It's hard enough as it is.
April 15, 2012 5:58 PM   Subscribe

I may be pregnant. If I am, my husband and I are positive we want an abortion. I need advice on how to deal with very angry protesters.

As far as we know, all our local abortion clinics have very vocal protesters outside, with horrible signs.

We also don't think it's fair that we have to spend money and very sensitive time going out of town. We WANT to use a local clinic, because it's against our principles to run away from the fundies, but we are kind of scared of the yelling, mainly because I lose my temper easily, and we don't want to make this harder than it is. We simply can't have a baby now, and we are very careful, but these things happen.

We've thought about wearing headphones with loud music, but we don't know what would happen if they stand in front of us or block our way to the door. We have no idea of what they can legally do to and what the limitations of protesters are, legally. Can they attack our car? Can they call us names? Stand in our way? What can my husband do to help me get in?

We don’t want to stop for debate or anything of the sort. We want to get in as quickly as possible and get out as peacefully as possible.

We live in VA.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (40 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried calling the clinic you'd like to go to and asking the receptionist some of these questions? Particularly regarding what to expect and what's legal.
posted by telegraph at 6:00 PM on April 15, 2012 [24 favorites]

Yes, call the clinic. They will have a route into the building that will at least minimize your exposure to the protesters. I'm sorry you have to worry about this.
posted by goggie at 6:03 PM on April 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

In the past in Massachusetts there have been volunteers to escort women past protesters into clinics. There may be similar volunteers in your locality. The clinic would be able to let you know.
posted by alms at 6:05 PM on April 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

They can't attack your car or stand in your way. I'm not sure about the rest.

I also thought my clinic in Colorado Springs would have protesters, but it actually didn't, so you might get lucky.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:09 PM on April 15, 2012

If the clinic can't help, for whatever reason, maybe NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia (202-973-3085) can.
posted by Etrigan at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Again, call the clinic. The people there will know the local conditions and protesters and can tell you what to expect and what they recommend to their clients. They may even be able to arrange a volunteer or staff person to escort you into the clinic or advise you to use a particular entrance to bypass the worst of it.
posted by zachlipton at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The trick to crossing enemy lines is to disguise yourself as a comrade.

Make some anti-choice placards of your own and walk right up to the front door chanting slogans.

With luck, those assholes won't know they've been had until it's too late.
posted by sarastro at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would contact your local NOW or NARAL chapter and ask if there are any clinic escort groups, and if so, where they are located. The NOW chapter here in Louisville, KY is unofficially affiliated with a clinic escort group whose sole function is to walk with women and their families into the clinic and put a barrier between them and the protestors.

Here is the link to NARAL Virginia:

Here is the link to a listing of Virginia NOW chapters:
posted by pecanpies at 6:15 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing that there are volunteers to run interference in most areas. I've volunteered for this.

Protesters are not legally able to physically block your path, but sometimes they try to anyway: police enforcement varies by city.

My suggestion is to keep moving, staring straight ahead and a little past them. Do not engage. Do not attempt to run-just keep a steady, solid pace, and do not engage.
posted by corb at 6:16 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I work near an abortion clinic and there's an armed guard who escorts patients into the clinic. Protesters stay at the street, and are not allowed on the parking lot, where patients enter through the back of the building.

Chances are, the clinic has something worked out that minimizes the hassle.
posted by jayder at 6:17 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't follow sarastro's advice. Protestors are not allowed to cross onto clinic property, and the clinic's security/clinic escorts will stop you.

What I would do is call the clinic and find out if they have a volunteer escort service. Escorts are people who are pro-choice who hang out in front of the clinic during the hours it's opened, and make sure that protestors are following the law. They also match pace with whoever is walking through the front of the clinic and talk them through the protestors. When I did this, I made sure to keep up a stream of irrelevant chatter, designed to keep the woman and her partner (if present) calm, and to make sure we got to the door with minimal contact between her and the protestors.

Don't wear headphones. I've seen protestors yank them off. Don't make eye contact. They'll yell in your face. Your best bet is to move quickly, assertively forward, and to know that they cannot cross the property line.
posted by spunweb at 6:17 PM on April 15, 2012 [28 favorites]

Frequently clinics will have teams of volunteers called "escorts" who exist expressly for the purpose of helping women get past protesters without incident. I would call the clinic and ask if they have anyone like this to help you.

