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Clinic Escorting

In March I underwent clinic escort training for a women’s health center in Minneapolis. I am a strong supporter of a woman’s right to obtain affordable, confidential and safe abortions, and I believe that all people should have access to and information about sexual and reproductive health care. Being a clinic escort is one way for me to show my support for these issues and for the people who take advantage of these rights.

At the women’s health clinic at which I volunteer, a pro-life group has paid staff who stand outside and intercept women who have come to the clinic to have an abortion. These staff members hand out pamphlets filled with pictures of bloody tissue, stories from women who were “crippled by dispair and depression” because of their decision to have an abortion, and dubious or disproven claims about the links between abortion and breast cancer or future reproductive and sexual health. They walk alongside potential clinic patients and quote statistics at them or tell them to consider adoption or other alternatives to baby killing.

The women and men who come to the clinic often become exasperated, angry or distressed when these protesters get in their personal space and start speaking at them about abortion. They may yell back at the protesters, making a tense situation even more loaded. And as a clinic escort, do you know what I get to do in this situation?

I get to smile.

When a client approaches the clinic and is accosted by a protester, I get to stand off to the side in my bold yellow jacket that proclaims “clinic escort” on the front and smile, open the door to the clinic and motion them inside. That’s it. Nothing really world-saving there. I’m an unpaid doorwoman and it’s really easy work. But the relief on the clients’ faces at seeing a friendly, welcoming smile and having a guide past the aggressive in-your-face tactics of the protesters is the most incredible thing.

Last Saturday was my first day of escorting. There were  two of us escorting and four protesters, all of them regulars who are well-known to the clinic. We were all pretty nice to each other, considering we were diametrically opposed about the issue at hand. It felt very much like “you’re here to do your job, I’m here to do mine.” (and again – they’re *paid*, so they very literally were there to do their jobs).

At some point one of the ladies gently tried to hand me a pamphlet and I said “Look, while we’re out here together I’ll talk to you about anything you like except abortion.” She shrugged and we actually talked about the weather! She tried to slip abortion back into the conversation now and then, but each time I averted my gaze and sealed my lips. Then she’d sigh and go back to talking about her garden or grandkids. When a person or couple would approach the clinic, I would walk right next to the client(s) and distract them with chit-chat so the protester was relegated to speaking loudly at our backs. As soon as the client was inside the protestor and I would go back to discussing the weather.

It was an odd detente and I imagine a pretty good protester experience to have on my first day of escorting. I’m guessing they won’t all be this genial.

I learned about volunteering as a clinic escort from a twitter user named – appropriately enough – @clinicescort. Many Saturdays @clinicescort posts a tweet or two from the front lines about protests occurring at the clinic where she or he volunteers. I am always astounded by the spiteful, ignorant, close-minded vitriol that @clinicescort endures, but I am grateful that she or he is there to play interference for the clients of the clinic so that they can go about their day with less harassment. So far it seems like the protesters at my clinic are pretty benign – they don’t scream or unduly harrass, so small favors.

If you want more information about escorting, let me know in the comments or shoot me an email. And if you’re ever in downtown Minneapolis and you see me standing around in front of a building wearing a bright yellow jacket, make sure to give me a smile. I’ll certainly smile back.

Comments

  1. wesley says

    Wow. That takes a lot of courage. I have been involved with social justice for the last ten years. My main job is to provide security for those holding the protests. I could not imagine doing this alone.

    Be safe. :)

    • says

      Like I mentioned above, “our” protesters seem to be pretty laid back, but I’ve heard that other clinics – even in my neck of the woods have much more fervent protesters. Thanks for supporting escorts and clinics in the ways that you do, Wesley.

  2. Amy says

    You’re my hero, Brianne! I would like to be an escort… that would be an eye-opening experience. But not for a while… my schedule is insane! Maybe after June, when I’m done with school and life settles, I’d love to volunteer.

  3. Elizabeth says

    Thank you for your post and for doing this! I would love to do escorting but not sure this is the right time in life (mostly b/c of time, parenting, etc). Besides financial support, I would love other tangible things I could do to support clinics. For example in the past I have baked and brought cookies on thank your local abortion provider day or whatever it was. I would love to do more things like that for the brave and awesome men and women working at the clinics. Ideas or things you know they’d appreciate?

  4. says

    What a brave and kind thing to do. Amazing that in this day and age, we still have to deal with assorted nutters causing distress to women who go to these clinics, as if their decision wasn’t hard enough.

  5. Lori says

    Thanks SO MUCH for getting involved. I have also done clinic escort, in Wichita, KS, where Dr. George Tiller, our local abortion provider, was murdered in his own church by one of Operation Rescue’s nutbags. A new physician is currently being trained here to perform abortions, and her life has already been threatened multiple times. Abortion is not the biggest issue this country has to deal with right now, but by God, I will NEVER vote for ANY politician who will not support a woman’s right to choose, after seeing this issue up close and personally.

    • says

      I’m very familiar with Dr. Tiller’s assassination, and I’m sorry to hear that you were so close to this tragedy. Rachel Maddow has been doing an excellent job of keeping many of us who are removed from it up to date on Dr. Mila Means and her hurculean fight to be able to provide abortions in Witchita. Good luck to you on all of your efforts to support her and accessibility to reproductive care in Kansas.

