I escorted women to an abortion clinic. The protesters were relentless.

A decoy operation staged alongside Planned Parenthood in Lincoln, Nebraska knew all the tricks

Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
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From 2009 to 2011 I was a volunteer patient attendant at Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Lincoln, Nebraska. The clinic performed abortions every Tuesday. Demonstrators gathered in front of the clinic on these days and partially surrounded it. Lincoln, a college town, is liberal by Nebraska standards, but Lincoln’s Catholics, including traditionalist parishioners, were out in large numbers on Abortion Day.

I didn’t have strong feelings about abortion policy when I started out as an escort, guiding patients through the maelstrom of protesters. A friend had told me about the obstacles she faced in getting an abortion. I volunteered because I wanted to help others in their position and better understand these obstacles. I now feel I know the political movement that has been overthrown Roe v. calf. Your ambitions are bigger than just restricting abortion.

Patients walking to the clinic walked a gantlet. The anti-choice protesters “counseled” them on the sidewalk, attempting to place rosaries in the patients’ hands and try to distract them in some way, short of physical attacks. Attendants attempted to ground and psychologically comfort patients, walking with them, speaking calmly, and moving them steadily. Most patients looked scared or stunned in front of the anti-choice protesters. Some were very, very angry with her.

The protesters’ base of operations was the house next to the clinic, which was purchased by an anti-abortion nonprofit, Lincoln Right to Life. The group describes itself as ecumenical, but the Catholic Church has been the star of the show at the protests. The house had a Stations of the Cross in the courtyard as if it were a church, but there was no congregation other than protesters and no services other than anti-abortion religious rites. There was no sign stating the name or purpose of the building. It served as clinic bait.

Protesters tagged cars apparently trying to pull into the home’s driveway instead to Planned Parenthood, then made it difficult for them to leave the home. They wore doctor’s coats as they tried to fool patients into believing they were in a clinic. Patients were usually confused when presented with a clinic that looked mostly like a house and a little like a church. They described to me how anti-choice protesters would prolong this confusion and use it to keep patients away from medical care for as long as possible, using medical misinformation or simple guilt.

When a car made it into the hospital parking lot, the protesters couldn’t physically approach anyone getting out of the car without entering it, so they just yelled at them. They had a raised platform for this, which was built right on the property line of the clinic. There has been a gradual escalation over the years, with protesters erecting higher screaming platforms and the clinic erecting higher fences to block the screaming. The volunteer coordinator told me that the limits of local building codes had finally been reached, with the highest platform as a tree house and the highest strip of fence as the “seasonal banner”.

On a typical abortion day, 10 to 20 protesters lined up outside the clinic, although the diocesan bishop accompanied several hundred once a month. They spent a lot of time talking to us. Planned Parenthood did not allow companions to respond; We were a captive, passive audience for the protesters. They chose to talk a lot about sex. They were more opposed to birth control and liked to explain “God’s plan for human sexuality.” One woman illustrated this plan with unsolicited details about her virtuous sex life in marriage. She considered abortion and hormonal contraception to be murder and condoms unworthy. Her husband has learned to suppress his sexual urges, she said, and they now only have sex for procreation. In order to win others to this godly way of life, she protested in front of the clinic almost every week for years.

We had a relaxation with the regular protesters. Occasionally we called the police for trespassing or blocking the driveway, but they knew the legal limits and generally complied as long as they were observed. When patients weren’t coming, they mostly stood around, gossiping about church stuff, exchanging medical misinformation about cancer-causing abortions, and counting all the women they claimed to have saved from sin.

Although annoyed by the regulars, the escorts were more scared of the people who occasionally arrived by bus. Hundreds of them, who did not know the locals, did not care about relaxation and often wanted to go to the stands. Sometimes the visitors wore the robes of Catholic priests or seminarians. Sometimes it was private students who mostly looked like they didn’t want to be there. A woman arrived in some kind of tour bus. She delivered a meandering speech urging humanity to “stop having sex.” A man wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up on a warm day angrily muttered to himself that the clinic was putting babies in mixers. He glared at nothing in particular. I wondered if he was finally going to be the guy to shoot the store down.

