The Delta Women’s Clinic of Baton Rouge is one of three remaining abortion providers in the state of Louisiana. The parking lot is small, with room for twenty to thirty patients’ cars, and is regularly full by the time the clinic allows patients to begin to check in. It is surrounded by other businesses whose attention it tries to avoid; empty parking lots, which patients are not permitted to use; and a steady group of screaming protesters. On days when procedures are actually performed, it is also attended by two to four people in bright pink vests: clinic escorts, who shepherd patients and their companions to and from their cars while men and women purporting to represent Christ preach to them about the horrible fate to which all those who enter the Delta Clinic fall prey.
Clinic escorting in Baton Rouge is managed by the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), as it has been since the late eighties. Then, violence was more of a promise than a threat; bombs were planted, blockades enacted, and so on, and so forth. Depending on the perceived threat level, patients today still must sometimes leave their purses in their cars to avoid the risk of bombs or weapons. Phones are sometimes banned, too, to prevent protesters from pretending to be patients so they can get in the door and film the inside of the waiting room.
Delta is next to the Women’s New Life Center, one of several “women’s health clinics” that show up next to places like Delta and claim to offer similar services. The protesters often stand in the servitude between them to advertise for it and to get as close to patients’ cars as possible. They often use the “no purse or phones” policy to get patients to come to the other side: “They don’t trust you,” one often says. “We trust you. You can bring your purse and your phone into here.” Clinics like Women’s New Life Center are known in activist circles for spreading false information, such as the Louisiana state-government-approved medical myth that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and even for falsely telling women they aren’t pregnant so it will be too late for them to have an abortion when they learn the truth.
The protesters, known to clinic escorts as “antis,” are not allowed to block the driveway, but they approach each car as it enters. This forces the driver to slow down to avoid hitting them and provides an opportunity for the antis to shove pamphlets in the window and force a conversation. Antis are both male and female; male protesters tend to run heavy on themes of punishment and sin, saying that God will no longer love them, that Delta is a “death camp,” that Satan has possessed the escorts and will “get” the patients if they make their appointment. The women are gentler, focusing on love and acceptance, offering hugs and a myriad of alternative options. They highlight the virtues of adoption and the foster care system. With nearly 5,000 children in Louisiana state care and nearly 700 waiting for available adoptive families, there are few practical solutions on how to keep an unwanted child fed, housed, and educated when it is born. One anti in particular chants, “I’ll adopt your baby, support you through the pregnancy.” She brings a crowd of blonde, blue-eyed children with her and encourages them to scream, “Let the babies live,” at the waiting room windows.
Antis will sometimes target the patient’s companion, if she has one, and insist that they protect the patient from her choice, because she will hate them if they do not. A few of them like to yell short, context-free Bible verses, and to alternate between damning clinic escorts and patients to hell, and cajoling everyone into obeying a loving God. Occasionally one shows up with a sign that shows a (false) image of an aborted fetus on one side, and on the other asks whether an infant deserves to be murdered because it was created by rape. One cannot help but wonder exactly which of the protesters’ actions are meant to show love.
All of this is difficult to listen to, not only because the language is insulting and often factually inaccurate – the noise alone raises concerns. The Delta Clinic has always been controversial. It is difficult for them to maintain a lease; neighboring businesses complain either about the work they do or about the protest and accompanying noise pollution that gathers around them, for which Delta is blamed. Increasingly restrictive legislation on what a clinic must feature to be allowed to perform abortions pushed Delta out of several locations, and at one point just last year forced a temporary shutdown. The clinicians kept counseling appointments and referred patients to the Women’s Health Clinic in New Orleans until they were able to meet new requirements.
So why do it? Why stand outside for hours, in all kinds of weather, and listen to people make up all kinds of vicious remarks about me? As a clinic escort, I am there to try to block some of this from a person who is scared, and hurting, and in need of help. Above all, I am trained not to escalate and to keep the patients or their companions from escalating as much as possible. Patients and the people who come with them do not expect (and certainly do not deserve) the constant abuse. Every single one is surprised that people are actually there shouting at them before they can even get out of their car. The protesters might use almost anything as an excuse to call the police or a state senator and get Delta shut down again.
Clinic escorts do not all believe that abortion could ever be the right choice for them – but that does not make it a wrong choice for someone else. Some of the clinic escorts were teen mothers, or single parents, or were pregnant and desperately did not want to be. All of them simply want to ensure that the choice that they made, whatever it was, remains available to other women like them, whatever their circumstances. All of them want to help the people who have made this decision follow it through free from fear or intimidation. If someone decides in the parking lot that this is not what they want, they are free to visit the center just on the other side of the servitude. Clinic escorts are there to help support the legally protected right to choose.
Patients come from three states to access the services that Delta Clinic provides. The protesters never leave; they are there before the clinic escorts arrive in the morning and stay at least as long as the procedures last, so they can again accost the patients as they get in their cars to go home. The clinic escorts, all of whom are unpaid volunteers, stay until the last appointment time has begun, at midmorning. The protesters have time, money, and a predominantly “Christian” and Republican legislature on their side; the police of Baton Rouge are their friends. The clinic escorts, like the clinic’s patients, for the most part have none of those resources. It is like trying to build a bridge out of matchsticks. People in need, no matter what they need, deserve better.