  6. Kaileyverse says

    I just started escorting this year in Austin, Texas – it is some crazy stuff. While the protesters outside the clinic I volunteered for were pretty subdued (it is a prayer vigil for 40 days) – the sidewalk counselors are extremely persistent and won’t leave women alone after they say thanks, but no thanks. Its frustrating.
    I try to do my best NOT to engage with them, as I am there for the women and their friends/family who are coming to the clinic for gynecological services or abortions. I know that they think I’m some kind of agent of satan, or something, but I love standing out there for choice.

    • says

      Thank YOU for escorting! I’ll be interested to see how other escorts decide to interact – or not – with the protesters at my clinic. Since last Saturday was my first time out, I’ve only seen me and the other person.

      Our clinic is, I think, a little interesting because we’re downtown and the there is no private property separating the door to our building and the public sidewalk. That means protesters can walk right alongside our clients until the very last second until they get inside the building lobbv. There’s no distance buffer between us, which means I’m usually going to be standing within three feet of a protester at any given time. The small talk and recognizing the protester as a fellow human being seemed like a good way to make them a little less fervent, a little less “you versus me” and a little less jerkish when I put my body between them and the client. But who knows?

      After saying all that, though…I never started a chat, and I declined to share *any* personal information, even when she asked if I had a “name I liked to use when I was escorting” (her actual words). Sharing stories and personal info is the protester’s priviledge – they can be pretty confident that we’re not going to bother them at their homes or online, while we can be pretty sure that given a chance, we could become targets of harrassment for them.

  7. says

    Thank you for escorting in your town. It is important, useful work that supports women in doing what they have chosen is the best thing for their family, their health and their lives.

    I have been escorting a tad over two years in Louisville, KY. We see between 20 and 200 protesters every saturday. Most line the sidewalk creating a gauntlet of shame for the clients while fifteen to twenty actively chase the clients spewing guilt and false claims much like you point out in your blogpost. On weekdays, we will have five to fifteen, almost all chasers harassing clients and companions.

    You can see video and peruse stories on one of the long-time escorts blog: http://everysaturdaymorning.wordpress.com/ While I have contributed an entry of three we have many dedicated and professional social justice activist chiming in.

    I had the pleasure of meeting the tweeter known as clinicescort. We met in Bellevue Nebraska defend Dr LeRoy Carthart’s clinic from an Operation Rescue assault. She is a magnificent human being, wonderful writer, and damn fine escort.

    Keep up the good work and good luck with the biking!

    Take Care,

    KpF

    • says

      Thanks for your thoughts and information, Ken. Your clinic sounds a LOT busier than mine. I’ll keep my small, docile group of antis, thank you very much!

      I’m going out on a limb here, but may I assume from your name that you’re male? I’ve heard from the guys at my clinic that they aren’t always treated with trust or respect from the patients they’re there to help, but I think it’s very important that men continue to step up to volunteer in this role, if only to show that reproductive health isn’t just a women’s issue. So thank YOU for your escort work. You know, even if you don’t identify as male. :p

      Thanks for the heads up on Every Saturday Morning. I think I just found a new blog for my blogroll and RSS feed!

  8. kescort says

    Being a hetero-normative middle-aged, middle-class white man stepping into this feminist issue has been a HUGE hurdle. But thanks to a lot of patient work and advanced priviledge unpacking, I manage to do ok. I always always always yield to any female presenting folks on the sidewalk. When I can’t, I have some physical techniques – soften the shoulders, deeply bend the knees, squat at the car window as oppose to bending over into it – that help make the client’s feel less threatened. I also have a really goofy Forrest Gump wave that really puts people at ease.

    I had an interesting interaction last week. A client was struggling walking down the sidewalk. I’m not sure if it was a muscle issue or maybe just a foot fallen asleep but I invited her to grab my hand or elbow or shoulder if she wanted to. I then told her, “I’,m a pretty stable girl, you know.”

    She said,”You’re a girl?”

    “Well out here I try to be as much as I can.”

    Thanks for the link up and rss feed. If you ever find yourself heading to Kentucky and can’t find a way to avoid it, let us know! We’ll put you up, feed you great food and then make you get up at 5 am and head down to our clinic for a little bit of Southern Repro-Access!

  9. says

    I’d really really like to do this–I saw a similar post earlier in the year–but how did you locate the clinic and volunteer in your area. I’m in Chicago, so anyone with information in the comments would be much appreciated.

    • Brianne Bilyeu says

      I stumbled across this opportunity on Twitter. I had been looking for a way to get involved, and had actually put in volunteer applications at Planned Parenthood to help in any manner that they could suggest, but I never heard back after the initial “Thank you for your application…” letter. I follow a bunch of pro-choice accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and one of those accounts forwarded a call for escorts for the clinic that I landed at. My suggestion is to do some searching online, and perhaps to call a few local women’s health clinics and ask how to break into volunteering. Hint: independent clinics may be more in need of hands on deck than someplace like Planned Parenthood because PP is organized and a big name. Best of luck!

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