Why I Help Escort Women to the Doors of Kentucky’s Last Abortion Clinic

Beginning this weekend, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America will descend on Louisville, Kentucky, in an attempt to shut down the last abortion clinic in the state, EMW Women’s Surgical Center. The group has targeted EMW, whom the ACLU represents, before. In May, 10 of its members were arrested when they linked hands to block the entrance of the clinic and refused to move when asked to do so by law enforcement. Abortion protesters have the First Amendment right to protest outside a clinic on public property, but they do not have the right to interfere with anyone’s access to the clinic.

OSA planned to stage a week of protests in front of EMW, starting tomorrow, with the goal of shutting the center down. But today, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against leaders of OSA and their associates, barring them from entering a buffer zone outside EMW's entrance.  Since the restraining order only applies to OSA leaders and associates, the protests will continue. There to assist patients of the center will be the Louisville Clinic Escorts, a group of volunteers who accompany women to the doors of the clinic, often in the face of insults and shouting. Their help is an invaluable part of the center’s fight to stay open and protect essential services for the women of Kentucky. 

The ACLU caught up with Meg Stern, one of the Louisville Clinic Escorts, earlier this week to talk about her work. She is a Louisville native and works for the Kentucky Health Justice Network. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When and why did you first get involved with Louisville Clinic Escorts?

I started escorting in 1999 with a group of friends because I had learned that the protests were taking place and that the escorts were a thing. At the time, it was a very small group of folks, and I wanted to show up and do what I could because I didn’t think that that type of harassment was an okay thing for people to have to endure.

How has escorting changed over the years?

There have been a number of things that have affected what’s gone on on the sidewalk. There have been new regulations on abortion access in addition to the closing of the satellite clinics that EMW had open until this past January in Lexington, at which point the Louisville clinic became the only one in the state. In general, we’ve seen an increase in attendance at this clinic because it’s the only one. The protesters are aware that Gov. Matt Bevin is interested in trying to close this clinic as well. They see our clinic as low-hanging fruit in their mission to create a state with no clinics.

Can you summarize what you tell volunteers about how to interact with both protesters and clients?

Our website has a page called “points of unity.” They talk about things like focusing on de-escalation, not making assumptions. We always ask for consent from our clients every time. And that includes, “Do you want me to walk with you?” to, just based on body language, “If you want to grab my arm, you may.” We never make assumptions, and we focus a lot on consent from the clients and their companions.

Last Abortion Clinic in Kentucky 1

And do you typically get consent or do some people say no?

Yeah, some people say no. Sometimes they change their minds pretty quickly. Escorts are stationed throughout the entire area surrounding the clinic, so it’s a pretty busy downtown road, especially on weekdays. And there’s no onsite parking for the clients, so they have to park either at a street meter or in a parking garage nearby. They have no option but to walk up the public sidewalk through a literal gauntlet, occasionally it looks more like an obstacle course, of people with signs. Often there are small children playing in the middle of the sidewalk. They create blockades. We have photos of all of the above, including protesters doing things like pressing signs into the faces of the escorts as the escort practices non-engagement.

If a patient declines an escort, absolutely we will respect that, and if they start walking on their own sometimes they will sort of realize that they’re getting swarmed by people that aren’t asking consent from them, and inevitably they will have gotten to a point in the sidewalk where there are more escorts, and those escorts will also check in and ask, “Do you want me to walk with you?”

When clients are setting up appointments with the clinic, are they usually familiar with the number of protesters outside or is that something that they discover when they arrive at the clinic?

The clinic lets people know that there are protesters and escorts. They don’t go really deeply into what it’s going to look like because they have so much other information that they’re having to deliver about the medical care. Some people do find our blog or our Facebook page. We get messages from people either asking questions before they accompany someone in or thanking us for being there.

Can you walk me through what a typical day would look like for an escort?

