The Supreme Court Should See What I See As an Abortion Clinic Escort

Read more of our coverage on the McCullen v. Coakley case here.

This Saturday was like most Saturdays for me. While others were heading for a run, for brunch, or even were still asleep, I was on a sidewalk, wearing a neon-yellow vest, waiting for patients at an abortion clinic.

I took a piece of bright orange chalk and carefully marked the eight-foot radius around the building’s entrances. My clinic has a buffer zone.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone. In a blow to patients in Massachusetts and perhaps nationwide, the Court ruled that the state’s 35-foot buffer zone at abortion clinics violates the First Amendment rights of anti-choice protesters. These protesters, the Court argued, aren’t really protesters at all, but rather “petitioners” who seek “to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”

If only the Supreme Court could see what I see every weekend.

It’s easy to criticize buffer zones as inhibiting peaceful, free speech if you don’t see what I see on Saturday mornings. I believe fervently in the right to free speech, but what happens outside of abortion clinics, whether at the last clinic in Mississippi or at a clinic in “pro-choice” New Jersey, isn’t peaceful assembly. It is harassment, hiding behind the First Amendment. On Thursday, the Supreme Court said that the abuse and harassment so many patients experience at abortion clinics simply doesn’t matter to them.

I’ve been a volunteer escort at an abortion clinic in Englewood, New Jersey, for the past six months. For the first three months of my time as a clinic escort, our clinic had no buffer zone. Our clinic escort program was started in December 2013 by two incredible activists who organized the program in response to the increasing vitriol that was taking place in front of the clinic. My first few weeks on the sidewalk were a rude awakening about abortion access in my own state, as I tried mightily to walk patients through a literal gauntlet of shame and intimidation, as you can see here.

In that time, I have seen countless women reduced to tears and shaking, just for trying to access the health care to which they are constitutionally entitled. Prior to the implementation of our buffer zone, there would be two men positioned on either side of the door, filming the faces of every single patient and companion who walked inside. I’ve had patients ask me, with terror in their eyes, “Why are they doing this to me?” I have witnessed a man whose wife was terminating a wanted pregnancy due to a fetal anomaly be lectured by an anti-choice “sidewalk counselor” on why God has a plan for that “baby” and he should “be a man, Dad.” I have watched as patients and companions cover their face to avoid being filmed by the anti-choice protesters who put their images online. I have watched one of my fellow clinic escorts be violently shoved by an anti-choice protester. I have personally been sexually harassed by an anti-choice protester.

In mid-March, the Englewood City Council voted unanimously to enact an eight-foot buffer zone at the city’s abortion clinics, among other health-care facilities. The ordinance went into effect a few weeks later, on April 1. The clinic has not been the same since.

While the anti-choice protesters are still there, the mood is noticeably different. Some of the“counselors” from a nearby crisis pregnancy center still shove literature filled with junk science into patients’ faces, and yes, we still have some men who scream at patients and companions who enter the clinic. This tells us that the buffer zone doesn’t infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights; they are still free to interact with patients outside of the eight-foot zone, and they are doing just that.

But the demeanor of patients overall has really changed. They feel safer knowing that there is a space up ahead at which point no one can get in their faces. Anti-choice protesters have stopped overtly blocking the sidewalk, not allowing patients and their companions to pass, and protesters have stopped physically jostling for dominance, shoving their backs and sometimes elbows into escorts and occasionally patients. Patients aren’t subject to physical harassment, and that isn’t just a good thing—it’s their right.

The reason that buffer zones are often created specifically for abortion clinics is because this kind of harassment and intimidation simply doesn’t exist in any other branch of health care. A patient seeking care for tonsillitis isn’t told they’ve defiled their body, that God will punish them for this decision. A patient seeking care for a broken arm won’t be filmed against their will and have their images spread across the Internet with the words “murderer” and “sinner” underneath. But a patient seeking abortion care is subject to all of this and more. A patient seeking abortion care is often treated as less than human, all in the name of “free speech.” 

While the ruling is definitely a setback for buffer zone laws and could contribute to the repeal of similar buffer zones around the country, the Supreme Court did not throw out buffer zones at abortion clinics entirely, as Jessica Mason Pieklo notes. Instead, it found Massachusetts’ buffer zone to be unconstitutional because it burdens “substantially more speech than nec­essary.”

In light of this ruling, I and other Englewood clinic escorts remain confident that the city’s buffer zone law would hold up to a legal challenge. Unlike Massachusetts’ law, Englewood’s buffer zone law creates an eight-foot buffer at all of the city’s health-care facilities as well as transitional facilities, like domestic violence and sexual assault shelters. Englewood’s buffer zone isn’t specifically about abortion—though, it’s clear these clinics need buffer zones most—but about allowing people to freely access all types of care to which they are constitutionally entitled.

