The scene in front of Kentucky’s last abortion clinic

On the ground during one of the most trying times for the pro-choice movement.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — It’s 6:15 in the morning and 30 people are already standing outside the E.M.W. Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, the last operating abortion clinic in the state. The center doesn’t open for another two hours, but the fight for space in front of the clinic starts early.

About half of the people here are anti-abortion activists, setting up three speakers, a microphone and a sound board as well as unpacking a stack of huge poster boards. Next to them are the Louisville Clinic Escorts, men and women who volunteer to escort patients from their cars into the clinic. They wear purple vests with “clinic escort” written on the front and back so the patient can identify them. And standing on the outskirts of the sidewalk are U.S. Marshals as well as Louisville metropolitan police. The marshals are here for the week to enforce a temporary buffer zone that keeps the seven feet of sidewalk in front of the clinic’s doors unoccupied; a necessity after 10 protesters were arrested in May for blockading the doors to the clinic.

The sun hasn’t come up yet, but the protesters have already begun their work. Christian music, preaching, and prayers stream through the speakers, which are turned toward the clinic’s waiting room for the patients and staff to hear.

CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon
CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon

“This is a real evil, and it’s really about exposing that evil,” said John Pride, a member of Operation Save America, a fundamentalist Christian group that organized a national protest of the EMW clinic this week in Kentucky.

For the first hour, only men are among the protesters. They scroll through the available posters, picking their favorite and holding it up to face the oncoming traffic. The posters feature graphic photographs of aborted fetuses and text like “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

As for the escorts — they wait. Their jobs are not to engage, not to counter protest, and not to even look at the protesters if they can help it. They stand along the property line of the clinic as well as station themselves in the parking lot to help direct patients where to go.

A clinic escort stands along the buffer zone as a protester prays over her. CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon
A clinic escort stands along the buffer zone as a protester prays over her. CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon

This job has gotten harder in the last few years, after a Christian “crisis pregnancy center” — an anti-choice organization focused on dissuading patients from going through with an abortion — bought the building right next door to the clinic. The pregnancy center employees will try to direct the women into their office before they have a chance to get to the clinic; they even offer free parking for patients who have an appointment at the E.M.W. Women’s Surgical Center but choose to come to the pregnancy center instead.

Clinic escorts wait along the property line for patients to arrive as protesters try to engage them in conversation. CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon
Clinic escorts wait along the property line for patients to arrive as protesters try to engage them in conversation. CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon

On this morning, some protesters try to engage the escorts, either by standing directly in front of them and talking to them or by shouting into the microphone. Others pray over the escorts while standing next to them. Some don’t engage at all but stood to the side of the entrance, silently praying the rosary while wearing oversized “Choose Life” t-shirts.

“It’s very much an assault,” said Sarah Dugan, an escort who was stationed next to the the speakers. “But you get really good at ignoring it.”

As the sun starts to rise, a cargo truck drives by the clinic, all sides of its trailer covered in the same graphic anti-abortion images as the protesters’ posters. The truck circles the block for the next several hours.

By this point there are at least 60 people gathered around the still unopened clinic. Twenty officers have shown up along with 21 escorts. As each minute passes, more protesters arrive on the scene, bringing more posters, pamphlets, and a baby’s coffin with children’s toys and two fetus figurines.

At 8:00 a.m, a bell rings to signify that the clinic is open. So far, only one patient has been brought in and she was able to enter the clinic unnoticed so the protesters weren’t able to confront her in person.

A protester shouts through the window at the patient inside the E.M.W clinic CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon
A protester shouts through the window at the patient inside the E.M.W clinic CREDIT: Katelyn Marmon

After seeing a hand peek through the waiting room, two protesters attempt to directly engage with the patient through the window. “Young lady, having your baby murdered this morning is not loving,” the protester shouted through cupped hands towards the drawn blinds in the waiting room.

Patients only arrive for the first 30 minutes after the clinic opens, so by half past 8 a.m., the escorts’ jobs are done. They quietly take off their vests and disperse — some to eat breakfast together and decompress, and some to go straight to work. The protesters, on the other hand, have set up folding chairs and tables. For them, the job is far from over.