Every Tuesday and Friday morning five Wesleyan students drive to Summit Women’s Abortion Center in Bridgeport, CT. Upon arriving, half the group is stationed at the center’s parking lot while the others stand at an adjacent bus stop. Ten to 20 demonstrators rally between them.
“The same two groups have protested for 20 years,” said Darien Combs ’11, one of the organizers of the group. “There’s the older one, where most people are in there seventies. They pray and hold out rosary beads, and will say things like, ‘It’s great weather for baby killing.’”
Other groups are more vocal and represent a younger demographic.
“The other group is led by a woman with a megaphone,” said Sophie Sadinsky ’11, another organizer of the group. “And there’s always a woman with her homeschooled nine-year-old boy… It’s scary to think what his relationships with women will be like.”
Although there is a police officer on duty, and the parking lot is fenced off from protestors, demonstrators do close in on students waiting at the bus stop. But instead of engaging the “antis,” students wait for the center’s patient to arrive.
They are the Wesleyan Clinic Escorts. Around one hundred members strong, they escort women who would like to be escorted past the demonstrators to the Summit Center’s door. Although not actually affiliated with the clinic, according to the group’s website, “their presence is both respected and appreciated.”
Despite helping women about to undergo abortion, the group insists, “We are not protesters. We do not attempt to engage the antis. As a group we take no position on the abortion issue and remain as apolitical as possible. The only belief we advocate is that all women deserve to be treated with compassion, decency, and respect.”
“I remember going to the activities fair, and talking to the head at the time on what the group was about,” Combs said. “I was really into the idea of empowering women.”
The members of the group act as a shield for women entering the clinic.
“We wear orange pennies, so it’s obvious we’re volunteers,” Combs said.
The group members must also be careful to ask for permission to walk a woman to the clinic.
“We approach women and say, ‘Hi, I’m with clinic escorts would you like me to walk you to the door?’” Sadinsky said. “A lot of times, women are dropped off and no one accompanies them. In those moments it’s really important to have a body next to you. That temporary dynamic is important if you don’t have anyone else with you. It is a very scary and vulnerable time to be alone.”
Demonstrators often yell religious epithets or hold graphic posters of aborted fetuses. Some even offer to take care of the baby.
“Once I was escorting a young woman and her grandmother, and her grandmother was so upset by the protesters she yelled, ‘Are you going to take care of this baby?’” said Combs. “And the woman with the megaphone said she offered to take care of it. It’s insane.”
The politicizing presence of demonstrators often makes the work of the Clinic Escorts even more difficult.
“The worst is when they try to push fake data,” Sadinsky said. “Like, ‘you’ll go sterile, women die in there, women are 10 times more likely to commit suicide after having an abortion.’ I have to remind myself to ignore them and that I’m there to support women, not to implement any kind of political agenda.”
The Wesleyan Clinic Escorts has grown over the past four years.
“More men have joined in the past few years, which is great and there’s generally more awareness of it on campus,” Combs said.
Last semester the group showed the abortion documentary, Lake of Fire and in December they are showing 12th and Delaware with a discussion afterwards.
“Now that we’re leading the group, it’s startling to see how appalled people are once they see the demonstrators,” Combs said. “It’s good to know that not everyone has the same values system. We’re showing the movies to raise awareness on campus and have conversations about these issues that are rarely discussed.”
The Wesleyan Clinic Escorts were recently awarded the Catherine Roraback Award by NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut (formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League). The award acknowledges the “individuals or organizations that have demonstrated leadership, courage, and activism in the struggle to protect privacy rights, the legal right to obtain an abortion and access to reproductive health for all women.” The group leaders were honored at NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut’s Annual Fall Auction & Gala on Friday, Oct. 1st in Hartford.
“It was an incredibly powerful experience,” Sadinsky said. “A lot of local politicians and leading members of NARAL were there. We had no idea we were going to be recognized. They were searching for someone to give the award to and found us. It was really humbling to receive an incredible amount of praise for such a simple gesture.”
Despite their recent accolades and the constant politicization of the issue, the Clinic Escorts maintain their commitment to a woman’s right to an abortion not for any political affiliation, but out of a deep, personal dedication to their cause.
“It’s been really exciting to engage with the issue,” Combs said. “I’ve always been pro- choice but didn’t know why or what it meant. But then once when I was waiting at the bus stop outside the clinic with a fellow student, she told me she had an abortion in high school and that’s why she joined the group. And that’s when it really hit me.”