This post is the second in a three-part series in which Insider Louisville looks at the ongoing pro-life vs. pro-choice confrontation outside Kentucky’s only full-time abortion clinic. You can read part 1 here.
When you pull on the orange vest — emblazoned with the words “Pro-Choice Clinic Escort” — the anti-abortion protestors immediately look at you differently.
As I take my place on “the line” along with several other orange-vest-clad volunteers in front of the main entrance to the EMW Women’s Surgical Center this past Saturday morning, I feel some of the protestors staring intently. Most pray quietly on the sidewalk, but others carry signs with phrases like “The Killing Place.” One woman is holding a sign reading, “I Regret My Abortion.”
Another woman has a grotesque sign bearing a photo of a terrified monkey with electrodes attached to its head on the left; on the right is a photo of what appears to be the remnants of an aborted fetus. Beneath the monkey’s head, the sign reads, “If this is wrong,” and above the other photo reads, “Can this be right?”
The scene looks like a full-fledged standoff, with a line of orange-vested escorts squaring off with a sidewalk filled with protestors holding signs and Bibles. But I am told by volunteers Sara and Pat C. to simply stand in line and help provide a barrier that will keep the protestors, or antis, from encroaching upon the clinic’s property.
Escorts also are situated at the corner of West Market and Second streets, waiting for patients (known as “clients”) who will be followed and, for lack of a better term, ministered to by many of the protestors. The volunteer escorts, who are not affiliated with the clinic, offer support and protection as clients approach.
David, the friendly, small-ish guy next to me on the line, begins briefing me on what to do and what not to do: Don’t engage; definitely don’t touch. They might bump me, I am told, but I am not to bump back. I should not even lift my arms, just keep them at my sides, in my pockets or behind my back. We are only a buffer.
It is about 7:20 a.m. in the 100 block of West Market Street, and what looks to be a couple dozen protestors, mostly in their 60s and older, line the street. Some pray in unison. One protestor holds a 5-foot-tall crucifix.
The first client and her partner arrive, and the escorts — and protestors — leap into action.
To my left, I notice several people in yellow vests similar to the ones the escorts are wearing. At first I think they must be more escorts, but David informs me they are protestors who have chosen to identify themselves similarly, using a different color, probably as a way to confuse clients.
“It’s like a bad musical,” I say, and he chuckles nervously. I half expect him to start snapping his fingers before breaking into “Jet Song.”
The morning is going along quietly when a car parks across the street. The couple gets out, and an escort approaches. But they are here to protest — the escort walks away, and a man and woman exit the car and remove a double stroller from the trunk. Soon, twin toddlers are on the protest line, facing us. It is 40 degrees with a brisk wind.
Not long afterward, three more kids show up, maybe between 8 and 10 years old, and they stand by as their parents chant prayers. The throng, which I later learn has grown to 50 protesters (about two to three times the number of escorts), begins singing, “Ave Maria.” One escort, an older man named Anpelio, becomes weary of the chanting and singing. He goes to his car and retrieves something, then returns to his post in front of the clinic door (he’s the escort who holds the door for clients).
And then something unexpected happens: Polka music begins playing. Apparently, he has retrieved an iPod to help drown out the protestors (many spitting venomous words, not just singing and praying). Now, the protestors are praying to a chorus of “Roll Out the Barrels.” The scene is surreal.
But then things change. Angela, a middle-aged woman clutching a Bible and wearing a thick, pink vest, arrives, not long before a teenage girl in a gray hoodie approaches along with two companions who appear to be her parents. As she nears the line, with escorts doing their best to buffer, Angela gets in the girl’s ear — I don’t hear what Angela says, but the girl breaks down, begins crying, as her parents urge her forward and one of the other escorts tries to get between Angela and the trio.
I watch the girl stumble, looking defeated, through the clinic door.
“That’s heartbreaking,” I whisper to David, with tears forming in my eyes. He nods. He’s seen it before.
Sara walks over and asks if I would like to tour the area around the clinic. It appears I won’t get to act as a direct escort, as that typically requires training. She hands me off to Sarah, a blond, cheerful young woman who is happy to show me around.
