Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America
After years of fighting to increase and protect access to adequate healthcare for women in the US, many of us were devastated by the 2022 SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. This decision dismantled fifty years of legal protection and opened the way for several states to enact punishing and inhumane bans on women’s access to healthcare. While there are those who see reproductive choice as strictly political and/or theological, it’s really about human rights, gender equity, and bodily autonomy. Many reproductive rights activists target SCOTUS or Republican politicians as the enemy and the only reason human rights have been stripped away from more than half of our country’s population. But it’s more complicated than that. The overturning of Roe V. Wade took a decades-long project by an organized coalition of radicals and mainstream activists, clergy, politicians, and presidents. There are any number of in-depth articles and books detailing this history. What Lauren Rankin provides is a different history: one that focuses on the people doing the street-level activism that helped keep clinics open and helped patients access healthcare.
In case you’re not already aware of their important work, clinic escorts are volunteers who put their bodies between patients and “protestors” during what is often a long walk from a parking lot or street into a women’s health center and/or abortion clinic. Rankin writes a detailed and mostly chronological history of the people—mostly women—who do this work. Although the book was finished before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Rankin echoes what most of us who prioritize reproductive freedom already knew—abortion would soon be inaccessible to all but the wealthy and privileged—a situation that existed in many parts of this country prior to the SCOTUS ruling. What did happen when Roe was overturned is that “After decades of trying to ignore it, suddenly the issue of abortion was everywhere.” An entire generation has grown up with rights that they’re now fighting to get back. For those of us who’ve been fighting for decades, it’s hard to stay optimistic, to maintain any level of hope. As Rankin states, “Several of the clinics that I feature in this book are now indeed closed.” And while abortion access has been crippled on a national level by SCOTUS’s decision, “abortion access was crippled long before Roe finally died.” But there is hope and—as with many causes—that hope lies with the people and not lawyers, judges, and politicians.
Rankin begins her text with her own history as a clinic escort—in 2015 at a clinic in northern New Jersey. She describes in detail a scene of anti-abortion activists swarming a cab, blocking the doors, and shouting at the passengers—all behavior implicitly condoned by lax legislation and poor enforcement. As a clinic escort, Rankin’s job was to help the cab’s passengers, to “get to them, to help them out of the car, to support them and walk them past this hostile group.” Because clinic escorts practice “strict nonengagement”— no matter what the other side swings at them—Rankin was reliant on the clinic’s security guard to disperse the crowd. Once dispersed, Rankin moved in and turned into both an escort and bodily barrier between the patient and the crowd. This isn’t a singular occurrence; it’s been happening since the 1970s. As Rankin says:
If you live in one of the 10 percent of U.S. counties that still has an abortion clinic, there is probably a group of picketers outside of it right now … holding gruesome signs with doctored photos of bloody fetuses … yelling into megaphones, accosting every person who walks by the clinic … holding up their cell phones, capturing patients’ faces as they enter the clinic’s doors, posting them online when they get home.
All of this in front of a healthcare facility where one would assume in a civilized society that an individual’s privacy should be protected. But as Rankin details, the people organizing blockades and harassment in front of clinics aren’t participating in civilized society. Rather, as Rob Schenck (Evangelical clergyman and former radical anti-choice leader) told Terry Gross in a 2018 NPR interview, he saw women and girls seeking abortions as: “more objects than … human beings with real feelings in a real personal crisis.”
What stopped—or at least mitigated—the violent misogyny enacted by clinic protestors wasn’t the police, “presidents, or even the Supreme Court. What ultimately held the increasingly chaotic protesters at bay wasn’t the law—it was volunteers. It was clinic escorts.” As soon as there were abortion clinics, there were protestors, and as soon as there were protestors, there were activists showing up to simply walk the patients inside. Although I’d argue that politics and feminism are at the core of what they do (and it certainly was when I did this work), for Rankin “volunteering as a clinic escort isn’t about politics or pontification. It’s about responding, as a human being, to another human being’s needs. It’s about dignity, compassion, and kindness.” The fight to maintain access to abortion, Rankin states, is “about people … not as a caustic political fight but as a matter of human dignity, no matter how you personally feel about abortion.” Again, for me, that is the essence of both feminist and progressive politics and central to my own theology (my parents’ Unitarian Church is very active in clinic escorting). I don’t think we can separate issues of human dignity or even compassion and kindness from politics, although Rankin is welcome to try!
