I escorted women into an abortion clinic. Protesters were relentless.

A decoy operation staged next door to Planned Parenthood in Lincoln, Nebraska, knew all the tricks

Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
Louisa Cannell for the Washington Post
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I was a volunteer patient escort at Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Lincoln, Neb., from 2009 to 2011. Each Tuesday, the clinic performed abortions. Protesters gathered in front of the clinic on these days and sometimes surrounded it. A college town, Lincoln is liberal by Nebraska standards, but Lincoln’s Catholics, including traditionalist congregants, were out in force on abortion day.

I did not have strong feelings on the politics of abortion when I began as an escort, guiding patients through the maelstrom of protesters. A friend had told me of the obstacles she faced in getting an abortion. I volunteered because I wanted to help others in her position, and to better understand those obstacles. I now feel I know the political movement that overturned Roe v. Wade. Its ambitions are larger than simply restricting abortion.

Patients who arrived at the clinic on foot were running a gantlet. The anti-choice protesters would “sidewalk counsel” them, trying to push rosaries into patients’ hands and divert them in any way just short of physical assault. Escorts sought to be grounding and psychologically comforting to patients, walking with them, speaking calmly and moving them steadily. Most patients looked scared of the anti-choice protesters, or baffled. Some were very, very angry at them.

The protesters’ base of operations was the house next door to the clinic, bought by an antiabortion nonprofit organization, Lincoln Right to Life. The group describes itself as ecumenical, but the Catholic Church was the star of the show at the protests. The house had Stations of the Cross in the yard, as though it were a church, yet it had no congregation other than protesters and no services other than religious rites directed against abortion. There was no sign listing the building’s name or purpose. It served as a clinic decoy.

Protesters would flag cars obviously trying to drive to Planned Parenthood into the house driveway instead, then make it hard for them to leave. They wore medical scrubs as they tried to mislead patients into believing they were at a clinic. Patients were typically confused when presented with a clinic that looked mostly like a house and a little like a church. They described to me how anti-choice protesters would prolong and exploit this confusion to keep patients away from medical care for as long as possible, employing medical misinformation or simple guilt.

When a car did make it into the clinic parking lot, the protesters could not physically approach whomever got out of it without trespassing, so they just yelled at them. They had an elevated platform for this purpose, built right up against the clinic’s property line. Over the years, there was a gradual escalation in which the protesters built taller yelling platforms and the clinic built taller fences to block the yelling. The limits of the local building code were eventually reached, the volunteer coordinator told me, with the tallest platform zoned as a treehouse and the highest strip of fence classified as a “seasonal banner.”

On a typical abortion day, there were 10 to 20 protesters in front of the clinic, although once a month the bishop of the diocese accompanied several hundred. They spent a lot of time talking to us. Escorts were not permitted by Planned Parenthood to respond; we were a captive, passive audience for the protesters. They chose to talk about sex a lot. They tended to be opposed to birth control and were fond of explaining “God’s plan for human sexuality.” One woman illustrated this plan with unasked-for details about her virtuous married sex life. She felt that abortion and hormonal birth control were murder, and that condoms were undignified. Her husband learned to suppress his sexual urges, she said, and they now had sex only for procreation. To recruit others into this godly way of life, she protested in front of the clinic nearly every week for years.

We had a detente with the regular protesters. We called the cops on them occasionally for trespassing or blocking the driveway, but they knew the legal limits, and on the whole they stayed within them as long as they were being watched. When no patients were arriving, they mostly stood around, gossiped about church stuff, swapped medical misinformation about abortion causing cancer, and tallied all the women they claimed to have rescued from sin.

Though exasperated by the regulars, the escorts were more fearful of the people who would occasionally arrive by bus. Hundreds of them, at times, who didn’t know the locals, didn’t care about the detente and who often wanted to grandstand. Sometimes the visitors wore the robes of Catholic priests or seminarians. Sometimes they were private school students who mostly looked as though they did not want to be there. One woman arrived on what appeared to be some sort of tour bus. She delivered a meandering harangue asking humanity to “stop making sex.” A man wearing a hoodie with the hood up on a warm day mumbled angrily to himself that the clinic put babies into blenders. He scowled furiously at nothing in particular. I wondered if he would finally be the guy who would shoot up the place.