So we start to arrive close to 7 a.m., sometimes a little bit earlier if we’re expecting a big crowd. Escorts arrive, park, and just immediately report to their post. Sometimes people line up along the property line to hold space to allow people to pass from the sidewalk to the private property without being obstructed. Some people station themselves at a corner or at a parking lot. And then we hang around, the clinic opens at 8, so we have some downtime, during which time the protesters take advantage of the fact that we are a captive audience for them, and that’s when there’s plenty of preaching, or they try to goad us into a debate, especially if they notice new escorts or they are new protesters.

Sometimes that can turn into aggression. So we do our best to not engage during that amount of time, and we make sure that we are holding space in such a way that clients will be able to see us and let them know, “Hey, I’m a volunteer, there’s other people that are in orange vests that are happy to walk with you.”

Can you estimate the numbers of clients, escorts, and protesters on a given day?

I escort on Saturdays for the most part. On an average Saturday, we will see between 50 and 70 protesters, somewhere around 20 or 25 escorts, and the number of clients varies, but usually between 15 to 25.

Can you talk about how you feel when you see the protesters?

I sometimes feel intimidated. I’ve definitely been grabbed out there. I’m 5’3. There are people that are much, much bigger than me that use their bodies and that can be really scary.

So, fear, on occasion, but that’s not the prominent feeling that I have. Honestly, they make me angry. I have years and years of experience, and also training, so I’m not going to act on that anger in any way. If anything it helps me practice de-escalation for myself because that’s one of the skills that we have to practice outwardly. I’ve had people ask me if they should bring their guns out of the car. We have to practice de-escalation, so it starts with me.

Are there any particularly strong reactions from clients that stick out in your memory?

We have clients that run their mouths to the protesters the entire time, which is their right as well. Sometimes they’ll get to the property line and say their piece and get it off their chest and turn around triumphantly and walk inside. We have people who just want to put on their sunglasses and their hood and keep their head down, so it really runs the gamut as far as reactions go.

Are there any really difficult moments that stick out for you?

Sometimes people have to bring their kids with them, and those are particularly hard walks because the protesters get really vicious in those situations. We do have ways around that, and we’ll give options, like we’ll offer to sit in cars with the kids. It’s all about asking consent, providing options, letting the client make the decision that feels best for them.

Can you talk about your experiences with the protesters from Operation Save America and your plans next week?

My first experience with them was in winter when they came and were really aggressive. It was one of their leadership convenings, so I already had an idea of how nasty they and their tactics are.

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Can you describe their tactics?

We’re used to signs. Our regular protesters use big signs that are 2 feet wide and 4 feet tall, and they use those to create blockades or raise them up in the air and take up a lot of visual space. Operation Save America had a 12-foot wide sign that 3 people had to hold, and it had swastikas and lynching pictures on it. They also set up a baby coffin on the sidewalk.

So the day in the spring when the protesters were arrested, can you talk about what you remember from that?

It was the day before Mother’s Day. We’ve seen as many as 500 protesters on that holiday. We were aware that OSA was in town and that it was going to be a big day. I do not tend to station myself near the door. I’m good at talking with clients and walking with them. I’m not so good at being around a bunch of bullies. So I was not near the area when the sit-in happened. However, I did walk up to it with a client. We had gotten the signal that the doors were open. I was the only escort with this individual, and she was nervous. We were walking in the street because the sidewalk was congested. We sometimes find that to be the path of least resistance.

So when we got to the clinic, I noticed that there were about 50 people crowded on the door area. And I noticed that people had their arms up, cameras filming, and so instead of going onto the sidewalk from the other side of the line of parked cars, I was like, “Okay, so it looks to me like there’s some trespassing going on, so we’re just going to keep walking past here and circle back to your car until the police can get this situation under control.”

Looking to the coming week of protests, what’s been going on?

