Anti-abortion protesters line the sidewalk outside the Dr. Emily Women's Health in Bronx, New York. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg
"Is this why you came here all the way from Australia? To kill babies?”
I didn't set out to become a clinic escort. Sure, I'd seen footage of angry anti-abortion protesters harassing women and threatening doctors, but thought that only happened in such places as Kansas and Mississippi, not here in New York City.
When a local feminist group told me that escorts - volunteers who “escort” patients from the street and into the clinic - were desperately needed at a women's health centre in a low-income area of Queens, I was motivated as much by curiosity as my passion for reproductive rights.
Closer to home: Anti-Abortion protestors chant out the front of the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne. Photo: Rebecca Hallas RLH
It was 7am and I couldn't believe people would get up so early on a Saturday to stand outside a medical clinic and yell at patients going in. But they do. And anti-abortion protesters fervently believe they are doing the “Lord's work”.
They are also adamant that everyone working for the clinic, escorts included, has “blood on their hands”.
The “antis”, as we call them, spread out across the street in a 200-metre radius from the clinic. They brandish the familiar images of allegedly aborted foetuses. Some of them follow patients to the front door, crying out things such as “Please don't kill your baby!” and “You will regret this for the rest of your life”, and even “Don't kill me mommy!” in falsetto.
Anti-Abortion protestors chant out the front of the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne. Photo: Rebecca Hallas RLH
A few stand still and quiet, letting their posters do the talking, while the rest inform passers-by that there is a “house of death” in the neighbourhood.
The aim is not only to manipulate women into maintaining their pregnancy, but also to turn locals against the clinic. And it works.
Although some residents literally give us the thumbs-up, many angrily demand to know why we “like killing babies”.
When abortion is framed in such a way there is no room for pregnant women and their rights to enter the picture. It's as if they don't exist, other than as a life support system for the foetus.
Antis accuse us of tricking or forcing women into betraying their essential natures. Not once in three months have I seen one of these dozens of protesters acknowledge that women come of their own accord.
“You don't have to do this,” they shout as women disappear through the front door. “You have a choice!”
She has a choice? Isn't that our point?
In the anti worldview women are meant to be mothers; that is their God-given role. One week, a male anti proselytised about how happy his wife was when he told her to stop working after becoming pregnant with their daughter. “When she saw I had stepped into my role as the head of the family,” he said, “she stepped into hers.”
On the same day, a female anti approached three teenage girls, saying: “Have you noticed how in Africa, where they recognise the role of women as nurturers, you always see pictures of mothers carrying lots of babies?”
They are against abortion in all cases (and if you probed deeply enough, you would discover they don't think much of contraception either). When a local told them he supported abortion in cases of rape, the proselytiser responded: “Why punish the baby for the crimes of the father?”
“No,” the resident replied, “that is punishing the woman.”
“But she is already a mother. God has made her a mother.”
These antis are Bible literalists and creationists but they surprisingly include lawyers, engineers and medical students. They are smart and they are organised, and they are winning the war by fomenting an atmosphere of violence and hysteria outside abortion clinics across the United States.
One tactic is to turn abortion into a race issue by insisting that abortion is an attempted genocide against African-Americans. In this primarily black and Hispanic area, I have been called a “white supremacist” and a Nazi. To them, abortion is the “new slavery” and they are “abolitionists”.
There is no law against them peddling these lies.
American freedom of speech laws means protesters can come within a hair's breadth of patients (providing they don't touch them), as they make their way to the clinic. Antis can - and do - stand right outside the clinic door and scream as loud as they want, as long they want.
This is where escorts come in. Our job is to get to the patient first and create a buffer between her and the anti. We smile and let her know she does not have to listen to them nor take the literature they try to give her. She is within her rights to demand they leave her alone but they rarely do.
Although protesters sometimes picket clinics in Australia, I have never seen anything like this. We never know what to expect. Some mornings are uneventful, with few patients. Others are draining, with antis simultaneously yelling at us, shouting at patients and loudly preaching Bible passages outside the clinic entrance.
All as women are simply exercising their right to medical care.
Two weeks ago six men from a different church group showed up. Almost immediately, they began trying to intimidate women into submission. “Women have abortions because they don't accept the domination of men!” they yelled. Males entering the clinic were taunted: “Man up and take ownership of your baby!”
They told us their story. Former drug dealers and ex-gang members, they had been recruited in prison and had turned to Christ. Absolved of their own sins, they now felt compelled to “help us” accept Jesus.
When one escort asked to be left alone, she was told she needed “a lead pipe to the knees” to make her “bow down before the Lord”.
Escorts are advised “don't engage”, but I couldn't stay silent when one of these men screamed in my face: “You deserve death. You deserve to die.”
I immediately regretted my heated response: “So kill me then!”
This exchange was captured on their smartphones and I have no idea what they intend to do with the footage and the thought of it being passed around violent anti-abortion groups makes me feel ill. This is one of the reasons we never tell them our names.
But standing on the street for hours on end, we also have time to get to know each other a little too. It's strange how quickly we can go from arguing to discussing the weather. When no patients are around and emotions are not as fraught, they tell me about their families and ask about my boyfriend back in Sydney. One of them insisted on giving me a Bible.
But I never lose sight of the fact that these people want to take control of my body away from me. Sometimes I am so focused on them, I forget my job is not to try to change them but to support women entering the clinic.
And how do the patients feel about all this? Some tell the antis to back off; others walk meekly with their heads down, as if they somehow deserve this. The younger ones often look scared and ask us to stay close. Some fight back tears.
And then there are the ones who laugh it all off. One particularly hectic morning, a young woman looked stunned: “Is this for real?” She laughed nervously. “I saw this happen on Juno. Not in real life.”