For These Abortion Clinic Escorts, The Vitriol From Protesters Has Gotten Way Worse As States Try To Restrict Access
“You never know who’s going to show up when you call 911. Nothing has ever come of it.”
Christine is used to being called a witch. As a volunteer escort at EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, she’s accustomed to crowds of anti-abortion protesters shouting the word at her while she accompanies patients into the clinic. “Devil” and “Nazi guard” are also frequently used.
Christine, who has been an escort for eight years, said patients are never prepared for the harassment that awaits them as they attempt to enter the building.
“They want to be martyrs,” Christine, who asked that her last name not be mentioned for security reasons, said of protesters who breached a new safety zone in front of EMW last month. Their actions conveyed an intent to disrespect the new 10-foot-wide space marked by yellow paint that delineates a pathway for patients entering one of the state’s two abortion providers.
BuzzFeed News spoke to Christine and other clinic escorts in locations ranging from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Fargo, North Dakota. These volunteers protect people seeking basic medical care amid a heightened crackdown on abortion access in the US. Despite the focus on the issue after Texas implemented a six-week abortion ban earlier this month, seasoned clinic escorts like Christine said they have long faced coalitions of anti-abortion protesters. The difference now, she added, is that the opposition has been bolstered by the passage of the Texas law, known as SB 8, and wants states to take even more extreme measures against abortion.
Escorts said emboldened protesters have escalated attempts to thwart their morale and physical safety, and local authorities frequently fail to enforce protections out of fear of provoking the crowd.
Some escort groups are responding by preparing for the worst: a potential end to abortion access entirely. The Supreme Court will decide on a 15-week Mississippi ban in December, potentially overturning the landmark legal case that established the right to abortion in 1973.
Here are just a few glimpses into what escorts told BuzzFeed News about their experiences helping people access healthcare:
A “narrow path” in Louisville.
“One protester was laying down in the safety zone as I assume a way of flaunting that he didn’t intend to respect the new law,” said Meg Stern, who has served as a patient escort at EMW for over 20 years.
Stern described the scene at EMW on Sept. 18, the first day that the new safety zone ordinance, meant to abate anti-abortion protesters from the path of patients, was in effect in front of its doors. And just over two weeks after SB 8 went into effect.
“The patients are forced to walk through what equates to a gauntlet of harassment,” Stern said, adding that for patients coming from rural areas or out of state, the scene in front of EMW can be extremely disorienting. Between January and March 2021, at least 1,447 protesters were reported outside EMW, with about 23 on any given day, according to the clinic.
“It’s a complete circus,” she said.
And in a conservative state like Kentucky, Stern said, the safety zone is a “narrow path” to protect what little access Kentuckians have left to abortion. And the future is grim. Residents will vote next year on a referendum that would ratify their constitution to say the state will not guarantee the right to abortion. And a lawsuit still stands on the constitutionality of the safety zone ordinance, with anti-abortion groups arguing the space threatens their First Amendment rights.
EMW has one of the most active anti-abortion protest spots in the US, according to Ona Marshall, co-owner of the clinic. Some protesters bring their children, hold wide signs, wear vests that could be confused with those of the escorts, or even livestream the scene from the sidewalk on social media. They lure patients to a fake clinic next door, which has parking lots labeled for EMW patients, capitalizing on the real clinic’s limited parking options. They grab and touch the patients without their consent. And it’s a known practice by protesters to claim they are preaching, and officers will back away.
Stern said she’s even seen protesters slip knitted baby booties into patients’ bags. Many of the demonstrators come from out of town and don’t wear masks to protect against COVID-19. Some try to trip escorts as they walk into the clinic. Others offer “sidewalk counseling” to patients, despite the fact that abortion is only one of many health services EMW and similar clinics provide.
For escorts like Stern and Christine, the safety zone is only as effective as local law enforcement’s ability to enforce it. Stern said Louisville police officers were slow to cite violators and even failed to answer two calls from EMW the first Saturday the zone was in effect (Saturday is usually the busiest day of the week for the clinic). Protesters repeatedly violated the city’s noise ordinance and breached the new buffer zone rule that day, but police claimed “staffing issues and other priorities” kept them from showing up.
“Before the safety zone … there was still a lot of chaos and aggressive behavior in front of the clinic and the two blocks surrounding it that the escorts have been dealing with,” Marshall said, adding that she doesn’t think anything has changed so far in terms of protesters’ behavior now that the bright yellow paint is on the ground. Some have adhered to the new rules, but “you’re always going to have people that are going to test it.”
