I am an abortion clinic escort and have been for 14 years now. Every fourth Saturday morning, I walk the abortion patients and their drivers through the protesters and into the clinic—which can be a challenging situation, depending on the protester activity—and I provide the women with a cheerful, supportive presence in a stressful situation.
I like to help people. I volunteered a fair amount in high school and even more so when I was in college, but I never once imagined volunteering at an abortion clinic. Honestly, for a very long time, I did not realize such places existed. My hometown certainly did not have an abortion clinic (although life in Owensboro may have been much different for some women if it did) and I never put much thought into where abortions happened. They just did, somehow, and it was outside my purview. Activist Krystal was more concerned with hunger and homelessness and education and children than thinking much about abortion rights.
I was on the Women’s Programming Council at Washington University my senior year and this is where I met the leader of Students for Choice. He did it all: volunteered at clinics, helped at rallies, joined Planned Parenthood’s board, and used his license plate as a propaganda message. He invited me out to Hope Clinic for Women and I accepted his invitation in June of 2000.
Oh my goodness. I thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for the experience but no words can fully capture the absolute cruelty and hate that was displayed that day. Back then, Hope Clinic averaged 50 – 60 protesters each Saturday morning, and most of them carried very graphic signs that they displayed toward the clinic and out to the road. They distributed leaflets to every car. They blocked the driveway so that cars could not enter the parking lot. They blocked car doors so that people could not leave their cars. They took pictures of patients and of their license plates and posted both on their website. Some unobtrusively sang songs and prayed, but they were a distinct minority to the others.
What I found most shocking was what the protesters said. They shouted absolutely vicious statements to people they had never met before—making assumptions about faith and parenthood and economic stability and sexual orientation and many other things too—and they excused their behavior because it was “God’s will.” Many of the protesters embrace a Machiavellian “the ends justify the means” approach. In conversations I’ve had with them, they recognize their immediate behavior as harsh but defend it by saying they are doing the greater good. If they are meaner then more women stay away and more abortions are prevented. The protesters were (and still are) absolutely cutting with their words.
Some common statements heard at Hope Clinic include:
- You are participating in Black Genocide.
- You are just like Hitler! This is a holocaust!
- If you can afford that car, then you can afford that baby.
- Mom, don’t kill your baby!
- Your baby has a heartbeat!
- Dad, be a man! Get her out of there!
- Grandma, don’t let her kill your grandchild!
- You will regret this day for the rest of your life!
- You should get married and raise that child!
- You already have one baby, why are you killing this one?!
- Your baby could be the next president (said to white patients) or famous athlete (said to African-Americans).
- You go to college. You’re smart enough not to be here!
- People die on the table in there!
- You’re too pretty to kill your baby!
- Abortion causes breast cancer!
- You cannot be Christian because Christians don’t kill their babies.
- You won’t have time to repent. God despairs the killing of innocent children.
- You will always have blood on your hands!
- Abortion is not the answer here, Mom.
Along with an entire litany of Bible verses shouted with anger and verve.
Reading these statements aloud doesn’t seem so bad. Most are unkind and many are factually not true, but they don’t seem all that bad. The reality, though, is these statements are not said at a normal volume in a polite way in a conversation. People don’t say these things to folks that they actually know and care about and I cannot imagine saying any of these to someone in an actual conversation. Instead, these statements are shouted in the patient’s ear as the protester walks immediately next to her from her car up to the parking lot. Some protesters yell so loudly that they exceed the legal decibel limit for noise pollution! Physically having someone that you don’t know be that close is disconcerting enough but add in the shouting and the anger and it quickly becomes a terrifying experience that lasts for multiple minutes. Many women cower and cry as they endure the onslaught of this verbal attack.
This is what I witnessed my first time at Hope Clinic and I could not sit idly by and watch human beings be so unbearably cruel. Women of all backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, education, and religions come to Hope Clinic for abortions and other reproductive care. They come from local areas and from hundreds of miles away, and each one deserves to be treated with compassion and respect. I could offer compassion and a smile and a warm, accepting, humane presence and a physical blockade between the patient and the protesters. I started volunteering that Saturday and have been a regular volunteer there ever since.
When I tell people that I volunteer at an abortion clinic, I get a variety of responses that range from, “Wow, I could never do that,” without exactly specifying why, “You must be really brave,” “Good for you,” and my favorite ever, “That’s still a thing?”
