The clock had not yet struck 5 a.m. when a voice punched through the predawn quiet, bemoaning the alleged murder of "innocent babies" and letting me know that it was not too late to be saved. Bleary-eyed, I took a sip of coffee and squinted at the driveway, where a man in a white shirt and jeans held a sign that read "Child Sacrifice" with an arrow underneath, angled toward the building next door.
It was "clinic day" at Reproductive Health Services, the only abortion clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, and one of just five left in the state. RHS does not have a full-time physician who provides abortions on staff. It works with three doctors who fly down to Montgomery on a rotating basis to perform the procedures, and the staff refers to the days when they are in town as "clinic days." The protester, David Day, was there, as he was every morning, to ensure no women walked into the clinic without a dousing of harassment.
In the early morning darkness, the fluorescent orange of the vest glowed like a beacon, and that is the point.
"He is probably going to single you out, because you are new," said Mia Raven, leader of the local reproductive justice coalition and head of the clinic escort group. Raven wore a bright orange vest that said "Pro-Choice Clinic Escort" over her purple T-shirt and shorts. In the early morning darkness, the fluorescent orange of the vest glowed like a beacon, and that is the point. It signifies to women that the wearer is a friend, an ally, and will guide them, past the protesters hurling vitriol, safely into the clinic.
The vests Raven and her team wear came from a non-profit called the Clinic Vest Project, which has sent 1,800 free vests to over 100 clinics in 35 states across the US as well as Canada. The organization was founded in 2013 to provide vests to groups that "support the full range of reproductive health options including safe and legal abortion."
"We love our vests," said Xandi Andersen, who joined the clinic escort team at Reproductive Health Services after having an abortion there a few years ago. "They separate us from the ‘antis’ and it’s great for June [the owner of RHS] to be able to tell the patients that we are friendly and the orange vests mean pro-choice."
Benita Ulisano is the founder of the Clinic Vest Project. She has worked as a reproductive rights activist for over two decades and on-and-off as a clinic escort for eight. In 2010, she established a clinic escort program through the Illinois Choice Action Team (the state team for NARAL) to offer support to clinics in the Chicago area experiencing harassment.
With bright colors and a few block-lettered words, the vests proclaimed that every woman not only has the right to access abortion, but to do so free from shame, stigma, and intimidation.
ICAT purchased vests for volunteers to wear during escort shifts and Ulisano realized how powerful the simple garments could be. They instantly identified escorts as friendly faces in what could be hostile environments, while also conveying a shared set of values and demonstrating solidarity. With bright colors and a few block-lettered words, the vests proclaimed that every woman not only has the right to access abortion, but to do so free from shame, stigma, and intimidation.
When a pro-choice group from Indiana contacted Ulisano about procuring spare vests, she saw that vests had the potential to benefit groups nationwide. The Clinic Vest Project was born. Through a combination of fundraising events, individual contributions, and grants, the organization provides free clinic vests to groups who need them.
"We provide vest support to clinic escort and defender groups who risk all, day in day out, to ensure peaceful entry for patients and companions into reproductive healthcare facilities," Ulisano said. "The vest is a statement of clinic escort group unity and clinic and patient support. It also communicates a sense of peaceful authority to anti-choice protesters and a sense of protection for our patients and companions."
Clinic escort groups comprise a tight-knit community in the US, often reaching out to one another to share experiences, discuss best practices, and provide support. As a result, Ulisano said awareness of the Clinic Vest Project spread quickly between groups by word-of-mouth and across social media. Demand for the vests grew fast, as did demand for the organization’s training materials, which help provide fledgling escort squads with the information and resources they need to get started.
While in Montgomery, I stayed at the house next door to Reproductive Health Services, which serves as the headquarters of the Montgomery Area Reproductive Justice Coalition (MARJC). The property — dubbed the POWER (People Organizing for Women's Empowerment & Rights) House — is a base camp of sorts where Raven manages operations, where women seeking care at the clinic can stay during Alabama’s mandatory 48-hour waiting period, and where escorts can use the bathroom, get a cold drink, and hang out during down time.