I was always careful to hide my identity as an escort. I arrived on the city bus, because I was warned that people who drove to the clinic risked having their license plate numbers run by the anti-choicers. I don’t know if that’s true, but it is true that protesters followed clinic employees into their personal lives. They showed up at employees’ homes, knocking on the door. They approached their children at school sports events to tell them how sinful their parents were. They protested at their churches.

Planned Parenthood clinic staff were physically attacked. Once, an angry man stormed out of the house-church and tried to force his way into the clinic. Because the clinic manager stood in his way he grabbed her by the neck and struck her in the ribs, then attempted to force her to the ground. Fortunately, the manager was able to push him out the front door. You could see her bruises for a long time afterward.

Once, the clinic was bombed with a Molotov cocktail. It caused only a little damage, probably because the attacker had a hard time throwing over the security fence built around the clinic in response to previous attacks. This event made a big impression on me, but others at the clinic didn’t seem to regard it as unusual. I think they had learned to habitually disregard this type of trauma. The firebombing received only brief mention in the local news.

A fellow escort was a woman who had worked with George Tiller in neighboring Kansas, until Tiller was murdered. An abortion doctor, Tiller was shot by an antiabortion extremist in his Wichita church while he was serving as an usher in 2009, a few months before I started volunteering. I hadn’t truly thought of our volunteer gig as dangerous until I heard this escort’s story. She was like a refugee.

The protesters had elaborate rituals. Throughout Lent, they kept vigil in front of the clinic 24 hours a day, they claimed. I saw them there at night, once or twice; it looked as if they were burning a ceremonial lamp. Once they encircled the clinic in a line of salt. It felt as if they were trying to use magic against us. Which shouldn’t be a big deal, because magic isn’t real, but it was scary to me because it seemed unhinged.

Anytime a man approached (including me, before they recognized me), the antis would shout, “Tell your girlfriend she doesn’t have to do this!” They assumed the women were not married. They were sentimental about motherhood, the proper role for women. Protesters expressed to me a binary view in which marriage and motherhood were mutually exclusive with abortion. In reality, 59 percent of abortion patients have already had a child, according to a Guttmacher Institute study.

I was confused by some protesters’ opposition to birth control and focus on virtuous motherhood. Because I was raised by blunt and truthful people, I first assumed the weekly standoff at the clinic was caused by an honest difference in opinion about abortion. This didn’t jibe with the protesters’ hatred of contraception — which of course prevents abortion — or their preoccupation with sex. All of society was telling me I was part of a cultural conflict over the question of when human life begins, but my experience was showing me the conflict was broader. The protesters appeared to want sexual expression and gender roles to be governed by conservative Christianity. They wanted this control not only within their church but also over anyone seeking an abortion or birth control.

In 2011, the clinic moved to a location where the arrangement of driveways, parking lots and entrances was more difficult for protesters to obstruct. A few months later, the Planned Parenthood affiliate’s head of security informed the escorts that with increased insurance cost and liability risk because of acts of violence, the volunteer escort program would be shut down. My role ended; the clinic was forced to hire professional security.

With little purpose other than to shadow the clinic — it also operated as a diaper exchange — the house was sold not long after Planned Parenthood relocated. In 2018, Lincoln Right to Life opened in another building, across the street from Planned Parenthood’s new location. The local Catholic diocese holds weekly worship services there, according to its news release. The services are not on Sunday, but Tuesday — abortion day.

The new building has dropped any exterior appearance of being a church. A former commercial building, it can function as a much more plausible decoy clinic than the old house-church ever could. Although I’m no longer there as an escort, I cannot miss the huge sign reading “Women’s Care Center” in a shade of pink that echoes Planned Parenthood’s branding.

The duplicity and pressure tactics I witnessed as an escort made an indelible impression on me. I cannot forget that this week, as every week, people with a keen interest in others’ sex lives and reproductive choices gather for a church service in a Nebraska building they have named Women’s Care Center, chosen for its proximity to a Planned Parenthood clinic. Publicly they claim the goal of saving unborn children. I sense that just below the surface there is a more ambitious dream: conservative Christian dominion over human sexuality and gender. With Roe overturned, we have taken a step into that dominion.