This Saturday, after the ruling, it was surprisingly quiet at the Englewood clinic. We had our usual cast of characters, but the calm after the pre-buffer zone storm continued. That’s a testament to our buffer zone: Even after such a dramatic, emotional ruling for all sides on this issue, patients were still able to access the clinic. They were still able to get in the door without fearing for their physical safety. That’s a victory for Englewood, for patients, and for our democracy.

I don’t know what the future holds for buffer zone legislation in Englewood or anywhere else—if, for instance, every single buffer zone law will be struck down, domino-style. But I sincerely hope that every person who feels that buffer zones infringe on the First Amendment rights of “peaceful protesters” takes a little time out of their Saturday morning to see what really goes on at abortion clinics, to experience firsthand the horrendous abuse and terrifying intimidation that patients endure in order to access constitutionally protected health care.

I will continue to wield that bright orange chalk with pride because I know that, for now, our buffer zone is in effect. It is the law. And, most importantly, it works.

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  • kitler

    These protestors are mentally ill.

    • Perr5

      They may be, but the problem here is more that they feel entitled to harass women and those who support them. Don’t demean the mentally ill by comparing the two.

      • kitler

        Yes that is part of it. But some protestors really do have severe emotional problems.

        In the middle ages they’d be the ones burning witches

      • expect_resistance

        I understand what you are saying as I’ve dealt with mental illness for most of my life, but some of the antis have some serious mental health issues that unfortunately not being treated.

        • kitler

          Exactly. They are delusional. Think that they are on a mission from god.

        • kitler

          We had one illiterate demonstrator here who kept flirting with us and calling us “little girls”

          Shit was weird.

          • Jennifer Starr

            Don’t forget the one who saw himself as Prince Charming, saving Snow White from the ‘hags’.

          • kitler

            Yeah that’s the guy I think

        • whofan99

          Thank you! The mentally ill are not the ones bombing the clinics. Those would be the domestic terrorists…

    • bitchybitchybitchy

      I don’t believe that the anti-choice protesters are mentally ill;overly zealous and aggressive, but in control of their mental faculties.

      • kitler

        If you have ever read the comments made by some of the hardcore pro lifers in this site I would have to say that yes, many are absolutely delusional and mentally disturbed.

        • bitchybitchybitchy

          I have read some of the comments from the hardcore folks; yes, you could say they are delusional. Sadly there are those who are disturbed, thinking back to the doctors and clinic staffers who were murdered by ‘pro-life” zealots, and some of those probably were certifiably ill.

          • Pro-Choice in NC

            The comments you are reading are being made by the people protesting at clinics…

          • bitchybitchybitchy

            That is really frightening. I’m so angry that our highest court is so clueless or uncaring about the rights of women.

  • StealthGaytheist

    A compilation video should be sent to all.of the justices. They need to know what these lunatics are doing.

  • expect_resistance

    If I organized a protest at Hobby Lobby I’m sure I would be arrested for disorderly conduct. But if the antis protest a clinic their first amendment rights are upheld. The antis engage in what I’ve seen people get arrested for “disorderly conduct” or protesting without a permit at anti-war rallies but are not held accountable for their abuse and harassment. This has to end!

    • bitchybitchybitchy

      So much of this goes back to the rightwing cleverly casting themselves as “pro-life”, and presenting those such as Mrs. McCullen as the face of their movement, when people who volunteer as clinic escorts or who work at clinics know that there are some genuinely hate-filled, frightening people who are very close to stopping at nothing to impose their will on others.

  • bitchybitchybitchy

    I’m appalled that these protesters are allowed to film patients who are going to the clinic. Isn’t that an invasion of the patient’s space and privacy?

    • Pro-Choice in NC

      I think it varies by locality, but I know in the city where we escort it is considered 100% legal. Basically, if you are outside you are in public space. Even if you are physically on private property, if you can be viewed from a public space you are fair game.

      I volunteer with a clinic as an escort as well. I learned this fun tidbit of info after witnessing a protester filming a minor as she entered the clinic. Cops came, called city attorney, and so it is.

      The funny thing: We turned the cameras onto the anti’s this past weekend and they were outraged. They were convinced we were violating their privacy. Can’t make this up…

      • bitchybitchybitchy

        I ought to have known that about the public space angle. I do like the idea of filming the anti-choice protesters.Their reaction sounds typical of bullies;they want to harass people, but they whine when the tables are turned.
        Thanks for being an escort. I’m sure your work is appreciated.