We’ve been working very closely with EMW staff as well as local and federal law enforcement. The National Abortion Federation and Feminist Majority Foundation have been engaged for a long time helping support security at the clinic. Clinic Escorts' volunteers have also received special training. We’re doing a little bit more intensive points of unity and practice reinforcement than usual.

How many escorts do you think you’ll use throughout the week?

Probably about 60.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Over the last 12 months, 2,658 patients opted to complete a survey moments after walking past the protesters. Over 87 percent were disturbed by the protesters in some way. Patients described being blocked, intimidated, touched, and shoved. Nearly half of them said they felt scared, threatened, or unsafe, and more than a third of the respondents considered confronting the protesters.

What has it been like to get all this national attention?

It is nice that people are starting to pay attention to what has been going on and how it’s been getting worse. We are all volunteers, so it’s been really challenging to juggle the amount of media requests we’re getting and offers of support from people who truly are our allies, but we specifically ask that people do not come and counter protest because that would just make the situation more chaotic and possibly escalate things.

We are running a fundraiser right now called “pledge a picketer” where people can fill out a Google form and pledge to give a certain amount either per protester or per arrest. Or they can make a flat contribution that benefits our legal defense fund. And also we have our legal committee in place and a legal defense fund in the event that an escort ends up having to face criminal or civil charges because of these protesters.

So for allies who want to help, is donating the most helpful thing they can do?

If people want to support us, the fundraiser is the best way as well as just reading and sharing our blog everysaturdaymorning.net blog, which features our three-part series, “Where Would They Go?”. Those are the best ways to support us.

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Kaitlin (who is...

Yas, preach it!

Carolyn Williamson

Every medical textbook in our country affirms that an individual human's life begins at the moment of conception. Every pregnant mother knows she is carrying a precious life inside of her. Every cell in her body is working overtime to protect that little life. What kind of a society allows mothers and fathers to forsake their God-given duty to protect their children just so they can pursue their own happiness. This isn't a celebration of women's rights it is a trampling upon the noblest occupation a woman can aspire to, motherhood.

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Brenda Macedo

Most Christians don't realize that abortion began in the Bible. A young pregnant Mother Mary would have been stoned to death if it wasn't for St. Joseph stepping in to help her. Because in Biblical times, if a woman was unmarried with child they killed both the mother and the unborn child...thus, the first abortions were performed in the Bible... There are many other accounts of infanticide and abortion being advocated in the Bible.

Also, a lot of Christians don't know that donald trump's son, Eric was recently adoring the Goddess, Kali at a Hindu temple in Florida. Hindus have been offering babies as sacrifice to the goddess Kali for centuries. Most Christians have been duped by trump. For trump to say his Billy Bush comments "Never Happened," when the entire world has heard the audio and saw the film footage is a testament to how far trump will go to LIE to the American people . And as you know, Satan is the Father of ALL LIES~ trump lies constantly and takes the American public to be fools. Unlike Christ, or even President Obama, this man is not a servant of the people. He wants to be served....Obvious by the way he's spending 3 million per weekend of tax payer money on his lavish lifestyle at Mar a Lago and sitting on his golden throne in trump tower. Trump never even want the job and admits he "misses his old life," obvious by the way he refuses to listen to his intelligence briefings.

Regarding abortion, trump changed his mind 5 times in one week. If you want to Vote for life, you should vote democrat. According to statistics, abortion has fallen 13% under Obama. And according to Sister Simone Campbell and Father Hallanbach of Boston University, abortion has fallen under every democratic president since Ronald Reagan. This is because of contraception, family planning and education and tax breaks. Many women do not have the financial means or support system to carry a baby to term. They do not feel safe about having a baby, because more often than not, their male partner runs out on them when they become pregnant, as I have seen on a daily basis as a high school teacher. Forcing a young girl into motherhood would mean a never-ending cycle of poverty for these young girls. And Trump's tax policies will increase abortion. Trump is eliminating the earned child tax credit, which would help single mothers carry their babies to term through financial support. So from a statistical point of view, the democrats win when it comes to lowering abortion rates. But before we start criticizing Eric Trump, it's important to study abortion in our own history. The truth is, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Priests have been paying for their mistresses to have abortions for decades. And there are many other accounts of infanticide and abortion being advocated in the Bible.

