The fatal shooting spree at Colorado Springs’ Planned Parenthood last month left many in disbelief and confusion. But for clinic staff and volunteers, it was much less surprising. This attack, while deadlier than most, was one in a long history of violent attacks on abortion clinics.
Some reproductive rights supporters used the opportunity to share their own experience dealing with the daily throngs of aggressive protesters outside of their clinic, or shine a light on the hundreds of times clinics across the country have faced violence in the past.
The reality of accessing an abortion facility isn’t always shared by those in need of an abortion, or by the doctors working hard to keep the doors open and their staff safe. More often, the clinic escorts — volunteers who offer to walk with patients across the protester-heavy battlefield that lies between their car door and the clinic entrance — feel the most confident sharing their experience. There’s far less stigma attached to their role at the clinic than the patients and they receive far fewer threats than the staff inside.
Here are four unique perspectives from the lens of clinic escorts who’ve seen everything from evangelical anti-abortion biker gangs to deceptive grandmothers.
After reading an article about clinic protesters in New Jersey, Ashley Gray immediately called up a local clinic to see how she could help — and ended up forming her own clinic escort team.
On some days, the team of volunteers sees up to 30 protesters, ranging in purpose and rage. They generally all fall into three categories, according to Gray: Non-intimidating Catholics that pray in silence across the street, grandmotherly Christian “sidewalk counselors” that spout false information about abortion in sweet tones, and aggressive, evangelical men holding gruesome signs and screaming insults at the women patients.
This third group films patients walking in and posts the videos to YouTube, mobs cars and taxis dropping off patients to prevent them from exiting, and blocks the public sidewalk. Some even yell at the other calmer protesters they disagree with. Their aggressive tactics inspired Gray to lobby the city council to create an buffer zone banning protesters from getting closer than 8 feet to the clinic itself. But it only does so much.
“We’ve still found them snooping around the facility, trying to find a way inside,” she said. “Some even ask patients’ companions to take photos inside for them.”
The police play a small role in protecting the clinic staff and patients. When they’re called, a police car often shows up, looks around, and drives away, she said.
“They’ve pretty much asked us not to call. To deal with it on our own,” Gray said. This only pushes Gray and her fellow volunteers to work even harder to keep their patients feeling safe.
“Some want us to hold their hand, or put our arm around them. My favorite patients use it as opportunity to say ‘Fuck you! I’m allowed this right, get out of my face,’” she said. “The really heartbreaking moments are when you see a protester break a woman’s spirit.”
For instance, Gray recently watched a teenage rape victim break down into tears in front of the hateful mob blocking her path.
“That’s when they need you the most,” she said.
On the Sunday following the shooting at Colorado Spring’s Planned Parenthood, Gray said she told her team of volunteers that their safety and comfort comes first. She didn’t want to put them in a position where they felt afraid. Instead, double the amount of regular escorts showed up — they all said that the tragedy had only solidified the importance of their work.
“It comes down to human decency,” Grey said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or pro-life, you don’t stand out on a sidewalk and scream at a woman for making a personal, legal choice.”
Shortly after Paul Valette ended his 25-year stint in the army in 1995, he signed up to volunteer as a clinic escort at abortion clinics across the D.C. area. He hasn’t stopped since. Despite his military background, he is quick to stress the non-violent drive behind his work.
“What we do as an escort is all about the patient. It’s not helpful if I get involved with a protester,” Valette said. “ I try to just project warmth and friendliness to the patients. And ignore the rest. They hate that.” But Valette has noticed a difference in the way he is treated by the protesters compared to his fellow female volunteers. He finds that they give him more space and yell much less when he’s the one assisting a patient to the clinic doors.
“It’s very sexist,” he said.
Many of the patients he helps often speak Spanish as their first (and sometimes, only) language. Protesters use that to their benefit by informing them that the clinic is closed or is in a different building in their native language. That’s often when Valette steps in.
“I try to let all patients know that I’m a volunteer with the clinic, and the rest have no understanding of the facility. But sometimes it’s hard,” he said. “Often, I’m just another person talking at them.”
