Rachel Stein

Outside the Clinic  

The early spring sun climbed above the eastern mountains as we four volunteers assembled at the clinic a few minutes before patients would start to arrive.  We walked in through the bullet-proof doors to grab our pink vests labelled Clinic Escort in English and Spanish and pulled them on over our heads. We stood outside on the pavement shivering in the chilly air, sipping early morning coffee, and chatting quietly.  Meanwhile, the protesters gathered on the sidewalk beyond the parking lot, staked gruesome posters into the grass and set up their loud-speaker system to amplify curses and pleas. They eyed us and we eyed them. We were all regulars, out here standing for and against women’s reproductive rights.

Barb, Gil, and I were gray headed retirees, free to come to the clinic for a few hours on a Friday morning, impelled by memories of life before the Supreme Court legalized abortion throughout the U.S.  Kitty was half our age, putting in community service hours toward her double Masters in Social Work and Public Health. She also spoke Spanish and would sometimes accompany patients inside to translate for them. It cheered us oldsters to have a young person with us.  Since Trump’s avowal to criminalize abortion, more young women had joined our ranks. We asked Kitty about her studies and she showed us photos of her newly adopted puppy. We smiled and cooed, glad to have something light to break the tension.  These early morning moments while we huddled together reinforced our solidarity and spirits before we began ushering patients through the protesters’ cries into the clinic.

“Let’s pair off,” Barb said.  “Kitty with me, Gil with Naomi, ok?”

We escorted in twos, just in case the protesters got threatening or violent and so there was another witness if they accused us of bad behavior.

They walked up and down the sidewalk, claiming territory. A few passing cars beeped horns in solidarity.  The group of nicely dressed, older African American women we called the Church Women hovered near the corner, reading Bible verses aloud and nodding at cars. Grandmother, a pale, white-haired woman dressed in a long, tiered skirt made sure her microphone was in order, testing words of prayer. The bearded white man we’d named Preacher placed a small child into a baby carrier he settled on his back. The child’s blonde head swiveled around, staring wide-eyed. Preacher hawked phlegm and directed his first tirade toward us.

“You sicken me, out here doing the devil’s work for free. No one pays you to lead these women to the gates of hell, you ‘deathcorts.’ Your souls are black with sin from the babies you’ve led to slaughter.”  His child clutched the carrier, eyes wide, but didn’t cry at the angry screaming.

Kitty’s face reddened at Preacher’s accusations.  She hadn’t yet learned not to meet  protesters’ eyes, not to react to their ugly words.  When I’d started to escort here, it took several months to stop my heart from speeding and my face from registering anger at the accusations hurled our way. Kitty was still raw and vulnerable.

Barb squeezed her arm. “Don’t let him get to you. He feeds on your emotions.”

Kitty nodded and dropped her eyes.

A boxy Chevy coupe pulled timidly into the lot and inched into a parking space.  Gil and I walked toward the car but stopped a few yards away to give the passengers their last private moments.

“And so it begins,” I murmured to Gil.

He nodded, hands in the pockets of his well-worn khaki pants. We hovered, wondering how the occupants were doing.

An African American man and woman with graying hair and serious faces got out of the front seats and closed their doors.  The woman stopped, frozen in place, while the man pulled open the back door and stood guard as a young woman, most likely their daughter, stepped out head down, a black cloud of hair falling across her face. He pulled her close, shielding her with his arm as she leaned into his side.  The other woman joined them and they turned toward the clinic door. The man scanned the parking lot and then looked into the young woman’s face as they walked together.

That was our cue.  We approached the threesome.  “Hello,” I said, “We’re clinic volunteers.  May we walk you to the door?  Please ignore the protesters.  We’re here to provide a buffer.”  I tried to project friendly kindness while I also raised my voice to drown out the Church women’s prayers.

Preacher began to shriek, “Murders.  God will punish you.  Jesus loves the little children, but you are here to kill yours.  What kind of people are you to bring her to this place? Jesus will damn you all for destroying this little child.”

Gil leaned toward the threesome.  “You don’t need to listen.  This is none of his business.  You’re here for your own good reasons.”

The older woman nodded and shuffled the younger woman a few steps closer to the door but the man let go and turned to face Preacher.

“I’ll be right there. You go on ahead,” he said.  Gil stayed near him.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” I told the women in a calm voice.  I wasn’t allowed to touch clients or interfere in any way with their movements. I didn’t know their names or their stories.  I was only here to offer a few moments of support on their way inside, to be a person standing with them in what should have been a private moment, while protesters voiced disapproval.  I chattered about the chilly morning air, the crows gathered in the top branches of the pine tree, how I longed for spring.  We escorts learned to babble about any neutral, impersonal topic that came to mind, finding friendly words to drown out the condemnation of the protesters.

