who is saying it that will cause examination of strongly held opinions. We do try to practice non-engagement, so discussion is kept to a minimum between the groups at all times. There was one time about two years ago that a church group came out to see what was happening. They had heard of sidewalk counselors (protesters) changing clients' minds and preventing abortions. The minister of the group got into a discussion with me as we were all leaving the clinic after the clients were in the building. He was respectful and I was respectful to him. We discussed the dynamics of the protesters and the escorts not changing anyone's mind as clients enter the clinic. The discussion was actually very good. We ended up agreeing that providing sex education and effective contraceptives would be a better way to reduce abortions. He stated to me, "We need to rethink this. This protesting on the sidewalk doesn't help anyone. We need to reach out sooner." This particular group has never been back to the clinic again. I'm hopeful they are reaching out in the ways we discussed. (Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/opinion/balanced-news-reports-may-only-inflame.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0)
Our job is simply to escort clients from their car to the clinic. Everyone is different. Some clients want to talk about their decision and we listen carefully to what they say to us, but console is not the correct term. We can understand and empathize with their situation, but since we are strangers to them we do not reach out with advice. If a client is distressed, we will sometimes refer them to organizations trained to speak about abortion decisions. Exhale is a great non-denominational group with a hotline for counseling . Most clients simply want to talk about the weather, the city, their drive or anything to take their mind away from the protesters. We try to keep our conversations light and relaxing.
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There are protesters present every day the clinic is open; Tuesday through Saturday. There are a lot of signs, praying, shouting and shoving. We have soapbox preachers and sometimes we have choral groups singing hymns. Saturdays are the most hectic days and there have been some incidents of violence. Escorts try to keep to a non-engagement policy with protesters to minimize any confrontations. Sometimes clients and companions will lash out as well. The situation is always volatile, but rarely violent.
Yes, it can be very stressful. We talk among escorts about the need for self care. A large part of our formal training classes are spent discussing how to cope with stress, self care, and recognizing the drama triangle. We are supportive of each of the escorts' need to back away at times. We just sit out a day or two, or a couple of weeks, if we need to readjust our outlook. We all have our limits. Everyone is different and we all have our own ways of handling the stress of escorting, from quiet time spent reading or watching a movie to marathons or other physical sports. I think the best way we cope with the stress at the clinic is getting together and just talking about our experiences with other escorts. We do this frequently. What keeps us coming back is the clients. I always answer that question with one of my own: Once I have seen what happens in front of the clinic, how could I not come back?
No. Our volunteer group are a diverse group of people. We have escorts who range in age from 18 to 72; they self-identify as female and male. There are generations of family groups who volunteer together. Some have had abortions themselves, but a great number have not. The one thing we have in common is the firm belief that access to abortion and reproductive health care should be without stigma, shame or harassment of any kind.
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