The patients started to trickle in around 8:15 AM. The majority of the anti-abortion protesters got a later start but showed a strong presence about 2 hours later. The first to show was Steve. He’s known to be pretty calm. Some escorts refer to certain Catholic protesters as “punch-card Catholics” meaning they show up, conduct a short prayer session, and leave right after. Steve however, stays the entire morning, going back and forth between praying and attempting to talk to patients as they enter the area around the clinic. One escort mentioned she gave him cookies once.
I saw Steve walk up a driveway that runs between the clinic and an oil company business. I asked him if he knew where the clinic’s property line was. He asked me who I was with. I told him I was a freelance photographer and asked him if he had permission from the other business to walk on their driveway. He stuttered a bit and was very vague only saying that he spoke with the owner.
Two more protesters arrived separately. Sharon stood at the driveway entrance with a handful of anti-abortion literature. At this point, the small parking lot behind the clinic was full. The clinic is situated atop a hill in a cul-de-sac. There are only about a dozen spaces so most patients are forced to park all the way down the hill and across the a busy street. They must cross the street, walk up the hill, and through the driveway entrance to then go up the stairs into the clinic, all while being surrounded and followed by protesters.
Sharon wasn’t aggressive, only rushing to not miss anyone. She told me about the Crisis Pregnancy Center, Birthchoice, behind the clinic while showing me a pamphlet that she hands out. She pointed out the list of offerings that are in it. Birthchoice advertises free “limited” ultrasounds, food bank vouchers, and “help obtaining baby items”.
She politely excused herself from our conversation to approach a couple. “Good morning. How are you? Can we help you, sir?” she asked of a companion with a woman as she tried to hand him literature. She continued on to tell me about an escort that she feels tries to “incite trouble” and gets in her face with a camera. She said, “or stand right here as you’re walking” positioning herself a couple feet from me. She said she just wants the same respect that the escorts are trying to get from the protesters.
Here, an escort named Shana, points a truck towards the entrance of the driveway while Sharon approaches the driver’s side window, arms outstretched with literature in hand. In the background, a group of new escorts are trained. At many clinics, people are volunteering in record numbers after the shooting in Colorado Springs. At others, they can be difficult to find.
That morning Shana told me about some of her experiences escorting. A protester named Matt Tringali, an apparent ringleader for the anti-abortion group, Abolish Human Abortion, in the Raleigh area, created a “Wanted” style poster with photos of Shana on it. Shana is a well known teacher and has been for more than 20 years. “How did your child spend their summer vacation? I spent mine helping to murder babies…” the poster said. She told me the PTA President was up all night deleting comments on their Facebook page that accused Shana of “murdering babies”. The school received threats from them saying they would show up to protest Shana at Parent Open House night. The school had police officers there that night and had a security guard outside her door.
Around 10 AM, the front of the clinic was lined with protesters. Some peeking through bushes others standing across the street. A group from a local church showed up and began taking turns preaching. While I stood there, they would leer at me, clearly agitated by my presence. One woman was at the bottom of the hill when I started to photograph her. She told me she prefers to be called an advocate. “Advocates for the Unborn” she says.
“Are you with a church or anything?” I asked.
“Are you recording me?”
“Oh well, you didn’t let me know you were recording me.”*
She immediately shut down and tried to avoid my camera after that. After we both ended back at the top of the hill and in front of the clinic, she spent the rest of her morning recording me on her smartphone only taking a quick break to preach.
*Legally, I did not have to tell her I was recording her as North Carolina is a “one-party consent” state.
“They are in your womb for protection!”
“Mommy! Take my hand, not my life! Take my hand, not my life.”
“Just give us one minute. One minute and if you listen to us, you will change your mind!”
“Look at the name of this abortion clinic! A Woman’s Choice. Make your choice today…We are all pro-choice here….We are pro-choice because we believe that you have the right to choose life!”
I’m told the tallest man in the group preaches, “Mercy has already been extended to you, Mommy… We ask that you extend that mercy. That you don’t take that pill, don’t take that potion. Don’t allow that weapon of mass destruction to enter your womb and rip your baby out.”
“Show mercy!” another shouts. “Your baby is innocent!”
Next I met John. John had been wandering around wearing a chest camera and handing out literature near Sharon. He was really calm and soft spoken. He told me that he believes people really appreciate them being there and that he’s had people thank him for his information. We had a lengthy conversation, mostly about how religion drives his beliefs and what he does and stressed that women can be forgiven. “We don’t promise them that their life’s going to be easy…”
Throughout the morning, protesters would show and take their place in the center of the cul-de-sac, in the front lawn of the center, or along the road leading up to it, and pray, chant, march with signs and yell at patients.
Through all this, volunteer clinic escorts don their bright vests and walk alongside patients and companions whether it be up the hill or down.
I was confronted by one of the men with the church group while standing beside them. I had my phone out recording their preaching and took photos as he insisted that I could not. “You can NOT take our picture!” He was very irritated and spoke with another member. Both began to film me and threatened to call the police. I encouraged them to do so in order to learn more about my rights as a photographer.
After dealing with the local police, I headed back over to Sharon. She told me what a great church theirs is. She said they have their own Crisis Pregnancy Center and prison ministry and she believed they had “their own homeless type thing.”
I noticed some commotion and made my way towards it. A woman and a man were walking up the long hill accompanied by two escorts. The woman was in tears and clearly distraught. Her companion seemed to be calm and quiet. They walked arm in arm. Sharon and Steve both positioned themselves on either side of the escorts so then the woman was sandwiched between them. She stopped and listened to the protesters. They handed her literature as she wiped aways tears. She took her companion’s arm in hers and they turned around back towards the overflow parking lot. The escorts asked if she’d like them to walk back down with her. She nodded. They all walked together and the escorts stayed at the corner to watch her and her companion cross the street and make it back to their car. At the top of the hill I heard protesters thanking Jesus and some “Praise the Lord”s. I asked an escort, “Do you think that they believe they changed her mind?” She said, “Of course they do. But they didn’t change her mind. She changed her mind. She didn’t want to do it in the first place. You could see it. She decided.”