Barring that, perhaps carry by your side a large poster with pertinent quotes from scripture. Anything from Matthew 23 would do just dandy:

Matthew 23:27-28: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."
posted by schroedinger at 6:21 PM on April 15, 2012 [33 favorites]

Here's a blog from a clinic escort describing what it can be like.
posted by spunweb at 6:22 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The trick to crossing enemy lines is to disguise yourself as a comrade.

Make some anti-choice placards of your own and walk right up to the front door chanting slogans.

You will make your day awful and traumatic if you follow this advice, and possibly find yourself turned away as a patient.
posted by jayder at 6:23 PM on April 15, 2012 [23 favorites]

I really can't reiterate enough how dangerous the advice is to pretend to be an anti when you are approaching the clinic. You will be denied entrance even to the sidewalk in front of the clinic, escorts won't know to escort you, and when antis realize what you're doing, they WILL threaten you, and you won't be able to get into the clinic anyways.
posted by spunweb at 6:27 PM on April 15, 2012 [19 favorites]

Oh, and the other thing escorts do is defuse situations. Many times, clients will come with family or friends who love and support them, and also want to protect them. Our goal is often to make sure that the client gets to the doors of the clinic safely, and make sure that the client's friends/family don't get into a verbal/physical confrontation with the antis, because remember, that's what they want, because then they can call the police or whatever against the client. I mention this because you mentioned having a temper. Just remember that they can't touch you, but they can fuck with you (get in your face, touch your car, etc) and that they're counting on you to react.

Other specific things you can do:

1. Find out if there's a private parking lot for the clinic.

2. Go earlier (in my experience the clinic opened at 9 and the dedicated protestors were there then, but the majority didn't show til 10 or 11)

3. Have your partner practice some of the same things the escorts say: Remember this is only a few seconds of your life, and that soon you'll be inside. (I used to say that as part of my chatter -- it seemed reassuring) We're almost there. Etc etc. His voice will need to be loud enough, but soothing enough, for you to hear him but feel safe.
posted by spunweb at 6:37 PM on April 15, 2012

Oh, and they might try to take your picture. Wear sunglasses.
posted by spunweb at 6:39 PM on April 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've been a clinic escort. (I wrote about it once before. There is lots of good info in that whole thread.)

Pay attention to those suggesting you call the clinic beforehand. They can even tell you if "their" protestors are the loud kind, the physical confrontation kind, the silent praying kind, or just what to expect. Some days don't bring out as many protestors, so you might be able to schedule around the big crowds.

Consider taking a cab or a rental car if you don't want photos taken of your car and license plate.

Wear a hoodie or drape something over your head if you don't want a picture of your face out there somewhere either.

Bring your husband and/or a good friend. It will probably be one of those experiences where you'll want someone to lean on. Good luck to you.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:40 PM on April 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Do you have to go to a clinic? No doctor is going to advertise abortions. Have you asked your OBGYN if they perform them there? Let him/her know of your situation first, so that they know they aren't being set up.

You are making a very difficult choice here and I am truly sorry that there are so many crazy people out there that will want to hurt you for your choice. Do whatever you need to do to stay safe. If you must go into a clinic, go in the back way, consider renting a car or taking a cab. Dress discreetly, do not make eye contact, do not engage in any way.
posted by myselfasme at 6:55 PM on April 15, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm so sorry that you have to deal with this. A friend used to volunteer here: I don't know if it would work to try and get in touch with someone there to talk to about where / when might be better or worse to go from a patient's perspective. As I recall different clinics had levels of protestors.
posted by oneear at 7:32 PM on April 15, 2012

Try to schedule the latest appointment they have. You will have to fast the day of the procedure, and because of that, they tend to do most of the procedures in the morning. At the clinic I went to, the protestors had left by noon because most of the women who went in that day had already gone in. By the time of my 1:00 appointment, there was one lone protestor sticking his sign in his car when we drove up. Although if I didn't live two blocks form the clinic, I wouldn't have known that the protestors leave by mid-day, so yes, call the clinic first.
posted by dogmom at 7:52 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

ive gone to Planned Parenthood a million times in different cities including one in the bible belt. Ive only came across one instance of protestors and I just walked by them and yelled that I was getting a pap smear. I have also gone to an obgyn which advertised abortions on the sign out front - but no one was there to protest.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:58 PM on April 15, 2012