Over the course of the book, Rankin presents an oral history of sorts—with interviews from several activists and leaders in the clinic protection movement providing depth and breadth to a history that has rarely been told. She also writes about the horrific violence at the core of anti-choice activism: clinic bombings, murders of doctors and activists, and the daily violent shaming of women and girls who are simply trying to access healthcare. Throughout, she works to humanize both the patients and the activists. Starting with Carol Downer’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, the Jane Collective, and other groups working to legalize abortion in the United States, the history moves on to the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 and the vast transformation that caused for women’s healthcare. By 1985 “after a dozen years of legislation, 87 percent of abortions were performed in freestanding clinics, replacing hospitals as the go-to location for safe abortion care.” As clinics opened across the country, anti-choice activists mobilized. In 1978 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, the Fort Wayne Women’s Health Organization (FWWHO) opened and immediately suffered from protestors harassing patients and blocking the entrance. Law enforcement did nothing, even when there was a bomb threat. But the clinic’s director contacted a local feminist organization and they showed up and began the practice of clinic defense and escorting: “They learned how to use their bodies as shields to deflect the screams and body checks from the increasingly hostile protestors.” Although they were only volunteers, they were often the only line of defense between patients, clinics, and the rabidly violent anti-choice protestors. As Rankin details, “By the end of 1983, there had been more than twenty bombings and arson attacks against abortion clinics … [they] even kidnapped an abortion provider along with his wife.”
Throughout her history, Rankin shows how often local law enforcement refused to protect patients and clinic staff from anti-choice activists’ physical and verbal threats. She highlights leaders of the radical anti-choice movement including Joe Scheidler and his “Pro-Life Action League” whose organized terror included violent harassment and publicly terrorizing women and girls. Lauded as “the Green Beret of the pro-life movement” by Pat Buchanan, men like Scheidler faced little opposition beyond clinic escort volunteers. Influenced by Scheidler, Randall Terry formed Operation Rescue—one of the most infamous groups to organize around opposition to abortion, funded by Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” In response to Terry’s extreme “activism,” volunteers began to come together and train to develop “clinic defense networks.” Organized by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League), these clinic defenders formed a non-violent organized defense shield against the invasive and violent tactics of Terry’s extremists. Because anti-abortion activism was heavily funded by the Christian Right and at times protected by the government (the Reagan and Bush Administrations), clinic defense became more organized in the 1980s. Activists in the Bay area and Washington, DC shared information and training, setting up loose national networks to support volunteers against the massive Operation Rescue actions.
In 1988, Operation Rescue planned a blockade of New York City abortion clinics. But they didn’t count on the organizational abilities of NOW (“command central”), the training contributions from BACAOR (Bay area activists), and the support of local radio station WBAI. Working with NARAL and NOW as central hubs, clinic defense was largely successful. Crucially, this activism brought attention to other New Yorkers—spreading the word about what was happening and swelling the ranks in opposition to Operation Rescue’s terrorism. When Operation Rescue headed to Buffalo in 1992, local pro-choice activists enlisted ACT UP, NOW, and other major rights organizations to help organize and push back. As one activist states, “We didn’t have the courts or the police to rely on … We had each other.” And they also had media coverage which drew in more support from activists across the country.
One of the essential elements of the fight to protect abortion access was visibility. As Jeanne Clark, veteran clinic escort/defender, states: “We made the woman visible in the issue… The antiabortion forces’ main goal was to have abortions done on invisible women with visible fetuses. We gave visibility to women. We gave that control to women.” Throughout this detailed history covering decades of grass roots pro-choice activism, Rankin does exactly that work: she makes women visible—the women seeking abortions and the women doing the boots on the ground visceral clinic escorting and defense work that has them putting their bodies on the line in the work to build a just and equitable world where women have full bodily autonomy and access to health care without threats or humiliation. This is an essential read for our times and ends with a heartfelt call to action that I hope we can all hear.