I won’t lie. Escorting at an abortion clinic has taken an emotional toll. On my first official volunteer shift, a protester backhanded me in the face and then started screaming that I assaulted her when I moved her hand away. They called me a “deathscort,” claimed I was consorting with Satan, that I was a lesbian ringleader, and I killed babies for fun. They called out specific baby parts and asked me how much money I earned for each one. Escorts are targeted with specific verbal attacks when there are no patients to shout at so I’ve endured many barbed comments shouted my way. People have shouted at me, “Someone should take a razor to you!”, “Life would be better if your mother had aborted you,” and “Begone, Demon!” Escorts undergo a barrage of comments regarding weight, age, looks, education, sexual orientation, and religion. More recently, a protester approached me, said that he wished I was dead, and then tried to slap me. (That resulted in a call to the Granite City police.)
For many years, after each escorting Saturday was over, I came home, face planted on my bed, and slept. It was the only way I could emotionally process those grueling four hours. Eventually, I developed more of an emotional barrier to the protesters, so now I can come home and share some stories about what happened that day without being hurt by it. It has taken years for me to develop this detachment and the ability to have people shout at me without me paying attention to them.
The escorts take great efforts to maintain personal anonymity. Names are never shared and we take extreme precaution by calling every person “escort.” The protesters publish names and pictures on their website and, in some instances, have protested at employees’ other places of employment. (It was a little girl tea shop, by the way. They took graphic signs and shouted at little girls until a lawsuit made them stop.) One day, after I had escorted for a few years, the protesters suddenly knew my full name, where I lived, and what my profession was. (My best guess is that they had someone run my license plate number.) Now I have specific verbal attacks focused on me because they know my name. Also, if you search for “Krystal White” and “abortion,” the top hits are the protesters’ website. You’ll see that they name me and my profession every four weeks and they include a picture, just in case it may have been a different Krystal White. Nope, it’s me.
I am a teacher of young men and women who become sexually active teenagers and adults. In instances where I see someone I know, I make a point to turn away and send another escort to help them. That’s what the escort training tells me to do and I am uncertain whether it would be a comfort for my former students and parents to see me there in that situation. For many years, I escorted with a former high school principal who was at the same school for 25 years. He, obviously, had a wider circle than I did. Once, he saw a former student approach the clinic and he started to turn away, just like the protocol tells us. The student, though, was overjoyed to see him, ran straight into his arms, hugged him, and said, “Thank you so much for being here!” I still get teary-eyed when I think of that moment.
Another time, I witnessed a woman arguing with a man who turned out to be her boyfriend. Their debate was straight-forward, although the implications were not. She was pregnant and did not want to be, and he did not want the abortion to happen. He drove her to the clinic, but refused to come into the clinic and physically sign his name as her driver. Without a registered driver, most women cannot have an abortion procedure and this was his way of ensuring the abortion did not happen. (Many men make this power play in the clinic parking lot.) I was horrified by his actions and I told her that I would be her driver, if she wanted the procedure. She went inside, had the abortion, and I drove her home. Her relief was palpable.
The patients and drivers say “thank you” a lot. Compassion goes a long way.
I continued to escort while being pregnant with both daughters. I expected the protesters to be somewhat civil about my pregnancies. I mean, I was pregnant after all, and not having an abortion. It never happened. The last five months of each pregnancy—when I was really showing—were when I endured the worst from them. They were absolutely enraged. Even now, five years later, certain protesters make a point to call me a hypocrite for having children while also helping other women abort theirs.
A friend asked me when the distinction between “fetus” and “baby” occurs. I think there’s only one real answer to that question—It’s when the fetus is wanted by the mother. Then she calls it a baby and it becomes one. That’s certainly not a legal definition, though, but it’s what makes the most sense to me. I’ve also been asked what my stance on abortion is, what do I really believe. At my core, I think that any person who wants to be a parent should be one. It pains me to see so many individuals strive to become parents and struggle because they cannot conceive or carry a fetus to term or be chosen by the adoption agency. But I believe the corollary is also true; any person who does not want to be a parent should not be one. Carrying a fetus for nine months is an extreme strain—physically, emotionally, and financially—and raising a child is exponentially even more so. It’s not a decision to be made by chance.
Fewer women are scheduling appointments at the clinic these days; instead of escorting 60-70 patients on a Saturday morning, we usually escort around 40. I am optimistic that greater access to contraception will result in fewer unplanned pregnancies and, therefore, fewer abortions. The number of protesters has also declined; around 25-30 people come on Saturdays instead of the 55-60 people when I first started volunteering 14 years ago. About 70% of the protesters are middle-aged or older white men, and they are not being actively replaced or supplemented by a younger generation. Weekly abortion protests may very well end within the next 30 years, and I might be there to see it. I certainly hope so.
I expect that you may have further questions about my experiences or the experiences of the women with whom I interact on Saturday mornings. Please, feel free to ask a question or share a thought. I encourage the respectful and civil dialogue.
Krystal White is a wife, mother, teacher, volunteer, and active member of the Ethical Society of Saint Louis.