Outside a Raleigh abortion clinic, one of only 14 in the state, anti-abortion protesters are doing everything they can to prevent patients from walking through the front doors.

Protesters preach about sin and salvation through loudspeakers, photograph and videotape patients as they come in, and hand out fliers about the “dangers” of abortion.

“Abortion is murder,” reads one protester’s sign.

This mob of people is fairly typical of a Saturday morning at the clinic. In the past, some protesters have even disguised themselves as clinic escorts or put up misleading signs in an effort to direct patients away from the clinic. This is what patients face as they try to make their way to the clinic’s front doors, where they can no longer hear the prayer, slurs, or accusations directed their way.

Harassment of patients has escalated since Roe v. Wade was overturned three months ago, says Kelsea McLain, founder of Triangle Abortion Access Coalition, which organizes clinic escorts.

“The big shifts we’ve seen have been related to the emboldening of protesters, how they feel a little bit more entitled to do what they do, to encroach on the property lines,” McLain says.

“Most people are coming to the abortion clinic for the first time in their lives. [Protesters] know they don’t know where they’re going … and they do everything they can to confuse, overwhelm, and intimidate people away from even pulling into that parking lot.”

McLain says she’s seen protesters swarm vehicles in an effort to get patients to stop and roll their windows down. They film every vehicle that enters or leaves the clinic parking lot. This year, with many southern states having already banned abortion, protesters are especially focused on patients who appear to be coming from outside North Carolina.

That kind of surveillance could present a major problem if states start passing laws allowing people to prosecute or sue those who travel across state lines to get an abortion.

“The protesters will start shouting about how they know that [patients have] traveled if they see an out-of-state [license] plate on their car,” McLain says. “We’ve even heard of people renting cars for their appointments just so they don’t have to drive their own vehicle to the clinic.”

Another big problem is police, McLain says. Anti-abortion protesters routinely call the police on patients, volunteers, and clinic staff. Often, a 911 call will be placed in response to staff speeding through the clinic entrance or patients driving the wrong way on Drake Circle in an effort to avoid protesters, McLain says. Data from the Raleigh Police Department show that 11 calls to 911 were placed through August of this year to the Drake Circle clinic, while 21 security checks took place; throughout 2021, there were 24 calls to 911 and 208 security checks; for 2020, there were 17 calls to 911 and 15 security checks.

“We’ve actually seen cops pull someone over for going the wrong way and then not do anything to speak to the protesters that push that person into that position,” McLain says. “It just results in this endless cycle of cops having to come and potentially interrupt someone’s abortion care to question them, when all these people want to do is get in and out of the clinic.”

McLain says law enforcement’s attitude toward anti-abortion protesters is very different from their attitude toward other protesters. While police were more than willing to disperse and arrest Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, free speech in front of abortion clinics is protected even to the point of harassment and abuse, McLain says.

“It feels like everyone works together—the city, the police, and the protesters—to make things as hostile and unpleasant at the clinic as possible,” she says. “Literally no work has been put into ensuring that people can continue to access legally protected health care.”

Lt. Jason Borneo, a spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department, says the department is “committed to ensuring that health care clinics are safe places for patients to receive care.”

He cited the officer-initiated security checks the police department conducts at Raleigh’s two abortion clinics. The checks are made “so that patients can receive care, health care providers can safely provide that care and people lawfully expressing their views can do so as the law provides,” Borneo says.

Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says the city is also taking steps to protect patients.

“We have asked the city attorney to work with the clinics, and we’ve asked our [police] chief to have officers who are specially trained respond,” Baldwin says. “We are currently working on buffer zones.”

A “buffer zone” around abortion clinics would prevent protesters from approaching patients within a certain radius of the clinic. Activists have been lobbying the Raleigh City Council for years for such a measure.

McLain says the city does seem to have more interest in and energy around protecting abortion clinics since Roe v. Wade was overturned this summer. But there still has not been much progress.

The city council directed city attorney Robin Tatum last year to work with local abortion clinics to ensure the safety of patients, says Baldwin. Tatum says she has been in contact with local abortion clinics but couldn’t share specifics about their discussions. She says she expects the issue to come back before the council at some point in the future.

Buffer zones would be a welcome addition to local laws, says Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy and operations for A Woman’s Choice. The company operates clinics in Raleigh, Charlotte, and Greensboro, plus one in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Nobody should be fearful when they’re accessing [health care],” Gavin says.

Training for local law enforcement would also be helpful in ensuring access to abortion care, Gavin continues.

“I would love to see law enforcement actually enforcing the laws that are on the books. A lot of that is education,” Gavin says. “And when anti-abortion protesters violate these laws, it’s really important that city attorneys and DAs pick up these cases and move forward with prosecution.”

All this comes as more people than ever are seeking abortion care in North Carolina. Since Roe was overturned, clinics here have seen a huge influx of patients, says Gavin.

“We are now scheduling about 2,000 appointments a month … [about] 500 more than we were prior to the decision,” Gavin says. “More than half of the patients we’re seeing in North Carolina are from out of state.”

It’s a big change but not an unexpected one, Gavin says. Since Roe was overturned, 13 states have banned abortion, including seven in the southeast United States.

“[On September 15], our Charlotte clinic had at least 15 patients coming from out of state. That’s a huge number,” Gavin says. “We’re talking about people from Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana. We’re also seeing patients from Texas, South Carolina, West Virginia. These folks are coming from states where they cannot access care.”

Most patients coming from out of state are forced to take time off work to get an abortion, Gavin says. Some, who can’t afford plane tickets, drive more than 10 or 12 hours to reach North Carolina.

“A lot of our abortion funds and practical support networks are helping them with childcare, helping them with transportation, even helping with lodging … because you can’t just fly in for one day, get your abortion, and get back on the plane,” Gavin says. “Everyone is working hard to make sure that patients are getting care, but there obviously are going to be folks left behind. It’s heartbreaking and very frustrating.”

Gavin, like McLain and other abortion rights activists, has also seen the uptick in protests outside abortion clinics. She’s had reports of protesters writing down license plate numbers of patients and calling them later. Last month in Jacksonville, more than 100 anti-abortion protesters stood outside the clinic in a pre-planned protest. Although the police were aware of the event, they did not notify clinic staff, Gavin says.

Even before the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned, anti-abortion protesters seemed to feel like things were swinging their way. In early June, one man hit a clinic escort in Greensboro with his car. The man, who was known for making degrading comments to volunteers, was convicted of simple assault two weeks ago.

“Any time there is a decision that goes in favor [of anti-abortion protesters], they do become more emboldened,” Gavin says. “They’re coming out strong in numbers, and the harassment and the vitriol that comes out of their mouths is really harmful. We have patients in Raleigh who told us they feel physically unsafe and scared.” 

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.