As I get out of my car, an elderly man in a yellow vest approaches.
“I’m here to volunteer,” I tell him.
“Then you’re my replacement,” he says with a smile, and starts taking off the vest.
“How long have you been doing this?” I ask.
“Oh, about a decade,” he replies.
“Why?” I press.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. He hands me the vest and I look at it, following the black lettering with my eyes.
I put it on.
“This is my first time,” I say.
“Don’t worry, Ashley over here will show you the ropes.”
And with that he leads me toward the doors of the imposing yellow brick building and gestures to a young woman about my age, also wearing a yellow vest. After quick introductions, Ashley gives me the run down.
The protesters aren’t allowed to come onto Planned Parenthood property, she explains, so they stand right on the edges of the parking lot. The Protestants stand on one side, holding signs, and the Catholics stand in the front, praying the rosary and reading from a prayer book perched on a music stand. Sometimes they try to exorcise the building of demons, or so I am told. Ashley points to a police car parked in the lot and tells me that there’s always a police officer stationed here, in case there is trouble.
I look around and take everything in. I survey each group of protesters, probably fifteen or twenty people in all. I wonder what they would think if they knew I was once one of them. I never picked an abortion clinic, no, but that is largely because there was no abortion clinic in the town where I grew up. The Catholics are praying quietly and the Protestants are standing mutely, holding signs. I know those signs. I held them at the annual Life Chain each year. Still, everything is quiet, and I start to wonder if Ashley and I are really needed.
A car pulls up and Ashley responds by walking toward the car and its occupants. A man and a woman step out, and Ashley greets them.
“Hi, I’m a volunteer with Planned Parenthood. Just so you know, there are some protesters here today, but you don’t have to listen them. I can walk you to the door if you like.”
As Ashley walks the couple toward the entrance, engaging them in small talk about their trip and the weather, the Catholics begin praying louder and with more intensity.
“Hail Mary full of grace, blessed are you among women.”
For their part, the Protestants begin yelling, calling out to the man and woman from their legally-mandated spots twenty feet away.
“You don’t have to do this!”
“Please don’t kill your baby!”
“Come to us, we will help you!”
“You can still turn around and leave!”
“They are leading you to slaughter!”
“Come to us, we have information for you!”
“You don’t have to do this!”
“Don’t kill your baby!”
“Please come to us!”
And then, finally, with Ashley at their side, the couple pass into the building. I now see why we are needed, and I’m glad I’ve come.
Ashley returns to my side a minute later and, waiting for other cars, we get to talking. She, too, was raised in an evangelical home, and she, too, is now the black sheep in her family. She tells me that one escort was raised Mennonite, and that another escort actually years before founded a Students for Life chapter in her high school. Our conversation reminds me of what my supervisor told me when I told her during training that I had grown up pro-life: “We get that a lot.” As we are conversing, the protesters begin yelling again.
“You think you’re helping women, but you’re not!”
“You’re leading them into a slaughterhouse!”
“The blood of those babies will be on your heads!”
I turn to Ashley. “Are they yelling at us?“
“They do that when there’s a lull,” she tells me. “Don’t let it get to you. I just try to laugh it off, but it makes some of the other escorts really angry. Remember not to respond to them. Our policy is to not engage.”
I nod, and turn my back toward the protesters. I listen as I am compared to Hitler, and to Adam Lanza. After a few minutes, car pulls up, and I move toward it. Two young women get out, and the protesters start yelling again.
“Please don’t kill your baby!”
“You deserve better than this!”
“Come to us, we can help!”I introduce myself quickly and tell the women that they don’t have to listen to the protesters. I walk them to the door, and learn that they’ve come from two hours away, because this was the nearest clinic.
In the process of taking them in, I learn something else. This place is set up as a fortress. There are double doors at the entrance, and the second one is locked. You have to buzz in. This confuses me because that second door was open when I was there earlier in the week for training. It’s only locked, it seems, during the one day each week when abortions are performed.
