Volunteer escorts form the front lines of the battle over reproductive rights
Pro-life protesters holding signs and handing out pamphlets have become a permanent fixture in front of reproductive health care clinics that provide abortion services. In response, pro-choice activists have quietly volunteered at clinics to escort clients and provide a welcoming and affirming environment for the women and men that utilize these clinics’ services.
In interviews with the Texas Independent, volunteer escorts at the Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas shared the stories of how they became actively involved in supporting reproductive rights. Some had been longtime supporters of Planned Parenthood and wanted to contribute in more hands-on ways, and some had never been involved in supporting reproductive rights but were encouraged by friends. Some learned about escorting through social media, and some found out through their church. All share a similar passion for reproductive rights.
Courtney, a longtime volunteer, explained why she supports reproductive rights, and what motivates her to volunteer. “I support reproductive rights because I believe in people’s bodily autonomy,” said Courtney. “I know what it’s like to have people consider your body public property, or their property, and there is nothing that makes you feel more powerless. And reproductive rights are, for me, about controlling what happens to your own body. Anyone should be allowed to choose when, how, and if they get or remain pregnant.”
Another volunteer, Lauren, explained she has always had a passion about women’s rights and women’s issues. “Reproductive rights for women are so incredibly important for so many different reasons,” said Lauren. “Health, safety, financial, and many others. We can see in other countries that do not have adequate reproductive health care what happens to women, and it’s not pretty. This is a feminist issue, a health issue, and a human rights issue. Not having reproductive rights sends us back to a time before the women’s movement where women were not allowed to make decisions concerning their health care.”
Planned Parenthood requires that volunteers complete paperwork that states that they will protect the privacy of the clients, and they receive training on the clinic’s mission and what is expected of volunteers. Volunteers contribute as much of their time as they feel comfortable doing. For some this has meant volunteering multiple times a week, and for others a few times per month.
Volunteers say the experience affects them in different ways. Tiffany, who began volunteering last year, said that the experience has been very positive. “I feel appreciated and needed as an escort to provide a friendly welcome and protection from the protesters,” said Tiffany. Lauren was initially apprehensive about what she would experience. “I wasn’t sure what to expect and I knew that the clinic in Bryan was one of the most protested in the nation,” said Lauren. “But so far I have enjoyed being able to provide that service for women and men who come into the clinic.”
Anti-abortion protesters gather outside the clinic on “sonogram days” and “surgical days,” in order to target women arriving at the clinic that might be there to terminate a pregnancy. However, during the biannual 40 Days for Life, the clinic is under constant protest. It is during this period that volunteers escort on a daily basis. Typically an escort will greet a client at their car, welcome them to the clinic, check them in and answer questions they may have.
A longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood before he started volunteering as an escort, Paul said that while some of the clients seem “genuinely puzzled” by why the protesters are even there, the vast majority are fully prepared that there will be protesters. “I think it has no effect on them,” said Paul. “I can tell from their expression and what they say, that it has no bearing on what they are intending to do.”
Raul, who became involved at the suggestion of his female partner, said that he does think the protesters have an impact, but that it is limited. “When the clients are besieged by the protesters, I think it makes the clients uncomfortable,” said Raul. “But I haven’t seen anyone turnaround and go home. I just don’t think they have that kind of an impact. They don’t have an impact outside beyond the fence.”
The volunteers’ perception of the protesters varies as much as their individual experiences with them. However, the majority of the volunteers do not actively engage with the protesters, even if the protesters engage with them. “They either ignored me or were flat-out awful to me,” said Courtney. ”They would shout at me that I was hurting women, or that I should direct my energies somewhere more helpful, or that I was helping kill babies. Some even seemed to think I didn’t know Planned Parenthood performed abortions, which was baffling.”
The reproductive rights battle has been reignited by a slew of anti-abortion legislation introduced into legislatures across the country. In Virginia a pre-abortion sonogram bill received massive media attention before a less intrusive version of the bill was eventually passed. However, in Texas a pre-abortion bill passed by the legislature went largely unnoticed by national media. The court battle that ensued ended with the state being allowed to enforce the law when an appellate court overruled a district court judge’s block on the law.
In Texas, Planned Parenthood has been under constant political attack. Recently the Texas Health and Human Services Commission signed a rule excluding Planned Parenthood and abortion affiliates from being part of the Medicaid-based Women’s Health Program – which helps pay for basic preventative care like breast and cervical cancer screenings, STD testing and birth control but not abortions. This led directly to the closure of West Texas Planned Parenthood, causing more than 2,500 low-income women living in Odessa to have to look elsewhere for basic reproductive and family planning care.
In response, the “Don’t Mess With Texas Women” campaign was launched to highlight the dangers of the health program’s expected demise by localizing the issue in each city and giving a voice and face to the problem. As the Texas Independent reported, the campaign wraps up on March 13–one day shy of the anticipated end of the Women’s Health Program, unless the federal government and the state come to an agreement.
While these very public battles are being waged, those that volunteer to be on the front lines of the battle see it in terms of supporting women and their health care. “Women want health care. Women want abortions. Women want reproductive freedom and rights,” said Lauren. “We need to provide them with a safe legal way of doing it so that we can prevent pregnancy, prevent infection, prevent infant mortality, and prevent the death of women. Women’s sexuality and reproductive rights are still a sensitive issue and it’s still a topic that is swept under the rug, kept hush hush, and no one wants to talk about it. Well, we need to talk about it and we need to stop shaming women for being sexual creatures and wanting their health care needs taken care of.”