Photos by Kevin Gibson

This post is the third 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 also read part 1 and part 2.

There may be no more polarizing issue than abortion: It’s created a generations-old, perpetual, sometimes even dangerous confrontation of ideals between those who believe a newly conceived fetus is a life that must be protected and those who do not.

What seems to be lost at times is where the terms “pro-life” and “anti-abortion” intersect. “Pro-choice” does not mean “pro-death,” and yet many pro-life advocates would tell you otherwise. At the same time, it’s difficult to dismiss the passion with which anti-abortionists pursue the right to express their beliefs. However, it’s just as difficult to justify some of those tactics.

The debate here in Kentucky happens nearly every day of the week in Louisville at the EMW Women’s Surgical Center on West Market Street. In the first part of this series, we detailed a morning spent observing and talking with anti-abortion protestors. In part two, it was a view from the eyes of a pro-choice escort.

On the days I was present, some — though not all — in the pro-life set were aggressive in getting their message heard, while the pro-choicers, in the form of escorts, went about their business quietly. In a lot of ways, the outspoken pro-lifers may be an extreme case of a few “bad apples” spoiling the bunch; one volunteer escort, Jessica, said that during a particularly hectic Father’s Day at the clinic she received apologies from a few protestors who did not approve of the tactics of some of their counterparts.

Still, the debate rages on, four-plus decades since Roe vs. Wade helped make abortion legal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45. That’s a pretty astonishing number. And Kentucky is in a bit of a unique situation, as it has only one full-time abortion clinic, the one in Louisville (there is also a part-time clinic in Lexington). But as of 2011, according to Guttmacher, there were 1,720 abortion providers in the United States. That’s right, only two of those are in Kentucky.

Pro Choice escortsAs part of my experience talking with the pro-life protestors and then filling in as a pro-choice escort, I also did research. While I saw firsthand many pro-life advocates being aggressive, there is at least one instance online in which the local pro-life side accuses escorts of being aggressive.

“At times, the group has gone so far as to step on the feet of (pro-life) counselors or to kick at them,” a post on claims. The post further accuses the escort group of calling the police “on more than one occasion, despite the fact that the clinic has no buffer zone due to is location, and the presence of the counselors is clearly legal.”

But based on what I witnessed, the escorts group, which calls itself Every Saturday Morning, was nothing but passive. But there are two sides to every story, and this illustrates just how far apart these groups are in terms of their perspectives.

In fact, when I met the escorts for breakfast at a local café this past Saturday morning following their shift at the abortion clinic, what I expected was a session of commiserating about the protestors. Instead, what I saw was a group of friends chit-chatting. They seem to put Saturday mornings behind them when they get together in a neutral location.

There were so many escorts attending that six tables were pushed together to make room for everyone, and the group’s regular server, Erica, was busy taking orders and delivering coffee.

“We’ve had more than this before,” escort Pat G. told me. “This is about average.”

As breakfast unfolded, what I heard were conversations about the best pizza in the Highlands; East Coast rudeness; bad album covers. It wasn’t until I pushed them to talk about their mission that they bothered to even discuss the topic of their experiences with protestors. But once they opened up, I again had an eye-opening experience.

For instance, Pat G. said one time a protestor followed them to the café where they meet for breakfast. He confronted them, before sitting at a nearby table and watching them as they ate and talked.

“I just wanted to see where you baby killers go for breakfast,” he told them, according to Pat G.

Rita and Fausta are two of the longest-tenured escorts. They became escorts after their daughters began volunteering. Rita started eight years ago, while Fausta has been volunteering for five.

Rita, who had long volunteered with the National Organization for Women, keeps escorting because, “I am truly afraid this generation could lose their right to have control over their own body.”

But one common theme emerged as I volunteered on the line and had breakfast with the Every Saturday Morning crew. It started with Sarah, when I asked why she was an escort.

“I don’t like bullies,” was her reply. “I think you’ll get a version of that answer from any one of us you ask.”

About 10 minutes later, I asked the other Sara (with no “h”) the same question. She answered with the same four words: “I don’t like bullies.”