I'm sorry that you have this worry. You can take a taxi to the clinic if you're worried about harassment by someone who looks you up. You can wear dark glasses, a cap or scarf, etc., to anonymize yourself. If I lived anywhere near VA, I'd come be part of a Flying Wedge escort. The clinic is likely to have a plan. I think I'll go donate a few more dollars to NARAL on your behalf. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 8:04 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also be wary of anyone who wants to chat you up in the waiting room. It rare but sometimes the protestors get in that way (they might make a bogus appt, etc.). Generally anyone who is legitimately there is not going to be very talkative. At least that was my experience. I wish you peace and strength to get through this.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:17 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second myselfasme's suggestion to talk to an OB/GYN or hospital. Many hospitals perform abortions (depending on your location, and - sigh - the hospital's religious affiliation). If you don't have a choice, the advice here is good in terms of talking to the clinic. I have also been a clinic escort, and hope that there are great escorts in your town who will stand strong with you in this difficult moment. We're all with you in spirit.
posted by judith at 8:56 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

goutytophus: "i would carry a taser and just dare any "protester" to get close."

If anyone chooses to do this, check your local laws about "brandishing" weapons and anti-taser laws. Also know that if you use any kind of weapon and are not in fear for your life you can be charged with battery.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:24 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The experience I had with this was that the procedures took place on specific days of the week, and the protesters knew that, so on the day we went in for an initial evaluation, there was no one one there. But a few days later...

So, call the clinic and ask point-blank questions. Don't assume anything.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:52 PM on April 15, 2012

I would not count on out-of-town clinics being protester-free. It is unlikely that traveling will change anything.

I would avoid openly carrying a taser or a gun. While it is perfectly legal in Virginia, it is also perfectly legal for the protesters, and you don't want to mess with right-wingers who might also have concealed weapons permits. There is a significant overlap between "VCDL gun nut" and "VA Family Foundation fundie."
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:52 PM on April 15, 2012

I've been to PP in the bible belt twice...only once were there protestors. My only advice is not to be baited into violence. My method is to imagine them wearing dunce caps...liberal use of middle fingers is also advised.

I would avoid weaponry as they will undoubtedly be much better armed.
posted by schyler523 at 11:50 PM on April 15, 2012

The Massachusetts clinic I went to faced onto a busy street with regular storefronts and apartment buildings as neighbours. We observed where the clinic escorts were (they were wearing brightly coloured vests) as we drove by. We parked 3 blocks away and walked, pretending to be out for a window-shopping stroll, sauntered through the protestors on the near side of the clinic entrance, and abruptly took a hard left directly in front of the entrance saying, "I have an appointment get us inside please" to the escorts. Then the protestors started yelling at us but we were inside in 2 seconds.

For a clinic that's located apart from regular storefronts etc, where you can't pretend you have any other business walking on that sidewalk, I would second the above tips: wear sunglasses and hat, don't make eye contact, don't engage, get through them as quickly as possible.

FYI, once inside, I talked to one woman and her friend who had pulled their car up directly in front and gotten out. The protestors were focused on them instantly. Worse, one of the protestors grabbed their shoulders, which is illegal in MA (in fact it was technically illegal for protestors to be within something like 6 feet of clinic patients at all) but it's not like there was a cop around to witness. The friend said she became so angry she barely restrained herself from punching out the grabber.

Before that, I had gone to Planned Parenthood for blood tests and pap smears and announced this loudly to the protestors as I walked through. Some of them kept on with the usual rhetoric, some of them switched to "But do you know what goes on in there?!! They're eeevilll!" Probably people's mileage with this tactic varies, but it might be worth a shot. Good luck.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:15 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Instead of headphones, could you try earplugs? You want ones that don't block out all noise entirely, so that you can still communicate with your husband or guards etc. Plain old cheap ones should dim the noise and give you a sense of distance from the protesters.

Try to get ones that aren't visible when worn.

If you lose your temper and get the urge to fight back, just remember that you are fighting back simply by walking to that door.
posted by trig at 3:15 AM on April 16, 2012

I have some experience with this in central VA. The brief version: no protestors on an early Friday morning. MeMail me for more details if you wish.
posted by emkelley at 4:39 AM on April 16, 2012

...I lose my temper easily...

