Abortion Clinic Escorts Say Work Is Becoming a ‘War Zone’

Photo Composite by The Daily Beast, Courtesy of Christie Burkhart
Photo Composite by The Daily Beast, Courtesy of Christie Burkhart

Volunteer escorts who help patients access abortion clinics say they are facing more threats and violence from anti-abortion protesters since the fall of Roe v. Wade, and some predict things will only get worse.

On Aug. 15, Melissa Strelec drove her car up to the entrance of Northeast Ohio Women’s Center in Cuyahoga Falls and began throwing eggs out of the window at the clinic’s volunteer escorts. She then maneuvered her car erratically around the parking lot, almost hitting an escort, before driving away. The encounter was caught on the clinic’s security cameras.

An hour later, Strelec returned on foot, brandishing a black bag. Escorts, trained to be aware of serious threats, ran into the building.

“We honestly didn’t know if it was an explosive or what it was,” one volunteer told the Akron Beacon Journal, “We were panicked.”

Strelec threw the bag against the door of the clinic and left. When clinic staff looked outside they saw the bag’s macabre contents—a dead raccoon, covered in flies.

This is just one incident out of many. Escorts at the Ohio clinic—one of the last remaining abortion clinics in the state—say they’ve seen an increase in protesters in the last few months, according to Akron Beacon Journal.

They’re not alone. On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that ensured a federally protected right to abortion for half a century. Since then, anti-abortion protesters have been using more extreme and threatening tactics, clinic escorts and staff interviewed by The Daily Beast say.

Preliminary data collected by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) shows that violence and threats are up compared to this time last year. Incidents of arson, vandalism, blockades, bomb threats, and death threats have doubled compared to May through August, 2021, NAF’s data shows. Clinic invasions and hate mail have also increased.

“We are seeing an increase in anti-abortion activity that indicates people are feeling more emboldened in this climate after the fall of Roe,” says Melissa Fowler, the chief program officer at NAF. And clinics in Republican states in particular are feeling the pressure: “They are seeing a big increase in the numbers and the aggressiveness of people who are showing up.”

That’s the case in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Kristin Cassell volunteers as an escort on Saturdays at A Woman’s Choice—the only abortion clinic in the city. Cassell has been escorting patients at the clinic for four years, and has grown to think of the other escorts as extended family. On June 24, she was training a new volunteer in the group’s strategies, which include “strict non-engagement” with protestors.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Escorts at A Woman’s Choice in Greensboro, North Carolina</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Kirstin Cassell</div>

Escorts at A Woman’s Choice in Greensboro, North Carolina

Courtesy Kirstin Cassell

But in the back of her mind, she was worried. One protester in particular, who had been a regular face outside the clinic for about a year, had recently escalated his behavior. “You’re going to meet your maker,” a protester named Danny Bracken had told one escort, according to Cassell.

“He was being a menace outside the clinic,” she says. That morning, Cassel saw Bracken driving his car into the parking lot. “He really methodologically drove around the parking lot so his car was lined up with us.”

But Bracken did not stop his car. Instead, he collided with Cassell, forcing her to twist her body out of the way. The entire incident was captured on another escort’s body-cam. Cassell was not seriously injured, but the emotional trauma has been more long-lasting.

“It could have been so much worse,” she says.

Her interactions with the police and the subsequent court proceedings, where Bracken’s charges were downgraded from assault with a deadly weapon, to simple assault, also felt retraumatizing for Cassell and her colleagues.

“We did get a win in court, but barely, but it felt like a loss. We all left feeling really beat up,” Cassell says, “There is a conversation to be had about safety outside of our clinics, not just for patients. Patients absolutely deserve safety, but so do escorts.”

The recent uptick in violence is part of a long history of radical tactics by the anti-abortion movement, says Lauren Rankin, author of Bodies On The Line, a new history of abortion clinic escorting.

