Abortion Clinic Escorts Say Protesters Are Feeling Emboldened: “I’m Fighting For My Granddaughters Now”

It's impossible to predict who will show up when you dial 911. It has never been a success.
Jon Cherry / Getty Images Protester stands in front of EMW Womens Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky on May 8, 2021.

Christine is used to being called witch. She is a volunteer escort at EMW Womens Surgical Center, Louisville, Kentucky. This means she's used to hearing anti-abortion protesters shout at her as she accompanies patients. Often, the Devil and Nazi guard are also used. Christine, who has served as an escortee for eight years, said that patients are not prepared for the harassment they will face when trying to enter the building. Christine said that they want to become martyrs. Christine asked for her last name to remain private because of security concerns. Christine spoke of the protestors who broke a new safety area in front of EMW last week. They showed a disregard for the 10-foot-wide yellow paint line that marks a path for patients to enter one of two state abortion providers. BuzzFeed News spoke with Christine and other clinic attendants at locations from Charlotte, North Carolina to Fargo (North Dakota). In the midst of heightened restrictions on abortion access in the US, these volunteers provide basic medical care for people who need it. Christine, an experienced clinic escort, said that they have been dealing with anti-abortion protesters for years despite the attention being paid to the issue. She said that now the opposition has been strengthened by Texas' SB 8 law. It wants states to take more severe measures against abortion. According to escorts, protesters are now more determined to disrupt their physical and moral safety. Local authorities often fail to enforce protections due to fear of inciting the crowd. Some escort groups have begun to prepare for the worst, including an end to abortion access. In December, the Supreme Court will rule on a ban of 15 weeks in Mississippi that could overturn the 1973 landmark legal case that gave birthright to abortion. These are just a few of the stories that escorts shared with BuzzFeed News about their experiences in helping people get healthcare.

A Narrow Path in Louisville Louisville Clinic Elopes: An abortion protester stands in front of a clinic in Louisville.

Meg Stern, who has been a patient escortee at EMW for more than 20 years, described one protester as "laying down in safety zone" and said that it was an attempt to show that he didn't intend to follow the new law. Stern described the scene at EMW's Sept. 18 safety zone ordinance was in place. This ordinance was designed to prevent anti-abortion protestors from getting in the way of patients. Just two weeks have passed since SB 8 was implemented. Stern stated that patients are made to endure harassment and have to go through what Stern described as a "gauntlet" of obstacles. Stern also said that patients from rural areas or outside the state can find it very disorienting to see EMW. According to the clinic, there were at least 1,447 protestors outside EMW between January and March 2021. There were about 23 of them on any given day. She called it a circus. Stern stated that Kentucky is a conservative state and the safety zone was a narrow path to safeguard what access Kentuckians have to abortion. The future looks grim. Next year, residents will vote on a referendum to ratify their constitution. This would allow them to state that the state does not guarantee abortion rights. A lawsuit is still pending regarding the constitutionality and validity of the safety zone ordinance. Anti-abortion groups argue that the space violates their First Amendment rights. According to Ona Marshall (co-owner of EMW), EMW is one of the most active anti abortion protest spots in the US. Protesters often bring their children along, display large signs and wear vests that can be mistaken for those of the escorts. Some even livestream the scene on social media from the sidewalk. Patients are lured to a fake clinic right next door. It has parking lots designated for EMW patients. This capitalizes on the clinic's limited parking options. They touch patients and grab their consent. Protesters claim that they are practicing preaching and officers will not allow them to touch patients. Stern stated that she has seen demonstrators slip knitted baby booties into the bags of patients. Many of the protestors are from faraway places and don't wear COVID-19 masks. As they enter the clinic, some try to trip escorts. Some offer counseling on the sidewalk to patients, even though abortion is not one of the many services EMW or similar clinics offer.

Stern and Christine were escorts. The safety zone's effectiveness is dependent on the ability of local law enforcement to enforce it. Stern claimed that Louisville police officers were slow in citing violators and failed to respond to two calls from EMW on the first Saturday of the zone's implementation (Saturday is the most busy day for the clinic). Protesters repeatedly broke the city's noise ordinance, and also breached the buffer zone rule. However, police claimed that staffing issues and other priorities prevented them from turning up.

