Many of us who advocate for women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care options, including abortion care, are acutely aware of the harassment and violence faced not just by the women accessing care at clinics that provide abortions, but also by the staff and volunteers who are providing care and support to the patients. Despite the long history of threats and violence directed at abortion clinics in the United States – many instances of which are dismissed or left unchallenged by abortion opponents, law enforcement, the justice system and the general public – clinic staff and volunteers enter the clinics everyday knowing that what happened at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last month could happen where they are. Kelsea McLain is with NCWU member the Carolina Abortion Fund, and a volunteer clinic escort coordinator with an NC clinic. She wrote up the below piece to share her experience as a clinic escort. To read another NC clinic escort’s experience, click here. And to read a recent story about the level of harassment clinic protesters will engage in, click here.
November 27th I received a news alert on my phone that made my heart stop: Ssots fired at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO. On the surface, this was not uncommon news; there has been an average of at least one mass shooting event per day in the US this past year. Beneath the surface I was facing the reality of my fears of being murdered simply for supporting a person’s right to choose abortion. Why? I am an abortion clinic escort.
Clinic escorts are volunteers who provide a simple, yet incredibly beneficial, service to abortion clinics – we greet clinic patients and guide them inside. This isn’t because the clinic is hard to find; in fact, the group of 20-30 protesters who shows up every Saturday make the location fairly obvious. We greet patients because the climate outside of the building is filled with hostility and chaos. Protesters are intentionally disruptive and abusive. The behavior ranges from angry preaching, screaming, judgement, and outright insults. It is not uncommon for a patient to be accused of “spreading her legs without taking responsibility” or be called a murderer. While our protesters may have enough decency to not outright call patients “whores”, they have no problem insinuating as much. Volunteers have had our physical appearances attacked and often will have our casual conversations turned into opportunities to scream further insults our way. While the clinic sees protesters on a daily and weekly basis, Saturdays often feature much larger and louder crowds.
As I sat watching the news coverage of the attack that night, I could feel the terror of the patients and staff still actively trapped in the clinic. I know each and every one of them drove to the clinic that day with a familiar knot in their stomach, a knot that appears in my own stomach as I make my final approach to the clinic on Saturday mornings, and a knot that appears in the stomachs of our clinics volunteers and staff every day as they arrive on site. The worst fears of the staff at Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs came true November 27th and the reality that this could happen anywhere left me feeling helpless. I was filled with endless questions: “Should I tell our volunteers to stay home tomorrow?” “What would we do if this happened at our clinic?” “Would escorts be the first targeted?” “Where could we hide?” “Will the police finally start taking this seriously?” “How will the protesters react to this?” “Am I putting lives in danger by encouraging our volunteers to continue coming out?”
I can tell you, we answered many of these questions and my heart swells with pride as I write these words –
We showed up in force: Not even 12 hours after the terrorist attack we had a dozen volunteers on site. We hugged, cried, laughed and agreed as a group the ONLY appropriate response is to double down our efforts. We made promises to one another to watch each other’s back. We genuinely bonded over the shared trauma we each felt as we watched the live news reports the previous night.
My inbox was flooded with words of support from past volunteers, their friends, and strangers who sought us out hoping to help out and join the clinic defense movement. All acknowledging the attack in Colorado left the scared but committed to making sure abortion remains accessible and legal.
We made a collective decision to honor the lives lost on that dreadfully cold, snowy day in Colorado by refusing to back down and let fear win. The man who attacked the Planned Parenthood thought a few bullets could shake the resolve of the abortion care community. I am proud to say he failed.