Last Saturday, I spent my morning in the company of nearly two dozen lurkers, skulkers, stalkers, harassers, and creeps... and I can't wait to do it again.
I am a volunteer abortion clinic escort. This means I am there to walk with women coming into the abortion clinic. It's usually no more than a minute's walk from their cars to the front door of the clinic. Under normal circumstances, my help would hardly be needed. Except the circumstances outside an abortion clinic are rarely "normal."
Every day that our doors are open to women seeking abortions, the sidewalk in front of our clinic is occupied by people who do anything they think they can get away with to try to keep those women from going inside. These protesters are, by and large, a sideshow of the crazy and the scary and the totally lacking in people skills. The highlight of my most recent Saturday morning was the offense taken by one of the regular protesters at the sight of me and a client talking and laughing together as we walked. This protester lifted her bullhorn and screeched into it, over all the other shouting from her compadres: "These ladies are not your friends! They're your enemies! They want to sell your baby for parts AND MAKE THEM INTO SHAMPOO!"
Yes, she did. While wearing a sign reading "PRO-LIFE IS PRO-WOMEN: WE CARE," no less.
Along with the bullhorning and the screeching and the embryo shampoo conspiracy, our protesters carry some really big, really ugly signs. You know the ones. They're not designed to appeal to one's conscience or to offer support in one's time of need; they're designed to shock and traumatize via the instinctive human revulsion to gore. So far, they haven't taken me up on my suggestion to blow up photos of fresh roadkill as an alternative. Same revulsion factor, 100% more respect for the "human lives" they say their photos represent.
For some women, then, those sixty seconds are a nightmare. Well before they arrive in their cars, they're afraid of that walk. They've been worrying about it, steeling themselves. They don't know what they're walking into, but they're imagining a worst-case scenario. You can tell by how they'll busily step from their cars, shuffling keys and bags or talking very loudly to their companions so as to plausibly ignore you, or pop up from behind the wheel with the words "You need to leave us alone right now" already out of their mouths, before they see you quietly standing and pointing to the word "ESCORT" emblazoned across your neon orange vest. You can tell from the plain relief that floods their eyes when they realize who you are and why you're there. You can tell from the haste with which they apologize for their perfectly understandable mistake, and from the emphatic way they say "thank you" as you open the door for them at the end of that long, long walk.
We do have a very few regulars who come to our clinic to stand in quiet prayer with some brochures to be gently offered, not angrily brandished. And we think of these folks as no threat: if it happens that they are the only protesters on site, we're happy to leave them to it without any supervision from us. That's pretty rare, however. These rather more Christlike Christians are vastly outnumbered by those who call bullying "counseling" and intimidation "outreach." I'm able to laugh at things like the zygote curling-mousse plot because it's just so dumb. But for our clients who don't hang out with these people every weekend, who aren't used to getting screamed at on the street by strangers, who are just trying to go to the doctor's office for Pete's sake (and does it matter if a client is just getting a Pap smear or is gray-haired or is the mailman? no, no it does not), it's not funny at all. It's just scary.
For a nation that claims to cherish its freedoms, America is pretty damned complacent about the harassment that goes on outside abortion clinics. Imagine this circus outside of dentist's offices instead. Imagine what it would feel like, having to endure being called a whore and a killer on your way in to have a bad tooth pulled. Maybe they'd throw little plastic teeth at you; maybe they'd even take your photograph on the way in. People wouldn't stand for it: I have the right to choose my own dental care, they'd say. Who do these people think they are? And even if I were the smallest bit unsure about the choice I'd made, even if some part of me wanted to be talked into a filling and not an extraction--why in god's name would some hostile, red-faced, screaming stranger get a vote?
Maybe there's an element of trolling to that analogy. I could write the outraged top-text for an email forward of this blog myself. "Can you believe it! A LIVING, ALMOST-BREATHING CHILD who will PROBABLY CURE CANCER SOMEDAY is nothing more than a ROTTED MOLAR to this BARREN GODLESS WHORE!!!11" Feel free to copy/paste--but if you do, you're missing the point. Bullying never won any hearts or minds, and harassment or intimidation of private citizens going about their private lives is never, never, never a tool for good. There is no place for such tactics of fear in civil discourse, and no one who employs them can be truly called a warrior for good, no matter what they tell themselves while they're packing their bullhorn and their gore posters into the car every morning.
I can't make the protesters who camp out in front of my clinic in the mornings go away. I can't even make them behave like rational, responsible citizens. But I can make sure that the women (and men, and children) who walk into my clinic don't have to run that obstacle course alone, and I believe I can assuage some of their fear. I can shield them physically from shouts and eyes and cameras. I can assure by my presence as a witness that the protesters don't "forget" where the property line is. And I can be one voice of supportive reason, quiet but strong, in opposition to the shouting about the blastocyst deep-conditioning cabal:
"I'm a volunteer with the clinic. We have some protesters out front who will try to shout at you. They don't know why you're here, but they're going to shout at you anyway. You don't have to listen to them. I can just walk alongside and keep myself between them and you. I'm sorry you have to deal with this today."
Their fear is why I escort. Their gratitude is why I keep coming back.