Mary Lumpkin, a clinic escort, has been guiding women into abortion clinics for about nine months now. And every time she shows up for a shift, she contends with a group of raucous anti-abortion protestors shouting things like “We don’t want you to go to hell!”
“They have a very toxic way of saying things [to patients], like, ‘We love you and this is why we’re here, but you’re going to hell,’” Lumpkin says. “And the escorts ourselves, I’ve been called many names, like ‘Mistress of the Devil.’ They like to say we have terrible home lives. They’re not pro-LGBTQ. They’ll make fun if we have really short hair, things like, ‘I can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman,’ things like that. They’re just trying to knock us down.”
Anti-abortion protestors aren’t allowed to walk onto clinic property, which typically means they can’t approach patients once they park and get out of their car. But that doesn’t stop them from photographing patients, preaching over microphones, or waving down cars driving into the clinic.
Patients who don’t know they’ll face anti-abortion protestors during their visit are particularly vulnerable, according to Lumpkin. They might slow their cars or roll down their windows under the impression that the anti-abortion protestors are clinic employees or escorts. Some protestors have even worn vests that look similar to the ones the clinic escorts wear, Lumpkin says.
Anti-abortion activists then have a chance to present patients with misinformation about abortion “reversal” and other scientific myths. They might argue abortion is unsafe (it’s not) or inevitably leads to cancer or infertility (it doesn’t).
They might try to convince patients to drive away from a real abortion clinic and instead go to a crisis pregnancy center that does not offer abortions. Instead, these “clinics” often pressure people into continuing pregnancy, assert ultrasounds are necessary before receiving an abortion, and use vivid, inaccurate descriptions of safe medical procedures to scare patients into avoiding abortion.
“Some patients don’t know the antis are there,” Lumpkin says. “I’ve heard [people say] several times, ‘I didn’t realize that it was like this.’ Maybe they heard about protesting, but they didn’t realize people crowd their cars. [Anti-abortion activists] want to stop the cars from coming to us. They’ll use posters that confuse people on purpose. They want you to not go in.”
As the conflict over Roe v. Wade intensifies, Lumpkin is worried about an escalation of protests outside abortion clinics. One person has already been caught trying to trespass onto clinic grounds, she says.
Escalation of assault and harassment at clinics nationwide has renewed calls for a “buffer zone” law in North Carolina, which would prevent anti-abortion protestors from approaching patients within a certain radius of a clinic.
The proposal was first raised last year, after an anti-abortion protestor accidentally shot himself in the leg, making it clear that, although guns are illegal at protests, people still carry them. A Woman’s Choice of Raleigh, the abortion clinic where the incident occurred, lobbied the Raleigh City Council to pass a “buffer zone” law.
Three states—Colorado, Massachusetts, and Montana—have already approved such laws. In Colorado, for example, it’s illegal to “knowingly approach within eight feet of another individual to pass a pamphlet, show a sign or engage in oral protest education or counseling without consent” within 100 feet of the door.
A similar law, if enacted in North Carolina, could be helpful at some clinics but not others. Some clinics, for instance, already have property lines stretching more than 100 feet around the door, so anti-abortion protestors could still approach patients on the sidewalk or near the road leading into the clinic. At other clinics, where property lines are closer to the door, a “buffer zone” law would push protestors back, giving patients a little more breathing room.
Outside a clinic, the biggest obstacle to abortion access is often misinformation, Lumpkin says.
“The biggest issue is that the information that the antis are giving out is false,” she says, adding that, ideally, protestors wouldn’t be able to come within a block of the clinic. “That would be awesome, where they can’t stand at the edge of a road that comes to an abortion clinic with signs trying to stop patients.”
Past incidents paint a vivid picture of what could happen if an anti-abortion protest in the Triangle gets out of control. Volunteers, staff, and activists remain dissatisfied with the way police handle 911 calls from staff and protestors. But unless action is taken soon, it’s likely any new policies will come too late.
So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws protecting access to abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Twelve states prohibit blocking the entrance and exit from clinics; six prohibit threats and intimidation directed at clinic staff and patients; three specifically ban property damage to clinics; and five ban other actions like excessive noise, possession of a weapon during a demonstration, and trespassing.
Ultimately, it’s past time for North Carolina to pass a law—any law—protecting access to abortion clinics, whether it’s simply a ban on harassment of staff or more severe consequences for trespassing.
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