When there’s no choice but to make a stand: Mississippi’s last abortion clinic relies on women who volunteer to defend it from daily attack

Here they reveal why they keep coming back

Laurie Bertram Roberts: I have become the keeper of some of the women’s stories

These past few months are the first time I have worked as a volunteer clinic escort at the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation in Jackson Mississippi – Mississippi’s only abortion provider. This makes them the target of constant harassment from anti-choice groups, not only local but national.

I have become the keeper of women’s abortion stories and literally used my body as the shield between people who shame and intimidate women when they access legal medical care in a country that guarantees freedom and privacy.

When most people drive past a clinic they may see people standing outside possibly with big bloody signs. Perhaps they notice people praying or singing while holding pamphlets out to patients. To most they seem awkward, maybe obnoxious, even righteous, annoying but not menacing, certainly benign.

Yet if you take the time to sit outside the clinic for even a moment you would see a different scene. You would see anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, stopping their cars in the street, following them and yelling into their ears as they walk. Calling them murderers, telling them they will never be the same; that the clinic wants to kill them and their baby.

You would see grown men stalk women all the way to their vehicles after being asked to leave them alone. You would see protesters scream as if they are being stabbed to supposedly mimic the screams of babies. It never stops. They are there to shame and demean women whose only offence is accessing legal medical care.

Each patient I see enter the clinic has a very real, very critical reason to be there. Whether it’s because she is too sick, too young, just not ready, can’t provide for another child, or has a non-progressing pregnancy on that day she needs this form of medical care. She doesn’t owe anyone or any group an explanation.

Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian I always heard that people who worked at and owned abortion clinics are greedy, mean, and evil. The women and men at Jackson Women’s Health Organisation are nothing like that. Most are mothers, fathers, loving aunts and uncles so they don’t hate children, they love children. Rather than mean, greedy, evil people I have seen compassionate, caring, ethical people.

Many of our protesters are leaders in not only the pro-life movement but the Mississippi Tea Party and the Republican Party.

What they [protesters] do doesn’t bring women closer to God. In fact it drives them away.

Lori Garrott: I’ve been called the Devil and a baby killer

I’ve known Roy McMillan (a member of Operation Rescue – that group who believe they are justified in killing abortion doctors) for about 10 years. He’s a regular fixture at The Last Clinic and one of the most zealous protesters.

The first day I ever did clinic defence… I was told I was “the Devil”, a “baby killer” and several other choice terms by the early risers already sitting outside the gates. We sit there and take verbal abuse for about half an hour most mornings. I’ve tried to beat the “anti’s” to the clinic but even when I show up at 7.15am, I still find at least one.

When the antis are particularly vocal, or holding “church”, Derenda – one of the escorts – carries a “boom box” behind the patient to drown out the cries of the protesters. Some are so thankful they latch onto us for the 200 feet to the door and ask if these people are going to “hurt” them. We hold a lot of hands and try to make them laugh as much as possible. Sometimes the antis make this easier.

At the start of the day I’m a parking attendant. We have precious few spaces and they all must be used exactly correctly or the antis will call in a report to the Health Department stating the clinic is breaking standards. When the parking at the clinic gets full, we have no choice but to lead [the patients] to another public lot down the hill. When this happens, usually one or two escorts run down the hill and walk the patient into the clinic. I affectionately call this “Running the Gauntlet”. Because once we step off clinic property, we are fair game. The antis chase us to the woman’s car and try to get in-between us and her. They will stand outside the car so she cannot open her door. And we cannot do a thing. We’re taught to “not engage”.

In what other place where a human being goes to access medical services are they subjected to this treatment? Because I’d like to remind people some of these women are just here to get birth control pills for a reduced price.

Sarah Roberts: Insults keep me here rather than drive me away

I’m Sarah, I’m 16 and I am an escort/clinic defender at Jackson Women’s Health Organisation. I first started escorting after my mom, Laurie, told me about how women were harassed while trying to come in and out of the clinic.

At first, I just wanted to see if it was really true and how bad it was. When I saw it for myself, I knew I had to stay and help.

My mom actually didn’t want me to escort because of the possibility of violence and the aggressiveness of protesters. My sister and I said if you go, we go. We also reminded her that she had always taught us about the role of children in the civil rights movement. If children could march, get beaten and sprayed with hoses for our rights why can’t we help women and defend our rights now? My sister and I are also the young feminist committee co-chairs for Mississippi now. So I guess if my mother didn’t want us to have opinions and strong voices, she raised us wrong.

Most people don’t realise how ugly most protesters treat patients. I have heard antis yell things at women like “you’ve partied, now party time is over and you have to pay for your sins”. I didn’t know being pregnant was a punishment.

The spokeswoman of Pro-Life Mississippi called my sister and I “little Jezebels” who had “demons” in us. She also asked me if I had “five or six abortions” and if that’s the reason I “hate women so much”.

What the protesters don’t understand is their insults don’t make me want to leave – they make me want to stay.

Young women my age – who look like me – access this clinic. As long as we are needed, I will be there.

These testimonies are adapted those posted on the The Last Abortion Clinic (thelastabortionclinic.wordpress.com), a blog started by clinic defenders of Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organisation