Over the last few weeks, a number of friends have sent me an article about a couple who counter-protest anti-abortion protesters outside of their local abortion clinic. The immediate reaction of all of my friends had been "That's awesome! We should do that too!" and in light of the recent Supreme Court rulings striking down buffer zones and restricting access to birth control, I obviously empathize with the sentiment. On a visceral, emotional level, I also want to yell "FUCK YEAH!" and head to any craft store besides Hobby Lobby to make my own sign. But I don't, because I am also a pro-choice clinic escort. And while these counter-protesters sentiments are wonderful, I firmly believe that their execution is problematic.
I realize this is somewhat counter-intuitive, so let me explain. I have been a clinic escort for almost a decade. The purpose of clinic escorts is to support the patient seeking to access reproductive health care. We are not there to engage in political debates. In fact, as a general rule, the organization that I escort with very much discourages engagement with anti-choice protesters ("antis") at all. There is a time and place for such debates, but it is in the political areana, on the internet, in the media, in one-on-one private conversations - not outside of the clinic.
Coming to a clinic that provides abortions and is being protested by antis is a very stressful and often intimidating experience for those seeking reproductive health care. For patients who are already anxious and emotional, the mere presence of antis increases these feelings exponentially before they even get out of their vehicles (at my clinic most of the patients arrive by car) and the shouts and signs that are directed at them as they cross the parking lot only exacerbate the situation.
Now image that scenario playing out with even *more* people with signs, potentially engaging in debates with the antis. Because the patients and their companions are NOT going to make the distinction between pro-choicers trying to support them and the antis who are condemning them. I can tell you that 100% from experience. Many patients go into fight-or-flight mode and a good number lash out at the escorts, assuming we are antis despite our neon orange pinnies clearly labeled "Pro-Choice Clinic Escort". The conditions are simply less than ideal and people who feel under attack do not tend to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Our motto is that that clinic escorting is "best when boring" and the presence of counter-protesters generally creates an atmosphere that is certainly not boring. I know that those who want to show support for abortion rights by doing this type of thing have the best of intentions, but often they are not familiar with the dynamics of the clinic - and this is the part of the current 'viralness' of these counter-protesters that worries me the most. The sudden appearance at a clinic of people seeking to counter 'sidewalk counslors' and the like has serious potential to rile the antis up and create a conflictual and confrontational atmosphere. And that is the last thing that those supporting women exercising their right to choose should be contributing to, at least in my opinion.
If you want to get involved in helping women access reproductive health care, I highly recommend that before you reach for that clever counter-protest sign, you call your local clinic or Planned Parenthood and ASK how you can best do so. Or, try your own version of 'sidewalk counseling' at Hobby Lobby! That I can totally get behind!