Put blinders on. You are walking from your car to the clinic and you and your husband should actively ignore anyone yelling at you. Act. Pretend those people don't exist. Pretend the angry words are flowers being thrown at you. Meditate. Do whatever it takes to trick your mind into not regarding those people at all.

Losing your temper is a choice. Choose not to.
posted by zardoz at 4:50 AM on April 16, 2012

Hi, I'm a clinic escort in the Washington DC area. I'm very sorry you're having to deal with this.

First, I want to second the advice to talk to the receptionist about the protesters. S/he will be incredibly familiar with the protesters (we even circulate pictures) and their M.O. S/he can tell you if they are the praying type, the yelling type, etc. There may even be a back entrance at the clinic you can use.

I'm not sure what clinic you're looking at, but it's very possible that the clinic is helped out by the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force. We volunteer at a few clinics in NOVA. I volunteer at a particularly virulent clinic in rural Maryland, and I can only tell you what it's like at my clinic. This may not be the case. On Saturday mornings, the clinic has about 8-15 protesters outside, yelling, praying, and preaching. If they see someone getting out of a car on the block (the clinic is immediately adjacent to the street), they will sprint down the street and try and tell you, well, rude and inappropriate things. They have signs, and brochures, and they are aggressive. They would follow you up to the door of the clinic.

I and my fellow escorts would attempt to draw no attention to you (so that none of the protesters would come your way). Once you were closer to the clinic, though, I would come up to you, wearing an orange vest that says "PRO-CHOICE CLINIC ESCORT". I would apologize for the antis' presence, tell you that I was with the clinic, and I could walk with you if you want. The other escorts would be ready at the door (to let you in as quickly as possible) and blocking the antis as much as possible by literally standing in front of them. The antis would continue yelling things. I would tell you that you do not have to listen to them, that they are lying to you.

You and your husband are welcome to argue and/or talk back to them, but they thrive on that. They want any possible interaction and they want to engage you. That said, one of the best responses I've seen was a man helping his friend inside, and as soon as she was inside, he tore the door open and screamed, "FUCK YOU." Which is what I always want to do.

It is very possible that at the clinic, the protesters can and will call you names, try to block your path, and come up to your car. (They cannot touch you, and if they do, you should let the clinic know, and if you feel comfortable with it, should call the police immediately.) I'm very sorry to be so frank about it, and I'm very sorry this is the situation. It is absolutely unfair and horrible. I am giving you what I hope is the worst-case scenario so that you can be prepared. I am in a semi-rural clinic that gets patients from three states, and I only volunteer on Saturday mornings. The clinic is open on weekdays and it gets much less static then, but there's not always great appointment availability.

I'm not sure of the clinic set-up, but if you can, maybe having your husband or another friend drop you off as close to the entrance as possible, and then parking (so that you have less of a distance to walk). I think wearing headphones or earplugs is okay, as long as you have someone guiding you.

The people who are protesting are idiot hypocrites. They are wrong. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. They are acting in bad faith. They are trying to block your access to a medical procedure. It makes me so, so mad that you have to deal with this. You do have rights - the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act means that they know that you have rights. The antis will know the line and come as close as they can to it, but in my experience they will not, say, stand in front of the door. The antis protest every week or every day and are familiar with the clinic and the escorts and they should not be allowed at all to block your way into the clinic. They may try to impede, or slow you down, or talk to you, but just get as close as you can and remember that this will be short. (Ours mostly leave before people start leaving the clinic, but ask the receptionist.) They are lying to you, and you will be okay, and you will get through this day. Please memail me if you want to see if I have more info about the clinic, or want more clarification.
posted by quadrilaterals at 5:57 AM on April 16, 2012 [17 favorites]

I used to ride by the Planned Parenthood in Boston every day on my way to work. A few things I noticed - protestors were only there in the morning, and they were never there if it was raining or snowing. I'd definitely call the clinic beforehand to see if there is any kind of pattern like that.

I'm so sorry you have to even worry about this.
posted by sutel at 9:22 AM on April 16, 2012

This situation sucks. I'm very sorry. Could some other strategy help you cope with them? You don't know if you're pregnant. I'd bite my thumb at them every day until you know. Go in, counting them as you go, and as you leave let them know that you donated $10 to the clinic for every person protesting, and that you're going to do it daily.

