AMERICA’S ABORTION war is increasingly being fought in the courts. More anti-abortion laws have been passed in 2021 than in any year since Roe v Wade half a century ago, in turn prompting a record number of legal challenges, and on December 1st the Supreme Court is due to hold one of the most important hearings on the issue in decades. However, every day across the country a noisier battle is being waged on the pavements outside abortion clinics, as pro-life protesters clash with pro-choice volunteers.
This may be one of the few public spaces in which representatives of America’s left and right exchange views directly. In some places clinic escorts, who usher patients past protesters crying “Murder!”, mock demonstrators about their religious beliefs. “Is that the validation you want from Sky Daddy?” a volunteer yells at a protester outside a clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a TikTok video that went viral. Protesters, meanwhile, provide what might be a caricature of the white Christian right. “You a feminist!” a young man wearing a “Repent or Perish” beanie hat tells an escort in another video. “Feminism has led to murdering babies.”
Such clashes are becoming more common. At most clinics, volunteer escorts do not confront the protesters. The role took off in the 1990s when some antiabortionists became violent. But more escorts are now calling themselves “defenders” and shouting back.
This adversarial approach is a response to a rise in the number of demonstrations. The National Abortion Federation says incidents of anti-abortion picketing rose from 6,347 in 2010 to 123,228 in 2019. Though rarely violent, such protests are often aggressively loud and intrusive.
At the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, which is at the heart of the Supreme Court case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, the Pinkhouse Defenders, named after the bubblegum-pink building in which the clinic is housed, take on anyone who challenges women as they arrive. “Nope, nope, nope and nope!” bellows an escort at a protester who is pleading with a woman, walking head-down into the clinic, not to “shed innocent blood” (“She’s already inside, sweetie.”)
Kim Gibson, a co-founder of We Engage, a non-profit organisation that raises money for the group, is a loquacious defender. She says she wants to “let antis know there is no welcome mat on the clinic sidewalks where they can spew their shame and propaganda with ease”.
The main purpose, though, is to assist the clinic’s patients. By confronting protesters, escorts hope to deflect attention away from them. And by calling demonstrators by name, and often mocking them, escorts hope to make them seem less threatening. “Patients can see we are confident in our space, and we believe that helps, says Ms Gibson. She says most of the Pinkhouse protesters are regulars; she worries about ones she hasn’t seen before.
At times the interaction between escort and protester can slip into banter, a little like joshing between colleagues. “You’re late,” one escort says to a protester as he arrives and starts unloading grisly posters of third-trimester abortions (which are not performed at the clinic) from the boot of his car. Minutes later he is reciting bloody passages from the Old Testament and she is hurling insults at him.
The impression that, for some protesters at least, all this is about more than abortion is strengthened by the lack of interest they show in the looming legal battle. If it upholds Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which was blocked in 2018 because it violated Roe, the Supreme Court will have to sharply curtail the constitutional right to abortion—or abandon Roe altogether. But Coleman Boyd, a medical doctor who demonstrates at the Jackson clinic several times a week, says he isn’t interested in what the justices decide about a “wicked” 15-week abortion ban. “We’re not just here for the babies,” he says. “We’re here to turn them towards Jesus.”■