Abortion Clinic Escorts Are Putting Their ‘Bodies On the Line

Author, journalist, and clinic escort Lauren Rankin spoke to Jezebel about her new book, and the persistence of anti-abortion violence in America.

Abortion Clinic Escorts Are Putting Their ‘Bodies On the Line’
Photo:Counterpoint Press

Dandy Barrett’s father James had been volunteering as an abortion clinic escort—someone who supports and accompanies patients into clinics, often through throngs of intimidating protesters—for just over a year, in the wake of the 1993 assassination of Florida abortion provider Dr. David Gunn. Then, one summer morning in 1994, Dandy received a call that changed her life: Her father had been shot and killed while entering his clinic’s parking lot.

In the aftermath of one of the worst days of her life, Dandy told journalist Lauren Rankin that she was devastated—but over time, she became more and more motivated to advocate for abortion access and ensure her father would be the last clinic escort to be murdered by so-called “pro-life” protesters.

Rankin’s new book, Bodies On the Line: At the Frontlines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America, is rife with stories like Dandy Barrett’s, as well as those of abortion providers whose young children have been stalked and threatened by anti-abortion activists, those whose clinics have been burned to the ground and clinic escorts who’ve been kicked, trampled, and nearly run over by anti-abortion zealots.

“Abortion at its core is about people, it’s about people’s dreams, it’s about life—just not in the way that abortion opponents claim.”

Before Rankin became a clinic escort herself in 2015, she told Jezebel she had been reporting on abortion rights for years. But becoming a clinic escort, she says, “showed me this issue in a fundamentally different way.” For the patients who walked by her side into the clinic, only to be screamed at, called slurs, and otherwise harassed or degraded by protesters, abortion wasn’t about politics—it was “about life.” And through all of the harassment and both physical and “psychic violence” that she and other escorts have had to endure, it was this realization that inspired her to continue.

“Abortion at its core is about people, it’s about people’s dreams, it’s about life—just not in the way that abortion opponents claim,” she said. “Everyone knows and loves someone who’s had an abortion, people of all backgrounds. It’s incredibly common. But because we’re told not to talk about it, abortion seems like some deep, dark, dirty secret.” This stigma, Rankin says, has been exploited by anti-abortion activists for years, and it will persist “until we actually start saying the word.”

As Rankin documents in Bodies On the Line, which was released Tuesday, clinics across America experienced a jarring rise of extreme, often physically violent anti-abortion protests in the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade, including protesters blockading clinics, chaining themselves to doors, physically assaulting clinic staff, volunteers, and patients, or committing arson and murder. This violence has persisted well beyond the 70s and 80s: Between 1993 and 2016, there were 11 murders and 26 attempted murders of providers by anti-abortion extremists.

Roe presented a seismic, galvanizing shift,” Rankin explained. And today, violence is neither rare nor even hypocritical for so-called “pro-life” activists—it’s entirely consistent with a movement grounded in the dehumanization of pregnant people and abortion providers, a movement that demands total state control of pregnant bodies.

“As a culture, we’ve just accepted that abortion clinics will just be sites of protests, and that’s just the way it is.”

Following the 1994 passage of the FACE Act, a federal law establishing buffer zones around clinics that protesters couldn’t cross and other basic safety measures, anti-abortion protests became less overtly extreme, but have persisted nonetheless. Notably, just last week, DC police found five fetuses in the home of a local anti-abortion activist who is simultaneously facing federal charges for blocking access to a clinic. Escorts who recall volunteering before and after the FACE Act told Rankin that anti-abortion legislators and activists seemed to take their cues from each other, almost “doing a dance together.” During Republican presidencies, protests would “scale back, as activists could focus more on the halls of power.” In contrast, during Democratic presidencies, “protests were way, way worse because they didn’t feel like they had political power or other options.”

Clinic violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum; prominent anti-abortion politicians are constantly fanning the flames for it by equating abortion with murder, not to mention their deep ties to some of the most militant, violent anti-abortion groups in America.

Yet, despite the importance of recognizing the militancy and extremism of these groups, Rankin says it’s important for us to understand anti-abortion violence beyond firebombings, arsons, assassinations, and other acts of direct physical violence. “As a culture, we’ve just accepted that abortion clinics will just be sites of protests, and that’s just the way that it is.

“But when you actually dig down to a human level, what it must feel like for someone who’s walking in to get a basic health care procedure, and be harassed, ‘counseled’ by strangers—that is a psychic kind of violence, that we don’t really take into account as a culture.”

“How far are you willing to go to help someone?

Despite the severe mental impact and frequent physical violence deployed by anti-abortion protesters, their tactics and protests are rarely taken seriously by local law enforcement. Bodies On the Line details many cases of police not taking the threat posed by anti-abortion protesters seriously, being overtly supportive of protesters, or essentially victim-blaming escorts and abortion providers who face harassment and violence. “They’re told, ‘this is what you signed up for,’ as a provider or volunteer,” Rankin said. Notably, for some escorts and clinic staff, calling the police isn’t even an option, as police presence is inherently “unsafe for a lot of people of color, particularly undocumented immigrants,” and “can place Black people’s lives at risk.”

The challenges to abortion access are rapidly expanding, ranging from growing risk of criminalization for pregnancy outcomes like self-managed abortion with pills, to the increasingly stringent abortion bans and restrictions passing out of legislatures. Still, even amid such an urgent political landscape, much of the work stays the same for clinic escorts, workers, and volunteers.

As clinics began to shut down en masse across the country, Rankin talked to Ann Horn, a woman who had volunteered at her Indiana clinic since 1978, before it joined the ranks of hundreds of other clinics across the country and was forced to shut down in 2011. Without physical clinics to volunteer at in their communities, escorts like Ann have described feeling a sense of lost identity. Despite this, they’ve pivoted to supporting abortion access in other ways, like fundraising with abortion funds, leading community education efforts, and organizing with advocates in other states to get patients wherever they need to go to access abortion. This intra-state organizing has included everything from arranging low-cost transportation to reaching out to their personal networks to help a patient who has kids find free child care during the procedure.

“When I think about the future of reproductive rights in this country, it’s a matter of, what am I willing to do? Everyone—and especially folks like me with privilege and particularly racial privilege—should be asking themselves that,” Rankin said. “How far are you willing to go to help someone? It’s imperative that we do as much as we humanly can.”

More than two decades after her father’s murder, Dandy Barrett said she received another phone call, this time from a nearby clinic in Savannah, Georgia, at the onset of the Trump administration in 2017. The clinic was preparing for a massive onslaught of anti-abortion protesters threatening to shut down the clinic the following morning, and asked Dandy if she would join clinic volunteers to prepare for the protest. She did, and by the time the wave of anti-abortion protesters showed up the next day, it was “too late” for the protesters: Too many clinic volunteers had shown up, making it impossible for them to block it.

What would Dandy’s father have thought of that day, and the state of abortion access in this country, today? “He would be incredulous that the issue was still an issue,” Dandy told Rankin. “That would have just appalled him. And he would have understood there are people, many people like himself, who would have said, ‘By gum, I have to stand up.’”

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