The Volunteers Guarding Kentucky’s Last Abortion Clinic
While the state pushes to shut the doors of the E.M.W. Clinic, dozens of men and women step up for reproductive rights.
On an unseasonably cool August morning, while West Market Street quietly hummed with commuter traffic, people literally chose sides. To the left of the entrance, pro-life protesters filed into formation, gripping graphic signs of fetuses and thumbing rosaries while chanting Ave Maria. To the right, pro-choice clinic escorts stood on a painted line that read NO TRESPASSING and zipped up their neon orange vests.
It’s just another weekday at E.M.W. Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Kentucky’s last clinic offering access to abortion.
E.M.W. didn’t open for nearly an hour, but at 7:15 am, escorts took their stations: one at the entrance, one on either end of the block, one at the parking lot across the street, and one at the parking garage behind the clinic. They stay within sight of each other for safety, and communicate with texts and silent nods.
The sun was still creeping over the horizon when a pickup truck drove by and a young male passenger hung out of the window, fist clenched, screaming “DON’T KILL KIDS, DON’T KILL KIDS, DON’T KILL KIDS.”
Neither the protesters nor the escorts flinched.
On paper, the escorts are not volunteers with the E.M.W. clinic, but rather a group of independent volunteers that organize through a private Facebook group and EverySaturdayMorning.net.
“[The escorts] are just an amazing buffer between the patients and the protesters out there,” said Anne Ahola, the Director of E.M.W. Clinic. “They really provide a lot of comfort to the patients.”
“They’re volunteers. We don’t recruit them, we don’t pay them, they’re just out there out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Being officially affiliated would be a liability for E.M.W., escorts told The Daily Beast.
Liability is a legitimate concern, since E.M.W. has a history of unrest. In 2015, a man threw his body through the front window. Three weeks later, a large rock was thrown through the front door. (The man responsible for both attacks has since returned to protesting outside of the clinic and continues to show up, according to escorts.) In May 2017, 11 members of the radical anti-abortion group Operation Save America were arrested after blocking the entrance to the clinic. Nine weeks later, hundreds of OSA members flocked to Louisville for a week-long marathon of protests outside E.M.W. and legislative offices.
While Operation Save America was in Louisville, they distributed 1500 flyers with E.M.W. employees’ home addresses, labeling them as “killers.”
After seeing the OSA protest footage, Kyle felt compelled to volunteer for the first time in his life. “There’s no reason women should have to deal with this at all,” Kyle told The Daily Beast. “I have no dog in this fight, I’m a gay man. I just want to do something.”
Kyle, 40, who has escorted at E.M.W. for a year, has seen an influx of patients travelling further for abortions as a result of other clinics closing. “I’ve encountered clients who have driven four and five hours that morning [of their appointment],” Kyle said.
He recalled one patient who drove across the state and had been waiting alone for four hours in a gas station parking lot from 3:30 a.m., afraid she’d miss her appointment.
Kyle paused, noticing two women parallel parking half a block from the clinic. They sat in the car, scanning the sidewalk and Kyle excused himself and jogged to the passenger side. He asked if they need directions to the clinic; the women explained they’d come to make an appointment.
At nearly 9 a.m., the initial clinic rush had dwindled and most protesters and escorts had left. Kyle escorted the women to the door and returned to their parking meter, dropping in a coin.
He continued, “I’m glad that I feel like I can help people and have helped people, but I don’t enjoy this experience. It’s not fun. It’s a battle.”
Anger at the state of reproductive rights in Kentucky is a common reason escorts cite for becoming involved. Several escorts point to YouTube videos as the catalyst for volunteering.
One former escort said she became involved in reproductive activism after her own abortion.
Jenn B., an escort of nearly a decade, said she was compelled to volunteer at the E.M.W after she and her husband rode bikes past the clinic, yelled “Go home!” to the protesters outside, and were subsequently followed by a man in a car. The man, Jenn said, had two small dogs and a souvenir Louisville slugger bat. “He’s chasing us down the road, threatening us with this little bat,” she recalled.
A couple weeks after the incident, Jenn was signed up for the escort training, and has been volunteering since.
Sharing a wall with E.M.W. is BSide You For Life, a faith-based Crisis Pregnancy Center that advertises abortion alternatives. Protesters often try to lure women away from E.M.W. with the promise of a free ultrasound, free baby clothes, and diapers inside the CPC.
From the outside, it’s easy to understand how a patient may be confused: two squat brick buildings, side by side, for pregnant women. The weekday operating hours for Bside You for Life mirror the intake hours at the clinic.
Escorts help those unfamiliar discern the difference. E.M.W. is a licensed medical facility; Bside You For Life, despite advertising medical services, is not.
Patients additionally rely on escorts to decode the puzzle of parking at E.M.W., as the clinic does not have a dedicated parking lot for patients. Deceptively, BSide You For Life does have a private parking lot that encourages E.M.W. patients to park there—under the condition that they come inside first for a permit.
“They’re trying to confuse and fool people into thinking they’re something they’re not, and get them to miss their appointment [at E.M.W.],” said Christine, an escort who asked not to use her last name.
Other options include a parking lot across the street that costs $6, limited street parking, a monthly lot, and a parking garage behind the building.
Escorts stand guard at each respective site to guide patients and offer to walk them from their car.
There are between 50 and 70 active escort volunteers at the clinic—people who have volunteered at least once in the last year in Kentucky. Some escort at E.M.W. several times a week, while others only attend on holidays when they anticipate hundreds of protesters: Mother’s Day weekend, Father’s day weekend, Good Friday.
“Tuesday through Friday we can have anywhere between three and nine [escort volunteers],” said Christine. Saturday is usually the busiest day for the clinic in terms of patients, protesters, and escorts.
