(WOMENSENEWS)--Driving on I-90 East to Cleveland from the Oberlin College campus was always depressing, even on the rare day the sun found North-Central Ohio.
Stubbornly flat expanses dotted by rusting tractors seemed to be about all there was until, coming off the highway, I'd pass a Rally's fast-food joint, numerous cash-advance operations and housing projects that appeared abandoned until you caught sight of children playing nearby.
These were the Saturday mornings when--during my first two college years--I made my volunteer trips to East Cleveland's Shaker Boulevard to work as an escort for women forging their way through a regular standing phalanx of anti-abortion protesters.
"Why do we have to be here?" I thought every time I went. "Who are these people and why do they have to punish these women?"
The path I'd help the women walk went from a parking lot to the front door of one of two places where they could get an abortion: the Center for Women's Health or the Abortion Clinic Preterm.
These are the only two abortion clinics that serve Cleveland and Cuyahoga counties. They reside on the same block within 800 feet of each other, separated by a stranded office building.
The Signs Were Always Waiting
No matter how early I arrived at the clinic, the signs would be up: grotesque images of mangled, bloody human limbs with captions screaming: "Murder!" and "Are you next, Mom?!"
Clusters of people--many of their faces became familiar to me--would pace back and forth outside the clinics; some with placards tied to their bodies, others praying or singing "Ave Maria." Sometimes people wave red-and-black flags with fetuses depicted on them.
Warm, sunny days would attract larger crowds. Improvised hot dog stands would pop up to serve lunch and parents would bring toddlers and young children.
"Mom, look out, one's coming near you!" one of the little girls shouted when I was escorting a patient who had been snagged walking up to the clinic.
Here's the job of an escort: You go to the clinic for an entire Saturday morning, when the majority of abortion procedures are performed and the protesters are out in force.
Once a patient pulls in to the parking lot, you go to her car, introduce yourself and escort her and any companions to the building's entrance, making small talk to drown out the yells of the protesters.
You are the eyes and ears of the clinic. You note any suspicious activity and record veiled (or not-so-veiled) threats and keep tabs on what the protesters do.
The Dynamic Changes
You also adhere to a strict no-talking rule with the protesters. Only when a protester is blocking the driveway or stopping patients on foot can we ask him or her to move. That's the only form of communication we are allowed.
Protesters called us homosexuals, lesbians and women-haters. They told us we'll burn in hell, blood was on our hands and our parents would be so disappointed in us if they found out what we were doing.
After my freshman and sophomore years, I gave up being an escort. I spent part of my junior year abroad and when I returned, for my final year, I felt as though too much was going on.
But the protesters stayed in my mind. Who are they? What do they really believe?
This fall, since I was no longer an escort, I decided that perhaps I could go back and find out if I switched roles and became a reporter.
But when I raised the idea with escorts still working at the clinics they advised against it. Many raised safety concerns. I hesitated. But in the end I mustered my courage and returned one Saturday with my notebook and pen.
Interviews With the Men
All the protesters that day were male.
One, a man named Grover Lynn, described himself as a prophet. "It's better to waste your seed in the belly of a whore than to spill it on the sands," he said, claiming to be paraphrasing a passage from the Bible. He smiled, wore a faded blue twill blazer and inched closer and closer to me as he spoke.
Another, Willie Lindsey, a disheveled and husky man, said he had persuaded many women to give up their infants to him, which he'd then place in "homes."
Ernie Banar, whom I recognized as one of the regulars, said he was a missionary dedicated to saving children's lives. He said he found God after paying for a girlfriend's abortion in the 1970s. He interrupted our conversation to suddenly growl at a staff member of one of the clinics. "How many children are you going to kill today?!"
One of the men, Hugh, wouldn't give his last name. I recognized him as the protester who had been ordered by a judge to stay away from the center for a few months because of a frivolous lawsuit he'd brought against the doctor. He was the most confrontational. He repeatedly questioned my motives in talking to him and asked me if I had ever had an abortion.
Only one of the protesters, Bob Thomas, slight and with a crossed eye, said he didn't believe in yelling at women seeking abortions or clinic staff members or volunteers. He said his goal was "to make eyes see, to make ears hear" through his presence.
That sounded a lot like my old job description as an escort: being the eyes and ears of the clinic.
I tried to keep an open mind that day, but my eyes and ears had seen too much in my past work as an escort.
Of all the men I interviewed, Thomas seemed like someone who could be sincerely interested in saving souls. But too many of the men seemed to enjoy harassing women.
I still have the core value that women, like men, have a constitutional right to privacy. As the Supreme Court decided decades ago, that includes choosing parenthood on their own terms.
But I'm glad I crossed the line that day. The people on the other side weren't as dangerous or hostile as I had feared. And as I discovered, they were more than ready to talk.
Kaitlin Bushinski is currently a senior at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She is originally from Scranton, Pa., and writes for her college newspaper, The Oberlin Review.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
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