Clinic Escort Series: Sarah Thyre - Baton Rouge, Louisiana


This post is part of A is For’s new Clinic Escort Story Series, in which real volunteer clinic escorts share their experiences and insights from the frontlines of abortion access. This series is dedicated to capturing the reality of what patients go through to access safe abortion care all across the United States.

Part of A is For’s mission is keeping you Alert and Aware of the legislation that is being proposed and passed to chip away at our reproductive rights. When you read about it, I’m sure some of you think,“This can’t be happening,” or “No way,” or “WTF?!”

I don’t blame you. But I am not surprised. My response is more along the lines of “This is still an issue?” “Same ol’, same ol’” and then, “WTF?!”

I grew up in Louisiana. In spite of – or perhaps because of – being raised by a fiercely independent Catholic mother and taught by nuns from kindergarten through high school, I was always pro-choice. In 1990, when I was a senior at LSU, a state congressman, Woody Jenkins, was trying to pass the same kinds of restrictions on women that are being passed about now: no abortions, period, even in cases of rape or incest. When that legislation was vetoed by then-Governor Buddy Roemer, another Congressman tried to convert an anti-flag burning bill into a new anti-abortion bill. Remember the uproar over flag-burning? That was a neat distraction from the more serious political events of the day.

I felt the same way then as I do now: threatened. Some pro-choice friends and I started a group called Students for Reproductive Freedom. We held meetings, we marched, we reached out to other campus groups we thought might be sympathetic to our cause, like NORML and the NAACP. We organized. We went to the State Capitol in downtown Baton Rouge and lobbied the legislature not to restrict a woman’s right to choose. We wore fake gold wedding bands because some congressmen wouldn’t meet with us unless we appeared to be married. To them, a married woman’s opinion was slightly more valid than a single woman’s. Ultimately, I doubt we changed anyone’s minds. But it felt good to know we were not standing by, saying nothing.

Or doing nothing. One of the most effective ways I found to counter the feelings of anger and helplessness was volunteering as an escort at Delta Women’s Clinic in Baton Rouge. Escorts were to accompany the patients from the parking lot to the clinic, guiding them through an obstacle course of savvy protesters who knew every square inch of land they could legally stand on. Escorts were given civil disobedience training, where we learned that we could not touch the protesters with our hands because they could then charge us with assault.

From the moment a patient’s car turned into the clinic’s driveway, it was a race to see who could get to them first. Protesters began pelting the car with tiny pink plastic babies, waving giant photographs of fetuses in garbage cans. I saw protesters push their baby strollers in front of incoming cars. The irony of placing their own child in harm’s way to save an unborn baby was, apparently, missed.

We escorts would direct the patients to a parking spot and wedge ourselves between them and the protesters, locking arms and encircling each patient and walking them to the clinic door while grown men pressed against us and yelled directly into our ears, “YOU’RE A KILLER AND YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.”

What struck me about the patients is how diverse they were in age, race, and socioeconomic status. Some of them walked silently with us, others laughed nervously, a few cried, many were appalled. All were resolute in the face of screaming adversity. I never had one patient stop and say, “Oh really? I’m going to hell? Oh, then I won’t proceed.” Why not? Because these women knew what was best for themselves, they had made their decisions. They were, to a one, strong and in control of their lives. Maybe not of their surroundings at that moment, but of themselves. Once inside, they were welcomed by the clinic’s staff with calm compassion. I learned a great deal about grace under fire from these women.

One Saturday, just before that anti-flag-burning bill turned anti-abortion bill was about to come up for a final vote, protesters from all over the country turned out en masse and formed a human chain around the clinic. Escorts and patients were crushed as we squeezed through the mob. Ted, one of our most hardcore anti-choice evangelical protesters – or as we called them, “Regulars” – vaulted over the flimsy police barricade, ran to a clinic window, and began screaming, “Don’t kill me, Mommy! Mommy, please don’t kill me! Wah wah wah wahhhhhhhhhhh!”

“Hey, he’s crossed the perimeter onto clinic property,” I told one of the policemen standing in the driveway. “Could you please get him back behind the barricade?”

The cop sighed and moseyed over to Ted, gently talking him away from the clinic and back behind the barricade.

After the first wave of patients ebbed, escorts and protesters settled into a businesslike, genial vibe. We stood in the clinic’s breezeway, snacking and chatting over the barricade. I peeled a banana and took a bite.

“Bananas, huh?” Ted said. “Devil’s fruit.”

If he thought a banana’s phallic shape implied carnal sin, I couldn’t wait to see what he’d say about a donut.

“Want one?” I said, waving a raised glazed at him. “It’s full of yeast!”

“Donuts?” Ted said. “I’m surprised at y’all. Don’t y’all know donuts’re fried in mink oil? Figured you would, being all Greenpeace and National Organization of Witches.”

And then the next wave of patients began to arrive, and it was back to work, like cartoon enemies punching the timeclock:

Morning, Sam.
Morning, Ralph.

I jogged out to meet the first car, a brown Lincoln.

“Run, devil, run!” Ted grinned, sprinting alongside me.

Escorting at Delta Women’s Clinic wasn’t heroic; it was necessary. Though what was happening in Baton Rouge was nothing compared with what would happen the following year in Kansas. When Operation Rescue staged their so-called “Summer of Mercy” in 1991, thousands of anti-abortion protesters targeted three clinics in Wichita. One of them was Women’s Health Care Services, whose medical director was Dr. George Tiller. In 1993, Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms by a protester, but survived. In 2009, while he was serving as an usher at his church, Dr. Tiller was shot through the eye by a “pro-lifer.” This time, he did not survive.

Not only is the same shit still happening, it is getting arguably worse. Aside from the restrictions on access to abortion and birth control, state legislatures are passing bills that require doctors to ignore scientific truths and lie to patients, that make it all right for a pharmacist to withhold prescribed medication based on his/her personal beliefs. That doesn’t mean speaking up, marching, and fighting for what we believe in doesn’t work. It just means that it takes time. It takes however long it takes. We must speak up, we must look out for each other, as women. Even if abortion is not something we would choose for ourselves. Let’s trust women to make their own life-altering decisions.

Every woman is different; we cannot presume to know their circumstances. This is what “choice” is about: trusting women to make the decisions that determine the course of their lives. No woman should be forced to have a child. Not even the female protester we escorted into the clinic one Saturday morning back in 1990 wearing a towel over her head, to have an abortion. Two weeks later, she was back out in the parking lot, blocking the patients’ path.

All women should have access to annual exams, cancer screenings, birth control, STD prevention, fact-based family planning, and yes, abortion.

All women.