These incidents have ranged from vandalism, bombings, arson and clinic blockades all the way to murder. Between 1992 and 2011, 11 people, including doctors, security guards, escorts, and were murdered by anti-abortion extremists, according to non-profit group NARAL.

In fact, it was anti-abortion protests of the 1970s and ’80s that led to the first formation of grassroots escort groups who got together to protect patients trying to access clinics.

“Clinic escorts were these ad-hoc groups that formed,” Rankin says, “They just decided that something had to be done, and they figured it out as they went along. They realized they were up against this growing juggernaut in terms of protest.”

The situation on the ground at many clinics improved after the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) was signed by Bill Clinton in 1994. This federal law prohibits the use of threat or force to interfere with someone seeking an abortion, or the destruction of reproductive health care facilities.

But it did not stop anti-abortion protestors. Instead, they changed their tactics. “They focussed on smaller, quotidien protests at clinics,” Rankin says.

Now, it appears the pendulum is swinging back.

For Julie Burkhart that’s meant her dream of opening Wyoming’s first abortion clinic is now delayed. Burkhart, the president of Wellspring Health Access Health Care Services, took out a lease on a building in Casper, Wyoming, where she planned to open the clinic in June.

But on May 25, after the Supreme Court’s decision was leaked, someone broke into the building in the early hours of the morning and set fire to it, gutting the inside and causing around $250,000 of damage. Despite having clear photos and video of the suspect the police still have not made an arrest, Burkhart says.

“I just find it highly unlikely that somebody in the community or within the anti-choice movement doesn’t know who this person is,” she says.

Burkhart herself is all too aware of the threat of violence to providers and staff at clinics. Earlier in her career, she worked for Dr George Tiller—a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009.

Nonetheless, Burkhart is determined to open the clinic, even in the face of a trigger ban signed into law by Governor Mark Gordon. Ongoing litigation means abortion is still legal in Wyoming—for now.

“If we can provide services to people for a month, or six months or a year, that’s better than not being able to provide services at all,” Burkhart says.

It’s not only in red states that abortion providers and staff are facing increased threats. In Chicago, Illinois, where Benita Ulisano volunteers as an escort, the atmosphere is also more tense.

“In the last two months, since Dobbs, we’ve seen an escalation of what we used to call ‘rogue’ or aggressive ‘antis’,” says Ulisano, who has been an escort on-and-off since the 1990s, “They’re mad because Illinois is an oasis.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Benita Ulisano outside the Chicago clinic.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Benita Ulisano </div>

Benita Ulisano outside the Chicago clinic.

Courtesy of Benita Ulisano

Illinois sits in the middle of several states where abortion is now illegal or limited. That means Ulisano and her colleagues have escorted more patients from out of state, as far as Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan. But it’s also made them a target for protestors.

Ulisano is frustrated with a lack of action by law enforcement to protect clinics and patients, like many of the escorts interviewed by The Daily Beast. Chicago, where Ulisano volunteers at Family Planning Associates Medical Group, has a “bubble zone” ordinance which creates a buffer zone around clinics. She says anti-abortion protestors are now routinely violating the rule.

“They’re hell-bent on getting to the patients regardless of the zone,” she says, sometimes becoming so physically aggressive that they are pushing the patients as well as the escorts, “For people like us on the ground every weekend, all we want is the cops to enforce it.”

The life of an abortion clinic escort is not easy, Ulisano says, but the groups support each other, and don’t give up easily. “You are not being paid, to basically risk your life every weekend,” she says.

“Clinic escorting is not a job for everybody. You have to be able to withstand someone screaming two inches from your face,” says Rankin, who volunteered as an escort herself in New Jersey, “Clinics weren’t always a war zone. But they have become a war zone, and we have let them.”

For Kirstin Cassell, getting back to her volunteer role was important. The day after she faced Bracken in court, she was back outside the Greensboro clinic, escorting.

“There are people in power who could take some action to protect clinics,” she says, “We need them to see what’s happening outside, and hopefully to prompt them to do something.”

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