Marshall stated that there was still chaos and aggressive behavior outside the clinic and in the blocks around it, which the escorts had been dealing with. She also said that nothing has changed in protesters' behavior since the bright yellow paint was on the ground. While some have followed the new rules, others have not. However, police have been more aggressive in issuing warnings or citations to protesters who are aware that the spotlight is on them. EMW has had a difficult relationship with local law enforcement. They have either supported or ignored protestors who violate city ordinances. A Louisville officer arrived in a squad car in February and protested outside EMW, wearing his uniform and weapon. However, an internal investigation revealed that he wasn't in violation of any LMPD standards. Christine stated that she believes that LMPDs failure to enforce city ordinances at EMW are due to internal bias. Christine stated that if this were anyone else for Black Lives Matter it wouldn't fly. However, Christine said that if a cop says he preaches the word of God and the cop is also white, he immediately backs down. BuzzFeed News asked LMPD for comment but they did not respond.

I hope that this raises awareness about clinic escorts. Annie Flanagan/Annie Flanagan Clinic has used large umbrellas to protect patients protestors at the Reproductive Health Services Center, May 24, 2019. Protesters often use cell phones and body cameras to record patients, in an effort to identify them.

Cassidy Thompson convened a meeting of WE Health Clinic escorts in Duluth to discuss potential protests outside their building. Thompson, who is both the clinic's escort train and patient educator, stated that not much had changed at first. It was surprising to her at first, given the number of protesters who regularly gathered outside WE, which provides abortion care only twice per week. Protesters often track the arrival of escorts and form large groups on those days. Things started to change over the next few weeks. Thompson stated that we realized they were becoming more confident. Thompson said that protesters are yelling louder and more aggressive towards patients. She said that patients were experiencing panic attacks and full-blown panic attacks. Patients were seen falling to the ground and crying as they tried to get in. Wes said that they had noticed patients having panic attacks and blocked out the sound of protesters. The clinic is located on Duluth's main street and does not have a parking space. The wireless speaker blasts a mix of Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X to counter the draconian sound that protesters make when they beg patients for the heartbeat. One protestor posted a video of the clinic escorts to social media. Thompson created a TikTok account @MNclinicescorts in response to SB 8. It has over 75,000 followers, and is currently raising money for the escorts. TikTok posts footage of protesters, captioned with a call out to a Catholic priest who is holding a vigil in the street. They also use the #POV hashtag to record people trying to livestream faces of patients on Facebook. Supporters have been encouraged to bring snacks and even join the team by posting the videos. She said that she hopes this brings attention to clinic staff escorts. Thompson stated that WE would be the only Upper Midwest abortion provider if Roe v. Wade was overturned. She said that WE and other local reproductive rights advocates would push the city to create a safety zone similar to the one in Louisville. Thompson stated that WEs are rarely dependent on local law enforcement, despite having a progressive city government. EMW is likely to face ineffective police in the face extreme protestors, she said. If a non-emergency situation arises, the clinic will consult with local FBI or legal experts. Thompson stated that you never know who might show up when calling 911. It has never worked.

Our setup is terrible. Alton Strupp / Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC. An anti-abortion protester confronts a person who entered the EMW Womens Surgical Center facility at Louisville, Kentucky, on September 18, 2021.