Since Sept. 18, Christine said, police have stepped up issuing warnings and citations, knowing a spotlight is on them. But EMW, like many clinics, has a harried relationship with local law enforcement, who have either stood with or ignored protesters violating city ordinances. In February, a Louisville police officer arrived in his squad car and protested outside EMW wearing his weapon and uniform, but an internal investigation found he was not in violation of any Louisville Metro Police Department standards.
Christine said she thinks LMPD’s enforcement, or lack thereof, of city ordinances at EMW is due to internal bias.
“If this was anyone else … for Black Lives Matter, that wouldn’t fly, but if a white man says he’s preaching the word of God, and the cop is also a white man, he immediately backs off,” Christine said. “How else are you supposed to interpret that?”
LMPD did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
“I hope this brings attention to clinic escorts.”
When SB 8 went into effect in early September, Cassidy Thompson called a meeting of escorts at WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota, to discuss the potential escalation of protests in front of their building.
At first, not much changed, said Thompson, who is the clinic escort trainer and a patient educator within the clinic. She was initially surprised, given the “extremist” group of protesters who regularly stand outside of WE, which provides abortion care only twice a week. On those days, protesters typically track when escorts show up and arrive in groups as large as 15.
But things started to change as the weeks went on.
“We realized that they’re just getting more confident,” Thompson said.
The protesters have been yelling more and have gotten more aggressive toward patients, she added.
“We noticed patients have full-on panic attacks,” she said, “patients getting in the building and falling to the floor and crying because they just went through a mob of people.”
WE’s escorts hold colorful umbrellas against protesters, blocking their sound and hiding patients’ faces as they navigate in clusters toward the front door. The clinic is on a major street in Duluth and doesn’t have a parking lot. A wireless speaker blares a playlist of hits by Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Nas X, and other artists against the draconian sound of protesters begging patients to “hear the heartbeat of your baby,” as one protester said in a video the clinic escorts posted to social media.
As a reaction to SB 8, Thompson started a TikTok account @MNclinicescorts that has already amassed over 75,000 followers and is raising money to help support the escorts.
The TikTok posts feature footage of the protesters with captions calling out a “Catholic daddy” priest holding a vigil across the street from the clinic or using the popular “#POV” hashtag to capture people trying to livestream patients’ faces on Facebook. The videos have inspired supporters to bring snacks to the escorts or even sign up to join the team themselves.
“I hope this really brings attention to clinic escorts,” she said.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, WE will be only one of four abortion providers in the Upper Midwest, Thompson said. In preparation for that potential reality, she said, WE and other local reproductive rights advocates will be pushing the city for a safety zone like the one in Louisville.
Despite a fairly progressive city government, Thompson said WE’s escorts rarely rely on local law enforcement for help. She echoed the situation EMW faces — police are likely to be ineffective in the face of extreme protesters. Instead, the clinic follows up with legal experts or the local FBI if a nonemergency issue happens.
“You never know who’s going to show up when you call 911,” Thompson said. “Nothing has ever come of it.”
“Our setup is horrible.”
Some clinics have seen a more rapid escalation since SB 8’s passage.
In Milwaukee, the protesting and harassment outside Affiliated Medical Services had already been getting worse over the last three to four years, according to Chad Trepanier, who’s volunteered as an escort at the clinic for over 10 years.
The crowd has shifted from “little Catholic ladies” who were mainly silent to “fundamentalists” who advocate for the complete abolition of the right to abortion and believe SB 8 doesn’t do enough, Trepanier said. These protesters also believe the law should call for “punishment” — even the death penalty — for people who terminate a pregnancy, he added.
“We escorts hear the same thing in our ears constantly,” Trepanier said, including “fairly constant” comparisons between him and a Nazi concentration camp guard. He even considered wearing a bulletproof vest at one point.
Trepanier, whose mother was also an escort, said the clinic's setup is “horrible” for protecting patients. The building’s door opens directly onto the city sidewalk, and there’s no on-site parking lot, so patients have to walk two or three blocks to their cars, often as throngs of protesters harass them.
Escorts also often end up protecting pedestrians who aren’t even going to the clinic, he added.
“If you look like you’re female and under 60 years old or so, you are going to be assumed to be coming to the clinic to have an abortion,” he said. “No matter what you say to the protesters, they’ll assume you’re lying or tell you you're lying.”
Trepanier’s team is “having conversations” about what happens if Roe is overturned. Wisconsin is one of few states with a trigger law in place, meaning that if the Mississippi ban is ruled constitutional and Roe ends, abortion immediately becomes illegal in the state.
The team echoed a distrust for local law enforcement, which is “useless” at enforcing city ordinances. Trepanier said escorts never call the police unless the clinic decides to do so.
