Gauntlet | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Gauntlet 

Locking arms, we surround the patients and slowly escort them through the crowd of demonstrators. We are bombarded with screams: "Don't kill your baby!" "Talk to us for five minutes!" "You have blood on your hands!"

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Thursday evening, 8 PM, the phone rings. "Karen Hoffman?" a woman asks in a throaty voice. "I'm Barbara, and I'll be the coordinator this Saturday morning. I'll meet you in front of Concord at 6 AM. Do you need a wake-up call?" No, I tell her, I'll be there. I hang up, and wish I hadn't committed myself to another Saturday of clinic escort.

When the U.S. Supreme Court reevaluated (and weakened) Roe v. Wade in June 1989, I was one of many people shocked out of 15 years of complacency. I had read about innumerable legal challenges to and physical attacks against abortion clinics, but felt the fact that over 1.5 million abortions are performed annually in the U.S. was simple testimony to the strength and necessity of the Roe v. Wade decision. It stunned me to contemplate an antichoice Supreme Court chipping away at or eliminating a right I had come to take for granted. I myself had had an abortion ten years earlier. It was safe, painless, and affordable. Now I felt it was time to pay my dues. At a rally protesting the Reproductive Health Services v. Webster decision, I signed up as a volunteer with the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, a coalition of 43 prochoice organizations. Six months later, I came in for escort training.

Clinic escorting, we were told during our two-hour training session, should be just that and no more. It does not involve counterdemonstrations, clinic defense, or lobbying--although many prochoice groups, including Illinois Pro-Choice, are involved in such activities. We were told that two to ten of us would be stationed at any one of seven abortion clinics in the Chicago area that have asked us for assistance. They had been evaluated and found to offer safe and emotionally supportive therapeutic abortions.

We would be given blue vests to wear imprinted with the words "Clinic Volunteer." We were supposed to approach prospective patients with a phrase like: "Are you going to the clinic, and would you like an escort?" We were told that many women would not want our assistance, especially if there were a lot of antichoice demonstrators yelling at them and they felt scared and confused. If so, we were to stand back and use our bodies to block the demonstrators' signs or posters of dead fetuses. If a woman did request our help, at least two of us would walk on either side of her up to the clinic door. We were to provide a physical and emotional buffer zone through hostile territory.

We were not to engage in discussions, arguments, or prochoice rhetoric with the antichoice demonstrators. We were not to carry signs when escorting. We were to keep our hands in our pockets when we were near antichoice demonstrators to avoid potential physical attacks or accusations of them. We were not to chant prochoice slogans when we escorted, no matter what or how loud the antichoice demonstrators were yelling. This creates more tension and discomfort for the women, we were told. We might say to the women, "Just ignore them, you have a right to come here." If we felt we couldn't do these things, we should volunteer in some other capacity. I put my name down for on-call clinic-escort duty.

In the ensuing four months, I was called for clinic escorting four times. Most calls are false alarms--no antichoice activists, no escorting necessary. The Saturday before Mother's Day we geared up for a possible "hit." (Some clinics schedule fewer abortions for this day, but it's still a time to expect trouble.) I have been assigned to the Concord Medical Center, 17 W. Grand, at 6 AM. But by this time I'm irritated at having to wake up at 5 to go out to a clinic where probably nothing is going to happen. When I'd first been put on call for the weekend, I'd argued for a later time, 7 or 7:30. No such luck. They want us there before the demonstrators arrive, if they arrive.

Saturday morning I wake up to a light rain. I forgo washing my hair, figuring I can do it when I get back a couple of hours later. I kiss my husband good-bye, envying the luxury he has of sleeping late. If I hated the antichoicers before philosophically, I now hate them just for depriving me of my sleep on my day off. I have a dentist appointment at 11 AM. I'm glad it will give me an excuse to leave early.

I arrive at Concord at 6:10. A police squad car is parked in front. Several of us have driven up at the same time, and I'm gratified to see some men among my fellow escorts. Barbara introduces herself and asks that two of us stand on each corner to escort potential patients. The others will stand across the street from the clinic. They are allowed to hold signs and chant, to counterbalance the antichoice demonstrators who might come. There are already 15 of us here. One escort goes to the McDonald's nearby to pick up coffee, and as I start to wake up I hope for some antichoice demonstrators to come out and perk things up. I know from experience how boring it will be to stand around for three hours.

Another clinic escort and I station ourselves at the corner just east of Concord. At 7:20, it is raining hard and my feet are soaked. I notice there's no public washroom nearby. I'll have to hold out for a couple of hours. I idly watch a yellow school bus with "Armitage Baptist Church" printed on the side pull up, then a van. Sixty, seventy, eighty people start piling out. As the vehicles disgorge their contents, my teeth start to tingle and I realize we are being hit with a major antichoice demonstration.

Things happen very quickly after that. Another bus and more cars appear. They all cluster in front of the clinic. From where I stand I make out what seems to be over 100 people. Almost immediately I hear sirens that become more shrill with each second. A police squad car, a patrol wagon, another squad car, another patrol wagon, and then an unmarked squad car pull up. One of our volunteers is sent to call our headquarters office and inform them of what is happening.

Barbara rushes over and tells us that the demonstrators have blockaded the front door to the clinic. For the time being we should escort any patients into the coffee shop on the corner. We are to wait with them until clinic personnel tell us what they want us to do. More escorts are stationed on our corner. We keep our hands in our pockets.