Volunteers go through a screening and optional training process. The escorts adhere to “Points of Unity,” a code of ethics for the autonomous group where de-escalation outside the clinic is a priority. The escorts’ blog states that a new escort’s orientation includes observing for at least two mornings, pairing with an experienced escort mentor, and attending the training class.
“They’re really prepared to deal with this barking and screaming that goes on out there,” said E.M.W.’s Director Anne Ahola on the escorts’ training. “It takes a lot of strength to withstand that on a daily basis.”
Christine trains new escort volunteers, and stresses that not engaging with protesters is critical in keeping things calm. “We focus on the client. That’s not a debate with the protester, that’s not counter-protesting.” Christine spoke to aiming for one’s ‘wise mind,” or finding a middle ground between logical and emotional reactions. Breathing, centering oneself, and focus are also paramount, she said.
“It’s hard,” Christine sighed, recalling an instance four years ago when a protester scared a patient she was escorting so badly, the woman turned and ran away from the clinic. Ultimately Christine calmed the patient and walked her inside, but the incident left her furious.
“I got really mad at the antis because they were cheering, ‘Good! Run away!’ and I went off,” she said. “I shouldn’t have engaged. They still use that against me.”
The walk to the clinic from any of the parking options is generally a minute, and Christine says warning patients and companions what to expect helps. “They want to upset you and they want to distract you,” she tells patients. “Let’s try to focus on what we’re doing.”
“I always tell the clients, ‘You can be as mean to these people as you want to be, you don’t have to say a thing to them, you don’t have to take anything they hand you. The most important thing to do is to keep walking.’” Christine said. “‘I’m right here next to you, if you want to grab on to me you can.’”
Ultimately, the escorts’ methods appear to be effective. During the three mornings The Daily Beast spent outside the clinic, things were relatively calm. Often volunteers made small talk with patients as they made their way to the E.M.W.’s entrance. Seemingly, this was in part to ease the tension and partially to drown out the protesters.
Over and over, stoic but friendly escorts walked from cars, sometimes arm-in-arm with the patient.
Each time, protesters swarmed the patient, begging for mercy and offering pamphlets.
Some patients remained composed, some wept, some argued with the protesters as they walked.
The escorts remained unflappable.
“We as escorts, we get used to it.” Christine said of the protesters’ constant sidewalk preaching, pleading and praying. “The protesters are like broken records, they say the same things every day.”
Another escort, Joan, combats the noise by listening to NPR in her headphones while volunteering. “It’s my way of drowning out the jerks,” she smiled.
Remaining zen in a hectic environment is a skill the escorts in Louisville have mastered. Protesters occasionally bring megaphones or speakers to amplify their message, so women can continue to hear their pleas from inside E.M.W.’s walls.
Carol Uebelhoer, 62, says she uses her faith to find common ground between the escorts and protesters. When things get heated she calms herself with “a lot of deep breathing.”
“Just telling myself they’re a lot like me,” she said. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We have a principle that talks about the inherent worth and dignity of every individual and I often take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘These people have inherent worth and dignity too.’”
Carol comes from a family of reproductive activism. Her mother opened the now closed Planned Parenthood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her daughter is a third-generation clinic escort.
Cameron, 30, says the escorts’ method of de-escalation is in sync with his naturally non-confrontational disposition. “I find it’s very satisfying to shut someone out who wants me to engage with them. I find it really really pleasant when someone’s yelling at me and I don’t say anything back.”
Cameron explained male protesters like to use emasculating language to try to rile up the male escorts and companions of the patients.
“One day someone said, ‘You might as well be wearing a dress,’ which tells you what they think about women.” he said. “That was used in the same breath as calling someone a coward.”
Often, protesters’ focus shifts from patients to escorts.
“The protesters are always there, fussing and harassing and trying to embarrass the clients. And when the clients aren’t there, they start targeting us,” said Pat, a 77-year-old woman who did not want her last name used for fear of being harassed by protestors.
“Sometimes they target you and just start preaching at you [saying] ‘You’ve got to be a very evil person, you must have had an abortion, you must have had a traumatic event happen to you to make you want to come down here and kill babies.’”
She laughed and added, “They all think we’re lesbians who’ve had abortions.”
Pat has been escorting 12 years, and said she was interested in volunteering long before then. “I always wanted to do this but didn’t quite have the courage,” she said.
“There have been some protesters that scream really loud and you can tell they’re so angry. It’s scary.” Pat said. “Especially if they target you. You don’t know what they’ll really do.”
Ashley Jacobs, 35, said she’s been targeted by protesters while volunteering as well. “They have said to me numerous times, ‘Ashley, you need to go home to your daughters, your daughters need you,’ they’ve lurked me out on the internet. They know about my family.’”
While some escorts use aliases to protect themselves from protesters, others are fearful of their employers finding out they are activists for a pro-choice cause.
Ashley Jacobs, who works at the Kentucky Health Justice Network, doesn’t have that problem and said she’s never felt unsafe while escorting.
“One day it just kind of clicked that it’s not about me. It’s not about the antis, it’s not about any of that,” she said. “It’s about making sure that folks get into the doctor, and they know where to go—that they get into the right doctor.”
Ashley says she’s seen fundamentalist protesters emboldened over the last two years, a change that can be contributed to the election of unapologetically pro-life Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican sweep of the Kentucky House, and the national election.
Since Gov. Bevin’s election, E.M.W.’s Lexington clinic and a brand new Planned Parenthood facility have closed. Currently, the state is fighting to shut E.M.W.’s doors with a transfer agreement case that would nullify their license.
“That could literally happen any minute now,” said Ashley on the court’s ruling. “It’s always looming in the background.”