On Thursday mornings, I wake up at the crack of dawn, bundle up in my puffiest jacket, and hop on the Soutbound Metra train to the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. I arrive at the clinic by 8:00, by which point the small, intrepid group of anti-choice regulars has already set up camp. Like me, these protesters regularly spend their Thursday mornings slowly losing the feeling in their limbs as the ruthless Chicago wind chill turns us all into human ice cubes. Unlike me, however, these protesters congregate with the single-minded intention of preventing women from entering the clinic. This makes for a tense situation, since, as clinic escorts, we are charged with the often perilous task of ensuring that the clinic remains accessible to patients. In a very real, microcosmic sense, then, the culture war over abortion rights plays out in a dramatic fashion every Thursday morning on the corner of Elston and Cicero.
Over the years, the Albany Park clinic has become a hotbed of anti-choice activism, especially for the increasingly prevalent anti-choice tactic known as “sidewalk counseling.” Pro-life “sidewalk counselors” accost women and couples as they attempt to enter the clinic, hand them pamphlets and fact sheets with false and misleading information about abortion, and direct them to the Crisis Pregnancy Center located one block North. At the CPC, women are offered pregnancy tests, ultrasound referrals, and pro-life counseling. They aren’t presented with a full range of pregnancy-related options and the information they do provide is often medically inaccurate. For instance, they claim that abortion has been shown to cause breast cancer, infertility, depression, suicide, eating disorders, and difficulty bonding with present or future children. These claims are patently untrue and only serve to guilt and shame women who are already grappling with difficult choices.
Relatively speaking, the anti-choice protests outside of the Albany Park clinic are peaceful. There are rarely grossly misleading, gruesome photographs on display, and the “sidewalk counselors” take special care to look friendly and approachable. They station themselves along the outer periphery of the clinic’s parking lot, equipped with rosaries and binders full of anti-choice literature. Some of them wear official-looking reflective vests that resemble the ones worn by clinic escorts so as to confuse clinic patients into stopping and rolling down their car windows as they pull into the parking lot. Clinic escorts are always on the lookout for this tactic. When cars pulls into the alley that leads to the parking lot, there is a muted scuffle as the antis and escorts attempt to position themselves in the driver’s field of vision. As the antis frantically motion for the driver to stop, the clinic escorts attempt to wave them into the parking lot. I can only imagine how confusing and disconcerting an experience it must be for clinic patients.
There are several laws that govern the behavior of anti-choice protesters. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act forbids the use of “force, threat of force or physical obstruction” to prevent someone from providing or receiving reproductive health services. Those who violate the FACE Act are subject to both criminal and civil penalties. Chicago also has a “Bubble” Ordinance, which stipulates that, within 50 feet of a clinic entrance, anti-abortion protesters cannot come within eight feet of someone who is walking into a clinic. Protesters who enter the clinic premises are prosecuted for trespassing, and physical contact between protesters and patients or clinic escorts is grounds for arrest. These laws help to keep the peace most of the time, but occasionally passions flare, the police are called, and arrests are made.
Anti-choice protesters are, of course, entitled to their freedom of speech. They are free to hand out literature and to advocate for causes they strongly believe in. But quite honestly, no one benefits from the contentious atmosphere engendered by anti-choice clinic protests, least of all the patients. I sincerely admire the passion and dedication these self-described “prayer warriors” display every week at the Albany Park clinic. I know that the antis believe that they are helping women just as strongly as I believe that I am. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if their energies might be better spent on advocacy that doesn’t seek to alienate, guilt, and shame vulnerable women. Instead of spending this holiday season singing “empty manger” carols outside of clinics, why not advocate for comprehensive sex education in Illinois public schools so that young adults will be equipped with the information they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies? Why not volunteer a few hours a week at a local women’s shelter? Why not protest cuts to Medicaid, WIC, and Title X? Why not work to create a society in which all pregnancies are wanted pregnancies?
I will continue to work as a clinic escort for as long as anti-choicers deem clinic protests a valuable use of their time. While it often requires getting up early and enduring freezing temperatures, clinic escorting fundamentally enables women to exercise their constitutional right to choose. The protest politics at the clinics provide a truly compelling glimpse of the front lines in the battle over abortion rights. If clinic escort work sounds worthwhile to you, check with your local pro-choice advocacy group to see if they organize a clinic escort team.