Some clinics have experienced a faster escalation of protests since SB 8s passage. According to Chad Trepanier who has been volunteering as an escort at this clinic for more than 10 years, Milwaukee's protests and harassment have only gotten worse in the past three to four years. Trepanier stated that the crowd has changed from small Catholic women who were mostly silent to fundamentalists who believe SB 8 is not enough to abolish the right to abortion. He said that these protesters believe that the law should include a death penalty for those who endanger a child. Trepanier stated that escorts constantly hear the same thing in their ears, and often make comparisons to a Nazi concentration camp guard. At one time, he even thought about wearing bulletproof vests. Trepanier's mother was an escort and said that the clinic's layout is terrible for protecting patients. Patients have to walk several blocks to get to their cars. The building's door is open to the sidewalks. There is no parking lot on site. Protesters often harass patients. He said that escorts often protect pedestrians who aren't going to the clinic. He said that if you appear to be a woman and are under 60 years of age, it is likely you will come to the clinic to have an abortive procedure. They will assume you are lying, or tell you that you are lying to protesters. Wisconsin is one of the few states that has a trigger law. This means that abortion will be illegal in Wisconsin if the Mississippi ban on abortion is overturned. Team members expressed distrust in local law enforcement which is unable to enforce city ordinances. Trepanier stated that escorts don't call the police unless the clinic requests it. Trepanier stated that cops will pass protesters and not say anything, even if they are shouting at them. They wish they weren't there and protesters weren't there. We believe they fear being sued for violating [protesters] rights and they don't do anything. Protesters outside A Preferred Womens Health Center, Charlotte, North Carolina, shared a message similar with Trepanier's: SB 8 is not moral because it restricts reproductive freedom, but because it does not completely eliminate abortion. Heather Mobley, a Charlotte clinic escort, said that a six week ban didn't reach enough people. It has encouraged them. Mobley is a volunteer escort at a clinic where 100 protesters can attend prayer walks on Saturdays. She said that a once-a-year event draws as many as 4,000 people to the streets. People believe that because we are in a blue zone, we don't have the same nonsense as they do in Deep South. There is a lot happening. There is a lot going on. Mobley recently recounted how an unmasked protester shouted at her with a megaphone and pushed her. A private parking lot is available at the clinic, which provides a unique layer of security that most abortion providers do not have. Mobley stated that although escorts may not be friendly with police, they have a good working relationship to local law enforcement. Officers set up zones to keep protesters in check every Saturday. She said that if anything happens, the police are already at the scene. Mobley stated that her team is more concerned about the pending Mississippi case then SB 8. They are currently working with Carolina Abortion Funds 40 Day for CAF campaign to pledge an exact dollar amount per protester at the clinic. The campaign aims to deter protesters from turning up in large numbers. Similar to Thompson's case, Mobleys' team uses Twitter and TikTok to track protesters and connect with other groups. Their account @CharlotteforChoice has 75,000 followers, and more than 1 million likes. Her team's approach is to make protesters feel as uncomfortable as possible, so that they will never return. Mobley said that she is concerned about the future role of clinic escorts in the event of an illegal abortion, given the Supreme Court's decision in December on the Mississippi case. Mobley stated that working with abortion funds is one the most important things we can do now. And because of that, you could be asking your volunteers to face prosecution, depending on the Supreme Court's decision.

They really want to get that Texas-style bill. Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images. A group of protestors hold signs at an anti-abortion rally in front of the Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Center, June 4, 2019, St Louis, Missouri.

Cate Ross works as an escort at Red River Womens Clinic, Fargo, North Dakota. She is located in downtown Fargo and is surrounded with restaurants, bars, boutiques and hotels. Ross stated that restaurant patrons are aware not to eat on the patio on Wednesdays. This is the only day the clinic opens, and there are at least 15 protesters arriving in large groups. She said that the city does not pay attention to the protesters who occupy the sidewalk and are within inches of the clinic's doors. Ross said that they are trying to achieve a Texas-style law.

I am fighting for my grandchildren now. Annie Flanagan/Annie Flanagan Escorts outside the West Alabama Womens Center, Tuscaloosa (Alabama), on May 23, 2019.

Kathy Zentner, an Alabama Womens Center escort, stated that she can still recall what it was like prior to Roe v. Wade. According to her, the unimaginable is now happening. Her clinic has seen patients drive more than 10 miles from Texas in order to get abortion care. Alabama, like Wisconsin, has a trigger statute that would ban abortion if Roe is overturned by the Supreme Court. Zentner stated that if the state adopted a SB 8esque law, she would continue escorting. Zentner also recalled a time in the 1990s when a protester had placed a sign on a car's windshield. Zentner was about 13 years old when she met a girl in the backseat, just as she was about to enter the crowd surrounding the vehicle. She said that the look on her face was filled with terror. She said that if she could, she would have left the sign up [the protesters] behind. She stated that she has been following the fight for abortion access from the moment she graduated high school in 1973 (the year Roe was established). I am fighting for my grandchildren now.