The writer Lauren Rankin opens her book Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America with a story from her own experience as a clinic escort. One day several years ago, outside an abortion clinic in northern New Jersey, a cab pulled up. Protesters descended on the car, screaming, before Rankin, with the help of a security guard, could extract the patient inside. Shielding her from protesters who were screaming “Don’t murder your baby!,” Rankin guided the patient to the door. Only once inside did she discover that the patient was a terrified teenage girl. The girl collapsed onto Rankin, sobbing.
These scenes play out every day outside clinics across America. In the 1980s and ’90s, groups like Operation Rescue staged massive clinic blockades. Those have mostly stopped since the 1993 FACE Act made it a crime to block a clinic’s entrance. But some clinics still face protests that attract hundreds of abortion opponents, and across the country, protesters still try to intercept patients on their way into clinics. Without volunteers to walk with patients, “access to safe, legal abortion would have disappeared long before the crisis moment in which America now finds itself,” Rankin writes.
Amy Littlefield: Why did you decide to write about clinic escorts?
Lauren Rankin: So many of the books that come out about abortion focus on the legal side—which is important. But in my own experience as a clinic escort I had come to understand that the law really only goes so far, even if it’s a protective law. I wrote the book [that would convey the message] that I needed to read in this moment of real crisis, which is: people can do something. Volunteers saw a problem and they found a way, however haphazard, to try to fix it.
AL: What does a clinic escort do?
LR: A clinic escort is a volunteer who walks with and supports a patient and possibly their companion past protesters into a clinic. Nearly every clinic escort I spoke with who is currently doing this work volunteers at a clinic where their team has a non-engagement policy. They won’t engage with anti-abortion protesters, and that is so that their focus is on the patient and you’re not escalating the potential conflict or aggression in the protesters. That’s not true everywhere. At the Pink House in Mississippi, they call themselves clinic defenders. They will talk back to the protesters, they will play music, they will engage in a way that they feel is trying to normalize abortion.
AL: How did clinic escorting start?
LR: The first mention I could find was in 1978 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. There was a clinic there that was dealing with some really intense protests led by Joseph Scheidler, [the so-called godfather of the anti-abortion movement who would go on to found the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago]. Protesters literally intercepted young girls and kidnapped them and took them to a McDonald’s to try and keep them from having an abortion. So the clinic asked local women’s liberation activists in the community if they would help walk people in.
AL: The FACE Act was the last piece of federal legislation to preserve abortion access, and it passed almost 30 years ago.
LR: The law really did have a direct impact on blockades. But [anti-abortion activists] found other ways to protest at clinics. The FACE Act should have been the very beginning of a whole host of proactive legislation and instead nothing else was ever done [at the federal level].
AL: Can you talk about the history of BACOAR?
LR: The Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue [a clinic defense organization] came about in 1988. They had an office with multiple phone lines. There was a captain who would basically determine the strategy for the day. They were badasses. They got physical. They were bruised; they were battered; they were willing to physically use their bodies to protect abortion access. If you have a group like Operation Rescue that doesn’t care about the law and wants to look as extreme as possible, then meeting them with a physical presence of: Fine, do it over my body, seemed to work to deter that, or at least get patients in the door.
AL: You have this line that I love about longtime clinic escort Benita Ulisano: “We need look no further than the legacy of clinic escorts to see the pathway forward for abortion: where the law ends, people like Benita Ulisano pick up the chain.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
LR: We’ve limped along for as long as we have because clinic escorts, abortion funders, doulas, this whole elaborate system of volunteers have stepped in to bridge the gap. People have so much more power than we think we do. And that’s what writing this book taught me. When it comes to abortion, time and again, even if it hasn’t even been restrictive, the law has failed to address this fundamental right. So people have to do it for themselves.
AL: How can people support those seeking abortions?
LR: If you want to be a clinic escort, you’re going to have to live in a state that has a clinic. That will be dwindling soon. Find the clinic closest to you and contact them. Don’t just show up. If you live in a state where there won’t be any clinics, find your local abortion fund. They’re going to need money and practical support. The thing I would tell people more than anything: Google first, then act. Find the activists who are already doing this. Ask them, what do you need?