In the first three months of 2019, more than 300 restrictive abortion bills were introduced, proposing everything from making abortion a felony to increasing restrictions on clinics. Recently, the Georgia state legislature moved to join three other states in enacting “heartbeat” bans that will prohibit abortion after fetal pole cardiac activity can be detected — as early as six weeks, before many people know they’re pregnant — essentially outlawing the procedure in those states.
Abortion barriers are not new. In order to receive an abortion, the average person will pay anywhere from $400-$1,000 for the procedure, travel up to 168 miles, and wait up to 72 hours. Low-income people and people of color face additional barriers, such as trouble getting time off, difficulty securing travel funds, and bans on insurance coverage. Even after jumping all of these bureaucratic hurdles, people still face physical obstruction and harassment at the clinics themselves from anti-abortion protestors.
I would know. For two years in college, I spent my weekends as a volunteer clinic escort, protecting patients and getting yelled at by strangers.
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One Saturday morning, I drove into the parking lot at a Planned Parenthood in Tampa, Florida, and was surrounded by around 200 anti-abortion protestors. Even as an escort who knew what to expect, it was an intimidating experience. They had created a tunnel of people I had to navigate through. As I searched for a gap in the crowd of protestors to enter the clinic driveway, I had to pass through the thickest group of people who surrounded my car.
I had never felt so outnumbered before. The only clear path was between two police officers and their cars, denoting the start of the clinic’s property. As I stepped out of my car, dozens of protestors waved signs that falsely claimed abortions lead to breast cancer and “post-abortion syndrome,” and shouted that I was a “baby murderer.” It was the first time I remember being scared to enter a reproductive health care clinic.
These experiences were worse for the patients I escorted. Protestors were particularly offensive in the way they spoke to people of color, often using racist comparisons between slavery or “black genocide” and a person’s choice over their own body. Some of the patients I escorted were in an emotionally vulnerable state, and the heinous comments and personal attacks made the experience traumatizing.
Unfortunately, most of this harassment is legal under current law. Patients attempting to access reproductive health care of any sort at clinics across the country face anti-abortion protestors who have free rein to shout anything they want. However, there are limits to what protestors can do. After attacks on abortion clinics in the 1980s and ‘90s — when clinics were burned, bombed, and blockaded, and several abortion providers and clinic staff members were murdered — the federal government passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act. This law makes it illegal to intentionally damage reproductive health facilities and bars the “use of or threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive healthcare services.”
While the law is important, it can be unevenly enforced and does not do enough to protect patients and those who accompany them in accessing health care — especially not in an environment where misinformation about abortion is being spread at the highest levels of government.
Since the FACE act was passed in 1994, only 15 violations have been prosecuted.
I personally called the police to report protesters who walked in front of cars to block the entrance to the clinic parking lot and took up valuable parking spots in the clinic’s lot, and fellow volunteers had to report assaults from protestors. Yet, I found local police officers were not always understanding or helpful in protecting the safety of patients. Male police officers, in particular, did not understand the threats these protestors posed to our patients, brushing off their actions and implying that we were wasting their time. In one instance, the police officers ignored the complaint against the protestors and instead focused on the music I had playing out of my car to block out the loudspeakers of the protestors, giving me a citation instead of scolding protestors for breaking the law.
Fortunately, some states have expanded and improved upon the FACE Act. Colorado passed a law, which survived a Supreme Court challenge, to prevent anti-abortion protestors from coming within eight feet of someone entering the clinic without their consent. Other states prohibit actions aimed at abortion providers, including threatening and intimidating staff.
Access to abortion has been the law of the land since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, but with increasing legal restrictions and hostility against abortion, lawmakers need to do a better job protecting people’s constitutional right to access the health care they want and need. People already face too many legal barriers in accessing abortion health care, and every day it seems as though there is another attempt to take away personal autonomy for people seeking abortions. At a time when dangerous lies are being spread about abortion by President Trump, and anti-choice protestors are getting bolder, it’s more important than ever.