Now Grandmother began her sweet-voiced plea.  “Don’t take your daughter in there.  Please come talk to us and let us help you.  I’ve adopted five children.  We can find a nice family for your baby.  Please don’t let them murder your grandbaby.”

The young woman kept her eyes on the pavement, refusing to respond in any way to the protesters. Tears sprang into the older woman’s eyes, although she clutched the younger woman and kept moving toward the clinic.  “Don’t they know we’ve already made the best decision for our family?”

“I know you have,” I soothed as I held the door open for them. “Don’t pay them any mind.”

“You tell my husband we need him with us,” she murmured as she followed the younger woman inside.

I looked back to where her husband stood staring down the preacher who still spewed Bible verses and damnation at him.  The husband’s eyes blinked again and again as the angry words hailed down on him.

Then Grandmother started in on him, too, in a sort of duet with mean-voiced Preacher.  “Don’t let your daughter go through with this.  She’ll never forgive herself and you’ll always regret it if you don’t stop her.  It’s not too late.  Bring her out of that terrible place.  We’ll help you.  Please don’t let her do this.”

The man gave her a stricken look and ducked back inside his car.  He covered his face with his arm and bent over the steering wheel, his back heaving.

Gil and I looked at each other, concerned for his distress. I hated the anguish the protesters’ words sometimes stirred in patients and those who loved them. While my first impulse was to rush to this man and offer comfort, we weren’t allowed disturb clients in their cars.  We had strict procedures to follow, clear limits on our interactions. Holding back even as my heart went out to people still pained me.

“I’m worried about him,” Gil said.

“I know.  I hate the way she makes this harder. Her kind voice gets under their skin.”

The wife opened the clinic door and beckoned me over.  Her eyes still sheened with tears.

“Could you please tell Don his daughter needs him?”

“Of course.  You take care of her and we’ll give him the message.” I headed toward Gil.

He nodded at me. “I’ve got this.”

I followed him across the parking lot.  The husband still huddled over with his face buried in his arms.  Gil tapped on the window.  The husband started and raised his head.  Gil gestured for him to roll the window down.

Gil leaned in. “Your wife wants you to come inside to be with your daughter.  Think you can do that?  You know these protesters say whatever will make you feel bad, but this is your own private family business, not theirs.”

The husband straightened up in his seat.  He did that manly thing of hardening his face, erasing his emotions.  He got out of the car.

Gil said, “I feel for you, man.  You’re doing your best for your family.  Could I give you a hug?”

The man nodded and Gil pulled him into a quick, tight hug, then clapped him on the back.  Gil’s gesture of support gladdened me, even though he’d broken the rules.

As they walked together toward the clinic, me trailing behind a few steps, the man said, “My daughter’s already got two beautiful girls.  Her husband lost his job at the plant last year and they live with us.  They just can’t raise another child now, you know.  We’re all heartbroke but this is the best we can do.  Why do these people  make it harder than it already is?”

Gil clapped him on the back again and I pulled open the door.  When it closed behind him, Gil and I turned and took our sentry positions looking out toward the street. We scanned the protesters, counting their numbers, checking their activity.  They stared back at us and one of the regulars snapped photos of us we knew he’d post to his defamatory website—scare tactics.

We escorts don’t usually talk to each other about the private experiences impelling us to greet patients and walk them through the barrage of voices urging them not to enter.  But I knew each of us was called here, to stand on hard pavement during all seasons, braced against the screams, when it would have been so much more comfortable to stay tucked in bed dreaming. I wished we could call a truce, both sides agreeing to leave the clinic and the patients alone, but I knew that would never happen. The protesters had their own stubborn reasons for being here, even though I couldn’t understand them. And as long as they kept coming, we’d be here, too, in solidarity with the patients.

I started to escort when my kids were in college and approaching self-sufficiency. I was free to stick my neck out to help patients enter a clinic similar to the one that saved me from teen pregnancy back in 1970, when unmarried mothers were ruined.  Now when I recognized the anxiety in patients’ eyes, I often slipped back into my seventeen-year-old self.  I’d been ignorant about sex and reproduction, terrified when I feared pregnancy might end all my aspirations.  My upright mother brought me to New York for a legal abortion, but she’d refused to speak to me during that tense journey.  Eyes averted, lips pressed closed, she offered no solace. My hands shook as I pulled open the clinic door and stepped inside. Then the receptionist smiled with simple compassion as she asked my name and a kind nurse smoothed my hair while the doctor emptied me. I’d ached with gratitude at their humane care.

I still felt grateful, so I stood outside, decades later, protecting the doors so clinic staff could do their healing work in peace. And I smiled and walked patients toward doctors who saved our lives, in one way or another.

I knew violent anti-abortion fanatics had murdered staff and volunteers at clinics elsewhere.  I knew standing outside the clinic in my pink vest made me a target, if an armed protester ever got too enraged. I’d made an uneasy peace with this risk.

