It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday outside Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington at 16th and L streets in Northwest. Two groups stand outside, their ideologies diametrically opposed.
In a prayer circle of about 15 people on the tiny lawn in front of the clinic, two anti-abortion protesters kneel at both sides of a sidewalk leading to the clinic’s entrance, holding rosaries and praying silently. Other protesters, calling themselves “sidewalk counselors,” are standing with pamphlets, following clinic-goers to the door of the building, trying to hand them literature.
A man in a flannel shirt paces around, smiling, making small talk and singing prayers. Individuals in the circle take turns reading from a book of prayers, and then they recite the biblical prayers in unison.
By the same lawn, a group of five young adults wear orange vests over their clothing with black letters reading “Pro-Choice Clinic Escort.” They wait along the main sidewalk to assist people as they enter the clinic, ready to shield them from the onlooking protesters.
There is no way of knowing what services someone approaching the clinic is going in for, so sidewalk counselors and escorts walk alongside everyone entering the clinic, trying to do their separate jobs and fulfill their different missions.
“I feel like I’m getting an abortion,” a patient said inside the clinic. “I just want birth control.”
GW junior Amanda Bates, who regularly acts as an escort at the clinic, explained her role.
“Essentially, I walk the patient, if he or she wants me to, from when I see him or her, in a car or taxi or from some point on the sidewalk, to the door of the clinic,” she said.
“Seems simple enough, right?” Bates continued. “There is a gauntlet of ‘sidewalk counselors’ who approach the patient, groups of people praying and some others who hold posters and yell at the patient regardless of the reason he or she is entering the clinic.”
Bates got involved as a clinic escort through GW’s chapter of Voices for Choices – the student branch of Planned Parenthood – and the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force. The clinic’s directors said they value the service escorts donate to the clinic’s attendees.
“The escorts play a major role in helping our patients to access the clinics,” said Samantha Speaks, associate director of patient services at PPMW. “With protester tactics getting more and more aggressive, we rely on the escorts to assure that the patients enter and leave the clinics safely.”
Philip Barlow, an escort who was at the clinic last week, said the protesters used to be “a lot more aggressive.”
The clinic in Southeast D.C. where he escorted for 15 years before its closure a year ago was bombed at one point before he worked there, he said, and a shooting at a clinic in Virginia prompted additional escort training to identify people with weapons.
He said in Southeast he saw people try to get inside the clinic, physically putting themselves between patients and clinicians, and he said anti-abortion activists glued shut the clinic’s locks overnight.
Before there were regular protests, Barlow explained, groups would show up at clinics and form blockades, and escorts were needed to keep the entrances clear so people could get in and out. That changed when President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, making it a felony to block the entrance to a clinic, Barlow said.
“Most of the people just get in a prayer circle and pray,” Barlow said about the L Street clinic in recent times.
Bates said she got involved with escort training her freshman year, just before the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which effectively made abortion legal in the whole United States.
“I attended the training out of pure curiosity, but after the training I was very angry,” Bates said. “There is no reason that women should be harassed while accessing basic reproductive healthcare. Instead of staying angry, I refocused my energy and became a clinic escort.”
Escorts are trained by Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force. The group “provides escorts to ensure a peaceful and reassuring presence for patients, their companions and staff,” according to its Web site. It holds monthly training sessions for people interested in learning how to become clinic escorts, teaching techniques of “defusing potential problems with clinic protesters.” Bates said the number of students at the information sessions has been increasing, with more than 40 at the last meeting.
“Some ‘antis’ obstruct and harass people going in, and we just try to help them get inside with the least amount of harassment,” said Nathaniel, an escort who requested his last name not to be used for fear of harassment.
Escorts refer to the protesters as “antis” because they are seen as “anti-choice,” Nathaniel explained. Bates said a typical crowd of “antis” ranges from 20 to 50 people.
Amanda, who also declined to reveal her last name for fear of harassment, serves as WACDTF’s clinic coordinator and is the liaison between escorts and clinic staff. She said escorts are not counter-protesters.
“We are there at the request of clinics to ensure that patients have access to the clinic and its services,” Amanda said. “Our main priority is always to patients.”
Bates said the biggest group of protesters came out during the week of the anniversary of the Roe decision in January. “The sheer number of protesters creates a very intimidating environment for the patients.”
But anti-abortion activists said they are not at the clinic to protest, and instead simply give patients their point of view.
“We’re here to support women. We’re not here to harass them,” said Erin Crawford, a self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor” and senior at Catholic University.
Crawford stands at the front of the entrance walkway, her pamphlets in hand, ready to speak with people approaching the clinic.
“We want to make sure women know that there are options,” Crawford said. “Most of the women that come here are in crisis … (and) a hastily made decision can affect you for the rest of your life.”
Crawford is the sidewalk clinic outreach coordinator for her school’s anti-abortion group, Students for Life. Most of the members of the prayer circle are fellow members, she said.
“This is something (the patients) need prayers for,” she said.
PPMW directors said they view the anti-abortion activists as negating the work Planned Parenthood is trying to accomplish. Although the crowds show up each Saturday to dissuade women from getting abortions, Planned Parenthood provides other services at its clinic such as birth control, emergency contraception and pregnancy and STD testing.
“Those protesters who are opposed to abortions should support our work to prevent unintended pregnancies – unfortunately many do not,” Speaks said.
Twice in one hour last Saturday, passersby stopped to speak with clinic escorts.
As Barlow stands outside the clinic, a young woman walks by and asks, “Is that legal?” pointing to the crowd of protesters.
“Yeah,” he responds. “It’s public property. Do you need an escort?”
She declines, saying, “I’m just tempted to walk by just to be a pain in the ass.”