Last Friday night, alleged gunman Robert Lewis Dear killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the deadliest attack on an abortion clinic ever recorded. The next morning, employees and volunteers at Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health clinics across the country went back to work.
"We were just stunned, and angry, and distraught" when the news of the attack hit, said Shana Broders, a regular volunteer with an abortion provider in North Carolina. "There were so many emotions. But all of us were 100 percent sure we would be there tomorrow."
Broders is what’s known as a clinic escort, a volunteer who helps patients (who may or may not even be there for an abortion) safely navigate the anti-abortion protesters who inevitably gather outside reproductive health clinics. Usually, Broders says, three or four escorts show up on a Saturday to help patients. The Saturday after the shooting, there were a dozen. It was a good thing, too — the typical flood of 30 or more protesters from a local church was there, and the atmosphere was even more agitated and tense than usual. Three different people ended up calling the police because protesters started screaming so loudly and confronting the neighbors.
Other clinics had a much more subdued and chastened protest presence, or no protests at all. Outside the Columbus, Ohio, clinic where she works as a patient advocate, Amanda Patton said the protesters were outnumbered by volunteers for the first time she’d ever seen. At one private clinic in New York City, said clinic escort Pearl Brady, they just didn’t show up — except for the one guy they call "Bible Brian," who "yelled" scripture at the front door for about 15 minutes before going home. But, Brady said, "I’m confident they will be back this coming weekend, probably with a renewed vengeance."
As for the patients, they did come. Erika Staub, a registered nurse and public health nurse at a Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, Minnesota, said that the clinic had about as many patients as it would on any other Saturday. "If 100,000 women in Texas are self-aborting, women aren't going to not come to their abortion appointments," Staub said.
At the Planned Parenthood where Staub works, she said, "The overall mood was, if anything, really galvanized. Like, yes, we are all really glad we're here, this is something we all need to do." There’s been a lot of anxiety and "drama" ever since this summer, Staub said, when an anti-abortion group released undercover videos making spurious allegations that Planned Parenthood "sells baby parts." But the general attitude is that "we’re just going to ride it out."
Still, Staub said, the Colorado Springs attack was "really unsettling for a lot of reasons. You can't help but think about what you'd do in that situation in your workplace." When we spoke on Tuesday, her office was getting ready to do one of its semiannual drills to practice what to do in case of an attack. "Most people have fire drills and tornado drills. They don't have terrorist drills," she said.
Most shrug it off or find ways to deal with it, but the baseline anxiety of knowing that you could be a target for violence is a daily reality for abortion providers and volunteers. That connects to another daily reality: the constant barrage of lower-level harassment or even threats from anti-abortion protesters. Most protesters are peaceful, clinic workers and escorts say, but plenty aren’t — enough to make escort programs necessary in the first place. And most of the unruly protesters won’t escalate to more serious threats or violent acts. But some will.
The uncertainty is often the worst part for patients and the people who volunteer to protect them. "You have no idea who this person is and what they're capable of," Patton said. Even the group of men who regularly come to quietly pray outside her Columbus clinic can freak out patients, she said. "It is still very intimidating to see a line of people standing outside of this clinic watching you walk in, especially when it's men. A lot of these women are rape victims, abuse victims, and these strange men are standing there judging them."
The threat of this uncertainty was heightened the day after Colorado Springs. Mary (not her real name) volunteers at a clinic in northern Virginia where the protest activity usually isn’t too bad. But on that Saturday, someone whom volunteers and employees had never seen before showed up. He was a younger guy with big signs and a camera bag. "And there was no need for him to have a camera bag on," Mary said. "He was taking pictures of all the escorts, but with his cellphone. … And it wouldn’t have been the same concern before this past Friday. But because of what happened in Colorado, I saw that situation totally differently."
Some clinic protesters call themselves "sidewalk counselors," and say that they come with a peaceful, loving mission to "turn [women’s] hearts away from abortion and offer real help." Some women undoubtedly heed their message, though research says most have already made up their minds.
"I personally believe that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, not everyone needs to be a supporter of abortion services, and the protesters for the most part are definitely peaceful at that clinic," said Elisa, who used to work as a reproductive health specialist at a Planned Parenthood in San Francisco and asked to be identified by her first name. "But there’s still this very muddy line of being peaceful while still really intimidating about people's personal medical decisions that has never felt right to me."
Clinic escorts who spoke with Vox agreed that it’s usually the "new guys" you have to watch out for the most — and there have been a lot more new guys ever since the videos came out. Most clinics have their "regular" protesters: your Bible Brians, your line of priests or "rosary procession" of nuns, and even your Bikers for Life astride their Harleys. They all have their "scripts," ranging from quiet prayers to much louder prayers or scripture to shouted invective, which may include attempts to touch or follow patients and escorts.
"It’s kind of the same stuff every single week," Brady said. "I get told I’m an accomplice to murder, I’m the same as Hitler. They usually wait until 8 or 8:30 for the Hitler comparison, but one shift they started at 7. It’s like, you can’t start with Hitler! Where do you go from there?"
"One guy brings a giant cross and yells things like, ‘We need more white babies!’ or ‘Black babies' lives matter!’ depending on who is walking past him," Patton said. They often target young women of color, Brady said, and scream at the men who walk in with them to "be a man" and "don’t let her kill your baby." They may well be screaming at someone coming in for birth control or an STI screening rather than an abortion.
