Whenever picketers surround Pittsburgh’s abortion clinics, volunteers are on the scene to usher patients safely inside. One of them is Laura.
Laura has been volunteering as an abortion clinic escort in Pittsburgh for more than 30 years. She calls her relationships with patients “exceedingly brief, but critical nonetheless.” Clinic escorts act as a buffer between patients walking into the clinic and the picketers Laura has dubbed “antis.”
“The intention is multiple,” Laura tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “To identify ourselves, to give the patient information, and also to give them something to listen to — so they're not focused on listening to the [anti-abortion activists].’”
Laura is a coordinator with Pittsburgh Pro-Choice Escorts, a group that organizes volunteers to stand in front of the city’s two abortion clinics — Planned Parenthood of Western PA in Downtown and Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in East Liberty.
She got involved in 1991, when the organization was just a few years old. It was formed in response to massive demonstrations outside the clinics.
“I'm talking hundreds of people — three, four, or 500 people, blocking the streets, blocking the sidewalks, blocking the entrance to the clinic,” she shares.
The clinic escort volunteers stand outside on Saturday mornings. Depending on the amount of picketers, some will stay closer to the doors, down at the ends of the streets or even across the street. They introduce themselves and ask if a patient would like to be accompanied. If a patient is scared, volunteers will surround them as they walk into the clinic.
Laura says that anti-abortion protestors usually target younger people on the street because younger people tend to be polite to strangers.
“And when somebody stops them on the street and says, ‘I'd like to share this information with you, here's a pamphlet’ —- they stop,” Laura shares. “So, our role at that point is to break that contact.”
The volunteer group works with the Women’s Law Project to ensure buffer zones by the entrance are respected. Laura warns patients and their accompanying loved ones not to engage with picketers. She shares that a few weeks ago, volunteers had to de-escalate an altercation between a patient’s partner and a picketer.
“These are very litigious people,” Laura declares. “And if you were to get into a fight with them, they would call the cops, they would get your information, and you would never be done with them. Never.”
Pittsburgh clinics deal with increased hostility and picketer presence during 40 Days for Life, an anti-abortion campaign coinciding with the Lenten season. Planned Parenthood of Western PA is listed as an official vigil site, with local churches and groups covering daily shifts. Laura says she thinks it’s “creepy,” but “40 Days happens every year. We are well prepared for it.”
Planned Parenthood hosts a fundraiser in response to 40 Days called “Pledge a Picketer,” which allows community members to pledge a donation for every picketer who stands outside the clinic.
During high-volume periods and in general, Laura says that escorts have to steel themselves for distressing material from picketers. Closer to when she started volunteering, anti-abortion organizers would bring posters of Holocaust victims to the clinic.
“So, you have to kind of be careful about what you know what your trigger is, know what your button is,” Laura says. “And if they're pushing it —- we are all about self care. We can't do our jobs if we can't take care of ourselves. We can't do the job that we need to do for patients.”
As a volunteer coordinator, one of Laura’s jobs is to check in on clinic escorts throughout their shifts. She asks if anyone needs a bathroom break, a coffee, or to just sit down for a few minutes. After volunteering, Laura will often go to the library or grab a dessert from Vanilla Pastry Studio.
Laura says the pro-choice movement has changed a lot in her lifetime.
Since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned federal protections to abortion access, clinics in Pittsburgh have faced a surge of patients from neighboring states. Growing up during the height of second-wave feminism, she believes that the movement's narrow focus is responsible for today’s troubles.
“We were able to ignore the urgent needs of Black and Brown women, poor women, rural women — anyone not like us — as we worked to secure abortion rights for ourselves,” she says. “White women need to use our privilege to demand that abortion access be convenient, affordable, and safe for every single person who wants an abortion, for whatever reason they have for making that decision.”
She urges young people not to give up on the fight for reproductive justice, and is proud to be able to help community members safely get to appointments. “We are here, the clinics are here, providers are here, and we will continue to be here,” Laura says. “So fuck ‘em!”