Two women walk up. One is a patient, the other is her sister or friend. They seem shaken but go into the coffee shop to wait. Two more women arrive. Then a man and two women. They all go into the coffee shop. About an hour goes by. I am frustrated. From my post I can't see what's happening by the clinic's front door. The police are not making any arrests. Barbara and various marshals--people Illinois Pro-Choice has assigned to assist the coordinator--tell us something will happen soon.

A reporter from the Chicago Tribune comes over and introduces herself. She asks me why I think only certain antichoice people feel strongly enough about this issue to come out and blockade abortion clinics. What motivates them? I know that I'm not an official spokesperson for the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance. I cannot think of what to say. I tell her some people are more confrontational than others. I tell her antichoice activists seem to be negatively motivated. They are not interested as a group in child-welfare issues, increased federal funding for day-care centers, adoption of handicapped and minority children, or increased access to birth-control information and distribution of birth control. I'm aware that I've climbed on a soapbox. The reporter looks at her watch and leaves. Later I think about why only a small percentage of prochoice sympathizers volunteer as clinic escorts.

A marshal comes up and tells us to get ready. Eight of us are going to escort a group of patients through the alley behind the coffee shop to the clinic's back door. About ten people--patients and their companions--follow us out of the coffee shop. The escorts lock arms surrounding the patients and slowly walk through the crowd of demonstrators gathered in front of the coffee shop. We are bombarded with screams: "Don't kill your baby!" "Talk to us for five minutes!" "You have blood on your hands!" "Tomorrow is Mother's Day, be a mother to your baby!"

Eight or nine police officers have blocked off the alley to the antichoice demonstrators, but it is 75 feet from the coffee shop to the alley and we move slowly. I am relieved when we reach the entrance to the alley. The demonstrators are furious that the police do not allow them into the alley to follow us to the clinic's back door. One of them spits at us, "This is where you belong, in the alley." We go back to the coffee shop to escort another group of patients. This time I see police arresting demonstrators who have somehow reached the clinic's back door and are trying to barricade it. As they're put into patrol wagons, the back door opens and the patients surge in, the escorts in a row on each side of the door like a receiving line. As the last patient enters, I spontaneously begin to clap my hands and all of us--12 or 15 escorts--applaud vigorously, smiling the happy. It all seems worth it then--the 5 AM wake-ups, the hours of boredom when nothing happened at other clinics on other days, the verbal abuse we've just gone through from the antichoice demonstrators. Barbara yells, "Escorts, you're doing a great job! Give yourself a hand!" And we do.

One of the marshals complains to the police that the front door is still blockaded after two hours and no arrests are being made there. The officer in charge responds that he wants to avoid a confrontation. When told that he already has a confrontation, he gives in and orders arrests of those barricading the front door.

Once the front door is unblocked, things settle into a routine. Teams of escorts walk the patients past the picketers and other demonstrators on the sidewalk, stepping into the street to do so, and leave them at the curb in front of the clinic entrance. The police wave the women in, and we go back to our posts.

Some of the police are friendly and even cheerful with us. One of them pulls me aside and suggests another route to the clinic's back door that would bypass the antichoice demonstrators. Others look disgusted, whether because of us, the demonstrators, or the rain, which has been drizzling steadily all morning, I don't know.

It looks as though arrests, or the threat of arrests, are pretty effective in keeping the antichoice demonstrators at bay. Only a few refused to move away from the clinic door. When they were put into patrol wagons, the rest of the group moved to the right and left sides of the front door, walking slowly back and forth in long lines. None of the prochoice volunteers gets arrested. Our training pays off. We avoid confrontation, and stand where the police tell us to.

Some of the demonstrators leave to go picket another abortion clinic a mile away, and various escorts are pulled in from other clinics, including ours, to lend support. But Concord is the only clinic today that will have any serious action. Over 40 women, with our help, have been able to enter the clinic. Many of the women we escort past the jeers of "Baby killer!" are coming for gynecological exams.

One of my fellow escorts points out Joseph Scheidler, director of the Pro- Life Action League. I had never seen him before, and until that moment was not aware what group or groups were behind today's demonstration. He is smiling broadly and speaking very animatedly with another man. As they walk away, it occurs to me to wonder what antichoice activists would do if there were no abortion clinics. If abortion were totally outlawed, these protesters would lose their focus and their power. They would not command the attention, or respect, or fear they do now. They would have to find another cause.

It is almost 10:30, and I must leave for my dental appointment. Although the activity has slowed down quite a bit and I'm not really needed now, I'm sorry to have to go. I say good-bye to Barbara and the rest of the escorts, feeling exhausted but exhilarated.

Sitting in the dentist's chair half an hour later seems unreal. After the intense experience I've had this morning, having my gums poked and prodded seems banal. I go home feeling disoriented.

Watching the news that evening with my husband, I try to explain to him what I saw. The clip lasts only half a minute or so. Disappointed, I realize that clinic blockades are not considered major news stories these days. Abortion rights have been fought over for so long now that the issues have become cliches. If I say I'm prochoice, someone will call me a baby killer, the worst kind of child abuser. If I say I'm prolife, someone will call me a reactionary religious fanatic, depriving women of their right to reproductive freedom.

I volunteer as a clinic escort because I want to participate in something I consider critically important--ensuring women's right to control their bodies and their lives. The antiabortion demonstrators volunteer for reasons they consider just as crucial--saving unborn human lives. I can recognize the validity of both sides, but my beliefs have become more entrenched since I've become an activist. I am sure antichoice activists become more rigid, too. Sadly, as we meet again and again in front of abortion clinics, both sides will dig in deeper. This controversy will not go away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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