Abortion Is Revolutionary: A Conversation with Lauren Rankin

April 5, 2022   •   By Eleanor J. Bader

“ABORTION IS ABOUT someone’s future, their dreams, their lives,” Lauren Rankin writes in Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines to Protect Abortion in America (Counterpoint Press). “When abortion is reduced to a mere political fight, we miss this, and we miss the very real stakes when access is denied.”

Those stakes, of course, have been enormous, with access to abortion limited by legal restrictions such as parental consent and notification requirements for minors; mandates that separate counseling from the actual procedure; and by the denial of insurance coverage by Medicaid and other plans. In addition, protests outside clinic doors have been ubiquitous for nearly five decades. In fact, picketers typically accost patients — often screaming at them as they thrust photos of bloody fetal parts in their faces — in an effort to dissuade them from ending their pregnancies. What’s more, anti-abortion violence, including the murder of 11 doctors and escorts since 1993, has had a chilling impact on the number of available providers.

But despite their relentless activism and legislative wrangling, the anti-choice movement has not succeeded in ending legal abortion. This, Rankin writes, is largely due to hundreds of intrepid clinic escorts, women and men who get up before dawn to shield patients from anti-abortion taunts and jeers and help them get the medical care they need and are legally entitled to.

Bodies on the Line tells the escorts’ story and movingly situates their efforts in the ongoing movement to promote reproductive justice. I spoke to Rankin about her research, her work as a clinic escort, and the seemingly never-ending battle to preserve abortion as a health-care option.

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ELEANOR J. BADER: You were an escort in Englewood, New Jersey, from 2014 to 2020. Tell me about that.

LAUREN RANKIN: I was a graduate student at Rutgers University in 2014 and was living in Asbury Park. I was on the board of an abortion fund, a group that raised money to help low-income people pay for abortion care, and someone reached out to me to escort. At that point I knew escorts existed, but that was about it. It turned out that two separate women had read an article about aggressive anti-abortion protesters at a clinic in Englewood. Each of them called the clinic to ask what they could do to help and the clinician got the two, who had not previously known one another, connected. They reached out to friends and associates, one of whom reached out to me.

Before I got involved, I pretty much dismissed the threat the antis posed. I’d lived in cities for most of my life; I’d dealt with jerks. But the situation at the clinic was so much worse than I thought it would be. I both hated it and loved it, but after that first week, I knew I’d return. I was an escort there for six years and only stopped because I moved out of state.

When the Clinton administration signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law (FACE) in 1994, many reproductive health activists believed the era of clinic blockades, sabotage, and disruption was over. Bodies on the Line makes clear that this did not happen. Why has FACE been so ineffective?

I think FACE can be a tool, but it will never solve the problem of anti-abortion violence. FACE requires a lot of energy, labor, and resources to enforce, which is really difficult, if not impossible, to do. Still, it can be more equally enforced. Law enforcement personnel need to be trained so they know what FACE allows and disallows in terms of protest activity. But it’s thorny. On one hand, the relationship between clinics and law enforcement is often not very good, with police who are sympathetic to the antis or apathetic about the issue. On the other hand, in the wake of so many police murders of people of color, reproductive justice activists have to ask if we really want to empower police and law enforcement since arrests will not solve the fundamental conflict over the efficacy of abortion. That will require a cultural shift that addresses gender, family structure, race, and the provision of the supports we need to both ensure safe abortion and raise healthy children.

How about buffer zones, designated areas where anti-abortion protesters cannot go and that are meant to keep them away from patients and clinic escorts?

Let me tell you about my experience. When I started escorting in January 2014, we did not have a buffer zone and the sidewalk in front of the clinic was a madhouse. As escorts, we tried to arrive early — by 6:30 a.m. — to keep the entryway open. We were also working with the city council and in March or April of 2014, we succeeded in getting an eight-foot buffer zone. It helped mitigate the intensity at the door but the zone was later struck down as a violation of the free speech rights of the antis. We appealed to the Third Circuit, and the judges reinstated the buffer zone. It is still in effect today and does make a difference.