Back outside, I look around with newfound appreciation for the location’s setup. In addition to the locking double doors, the building is outfitted with numerous security cameras and there is a privacy fence around the side entrance. When I came for training I had gone to the front door, which opened onto the sidewalk, only to find it locked, and a sign asking visitors to use the side entrance. I now understand why that is: if patients used the front entrance, the protesters could stand all along the sidewalk, follow patients, and get right in their faces. Now, all the protesters can do is yell. I try to imagine what it must be like to escort at clinics that have no option but to open onto public sidewalks, or at clinics with public parking lots.
Another car pulls in, and then another. Some cars park closer to the protesters than others, and some of the cars have crosses hanging from their rear view mirrors. Ashley and I take turns walking women in, studiously ignoring the yells of the protesters. Sometimes women arrive alone, but more often they have someone with them: a significant other, a friend, a parent. Their reaction to the protesters varies.
“This is embarrassing,” says one.
“Don’t they realize that this is hard enough already?” asks another.
“They don’t know my situation,” says a woman with her face set.
“Oh my lord,” is all another can manage.
“For a moment I thought you one of them,” another says to me. I am once again glad that the protesters have to stay beyond the property line. At some clinics, I know, the protesters approach the cars wearing vests made intentionally to look like the vests worn by the escorts. Sometimes the vests are identical except that the protesters’ vests say “Parenthood” where the escorts’ vests say “Planned Parenthood.”
Yet most of the women are silent, engaging only in small talk about the weather or the drive, if they engage at all. Some are fierce and purposeful, others are withdrawn and nervous. While I avoid talking about what brings them here, I know that each one has a different situation and a different reason for being there. I also know that no amount of chit chat can fully drown out the protesters’ yells.
A man comes out of the clinic several minutes after I walked him in, a young woman at his side. He goes to his car, looking for a book or a pen. The protesters sense an opportunity.
“Sir, please don’t let them kill your baby!”
“Men are supposed to protect women and children, not hurt them!”
“Your child already exists! Don’t kill your son or daughter!”
The man turns to the protesters and responds, though I cannot hear his words. He is clearly agitated. After a short back-and-forth, he turns away from them, returning their calls with a terse “Don’t talk to me!” He turns to where I stand watching, ready to be on hand if I’m needed.
“How can you just stand there and listen to this?”
I think for a moment and then respond. “Someone has to,” I say.
“Look,” he says, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions. And even I don’t think it’s always right. It’s just, there are some situations…” he looks at me, his eyes pleading for understanding.
“I know,” I say.
The morning moves on. The protesters stay, I stay, and the patients keep coming.
As my shift draws to a close, a car pulls in. In it are four burly middle-aged men, and no women. Ashley and I look at each other apprehensively, and then we both look at the police car several spots away, as if to make sure that it is still there. My stomach knots in fear.
“There are no women,” Ashley says. “What are they doing here?”
And I know that she is thinking the same thoughts I am, about the times clinics have been bombed or employees and volunteers shot. In 1994 a clinic escort was shot and killed while doing his job. I know this, and I am sure Ashley knows this too. As the men get emerge from their car, I feel afraid as I have never felt before, and I wish the police officer would get out of his car and make his presence felt.
“Do you have business at Planned Parenthood?” Ashley asks. I can tell she is having to make an effort to keep her voice steady.
“We’re here to do some electrical work,” one of them responds nonchalantly.
I exhale, but I’m still worried. The men men have no uniforms and the car is not marked. Ashley turns to me.
“I’ll walk them in just to, to make sure,” she says under her breath. She takes the first man inside while the other three begin unloading equipment from the car. I watch, looking for anything that looks like a gun, and deliberating on the best direction to run, just in case. Still the police officer stays in his car. Ashley returns a minute later.
“I talked to the receptionist, they were expecting them,” she says to me, and we both finally relax.
As it becomes clear to the protesters that the men are there to do some work, they begin yelling.
“You don’t have to do work here just because they ask you to!”
“Don’t you realize there are babies being slaughtered inside?”
“You can say no! You’re being a collaborator in murder!”
Suddenly, the protesters’ yells feel reassuring. The tension is gone and things have returned to normal. We’re okay.
Ashley checks the time on her cell phone and tells me that our shift is over. There will be no more appointments for abortions today, so we are no longer needed. The protesters will leave when we do. As we walk inside to turn in our yellow escort vests, there is one thing I know for sure and for certain: I’ll be back again next week.