When I officially retired from my academic position (I’m teaching one last semester in the fall as a phased retiree) I calculated all the time I spent in meetings at work and transferred those hours over to escorting patients at an abortion clinic. I am lucky to be able to retire and do this, and am grateful to the volunteer coordinator. And I am also grateful to the folks who coordinate another group of volunteers who drive patients without transportation to and from appointments. Finally, I’m grateful to the people who donated the vests that we wear that say “clinic escort.” When modeling some newly donated vests one day so that pictures could be taken for the donors, I discovered that the protestors were particularly upset by the rainbow vests — as evidenced by their shouted comments. “Is that a rainbow vest?” one man pointed to me and said. He assumed that his fellow protestors got the message and agreed that LBGTQ rights, like reproductive rights, were very wrong. The protestors all nodded in agreement as he gestured towards me. After that, I always wear one.
Before becoming a volunteer, the coordinator trained me about the necessity of patient privacy and about other matters. I do not enter the clinic; I do not reveal where it is located. I do not talk to patients about their lives or their procedures as I walk them into the clinic past protestors yelling, “don’t kill your baby, we can help,” or as I walk with them out to their cars following their procedures when the protestors yell, “it isn’t too late to reverse your abortion.” (More on that later.)
As I stand waiting for patients to come and go (and there is a lot of standing and waiting), I sometimes reflect on my own first-term abortion. It occurred shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision and because clinics had not yet arisen, it took place in a hospital. My gynecologist did the procedure and gave me a shot of Demerol, which made the termination pain-free. Because of the shot, however, I was told to take a cab, not a bus, home. My entire out-of-pocket cost was that cab fare; my insurance covered everything else. You can conclude from that account that I am old, and you can also say that it was a different time in the United States of America. Since then abortions have moved to outpatient facilities and coverage is severely restricted, raising costs along with other well-known barriers to access. The relentless effort of a minority bent on denying pregnant people their rights has taken a particularly virulent and successful turn recently, but over the decades, state laws, regulatory measures to close or restrict clinics, threats to providers, and court rulings have taken an enormous toll and set the stage for the current assaults on reproductive freedom.
All of the protestors I have seen at the clinic are white, and many of them are middle-aged or older. Sometimes during the special Lent protest period for example, young people, including young novice nuns, show up, but most of the protestors are my age-group peers, while the other patient escorts are all young, but my political peers. I am fortunate that the protestors do not come in huge numbers with bullhorns and that I do not live in an open carry state. So far the protestors have not been physically threatening and although they step forward to hand out pamphlets and try to convince patients to turn away, they will step back if requested to do so by the patients. Some protestors are more aggressive than others. At one end of the spectrum are older men in baseball caps who sit across from the clinic in lawn chairs and yell a few things, but never get out of their chairs. Others spend most of their time praying and silently offer materials to patients, although they seem reluctant to engage and often say nothing. A few of the group that I think of as “the regulars” aggressively push pamphlets at patients, and say “don’t kill your baby” and “we can help.” These individuals claim, as do their pamphlets, that medical abortions can be reversed by a progesterone injection. As soon as I heard “abortion reversal,” my medical history training kicked in, and I spent time reading the current peer-reviewed medical journal literature and spoke to several physician friends. Not only is the so-called reversal unproven, it can be dangerous if it prevents a dead embryo or fetus from being expelled, and as a result causes a threatening infection.
Most disturbing is the woman physician who shouts out, offering to reverse an abortion; she also falsely claims that abortions cause breast cancer and infertility. In my opinion she should lose her license, but I have learned that medical boards do not deal with matters deemed to be freedom of speech and freedom to practice. In some states, physicians are not appointed to the medical board unless they are anti-choice.
I sometimes spend time talking with the partners, friends, and family members who accompany patients. They often leave the clinic and come outside to smoke, eat, or get some air. (No one is allowed to eat in the clinic because it isn’t fair to the patients who fast before their procedures). One man kept telling me how nice he found everyone at the clinic. He repeated this several times and then I learned that he attended a religious university. I suspect he’d been told more than once about the horrors of abortion clinics. He didn’t believe in abortion, he told me, but this instance was, he claimed, special — a single woman with one child already who could not support another. I listened and nodded.
The other side of the “special circumstance” — something I know is claimed by abortion protestors having abortions as well as by others who oppose abortion — is the common falsehood that “abortion is used as birth control.” I have overheard people say they support abortion but “many women have them instead of using birth control and have had nine or ten abortions.” I am not sure if this claim comes from propaganda spread by anti-choice activists, but as a historian I hear loud and clear the race and class messages along with the good woman/bad woman sexism encoded in this lie.
In reporting on my post-academic life as a part-time volunteer abortion clinic patient escort, I cannot help but think about the fact that I should not be doing this. I should not be doing this, because someone having an abortion should not face protestors. Full stop. People having abortions should not have to walk into clinics designed not only as medical facilities, but also as places that can be easily guarded and barricaded. (Yes, I suppose this is increasingly the case with all sorts of facilities, from schools to hospitals to places of worship). Clinic escort is another job I would like to retire from; I suspect and fear that the job will long outlive me. That said, if you’d like to volunteer at a local clinic and are fortunate enough to have one, know that you will find it rewarding and informative. Your time and support is needed.