We turn past the yellow vests onto Second Street and she points to a specific yellow vest whom the escorts have nicknamed Backwards Bob. A few steps farther down the sidewalk, she points out a stocky woman in a pink sweatshirt.
“That’s Mary,” Sarah says. “She’s kind of aggressive.”
We walk toward an alley behind A Woman’s Choice, an anti-abortion center next door to the clinic. Sarah warns against setting foot in that parking lot while wearing the vest, saying they will call the police.
We turn into an alley toward the parking garage, and that’s when we see three people emerge from the garage — two young men and a young woman with shoulder-length, light brown hair.
“Uh-oh,” Sarah says, “you’re up. Do not talk directly to the clients, just walk with us. If Mary bumps you, do not bump her back.”
I have been thrust into duty unexpectedly, and I have no idea what to do. Sarah walks up with me at her left and asks the girl, “Would you like an escort to the clinic? There are protestors on Market Street.” The young woman looks momentarily surprised and then nods, whispers, “Sure.”
We turn to walk, but almost immediately, Mary runs down the alley and is upon us. I am on the girl’s right and I try to shield her, but Mary knows I’m a newbie. She circles around and pushes past me on my left, bumping me out of the way from behind like she’s a bulldog and I’m a plastic pet gate.
I have no choice now but to walk behind the group as Mary pushes anti-abortion brochures in the girl’s face during our walk up Second Street. I can’t hear what she is saying, but she talks nonstop, inches from the girl’s ear.
As we approach the corner of Market, the girl trying her best to block out Mary, head down, Backwards Bob appears. He squats down at first to force the girl to make eye contact. He then walks backward all the way to the line, spewing his message, thus revealing how he got his nickname. Every few steps, he looks back to make sure there is nothing he might trip over.
Backwards Bob and Aggressive Mary have surrounded the trio, and there’s really nothing we can do. As we approach the clinic, other protestors shout things at the girl. Adrenalin kicks up inside, causing my muscles to stiffen as if there is a threat imminent.
When the trio is safely inside, I take my place back on the line, and now Angela is yelling at the clinic’s front door. Endlessly yelling. She is a machine — she loudly recites over and over the evils of abortion, Bible verses, etc., and never seems to tire.
“Sometimes I want to offer her a lozenge,” David says to me. I stifle laughter.
Sara invites me to take up a spot next to her in front of the entrance to get a different perspective. Now I am face to face with the heart of the group of protestors. Some ignore me; some stare daggers into me. A gray-bearded man holds a crucifix on a wooden stake. He is a burly man with a black Harley-Davidson toboggan, and I later learn his nickname is Pony Tail.
As I look around, I make the mistake of catching Pony Tail’s eye. He takes a step toward me and snaps, “Are you going to be proud of what you did here today?” I break eye contact, muscles stiff again, adrenalin pumping, and return to talking with Sara, but I have to admit I’m briefly intimidated.
Later, I move back to my previous spot, where Angela is still yelling. A tall, slender, elderly man in a green-and-blue-hooded rugby shirt walks from person to person on the line now, looking each of us in the eye, one by one telling us, “God is watching you. God is watching you, too.”
One of the escorts says, “I don’t believe in your god.” Rugby Shirt smiles and says, “Well, then I won’t be seeing you in heaven. That’s fine with me.”
The older children now are wrapped in blankets and huddled on the sidewalk. The toddlers also are wrapped up, and one is being held tightly by his or her (apparent) father. I wonder, “Is this their choice? Sitting out here on the sidewalk on a Saturday morning freezing while people yell at each other?”
I have lost count of how many clients have gone into the clinic, and I have lost track of time. I will be glad when Saturday morning on the line is over.
Finally, Pat C. says, “We’re done!” All of the appointments have been checked through, and another Saturday morning outside the abortion clinic is in the books. Pat takes a breath and says, “Breakfast.”
I pull the orange vest over my head, fold it up and stuff it into a backpack with the others. It couldn’t have come soon enough for me. I wonder how these people will find the strength and courage to come back next Saturday and do it again. And then, head still spinning and heart still racing, I go to breakfast with the escorts.
Tomorrow: Part 3, Breakfast with the escorts.