But even some of the more "regular" protest activity is more harrowing. Protesters get strategic about where they’re placed, making sure to cover all available entrances and parking lots so patients can’t avoid them. They might wear fluorescent outfits that mimic the clinic escorts’ bright vests, like in the photo above. Some protesters routinely violate patients’ personal boundaries, volunteers said, and refuse to take no for an answer when they’re told to go away. Some push the boundaries of what they can get away with legally, either because they know police won’t get there in time to see it happening or because they know patients won’t want to bother pressing charges.
"We've been pushed, had holy water thrown on us. They shout, they get right up in your face. They especially love it if there's a woman out there. They want to get in your personal space, they bully you, they'd like to see you cry," said Elizabeth, who volunteers at a Cleveland clinic and asked to be identified by her first name.
"It’s stunning how personal they make it," Broders said. "They scream at the clients, but they also engage with us as escorts." In addition to the standard "going to hell" and "murderer" rhetoric, they also mocked one of the escorts for being "fat." And they attacked Broders for being a mom of four kids, which they found out because she has a stick family decal on her car.
Someone also found out that Broders was an elementary school teacher. She said that members of the extremist group Abolish Human Abortion threatened to come to her school, which prompted a meeting with staff and the principal to prepare for potential threats or intruders. Protesters distributed fliers with Broders's picture on it that said she spent her summer vacation helping "MURDER babies."
Doctors who provide abortions sometimes get stalked and have their names, pictures, and addresses distributed on "wanted" posters in their own neighborhoods. Protesters did something similar to a doctor at the Columbus clinic where Patton works, she said, and she’s worried they might know where she lives, too. She’s been written about in several anti-abortion blogs. She said one of the protesters took a picture of her license plate right in front of her, making sure she saw. After Colorado, she installed a new alarm system in her house.
It’s gotten especially bad since the anti–Planned Parenthood videos came out this summer, volunteers told Vox, which tracks with what law enforcement has said about more serious threats and criminal activity. "One Saturday, they had 57 church members out there, just standing in front of our tiny little clinic," Broders said.
"We have regular protesters every Saturday, and everyone sort of knows their legal rights, and it can be calmer because everybody is used to being there," said Elyse Hughes, who co-chairs the health center escort program for Planned Parenthood of New York City. But Hughes monitors feedback from volunteers citywide, and she said that it’s gotten "a lot more volatile in front of the clinics" ever since the videos came out. New people show up at clinics who are more vocal and less respectful of boundaries. After the shooting in Colorado, New York City’s Planned Parenthood was in immediate contact with the NYPD to increase security.
The new protesters also spout medically inaccurate and inflammatory "facts," Hughes said, which worries clinic workers and volunteers almost more than the invective. Some protesters already hand out literature or shout things that give some patients groundless fears that their risk of breast cancer or infertility will increase if they have an abortion. Now the videos have given them new ammunition, with debunked claims about "selling baby parts" that patients may not know for sure are false.
Of course, things have been bad outside abortion clinics before this year. Ruth Thompson was a clinic escort at a Planned Parenthood in Lincoln, Nebraska, for six years, until about five years ago. That’s when the clinic had to end its escort program and hire armed guards, and eventually move locations, because the protest activity got so bad. The local Catholic pro-life group bought the building next door and took pictures of the clients and patients over the fence, Thompson said. People would follow patients into nearby restaurants to try to "counsel" them. Someone once threw a Molotov cocktail. It’s these kinds of incidents that make pro-choice advocates call attacks on clinics and abortion providers domestic terrorism, pure and simple.
The same perception holds true even for lesser acts. Julie Carpenter used to work as a nurse at a Planned Parenthood in Ithaca, New York, which she said had a surprising amount of protest activity for such a liberal college town. Carpenter was often yelled at, and sometimes followed. Her experience wasn’t as bad as somebody coming in armed, of course, she said, but it still struck her as a "terroristic act" — as in, something designed to terrorize clinic workers into stopping the work they do. And it "absolutely blows your mind," she said, that clinic workers have to learn protocol for what to do in case of something like Colorado. "We know where the panic buttons are," she said.
Yet this is why clinic workers and volunteers said their work is so important: Amid the threats, it’s more important than ever to have providers who are dedicated to helping patients. To not just provide quality reproductive health care, and not just do extra work to make sure that health care can be obtained safely, but also to provide emotional support in the face of harsh opposition.
Ariana Katz, a rabbinical student in Philadelphia, works as a volunteer chaplain at Planned Parenthood to help meet the spiritual and emotional needs of patients. "To say [to a patient], I’m a religious person, I think you’re worthy of care and love, and that this is a choice you can make and still be whole in the eyes of God, is really very important," she said. "And walking past protesters outside and having them say, ‘I’m praying for you’ — sometimes I just say in my head, ‘I’m praying for them too.’"
Nurses like Staub at the Planned Parenthood in Minnesota perform all kinds of duties, from intake to blood drawing to ultrasounds. They might assist the doctor during the procedure, although they can’t perform it. Or they might simply sit with the patient to offer support and even hold her hand during the procedure.
"I’ve been super happy working at Planned Parenthood," Staub said. "Patients will say, 'Wow, you guys seem to really like your job.' But you wouldn’t survive in this climate, with the threats, you wouldn’t stick it out if you didn’t really, really care about it."
"We as a society should not be accepting a situation in which people are threatened for ensuring that patients have access to health care," said Mary in Virginia. "We shouldn’t have to have a volunteer job, because this shouldn’t be an issue. But as long as it's needed, I'll keep doing it."