I have always been careful to hide my identity as an escort. I arrived on the city bus because I was warned that people driving to the clinic risked having their license plates checked by the Anti-Choicers. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s true that the protesters followed clinic workers into their personal lives. They showed up at the employees’ homes and knocked on the door. At school sports events, they approached their children to tell them how sinful their parents were. They protested in their churches.

Planned Parenthood clinic staff have been physically assaulted. Once an angry man stormed out of the house church and tried to force his way into the clinic. Because the director of the clinic was in his way, he grabbed her by the neck, punched her in the ribs and tried to force her to the ground. Luckily the manager was able to push him out the front door. You could see her bruises for a long time afterwards.

Once the clinic was bombed with a Molotov cocktail. It did little damage, presumably because the attacker found it difficult to throw down the security fence around the clinic that had been erected in response to previous attacks. I was very impressed by this event, but others in the clinic did not seem to find it unusual. I think they had learned to habitually ignore this type of trauma. The arson attack was only briefly mentioned in the local news.

A fellow companion was a woman who had worked with George Tiller in neighboring Kansas until Tiller was murdered. Tiller, an abortion doctor, was shot by an anti-abortion activist at his church in Wichita while serving as usher in 2009, a few months before I started volunteering. I didn’t really think our volunteering was dangerous until I heard the story of this escort. She was like a refugee.

The protesters had elaborate rituals. During Lent, they maintained 24-hour vigil outside the clinic, they claimed. I saw her there once or twice at night; it looked like they were lighting a ceremonial lamp. At one point they circled the clinic with a salt line. It felt like they were trying to use magic against us. Which shouldn’t be a big deal because magic isn’t real, but it was scary to me because it seemed out of whack.

Every time a man approached (including me before they recognized me), the Antis would yell, “Tell your girlfriend not to do this!” They assumed the women weren’t married. They were sentimental about motherhood, the right role for women. The protesters expressed to me a binary view in which marriage and motherhood with abortion are mutually exclusive. In fact, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 59 percent of abortion patients have already had a child.

I was puzzled by some protesters’ opposition to birth control and the focus on virtuous motherhood. Raised by blunt and honest people, I initially assumed that the weekly standoff at the clinic was caused by an honest disagreement about abortion. This was at odds with the protesters’ hatred of contraception – which, of course, prevents abortion – or their preoccupation with sex. Society as a whole told me I was part of a cultural conflict over when human life begins, but my experience taught me that the conflict was broader. The protesters seemed to want sexual expression and gender roles to be governed by conservative Christianity. They wanted this control not only within their church but also over anyone seeking abortion or birth control.

In 2011, the clinic moved to a location where the layout of driveways, parking lots and entrances was more difficult for protesters to block. A few months later, the Planned Parenthood affiliate’s chief of security informed the escorts that the voluntary escort program, with increased insurance costs and risks of liability from violent crimes, would be discontinued. My role ended; The clinic was forced to hire professional security guards.

With little purpose other than to shadow the clinic — it also doubled as a diaper swap — the home was sold not long after Planned Parenthood moved. In 2018, Lincoln Right to Life opened in a different building across from Planned Parenthood’s new location. The local Catholic diocese holds weekly services there, according to its press release. The services are not on Sunday, but on Tuesday – Abortion Day.

The new building has discarded any outward appearance of a church. As a former commercial building, it can act as a much more plausible decoy clinic than the old house church ever could. Although I’m no longer there as an escort, I can’t miss the huge sign that reads “Women’s Care Center” in a shade of pink that reflects Planned Parenthood’s branding.

The duplicity and pressure tactics I witnessed as an escort made an indelible impression on me. I can’t forget that this week, as every week, people with a strong interest in the sex lives and reproductive choices of others are gathering for a worship service at a building in Nebraska they’ve dubbed the Women’s Care Center because of its proximity to a Planned Parenthood Clinic was selected. They publicly claim the goal of saving unborn children. I sense that a more ambitious dream exists just beneath the surface: conservative Christian domination of human sexuality and gender. With roe overthrown, we have taken a step into that dominion.

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