It’s not unusual to see a small group of protesters praying outside of Hartford GYN Center, Connecticut’s last independent abortion clinic. On the morning that I interviewed Hartford GYN’s clinic escort team, however, thirty-six protesters stood shoulder-to-shoulder chanting the Hail Mary. Facing the protesters from about five-feet away stand the clinic escorts, a volunteer group that walks patients to and from the clinic. Although there’s no shouting or arguing between the two groups, there’s a palpable tension that heightens with every new chorus of Ave Maria. It’s a scene that one might expect to see outside abortion clinics across the Bible Belt of America, but not here in a ‘blue state’ like Connecticut.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have protestors, and then we wouldn’t need escorts outside,” says Erica, Organizer and Volunteer Coordinator at Hartford GYN and NARAL, Pro-Choice Connecticut, “It would be just like walking into any other doctor’s appointment, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in.”
The number of protesters has been steadily increasing since St. Gerard’s Center for Life opened ‘The Hartford Women’s Center’, a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC), right next door in May. The Hartford Women’s Center and Hartford GYN Center stand in uncomfortable proximity; a small courtyard is all that separates the two brick buildings. In addition to adopting a plagiarized name, the CPC has also attempted to brand itself as a healthcare facility with window signs asking ‘Pregnant? Need Help?’. Their door is kept ajar so that a cozy-looking waiting area–complete with sofas and a Keurig–is easily visible to anyone walking past.The CPC’s strategic location and advertisements make their motive painfully clear: to deliberately target patients who are arriving to, or leaving from their appointments at the clinic. Erica has also noticed that the CPC’s volunteer ‘counsellors’ hover in the doorway and call out to patients coming out of the clinic.
“I think they want them to come in for counselling after they’ve had an abortion,” says Erica. “They really stress this myth of post-abortion stress disorder; while there are a lot of reasons why someone might be stressed before, after, or during an abortion, the most common feeling is relief.”
To combat the CPC’s dangerous efforts to infringe on Hartford women’s ability to freely choose and access abortion, Hartford GYN has mobilized a team of dedicated clinic escort volunteers. Clinic escorts, recognizable by their signature pink vests, are assembling across the country where anti-choice groups are restricting accessibility to abortion services. By offering patients the option to be escorted, as Erica explains, “patients don’t have to worry about confronting protesters or finding their way through the courtyard; they can just follow the pink vest, and that’s all they have to worry about.”
With protesters outnumbering pink vests most days, volunteers have to act extra vigilantly to ensure that every patient is given the option to be escorted. Charles, who has been volunteering every Saturday since July, has noticed that the Hartford protesters–even in swelling numbers–usually engage passive aggressive forms of protest. “They’ll be out on the sidewalk, reading their literature, singing and chanting,” says Charles. “Sometimes they’ll get a little more aggressive with patients and try and approach them and berate them.”
Moments before sitting down with another clinic escort, Liam, we witnessed a protester become hostile as a patient left the clinic: The protester followed the patient out to their car, which was parked on the side of the busy intersection between Franklin and Main. When the patient ignored the protester’s advances and got in their car, the protester walked out into the street to continue knocking on the window and shouting to get the patient’s attention. “That was distracting to the driver; that could have been an accident.” says Liam. “The protesters tend to get very passionate and don’t think about these things.” Liam recounts that on his first shift he noticed that, “the protestors would physically approach people without any invitation from the other party. They would be touchy-feely with patients.” This was not an isolated incident; Liam says he’s seen similar advances “at least ten times” since.
Although praying the rosary is obviously preferable to heckling and stalking–or in some states, the showcase of guns and other weapons–it remains wholly unjustifiable to disrupt a patient’s legal right to get an abortion. Angelica, whose first clinic escort shift was the CPC’s opening day, says that “their mere presence on the sidewalk contributes to the unnecessary stigma and shame wrongfully associated with getting an abortion.”
For Jamie, being a clinic escort means not only combating the stigma of abortion, but also standing up for women’s hard-earned reproductive rights: “It’s not like one day men woke up and said, ‘Let’s do right by the gals’. We have to be ever vigilant. If we sit back and be complacent then we’ll be right back where we started. There’s only one abortion clinic left in Kentucky. And here we are, the last independent clinic in a ‘blue state’.”
As a white male, Charles feels it is especially important for him to show up where women’s rights are under attack: “Today’s political climate has people who look like me, white men, trying to take away women’s rights and minorities’ rights. I need more people who stand up and say, ‘No we denounce this’.’”
Encouragingly, as the crowd of protesters continues to grow, Hartford GYN also has experienced an influx of volunteers. Right now, Hartford GYN is prioritizing gaining better representation among the volunteering team: “We’re a community clinic, so we’re working on intentionally recruiting Hartford residents as volunteers,” says Erica. “It’s important that our volunteers are representative of our patients.”
As clinic escort myself, I can attest that there is no more effective way to understand the mind and methods of the opposition than by sharing a sidewalk with them. Standing across from those who are diametrically opposed to your beliefs, while at the very same time standing beside your passionate allies, makes clinic escorting the one of the most jarring and enlightening volunteer experiences.