A group of people wearing rainbow colored shirts and carrying rainbow umbrellas stands in the rain

How To Be a Reproductive Justice Clinic Escort

On a hot Saturday morning in August 2018, I drove to my first clinic escorting shift. Earlier that week, I had read through a handbook of guidelines for clinic escorting. It encouraged escorts to resist sharing their name with any anti-abortion protesters, giving them a fake name to conceal their identity instead. On my drive to the clinic, I again mulled over the handbook’s guidelines.

As I turned into the side street leading to the clinic, I scanned the faces of people standing in the surrounding lots looking for a parking space away from the commotion. When I noticed a smiling woman in a pink vest approaching my car, I rolled my window down. As she came closer, I announced, “Hi, I’m Justina, and I am here for clinic escort training.” Her smile quickly turned into a stern look as she remarked, “Oh, you’re with them,” pointing to a small group of people putting on vests that looked suspiciously similar to her pink one. That was the moment I realized that I’d broken one of the clinic escorting guidelines before I even parked my car.

I tell this story to demonstrate the mass confusion occurring outside of abortion clinics across the US. In the three years since that morning, I have come to know the names and faces of the numerous protesters outside the Women’s Choice Clinic in Greensboro, North Carolina. Despite spending countless hours in the clinic’s parking lot, I sometimes still mistake protesters for patients or clinic escorts. This confusion is no accident. Anti-abortion protestors consciously produce chaos and disorder to prevent people from accessing the abortion services they are seeking.

On September 1, 2021, Texas passed Senate Bill 8 (SB8), the most restrictive abortion ban since the Roe v. Wade decision. The bill prohibits abortions after roughly six weeks gestation, or two to three weeks following a missed period. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote upholding SB8 ignited a tremendous nationwide backlash. The widespread attention on abortion injustice will likely lead to increased interest in clinic escorting across the country. Like me, many of the new volunteers will be cisgender white women. Historically, the white women-led reproductive rights movement has ignored reproductive issues impacting communities of color. To redress this history, white cisgender women participating in this movement must center marginalized populations. Here, I will historically contextualize clinic escorts’ role in the larger fight for abortion justice and examine how white cisgender individuals can approach clinic escorting from a reproductive justice perspective.

A group of people, most in rainbow shirts, huddle together for a photo on a sunny day
Clinic Escorts in Greensboro, North Carolina, May 8, 2021. (Courtesy of Justina Licata)

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant person’s fundamental right to privacy laid out in the fourteenth amendment outweighed the states’ interest in maternal health and a fetus’s life, ultimately protecting abortion rights during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Since the groundbreaking Roe v. Wade ruling, states have placed over 1,000 restrictions on abortion access. Additionally, in 1976, the federal government passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion services. These restrictions made abortion access more difficult for patients living in poverty and patients of color.

Alongside the government’s attacks on abortion access, the political debate around abortion became increasingly contentious and violent in the decades following Roe. With the rise of the religious conservative New Right in the 1970s came an increase in anti-abortion protests. Religious leaders, like televangelist Jerry Falwell, linked anti-abortion rhetoric to Christian beliefs and the Republican Party. In the 1980s, organizations like Operation Rescue and “Army of God” perpetrated violent and sometimes fatal attacks on abortion clinics and providers. These protests generated a need for volunteers to assist patients as they entered abortion clinics, hence the creation of clinic escorting.[1]

Between 1977 and 1993, the federal government refused to investigate the organizations executing attacks on abortion clinics. Consequently, the federal government classified 113 arsons, 88 assaults and batteries, 2 kidnappings, 188 stalking allegations, and 166 death threats targeting abortion providers as “renegade” incidents. They only began to take the violence against abortion clinics and providers seriously after a provider was murdered in 1993. The following year, in May 1994, Bill Clinton became the first president to explicitly support abortion rights by signing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) into law.[2] The FACE Act prohibited the use of force, threats, intimidation, physical interference, or physical obstruction to injure an abortion provider or someone seeking abortion services. Some states enhanced these protections with additional laws that give these states more opportunities to enforce them. Thanks to the FACE Act, volunteers today are able to escort patients into clinics without as much physical interference. Despite that, escorts are still tasked with helping patients maneuver around sometimes hundreds of protesters.