Valette said he’s never felt outright threatened by the protesters, but he’s most afraid of any unfamiliar faces in the crowd. He’s volunteered for so long that he’s used to the regulars at local clinics — and they’re used to him — sometimes he even exchanges waves with a few in the morning. He’s not easily intimidated.
“I have reached the point — I’m almost 70 — that I kind of just have this ‘what are you going to do about it?’ attitude with those against what I do.”
The only times he witnessed police interaction on the premises is when a patient or their companion makes a call. Recently, he watched as a man who was accompanying his wife to the clinic called the police on a particularly aggressive pair of protesters. However, when the police arrived, they just told the man that what the protester was doing was legal and had to talk to his wife, who was then sitting in the waiting room, to get her witness statements.
“Imagine going through that verbal attack outside and then having to talk to the police about it right before you are called in by the doctor? That’s not helping anyone,” Valette said.
Michelle Kinsey Bruns
The 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, encouraged many pro-choice supporters to take action. One of those people was Michelle Kinsey Bruns.
“I really thought we, as country, were past this. That this isn’t normal,” she said. “In my head, I thought there would be an uprising.”
But there wasn’t. So she committed herself to volunteering as a clinic escort at facilities across the country — especially in states up against a strong anti-abortion movement. She’s led women into a Louisville, Kentucky clinic surrounded by 300 shouting Catholic protesters and stood chest-to-chest with a menacing member of an anti-abortion biker gang to block him from approaching a patient in her car. She’s seen a mailmen been “held hostage” by protesters when trying to drop off mail at a clinic. She’s seen longtime, seemingly peaceful protesters eventually drawn to the edge of violence.
“It’s clear there isn’t a bright line between peaceful protesters and violent ones,” Bruns said. “Things get out of hand pretty quickly.”
Bruns has been in pushing and shoving matches on public sidewalks, simply to get to a patient. It’s at the point, she said, that at high-tension clinics, most patients know violence is an option.
“They expect it,” she said. “Nobody should have to be in fear for their life when going into a doctor’s office. It makes me ill.”
Of the eight states she’s visited to volunteer as an escort, there’s one factor that changes the atmosphere of a protest: The clinic’s layout. If there’s a private parking lot, patients can easily walk to the clinic without having to be harassed by protesters — at least not in such a close proximity. And a private sidewalk leading to the entrance is also extremely helpful. It mostly comes down to how far the protesters are willing to push their luck.
“Once I heard someone yell ‘I should firebomb this place!’” Bruns said. “That’s the scary thing: When you see people mocking you, yelling threats and enjoying it. Enjoying being frightening.”
Lauren Rankin was actively involved in abortion rights as a freelance writer for years before she decided it wasn’t enough.
“I needed a more concrete way to do something. I wanted to meet the women on the ground and see what they were experiencing,” she said. “It’s more than just providing safe access to an abortion. It’s about being a decent human being.”
Ranking said the best way to learn how to interact with both patients and protesters is by simply putting yourself into the situation. There’s no training that could better prepare an escort.
“Some patients want you to joke with them and laugh about the situation. Some don’t want to talk with you at all, she said. “So you learn by doing. You can’t teach somebody emotional competence.”
The protesters never make her job easy. It’s not uncommon for protesters to direct patients to the Crisis Pregnancy Center — an anti-abortion center disguised as a doctor’s office — conveniently located right across the street, telling them it’s the clinic. And many come simply wanting to start a fight.
“On a bad day,” Rankin says, “we have as many as ten screamers. They try to rile up the patients’ companions more than anything. They want them to get violent so they can call the police.”
More often than not, the only time the police show up is when the protesters call them. They’ve even called the cops on Rankin, after she held her hands up in front of a protester’s camera to block it from filming a patient she was escorting. Their complaint? Violating the cameraman’s free speech.
“That was dismissed pretty quickly,” she said.
Rankin said she’s never felt unsafe while volunteering. She’s not there to think about herself, anyway, she said. And the stress is always worth the reward.
“A patient came up to me the other day as she was leaving the clinic and said, ‘Thank you so much for being here. I don’t know if I could have done it without you,’” Rankin recalled. “And that’s what gets me. The fact that if I wasn’t there, she wouldn’t feel able to access her constitutional right? That’s the most concrete way to remind me how important this is.”