“I've been stepped on and yelled at”: the reality of working in a US abortion clinic

Written by Alice Hutton

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v Wade, meaning that states in America can now ban or limit access to abortion. Here, Stylist speaks to a woman working at Kentucky’s only independent abortion clinic about the reality of working in the build up to this terrifying moment in time. 

If you’ve been keeping up with the news on the other side of the pond, then it’s likely you’re experiencing anxiety right now. On Friday, the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade, the landmark decision in 1973 that protected a pregnant person’s right to abortion across America. This means states can now limit or ban a woman’s right to abortion altogether.  There are 13 states with so-called “trigger laws” in place, which outlawed the procedure immediately when the decision took place. 

Campaigners have called this a “war on women” with individuals forced to resort to buying pills online or seeking other potentially unsafe or medically unapproved options, as well as a worrying trend that would see people being prosecuted for having the procedure or “aiding” them, whether that’s doctors and medical staff or the Uber drivers who took them there. It all feels incredibly dystopian.  

For the women working at abortion clinics, it’s an unnerving and uncertain situation. Here, Stylist speaks to a volunteer escort – who ensures women get to their appointments without being harassed by protestors, where she’s worked for 20 years – at Kentucky’s only independent abortion clinic about the reality of working through this historic moment in time.  

“Women knew time was running out to get an abortion”
Meg Sasse Stern, 40, a volunteer escort at Kentucky’s only independent abortion clinic.

“Some of the anti-abortion protestors sit outside the clinic and pray quietly; some are from very extremist groups who say very scary things; and others bring firearms, their own children and even props. Over my decades working there, I’ve seen everything from baby strollers with baby clothes hanging off them to a toy crib and a child’s coffin. This past Saturday we had 200 people from a church group who have an annual fundraising protest event outside our clinic. They hold it every year on Father’s Day. I think it’s part of some misguided notion that fatherhood is an antidote to unwanted pregnancies.

When the Supreme Court leak happened in May, we were already in a state of crisis after the Kentucky state legislator passed a state-wide abortion ban in mid-April that attempted to overrule the nationwide Roe v Wade protection, which resulted in an immediate shut down of our clinic and the cancellation of all appointments. 

There were eight days when the clinic was not able to do abortions. A judge intervened and allowed abortion to continue but depending on the new judgment, it could be temporary.As soon as that leak happened, the protestors’ attitude definitely changed; they’ve been disgustingly joyful. Patients, meanwhile, knew that time was running out. As of Friday, when the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v Wade, abortion has been illegal in Kentucky. There are a lot of unknowns, however – whether they’ll ban buying pills online or travelling across state lines to access one. Whether doctors or other healthcare workers, escorts even, get sued. And what other kinds of healthcare rights may be affected, like access to IVF. 

I’m a hometown girl from Louisville, Kentucky, and I’ve been a volunteer escort at the commonwealth’s only independent abortion clinic, EMW Women’s Surgical Center, for 20 years. In 1999, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine learned that there were people who harass people going to these clinics to get advice or a safe abortion and that there were escorts protecting them, and immediately knew I wanted to be one too. We would gather at a friend’s house on Friday nights, stay up far too late, and in the morning, about 15 of us spunky, punky teens would roll downtown to do our bit.

While there has always been a gnarly, volatile and conflict-ridden dynamic down there, it’s become progressively worse over the years and there are now escorts like me working seven days a week as opposed to just weekends, which is how it was when I started out. We arrive between 7-7.30am, wearing bright orange vests with ‘escort’ written on them. Sometimes protestors also wear vests to try and trick the patients. A busy day is 20-25 patients and 200 protestors. In recent weeks, as the Roe v Wade ruling looms, the atmosphere has been even more intense.

We aren’t affiliated with EMW, which until recently was the only abortion clinic in Kentucky and is still the only place offering the procedure up to 21 weeks and six days. We are there as individuals, working on the basis of our code of conduct. Our goal is always to de-escalate, as well as to centre the needs of whoever needs to access the clinic. Kentucky is a tough place to get an abortion in any way. The state law was already hostile, even before a ban. They require an immense amount of unnecessary, mandated rigmarole. The appointments can last an entire day in order to complete the necessary procedures, such as a sonogram or medical examinations, that are required by law, including informed consent 24 hours before the procedure to make sure the patient isn’t being coerced. 

Whether it’s winter or summer, we stand outside, in all weathers, looking to identify those who may be working up the courage to walk through the clinic doors. Sometimes people drive by several times, put off by the crowds. On any day, there are three kinds of people on the sidewalk. There are the people going to the doctor, people who have permission from the patient to accompany them and then there’s everyone else: the grandmotherly type quietly praying with their rosary; the loud, aggressive, 6ft, bearded masculine person in army fatigues who is openly carrying a firearm and preaching into a loudspeaker. Even journalists or lawmakers are there to observe. But one more person on that sidewalk makes no difference to the person who sees a crowd and is scared.

We are careful not to make assumptions; anyone of any gender may need an abortion, and at any age. We don’t assume it’s all women. Once we spot someone, we alert each other in a text thread and ask consent to accompany them and their companion. We don’t ask who is who and we respect their decision to say no. Otherwise, we use our bodies to create space for them, with volunteers holding hands or linking arms to give them a clear path.

It means, we’re easy targets for protestors. There have been a lot of aggressive physical altercations over the years… whether it’s slow shoving or an elbow to the ribs.I’ve been stepped on countless times; I’ve been body checked countless times. But our job is not to make the situation worse, like I have seen at other clinics, where some escorts yell back and fan the flames higher. We worked hard to get a 10-foot legal buffer zone at the entrance that’s painted on the road; you can see it from Google Maps. But even then, some protestors have followed people they know inside. They get particularly aggressive if someone has to bring a child to the appointment (most of the clients have existing children) or is perceived to be underage. The clinic subsidises their $6 parking fee as not everyone has access to that. 

It’s a short walk from the car to the door, but patients do talk to us. We hear lots of different things; everyone who comes is in a unique situation. Sometimes people share a medical diagnosis that they’ve received and that can be upsetting. Or they talk about the abuse or assault that they’ve been through – people sometimes feel they need to give you a reason for why they’re doing it, but they don’t need one. All reasons are valid – whether it’s someone who isn’t ready to have a child or needs to finish school or take care of their existing children or an elderly relative or has been raped. We make sure to tell people: “You don’t owe me an explanation; whatever is going on is not my business.” What matters is that the individual is the expert on their life.

The Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade has changed everyone’s life – its given states the right to govern our bodies.

The silent reaction that I try to ground myself in every day is the knowledge that Kentuckians will continue to have abortions. People will always have abortions. And groups will always support them. Abortion is a normal pregnancy outcome that should not be criminalised. People will be harmed by these bans; they will be made to choose between forced pregnancy or taking on debt to afford to travel or take time off work and pay for childcare. Or they will self-manage abortions at home with no guarantee of safety. But we know they will keep having abortions. Moving forward, I just want to find a way to support them.”

Images: Getty

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