A Montgomery escort. Photo: Rebecca Grant
By the time my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., Raven was already wearing her vest. She had also planted dozens of signs in front of the clinic that said "Abortion: You Do You," "Abortion is Healthier Than Donuts" and "No Uterus? No Opinion!" She knew how many women would be arriving for appointments that day and pulled a stash of rainbow umbrellas onto the porch, which shield clients’ faces as they make the short but protester-strewn journey from their cars to the clinic’s front door.
With everything set up, Raven lit a cigarette and glared in the direction of the protester with a combination of wariness, weariness, and indignation. As predicted, Day turned his attentions to me.
"Ma’am, I hope you are not here to today to have an abortion," he said. "They murder beautiful little babies in there."
Even though I knew Day could not come onto the porch where I stood, even though I was not there to have an abortion, I still felt anxiety and unease ripple through me, a shadow of what the women seeking care at the clinic must feel as they drive up and see his crude sign. That is why Raven and her team of escorts are there, wearing the vests and armed with umbrellas — to absorb and deflect the protesters’ rancor so the patients do not have to.
Like Alabama, Louisiana is a state roiling with anti-abortion sentiment. New Orleans has just one clinic that offers abortion services and it attracts an unrelenting stream of zealous picketers. Seth Harris has volunteered as an escort at the New Orleans clinic since 2014. He said vests from the Clinic Vest Project play an essential role by distinguishing the escort volunteers in a crowd. The facility is located on a busy street and the protesters can get uncomfortably close to the clinic door, as well as the women walking toward it — so close that without the vests, it may not be clear to visitors who is there to help and who to harass.
"The protesters stand around right in your face and clients have to walk through them to get to the building," Harris said. "Everybody is kind of toe-to-toe. Often there are a lot of people on the street who are very menacing, with loud ugly signs. The vests tell clients that we are here for them. They also help keep the protesters in line because they know someone is watching. If we weren’t there, they’d be all over the grass, chasing people to their cars, and walking up to them and trying to get in the door."
"The protesters stand around right in your face and clients have to walk through them to get to the building."
The escort group is operated by the New Orleans Abortion Fund. It’s somewhat unusual for an abortion fund to operate a clinic escort program, but Winter Randall, who serves as coordinator of the group, said the need for clinic escorts has grown particularly acute in Louisiana over the past couple years.
In February, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana ruled that a law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges could take effect, which immediately caused two clinics to shut down and threatened to leave just one abortion provider in the entire state. A few months later, the Supreme Court overturned the Fifth Circuit ruling in Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt. Randall said this back-and-forth got the antis "all riled up." It caused them to focus their attention on New Orleans’ lone clinic, which, due to other clinic closures, was experiencing particularly high demand for its services.
"Louisiana is a very hostile state that is very proud of its ‘prolife’ status," Randall said. "The SCOTUS ruling gave the anti-choicers more passion for what they were doing. It brought the protesters out much more regularly to the New Orleans clinic and we had to start building capacity."
Building capacity not only involved swelling the ranks of volunteers, but also preparing them for what they would face while standing on the sidewalk. Like many escort groups, New Orleans members follow a strict non-engagement policy, but it can be difficult to remain silent amidst the onslaught of cruelty and misinformation.
"I go through all these horrible examples during training and share how I feel when I am out there, but until you actually put on the vest, you don’t know how you are going to react."
"We attempt not to feed into their hatred, but if there is a racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic epitaph that they can scream, they will," Randall said. "The standard is you have murdered babies and are going to burn in hell. I’ve had a man scream that he hopes I get cancer. I go through all these horrible examples during training and share how I feel when I am out there, but until you actually put on the vest, you don’t know how you are going to react."
The volunteers I spoke with said putting on the vest can feel like putting on armor, a ritual that helps them mentally prepare for the ordeal ahead and shift into "escort mode." In a neon vest that says "Pro-Choice," there is no hiding, and this keeps volunteers anchored in their convictions and attuned to their training.
"From the beginning, we’ve always worn the vests," Randall said of the NOAF group, which was formed in 2014. "The vest is a uniform, a statement that says ‘I am out there doing this and you can’t intimidate me. I am going to wear this with pride.’ It’s a signifier and a symbol of what we are doing. It’s like wearing a sign that says ‘This clinic stays open.’ That’s powerful for me."