That’s how the escorts see the aggressive protestors. I don’t get the feeling they have any ill will toward those who simply show up to pray, but that’s not the case for those who cross a line into verbal abuse, shaming or worse.

“They are playground bullies on parochial schools that didn’t get enough of being top dog when they were kids,” Rita said. “Now that they’re retired, they get to live their childhood all over again by harassing young women.”

“It’s a social place where you can be mean and then you can go home and feel good about yourself,” Sara said.

“You see the same thing every week, playing out again and again,” said Kaitlin, a 23-year-old escort who looks much younger than her age. “The look on women’s faces when they get out of their vehicle, and you can tell they are from out of town and have no idea what to expect — the look of horror on their faces …”

Her voice trailed off, and then she added, “They say the most awful things.”

1004140803bThe escorts said the vitriol sometimes escalates beyond shaming the clients and into verbal abuse of the escorts as well, from making remarks about their weight to blatantly calling them “ugly.”

Of course, the escorts are far more concerned about what is being said and done to the clients.

“The meanest things I’ve heard have been said to clients,” Pat G. said. “They say things like, ‘He’ll leave you after this abortion.’ No matter who comes with them, it’s, ‘This will change your relationship forever. This will haunt you.’ It’s almost like they’re putting a curse on them.”

Fausta, meanwhile, recalled a day she was walking down West Market during a busy morning in front of the clinic.

“People were saying things like ‘baby killer.’ As I was walking through that day, I had an awareness that these are the same people that stoned witches. And if they could without impunity, they would do the same thing to me. That was really a moment. You can feel it in the air.”

Jessica recalled the first day she showed up to volunteer. It was Father’s Day this year, and there were more than 300 protestors that day.

“It was a whole different world that day,” she said. “I was on the front line, so I really couldn’t see how many there were. The scary part was walking up there alone. They thought I was a client. Of course, I was by myself and I didn’t know any of the people on the line, either. I teared up going through it, because I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is what people go through. This is crazy.’”

She recalled most vividly a protestor named Ron.

“Ron was in my face the entire time, because they try to pick up on newbies,” Jessica said. “He tried to introduce me as ‘the guardian to hell’s gate.’ He was telling these two guys, who looked like they were all of 18, that I kick puppies, abuse animals and that if they looked into my eyes, they would see Satan. And I just looked through him the entire time.”

However, that same day she also got a glimpse of another side. Some of the protestors came to her defense: “So many antis were coming up to me, and they were apologizing to me, saying that’s not what they were about.”

But even dissension among the ranks won’t stop the aggression of a few. And who else is going to offer at least a nominal feeling of safety if not the volunteer escorts?

“I feel it’s necessary,” an escort named David told me on the line this past Saturday. “We’re all here for the same reason — we want what’s best for these women.”

He was including the protestors in his statement, making the point that there are vastly different ways of trying to help based on very different points of view. David simply believes it isn’t his place to make choices for another person.

Escort Tim echoed this sentiment and said he feels the protestors who try to shame women into changing their minds are misguided in how they go about their business.

“They always talk about, ‘There’s time to change your mind,’” he said. “The time to do that is not when you’re walking in the door. I think that time has already come and gone.”

In other words, women who show up at the abortion clinic haven’t stopped there for an impulse buy — this has been, in most if not all cases, a difficult, gut-wrenching decision that has taken days or weeks to reach. And the law gives them a legal right to carry out that decision.

“The first thing I tell (clients) is, ‘There is no judgment here,’” Jessica said. “I’m not trying to convince anyone to do anything. I know these women have thought this through. They’ve thought about every scenario possible.”

And that’s why Every Saturday Morning marches on — for many of them, it’s to protect people from bullies. Some of the escorts have been clients themselves and are there to help ensure other women have support. Others are simply sympathetic. So, as long as there are “bad apples” among the throngs of protestors, these escorts will be there. Every Saturday morning.

“I feel like,” Jessica said, “if I’m not there, that’s another woman that has to walk through those doors. And what if she has to walk through alone?”

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]