24 September 2006

Saturday mornings at the clinic

In September 2003 I began volunteering as what is known as a "pro-choice escort" at a Portland abortion clinic. For about the next year I went every other Saturday morning, Saturday mornings being the time when the clinic is typically besieged by anti-abortion protesters and thus needs defending.

On any given morning there were typically anywhere from three to six escorts on duty. Most of them came when they could; the only ones who were there every Saturday were W. and S., the informal "leaders" of the team. We were always careful, by the way, to use only first names and avoid mentioning any identifying information which the protesters might overhear. We had once had a case where the protesters had somehow found out an escort’s home address and had sent him threats through the mail. (I am using initials here since I have no way of knowing whether they would care to be even that identifiable in an internet posting. W. was a man, S. a woman.)

The term "escort" is somewhat misleading. In theory an escort’s job is to stand outside the clinic and, if needed, shield clients from harassment by the protesters on their way into the building. In practice such cases seldom arise. Most clients park in a parking lot which is off limits to the protesters and enter through the back door, and even when a client uses the front door, the protesters rarely attempt to approach her. In fact, the role of the escort is a more subtle one. The aim of the anti-abortion protesters is intimidation – making the clinic’s clients and staff feel isolated and surrounded by opposing forces. The role of the escorts is to negate this, providing a visible positive presence to counter the protesters’ hostile one, making the environment more comfortable for clients who might otherwise feel they were in completely unfriendly territory. More than doing anything per se, one’s job is simply to be there. It seems very likely, for example, that protesters would routinely approach and harass clients if there were no escorts present. Knowing that the escorts are ready to intervene if they do so deters them from trying.

The protesters themselves were a varied crew. Most of them were regulars, and we knew their habits. Some of them just stood around holding signs. Some engaged in religious chanting or ostentatious praying. Some stood as close to the clinic as the law allowed and gave vent to long, bellowing diatribes which usually seemed to be more about God and the Bible and so forth than about abortion per se. One protester always carried a gun. He had a permit for it, so there was nothing we could do about this. Due to some previous incident, there was a standing police order forbidding him to be on the same side of the street as the clinic itself, so he stood across the street, scowling at us. Another protester seemed to have a bizarre personal fixation on S. He had once said to her, "Women like you deserve to be raped." I once heard a protester shout at a man who was accompanying a woman into the clinic, "Why are you letting that woman kill your baby? Be dominant, sir! Be a man!"

I never saw any actual violence, but the level of tension was sometimes considerable, especially whenever there was a new protester whom we hadn’t seen before. A new person was by definition unpredictable. As we all know, in other parts of the country there have been a few cases of abortion clinics being bombed and doctors murdered by Christianist terrorists, and there has been at least one case in which a volunteer escort was killed. So we were always on the alert for any sign of possible danger.

Why did I do it? I’ve always held individual freedom to be the highest value. If you allow others to encroach on your absolute freedom to decide what will happen inside your own body, then what freedom can you lay claim to? As for the others, W. was a libertarian who felt similarly repulsed by the protesters’ goal of suppressing self-determination on religious grounds, while S. had strong feminist convictions; most of the more transient defenders, as best I could tell, had similar motives. Incidentally, though most of them would generally be classified as leftist, most agreed with my own views on the dire nature of the Islamist threat.

It’s one thing to study religious fanaticism by reading books about it. It’s very different to come face to face with it. During my time as a clinic escort, I came to understand in my gut, not just in my head, what these people’s mentality is really like. They will not be satisfied until what you and I and everyone else can and cannot do is dictated by the moral constraints of their religion, backed up by the power of the law, as in Taliban Afghanistan.

Local people in that neighborhood would sometimes stop and chat with the escorts, bring us hot drinks on cold mornings or otherwise offering encouragement. On one occasion an elderly woman approached me and said, "I don’t agree with abortion, but I’m glad to see a man standing up for women’s right to make their own decisions." That’s what this is really about: the freedom of all of us to make our own decisions, not have them made for us by somebody else’s religion. That’s the freedom that requires our eternal vigilance.

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