The origins of clinic escorting are rooted in the reproductive rights tradition. In the mid-twentieth century, the reproductive rights movement focused its attention on access to contraceptives and legal abortions. Its white-dominated leadership did not address reproductive oppressions targeted at communities of color, including sterilization practices, affordable healthcare, and access to abortion services. In 1994, to better represent all people’s reproductive needs, twelve African-American women at a pro-choice conference coined the term reproductive justice. Reproductive justice activists center three core principles in their fight for reproductive freedom: the right to not have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to parent in a safe and healthy environment.[3] To ensure inclusion and reproductive liberty for all, activists, including clinic escorts, must adopt the reproductive justice framework.

What does a reproductive justice approach to clinic escorting look like? First, patient care must be the primary focus. Lauren O., a white cisgender clinic escort in Greensboro, strongly encourages volunteers to “decenter yourself, decenter your experiences. If you are going to come out here, it is not going to be to stroke your own ego…when you come out here it is not about what is going to make you feel good…It is about patients and making sure they can access the clinic.”[4]

Additionally, escorts must fight for abortion access services for all. Restrictions like the Texas ban have made accessing abortion services incredibly difficult. The number of clinics across the country is dwindling, surgical and medication abortions are expensive, and anti-abortion protesters’ efforts to confuse patients are relentless. In addition to guiding patients into clinics, escorts can support and promote abortion funds and other reproductive justice organizations, like SisterSong and URGE, who are fighting to end these restrictions.

Six people wearing rainbow shirts gather for a photo on a sunny day
Clinic Escorts in Greensboro, North Carolina, September 25, 2021. (Courtesy of Justina Licata)

Because of the long history of police brutality targeted at Black and Brown communities, preventing interactions between patients and law enforcement is crucial. Therefore, it is imperative that escorts practice de-escalation tactics instead of calling law enforcement. Further, clinic escorts must limit their interactions with protesters, and thwart confrontations between protesters and escorts, or protesters and patients to keep incidents from escalating.

The trans and non-binary communities are often forgotten in the fight for abortion access. Reproductive justice organizations, like We Testify, use abortion storytelling to demonstrate that women are not the only people who require access to abortion care. To ensure inclusion, escorts must not assume a patient’s pronouns; rather, volunteers should use non-gendered pronouns, like “they” and “them” when engaging with patients.

It is essential clinic escorts remember that abortion access is just one of the reproductive injustices facing marginalized communities today. To rectify the reproductive rights movement’s failure to represent all individuals’ reproductive needs, we must collaborate with other social justice organizations, amplify Black, Indigenous, and other voices of color, and fully embrace the reproductive justice framework. Melissa R., another white cisgender clinic escort, spoke to this sentiment when she urged fellow white clinic escorts “to listen to and pay attention to the work that is being done in reproductive justice spaces and to really incorporate that into your mission statement and your bylaws and do the training… folks should always be doing the training and always learning.”[5]

Since the 1980s, clinic escorts have played a significant role in the fight for abortion access. As attacks on abortion intensify, access will become more challenging, particularly for marginalized communities. By adopting the reproductive justice framework, clinic escorts will promote inclusivity, patient-focused care, and reproductive liberty for all.

Notes

  1. Sophie Deixel, “Whose Body, Whose Choice: Interactions Between the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Social Movements Outside the Abortion Clinic,” Senior Capstone, (Vassar College, 2018), 21.
  2. Ibid, 24.
  3. Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 128.
  4. Lauren O. (clinic escort) in discussion with author, June 26, 2021.
  5. Melissa R. (clinic escort) in discussion with author, June 26, 2021.

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