Don't engage them outside of counting their screaming heads.

By the time you know if you need the clinic, they will hate to see you coming to use their numbers against them.
posted by cmiller at 9:42 AM on April 16, 2012

I have walked by the Delta Women's Clinic on Saint Charles Ave in New Orleans and the women's clinic on Edenborg in Metairie hundreds of times. (When I lived there I did not have a car.) Big masses of protesters were not the norm, although I sure as hell would not want to be a patient in either clinic on one of those days they had a mass protest. Call your clinic before you go. They might even let you do an impromptu free reschedule if it turns out your appointment day happens to be a massive protest day. Somebody made a comment in the blue yesterday in the "Nobody called me a slut" thread that abortion clinic protesting was a 24 / 7 activity. This is completely opposite to my experience. For the clinics I have direct experience observing it is more like every Saturday morning or every other Saturday morning or even one Saturday morning a month.
posted by bukvich at 10:59 AM on April 16, 2012

You're right to want to stay in town and go to your own clinic, the one that's most convenient for you. You just have to get yourself into the right mindset, and their nonsense won't affect you. (I mean... it is nonsense. You can tell it's nonsense by the way it doesn't make any fuckin' sense.)

Here's a partial list of things to think about, just a jumping-off point, which may help you to reframe this:

Not everyone is going to agree with your decision to terminate this particular pregnancy, or eat a hamburger for lunch, or to take a vacation to Germany, or to cut your hair like that, or to study calculus, or to .... see where I'm going with this? What if you got this freaked out every time some person you don't even know disagreed with you? You'd be a mess.

Seriously, who cares what a bunch of socially awkward strangers have to say? They're just noisy; it's not like they're actually right, so there's nothing for you to learn there at all. Get out of your car. Walk.

You have self-control. Exercise it like the adults you are. Don't get mired down in their wackadoodle behavior, eh? Bleh. Yeah, don't join them in debate. Think of pig-wrestling instead. Visualize the satisfied pig you've read so much about on the internet. Keep walking.

Once someone has crossed the boundary between thinking something atrocious about you and saying something atrocious to you, your job gets real easy. All you have to do is remember this, which is true: you're not their shrink, and ooooof, it would take you far too long to stand there and try to B-Mod them in a parking lot... jesus, think about it... you'd first have to discover all the reasons for their apparent lack of empathy... figure out what their trauma was that keeps them acting out and yelling at strangers on the street... Seriously, it'd take forEVER. Walk away. You have an appointment to get to. Focus.

It's not your job to mollify people who are standing around flipping out and hand-wringing... in order to... solve a problem? That never solves a problem! It's weird that they think it might. Girrrrl, that's a whole bucket of crazy you don't have time for. You're busy. Keep it moving.

Because you and your husband are not their nannies, you don't have to listen to them throw a tantrum just because they're not getting what they want; nor is it your job to punish them for acting out in public. Ignore them and their perceived entitlement to tell you how to live your life. If they say things to you that you know are not true, then they're just wrong people talking. That's all they are. Very simple to sidestep. You're a MeFite, so you know exactly what to do in this situation: FTLFAMO.*

Take care. Good luck. You have OUR support, which means much more in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because we're smarter, there are more of us, and we actually give a shit about your well-being :) I certainly do. Go out into the world and be you. Let them worry about themselves. You and your husband will be fine. I've been in your shoes, and I know this to be true.

*Flag the little fuckers and move on.
posted by heyho at 11:38 AM on April 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

Consider taking a cab or a rental car if you don't want photos taken of your car and license plate.

I just want to mention this again because I know from personal experience it happens.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:10 PM on April 16, 2012

There's a clinic here in Alexandria Va. that sometimes has protesters: I don't see them every day, and they usually seem to be out at evening rush hour, for maximum cars to yell at I guess. Like everyone else suggests, call the clinic you want to use and talk to the receptionist.

To avoid the possibility of them making notes about your car, get a rental. Even better, ask a friend to do the driving of that rental car: the friend can drop you and your husband off as close to the clinic door as possible; you can phone your friend to come back when you're ready to leave. That way, you'd have the shortest possible walk to the door, plus you wouldn't have to do it alone before you reached the escorts (like you would if your husband dropped you off then went to park).
posted by easily confused at 3:14 PM on April 16, 2012

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