Sometimes Preacher scared me.  He screamed his throat raw and clenched his fists as though he wished he had our necks in his grasp. I worried his righteous anger could spill over into physical violence if he lost whatever control he had.  He clearly wished we were dead instead of those unborn babies he screamed about. What if he decided to make that happen? And that poor kid on his back, drenched in that scream.  How were Preacher’s angry river of words marking that child?

But at the moment the protesters were fairly calm—no yelling, no amplified voices, just the hum of the Church Women praying while Preacher stalked up and down the sidewalk and Grandmother drank from an old canteen.  I closed my eyes and turned my face up toward the sun, rocked on my feet and breathed in and out in the momentary quiet.

A rusty red sports car pulled into the lot, squealing around the corner and speeding into a parking spot.   The two young men and a young woman jerked back and forth when the car stopped hard.  They all stepped out.  The driver ran his hand through spiky black hair and reached into his pants pocket for a pack of cigarettes.  The man who’d ridden shotgun circled his shaved head around on his neck and rolled his shoulders. The woman, all in black with  chopsticks holding her dark hair in a loose bun, gave each man a hug and blew them both kisses as she walked away toward the clinic. Kitty and Barb walked up to her.

Preacher aimed his rant at the young men who leaned against their car smoking.  “God will damn you.  You’ll go straight to hell for letting that little woman walk into the place of death.  You aren’t men enough to stop her.  You send her alone to those murderers while you’re out here enjoying this beautiful day God gave you.  Selfish enough to enjoy the sun while your baby dies before it has a chance to breathe.”

He screamed so loud it sounded like he’d tear his throat and his face steamed with fury.  I wondered if he might give himself a heart attack and I worried about his child’s eardrums.

The bald-headed man elbowed the other one and sniggered.  “Not my baby,” he snorted.

The black-haired man stood straight up and blew out smoke, then turned to face the preacher with a scornful laugh. “Say another word and I’ll beat the shit outta you. You feel like a big man with that baby on your back? You think I tell my girlfriend what to do? You think she listens to me?  I guess you’ve never met the woman!”  He cackled and took a puff of his cigarette. “She’s got way more balls than you, man! Nobody tells her nothing. So shut the fuck up.”

“Yeah,” his friend chimed in, “Shut the fuck up or we’ll come shut you up.  We’ll see if that god of yours can stop us.”  He tossed down his cigarette stub and ground it out with a heavy boot.

They both stepped towards the sidewalk and stood glaring, the bald man flexing his fingers, ready to throw a punch.

Gil and I exchanged glances.  While these guys had every right to engage the protesters, we didn’t want this to escalate into violence. Who knew where that might lead?

Preacher pulled out a cell phone and punched in a number. “Yes, two men are threatening me.  Outside Planned Parenthood on Asheland Ave.”   He waved the phone at the young men. “Police are on their way.”

They glared at him, conferred with each other, then jumped into their car and peeled away shouting obscenities out the windows.

“Sort of gratifying to hear people getting mad at being condemned to hell,” Gil commented.

I nodded.  I wondered if Preacher ever considered how his raging words stirred up  listeners’ violent emotions. “Yep, but I’m glad they left before things got worse.”

A police cruiser pulled up at the corner. Preacher stood outside the car complaining to the officers, gesturing to the parking lot and us as though we were the ones causing the ruckus.  After a few minutes the police drove off and Preacher resumed his ranting.

Over the next half hour, six more groups arrived at the clinic. Though the protesters hollered to them as always, these patients ignored them, as we walked with them, chattering over the harangues.

Then just before our shift ended, a young woman unfolded herself from a tiny car, legs emerging first in bright blue leggings, then her star-spangled blue and yellow skirt, and last her flushed face, framed with bright green hair.  Sunlight danced upon her head, lighting up the strands.

Before we could say a word, she told us, “I’ve got to give those people a piece of my mind.”

She stomped down the driveway.

We watched her make her way down the hill, but didn’t follow.  Patients may say whatever they want, but we can’t be perceived as encouraging the altercation.

The green-haired woman screamed at the Church Women and Grandmother. “My body, my decision.  Private matter.  You out here hassling us is not God’s work.”

She yanked one poster of a bloody fetus out of the ground.  I feared she might beat the women with it, but she just threw it into the road. Cars beeped and swerved.  She watched for a moment, hands on hips, then whipped around and marched back up the driveway.

“Sorry,” she said. “They make me so mad, trying to boss other women around.  They ought to be on our side, not threatening our rights.”

She was lightyears beyond my cowed teenage self. She did my heart good—her certainty, her boldness, her bright hair.  Gil and I kept pace with her, smiling and nodding.

Gil pulled open the clinic door.

She folded her hands in front of her heart, gave a tiny bow toward each of us, and stepped into the building.