“Cops will drive by and say nothing,” Trepanier said, even if protesters are using a bullhorn in the street. “They wish we weren’t there, and they wish protesters weren’t there. To us, it appears they are so afraid of getting sued for infringing on [protesters’] rights that they really don’t do anything.”
The Milwaukee Police Department said in an email that it encourages any person or business that observes illegal behavior “to contact the police and request services.”
“It’s not just a matter of free speech."
Protesters outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte expressed a message similar to the one Trepanier had been hearing: SB 8 is “immoral” not because it limits reproductive freedom but because it doesn’t totally eliminate abortion.
“Apparently, a six-week ban doesn’t go far enough for some of these people,” Heather Mobley, a clinic escort in Charlotte, told BuzzFeed News. “It has encouraged them.”
Mobley has been a volunteer escort for nearly five years for a clinic where up to 100 protesters can show up for “prayer walks” on Saturdays. Once a year, an annual event has drawn as many as 4,000 protesters parading through the streets, she added.
“People think because we’re in a blue area that we don’t have the kind of nonsense like they do in the Deep South,” Mobley said. “There’s definitely a lot going on. … If the clinic is open, we have protesters.”
She shared Trepanier’s impression that over time, protesters have shifted from “grandmothers with rosaries” to mobs who incite violence toward patients. Recently, Mobley recounted being pushed by an unmasked protester who shouted in her face with a megaphone.
The clinic has a private parking lot, offering a unique security layer most abortion providers lack. And escorts aren’t “police friendly” but have a “good working relationship” with local law enforcement, Mobley said, because officers set up restricted zones to sequester protesters every Saturday.
“If there’s anything that happens, the cops are already on the scene,” she said.
Mobley said her team is far more concerned by the pending Mississippi case than SB 8, and they’re currently working with Carolina Abortion Fund’s 40 Days for CAF campaign to pledge a specific dollar amount per protester outside the clinic. By doing so, the campaign seeks to discourage protesters from showing up in large numbers.
As in the case of Thompson, Mobley’s team runs Twitter and TikTok accounts to keep track of the number of protesters and connect with other escort groups. Their account, @CharlotteforChoice, has 75,000 followers and has amassed over 1 million likes.
Her team’s approach is to make protesters as uncomfortable as possible so they feel compelled to never come back. Mobley added that with the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on the Mississippi case in December, she fears for the future of clinic escorts’ role should abortion become illegal.
“Working with abortion funds is one of the more important things that we can do right now,” Mobley said. “Because otherwise, depending on what the Supreme Court might decide isn't legal anymore, that gets into a really gray area where you're potentially asking your volunteers to be subject to prosecution.”
“They are really hoping to get that Texas-style law.”
Cate Ross is an escort at Red River Women’s Clinic in the middle of downtown Fargo, which is surrounded by hotels, bars, boutiques, and “literally a burger restaurant connected to our building.”
“A lot of passersby get really mad when they are assumed to be abortion-seeking and they just want a cheeseburger,” she said of unwitting food customers.
Ross said restaurant patrons know not to eat on the outdoor patio on Wednesdays, the one day a week the clinic is open and protesters arrive in groups of at least 15. The city ignores the demonstrators, she said, when they fill the public sidewalk and come within inches of the clinic’s door.
“They are really hoping to get that Texas-style law,” Ross told BuzzFeed News about the protesters’ goals.
“I’m fighting for my granddaughters now.”
Kathy Zentner, an escort at Alabama Women’s Center in Huntsville, said she remembers what it was like before Roe v. Wade. She said the unimaginable is happening now, and her clinic has already seen patients who have driven more than 10 hours from Texas to receive abortion care. Like Wisconsin, Alabama also has a trigger law that would effectively ban abortion if the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe.
If the state adopted an SB 8–esque law, Zentner said, she would keep escorting, which she sees as an act of human kindness, like “bringing water to them in the desert.”
An escort for over two decades, Zentner recalled a moment from the early 1990s when a protester placed a sign on the windshield of a car. Zentner locked eyes with a girl, about 13 years old, who was in the backseat and about to step into the crowd swarming the vehicle.
“The look of terror on that kid’s face,” she said, adding it was the only time she’s gotten physical with a protester. “If I could have shoved that sign up [the protester’s] behind, I would have done that.”
Even now, she still puts her body between the clinic’s doctor and protesters whenever they leave the building as an added layer of safety. She said she’s watched the fight for abortion access since she graduated from high school in 1973, the year Roe was established.
“I’m fighting for my granddaughters now.”