In Second Kings, Menahem, leader of the Israelites, smote all the people who refused to follow him “and all the women therein that were with child he ripped up” (2 Kings 15:16). Later, in Hosea, we learn that because the land of Samaria rejected God, “ Samaria shall become desolate; ...their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up” (Hosea 13:16). Hosea decided to carry out God’s vengeance on the people by killing the unborn
babies carried by the heathen women. He promised to “slay even the beloved fruit of their womb” (Hosea 9:16).

God also said, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Psalms 137:9)? It seems here that post-natal killing options are available. The Bible authorizes us to kill just about any child who becomes burdensome. According to
Deuteronomy, if a child is unruly and disobedient, we not only have the option of killing him, but it is mandatory that he be stoned to
death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The same is true for a child who speaks to us with foul language (Exodus 21:17). Or a child who hits us
(Exodus 21:15).

After reading these verses, it’s obvious that abortion and infanticide is in the Bible. What kind of message is it sending women if some Christians believe women are supposed to have no choice in the matter and that abortion is only lawful when carried out by armies of men?
I think young girls should be encouraged to have their children, but a true Christian should begin praying on it in a different way. Instead of judging the young girls who have been raped, or who have "cleaved" to the wrong men out of a pre-programmed emotional need to "cleave" to men that God cursed them with in Genesis, I think Christians should begin praying as did Hannah did in the Bible.

If you remember, Hannah was barren for many years, but continued praying for a child. She finally was blessed with a child. I believe that if we Christians begin praying to God to send all of the babies to the millions of women who want babies, instead of forcing motherhood on unfortunate young girls, we would be a lot better off. And we should be researching the Bible to help us understand the facts. Most Christians are surprised to discover that abortion is in many parts of the Bible. Lastly, If you want to demonstrate against abortion, you should be demonstrating against our "predator-in-chief" who brags about grabbing women by the genitals, which leads to abortion. And you should also be speaking out against his wife, a former porn queen...not removing funding for planned parenthood or the earned income tax credit. By doing this our liar in chief is paving the way for young girls to die by going under the knife from unwanted pregnancy. Through this act, he unwittingly commits the murder of all future children these women could have had later in life, because many girls will die.... just as they did when they were stoned to death in the Bible...

Anonymous

Cannot possibly express how much I appreciate your informed and well cited response. I have always argued that "Christians" who oppose government assistance programs might as well burn their Bibles as they are obviously not reading them. Unless they intentionally skip ever verse regarding compassion for others and caring for the disadvantaged.

Anonymous

The protesters are a bunch of mentally ill losers who have nothing better to do than harrass people who are exercising their rights. Clinics and escorts need to be very careful as there are surely individuals among the protesters who who could become violent at a moment's notice.

Anonymous

If a woman has nothing else in this world, she has a sovereign right over her own body.

Anonymous

Why can't people care about the babies rights for once. it's not a tissue it's a baby a human being a person child.. my body. My choice that's a lie. you share your body with a human being a person child. There is adoption alot of people can't have kids they want to adopt a child. shelters if abused. social worker public health nurse. and luthern social services can help you with a baby. you can leave the baby some place safe. give the baby to someone else. If hurt by abortion there is silent no more. Com.rachals vine yard. come adoption process. abortion is evil a lie

Anonymous

"They're just a clump of cells." Well, guess what, guys? You're just clumps of cells too. So why can't I go up and kill you? What is wrong with America that the only people we can kill are the most defenseless, innocent of them all? They need our protection. How come you're pronounced dead when your heart stops beating, but when your heart starts beating, you're somehow not alive? You all sicken me, you support murder.

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