On the first morning I volunteered as an escort at an abortion clinic, there was a man lingering by the entrance to the abortion clinic. I was supposed to meet another escort there and she hadn’t arrived yet, so I waited by the door while this man stood nearby.
It was Saturday morning, 7.30, and the street was empty except for this man, who was white and balding. (It’s not true that there’s never silence in New York City. It’s easier to find than you might think.) I am not in general a fan of being alone with strange men, so when he crossed the street, I felt relieved, but that soon disappeared when he returned to his original spot and started talking to me.
“I hope you’re not going to go in there,” he said to me. “They do abortions.” I ignored him, wondering if I should be scared, if I should try to go inside and if he was dangerous. He stared at me for a moment and then went up the street. Later, I saw him in the crowd of kneeling, chanting protesters who gathered in front of the clinic with crosses and signs.
I’d paid mind to what I was wearing to escort, not just because of the weather — the goal is to be identifiable to patients who may or may not seek you out on the walk from the car or the parking lot or the curb to the clinic, especially when they see the protestors (it wasn’t totally uncommon for people to see the crowd of protesters and then leave.)
The Clinic Vest Project sends vests that clearly delineate who the escorts are in a variety of languages (including ASL) to clinics in many states, including the one where I spent Saturdays in the Bronx. You need to also not be that identifiable to the protestors, though, so our crew at the clinic refrained from wearing anything that might provide personal information about us, like a college sweatshirt. There were people protesting that day, like my man friend, who came week after week, and it had occurred to all of us that at some point, we might share a subway car or a grocery store line with any of them.
Here is the thing — it is not about the protesters. It’s about the patients. But it’s also about the protesters. It’s often said, and it’s true, that patients could be coming for an abortion, but they’re also possibly coming for a Pap smear or birth control or a pregnancy test or any other kind of reproductive health care offered. The protesters aren’t there because they’re against Pap smears — they’re there because they are against abortions. (But I’m uncomfortable with the assertion that not every procedure that happens within the clinic is an abortion because it should be OK if that were the case.)
If you’ve ever wondered about the existence of abortion stigma, how deep and hard it runs, I suggest escorting. It will reveal itself, because it’s everywhere, even among escorts and providers. We’re not exempt. We all breathe the same air.
Escorting can also be really boring. Sometimes, there are no protestors or there’s just one, and sometimes there are no patients, and you just stand there outside and wait out the shift. You notice things that you can’t notice when you’re busy trying to catch the eye of a girl and an older woman who look at the entrance to the clinic like they’re on fire and it is water or when you’re putting your body between a woman yelling and waving a plastic fetus and a woman who’s late for her appointment.
Like, why, in this neighborhood, which is primarily people of color, are all the providers and escorts white? Why do all the signs being held by the vastly black and brown crowd of protestors have pictures of white children on them (including a white baby Jesus)?
Once, a church group pulled up at the back of the clinic in one of those tour buses that looked like it was for a rock band. Out of it came some blond people who looked like parents and their children and a young man who turned out to be their pastor. They came all the way here to pray over the clinic, for the scores of dead babies, for the people having abortions who they imagined did not know any better, or who maybe did and therefore needed Jesus even more.
They stayed within the buffer zone — the area where protesters are allowed to stand, but not cross out of — and then they went around the front of the clinic. It was almost 10 — soon, the clinic would close and we could go home, but we followed them.
They held each other’s hands while the pastor, young and, frankly, handsome, recited a prayer. It sounded familiar, but I didn’t realize until I was mostly home that what he was doing was an exorcism. (I have seen a lot of horror movies.) We went inside in two shifts and hung up our vests, and when I came out, the group was descending into the subway, maybe heading to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. They too had other things to do that day, apparently.
It is not about the protesters, and yet it is. We would not have to be there if they were not, of course. Sometimes, it seems like a game of who can last longer in the cold or heat. I have left shifts with the Hail Mary running through my head, thinking how strange it is that this is how I learned it.
It’s very easy to get wrapped up in this scene; to forget who it’s for, to feel like you won at the end of the morning. But in fact, you should always remember that you are literally holding a door for a moment to make sure someone can get into a place they should never have been kept out of in the first place.