The election of Donald Trump and his anti-abortion cabinet has resulted in many people’s first-time involvement in the fight to protect reproductive health care. Since crisis status has now been reached when it comes to defending abortion rights in America and around the world (thanks to the reinstatement of the global gag rule), there’s no better time to get organized and fight.
For many new activists, though, there remains the question of how to best do it. This question is really relevant right now—particularly as February 11, when there will be nationwide protests at Planned Parenthoods, draws near. Obviously, many people want to take action, and one suggested strategy of support is staging counter-protests. But, as with all protests, there are best practices to observe before engaging in political action. In fact, Planned Parenthood clinic escorts (volunteers who work with Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health care clinics to support clients on their way to and from the clinic) have offered some insight into why counter-protests could potentially cause harm to some of the people they’re meant to support.
In an effort to make sure that anyone interested in counter-protesting at Planned Parenthood knows what to expect and how to act, I spoke with clinic escorts from around the country. Here’s what they had to say.
Why not counter-protest?
Although it’s not universal, many clinic escorts prefer that protests are organized away from health care facilities. Head of Clinic Defense for Women’s Health Specialists of California Shireen Dada Whitaker explains, “One of the hardest things about escorting, for me personally, is having to tell well-meaning counter-protesters that we prefer they not protest.” Whitaker is, of course, sympathetic to the urge to help, but she encourages counter-protestors to consider becoming clinic escorts themselves.
Not all clinics have an official stance on counter-protests, but Whitaker points to their clinic escort guide that states: “WHS has a policy against bringing ‘Pro-Choice’ signs. They may look similar to ‘Pro-Life’ signs. Do not bring them. It may confuse the incoming patients. DO NOT increase distractions to clients.” Clients may be visiting the clinic for the first time, so just finding the front door can be confusing enough without also trying to navigate different types of protestors.
This sentiment was echoed by Margot Garnick, a clinic escort at Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York: “The clinic’s policy is not to have any counter-protests. This is because the patients already are overwhelmed with the screaming and signs. Even with brightly colored vests clearly stating that we are clinic escorts, the patients will still occasionally confuse us with the protestors.”
Clinic escorts were also in agreement that it’s important to remember that people are going to the clinic for medical care. “Having more people watch you walk in and out of a medical clinic may be embarrassing or uncomfortable,” says Garnick.
In St. Louis, Debra Knox Delermann has trained hundreds of escorts at a number of different clinics over the course of a decade. “Patients who arrive at clinics for reproductive health care are just trying to get in as quickly as possible to see their doctor; they’re probably not taking the time to distinguish between screaming anti-choice protesters and those protesting the protesters. All they see is a bunch of yelling people, adding to the circus-like atmosphere,” she says.
Delermann was also the director of counseling at Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, so she knows firsthand about supporting women at the clinic. Though counter-protests are meant to support clients, she notes, “There is research indicating that this kind of activity may increase anxiety in women before their appointments resulting in the need for more medication during their procedures.”
It’s also important to realize that clinic escorts typically receive extensive training in order to do things like learn about local laws. Whitaker points out that different states have different buffer- and bubble-zone laws wherein no protesting can occur. Newbie activists might not realize that and could get in trouble.
One key takeaway from all of the clinic escorts is the need to connect with any reproductive health care clinic before organizing protest events at their locations. After two and a half years of volunteering as a clinic escort in Louisville, Kentucky, Sarah Morgan is a bit frustrated that those who want to take action to support Planned Parenthood don’t reach out first. Morgan notes, “One of the big failures folks discussed with the Women’s March was that those new to that type of organizing could have done a better job listening to folks with experience.”
The Clinic Vest Project is a group that provides free clinic escort vests to groups working outside of clinics as well as training materials. Benita Ulisano has spent two decades in the reproductive rights movement and launched the project in 2013. When asked about the planned counter-protests, Ulisano responded, “I think the best way to support clinics is to respect their need and decision on whether or not they want counter-protests there. Before organizing one, it’s best to contact the clinic and also the local escort team there, if they have one, and see if it’s okay with them. If it is, that’s great, but if not, they usually have good reasons for that, and it’s best to support them in that way and respect their decision.”
Alternative actions to take nationally and locally
There is no shortage of things people can do to get involved in protecting access to reproductive health care and reducing stigma about abortion. One suggestion from Delermann is to protest at crisis pregnancy centers: “For decades, anti-choice ‘sidewalk counselors’ have been harassing women as they enter clinics, now is the time to organize protests at these deceptive centers.” Other suggestions from the clinic escorts include volunteering with or donating to organizations like Sister Song, NARAL, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, or Reproductive Health Access Project. There are also abortion funds that are always in need of financial support. Some cities also have abortion doula projects that help support people in different ways, including driving people to and from their appointments.
Other ways to build a community around this issue is to host a film screening of movies, like Jackson, Vessel, After Tiller, or Trapped, or host a teach-in. Garnick suggests looking into the Abortion Truth Project as a way to get started. Their website explains that they’ll send you information about hosting an event, including “detailed descriptions of the required and optional elements for the event as well as information on speakers, funding, interactive, visual lesson plans as well as other tools.”
It’s clear that, under the Trump administration, action will be needed to address misinformation about abortion and reproductive health care in general. Just last week Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the annual anti-choice march, March For Life. Working alongside those who have long been fighting for abortion access is an inspiring way to get and stay involved in what is proving to be a critical and challenging fight to protect the right to abortion in America, but that just makes it all the more important that the action we take be as helpful and carefully considered as possible.