Buffer zones are great in the sense that they can create a superficial barrier around a clinic entrance, but they require enforcement. In many places, clinics are reluctant to call the police because seeing a police car or uniformed officers can be traumatizing for patients. And even if they do call them, the police don’t always do what they should, so the buffer zone ends up being meaningless.

Stigma against abortion — that it is murder and leads to long-lasting physical and mental deterioration — is fairly pervasive. How can these erroneous ideas best be countered?

So often the way abortion is talked about in the media is political, but at its core abortion is about people. People need abortions, and we all know people who have had them. But the only time we talk about it is when a Supreme Court justice retires or is appointed or a bill to restrict access is being debated at the state or federal levels. When abortion is reduced to a political fight — as if this is all it is — we lose sight of the fact that abortion is a moral good. In addition, we don’t talk about clinic violence very much and we need to. We need to stop acting like it is normal, even expected, for there to be protesters at abortion clinics.

Basically, we have to envision something beyond choice, something more radical and people-centered. Roe v. Wade was not the end. We have to dig deeper and journalists, in particular, need to tell stories that challenge us, inform us, and teach us about what it is like to face an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. We need stories that better reflect the actual choices and morally sound decisions we make.

Many clinics have insisted that escorts avoid engaging with anti-abortion protesters. Has that been a sound strategy?

I don’t want to make blanket pronouncements on this because each clinic has its own culture and is unique. Each clinic has to decide for itself what strategy it prefers.

That said, I believe that more often than not, non-engagement is the right policy. This is because the work has to be about the patients. The escorts are there to meet their needs. They’re not there to pay attention to protesters whose goal is to rile them up and divert them.

Some people have suggested that freestanding abortion clinics are easy targets, that it would have been better to integrate abortion care with other medical services. Do you agree?

When the Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, many feminists saw the ruling as giving them the chance to create exactly what they envisioned: women-centered health centers. No one could have predicted the intensity of the anti-abortion movement or its longevity. I believe the antis would have found a way to disrupt no matter what, even if abortion care was offered in a hospital or was integrated into general OB-GYN care. Of course, in retrospect, freestanding clinics have been an easy target, but if they were better integrated into their communities — seen as part of the essential fabric of health-care delivery — the antis would not have been able to bombard them and it would be unthinkable for protesters to block a clinic entrance or harass a patient.

Some anti-abortion protesters are single issue, but others adhere to white supremacist and far-right ideologies. How pervasive is this?

First, I want to stress that not everyone who opposes abortion believes in bombing clinics or blockading their doors, but there are extremists whose misogyny and racism are tied to neo-Nazi groups. There is also evidence that some anti-abortion protesters, including John Brockhoeft, a man who served prison time for firebombing a Cincinnati Planned Parenthood in 1985, was part of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. There is definitely crossover between the far right and the anti-abortion movement. They are also often tied into the anti-COVID-19 vaccine and anti-mask movements.

Plan C, the two-pill medication regimen that allows pregnancies up to 10 weeks to be terminated in one’s home, rather than surgically in a clinic, has been touted as the future of domestic abortion care. Do you agree with this assessment?

Medication abortion is revolutionary because it is possible to access it covertly. However, many people, particularly low-income women of color, have been criminalized for accessing the pills in states where it is illegal to purchase them online. Some have even been arrested for having a miscarriage if law enforcement suspects that they took something to cause it. We need to recognize that the most marginalized people are vulnerable to criminalization and that they may be targeted by police. This means we need to work to ensure that medication abortion is legally available to everyone who wants or needs it, regardless of where they live.

In addition, while medication can be a great option, it is unsuitable for pregnancies that are diagnosed more than 70 days after the start of someone’s last menstrual period. Likewise, the pills don’t solve every abortion access issue. And, sadly, there is no pill to make the abortion controversy go away.

Do you want readers to finish Bodies on the Line and become clinic escorts?

No. Escorting is not for everyone and we don’t need everyone to do the same job. I want people to walk away from the book with a better understanding of the fact that everyday people can make real social change. They can act. I also want them to see that reproductive justice matters.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in Truthout.com, The Progressive Magazine, Lilith Magazine, The Indypendent, and Rain Taxi.