Harris said that the vests also strengthen their efforts by cultivating a sense of teamwork. Escorting requires constant vigilance to keep protesters at bay, which leaves limited opportunity for group members to bond during shifts. Wearing the vest, and seeing others wearing the vest, reinforces a sense of safety in numbers.
"When the escorts are wearing the vests, it makes you a team instead of three or four individuals standing there, dressed the same as the protesters," he said. "It pulls us together because we are all there for the same reason — to help women exercise their rights."
"When the escorts are wearing the vests, it makes you a team instead of three or four individuals standing there, dressed the same as the protesters."
In addition, Randall said that the vests also promote safety by making escorts easily identifiable to each other.
"When there are a lot of people out there, the vests help you easily identify the other escorts and keep each other in your line of sight, so no one gets separated visually," Randall said. "In this climate, you have to keep safety in mind."
However, by making the escorts clearly identifiable, the vests also turn them into targets. Most clients arrive early in the morning for their appointments at the New Orleans clinic, often before the protesters show up. Faced with no clients to harass, the antis focus on the escorts instead.
"The vests are often a flashpoint for abuse," Harris said. "With nobody else to yell at, all their vitriol and preaching and screaming and insulting is basically directed against the escorts. Their anger is really against us, because we are the enablers. They make nasty comments about us and the vests."
Clinics across the country — in red states and blue states, urban centers and rural areas alike — are saddled with protesters, but the severity and regularity of the opposition varies widely. However, as I witnessed in Montgomery, even one protester is enough to inflict emotional damage and create the need for a troupe of trained clinic escorts.
That morning at RHS, the smattering of protesters harassed every client and staff member who pulled into the parking lot. As soon as a car drove up, Raven and the other escorts swung into action. In their shining orange vests, they walked with umbrellas over to each vehicle and greeted the patients. As the women emerged from the cars, the escorts formed a protective flank, chatting casually so the short walk wouldn’t feel like a running of the gauntlet.
Escorts outside of Manhattan Planned Parenthood. Photo: Pacific Press/Getty Images
"How is that baby today?" Day yelled into a megaphone. "Don’t do this. They will destroy your baby. They will rip your baby’s head off. You are giving your baby to the devil, to these homosexual beasts."
At one point, he played the sounds of a baby crying from his cell phone, which Raven said was a new tactic.
"That really pisses me off," she said. "They have no manners. There is nothing they won’t do."
Raven said she has even heard of anti-abortion groups attempting to copy the vests in order to sow confusion and get as close to the patients as possible.
Raven said she has even heard of anti-abortion groups attempting to copy the vests in order to sow confusion and get as close to the patients as possible.
"For some clinics in the US, that’s a huge problem," Raven said. "Some clinics have every color, so if they see someone show up at their clinic wearing a vest in [a certain] color, they can run inside and change."
The Clinic Vest Project sends escort groups as many vests as they need, whenever they need them. They come in pink, orange, yellow, green, and blue, with reflective tape, which is helpful when escorting early in the morning. The organization also offers three types of wording in multiple colors and sizes. Wording options include "Pro-Choice Clinic Escort," "Clinic Escort Volunteer," and just "Pro-Choice," and groups can choose those that best fit their needs.
For example, some groups may not feel comfortable with the political associations of the term "Pro-Choice." Other groups may have legal observers in their midst — volunteers who do not escort, but are there to keep an eye on the protesters lest they break any laws — who need vests that just say "Pro-Choice." The pink vest also comes with the option for Spanish wording.
Many escort groups operate on shoestring budgets and are kept alive by the dedicated commitment of volunteers, as well as the support of organizations like the Clinic Vest Project. Something as simple as a free vest crystallizes their efforts, giving resources and legitimacy to new groups, clearly identifying pro-choice allies, and cementing the connection between escorts. Perhaps most importantly, the Clinic Vest Project helps escorts muster the fortitude they need to stand on sidewalks for hour after hour and endure torrents of verbal abuse.
"It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster," Randall said. "The minute I step on clinic grounds and put on the vest, I get this spine of steel. I feel unemotional and I know I'm there for women. That focus is really easy to keep when you see the hatred and judgement hurled at these women. When I'm out there, I stand in a position of authority. I'm good. There is always this rush, but when shift over, that’s when the emotion hits."