The sun was out and the temperature was already in the mid-60s by the time I arrived for my early shift at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts's Boston branch two weeks ago and put on my purple clinic escort penny. I'd volunteered as an escort for only three months, but learned early that clear weather meant more protesters.
At 7:45 a.m., there was a small group reciting the rosary and another similar-sized contingent of college students receiving their orientation from a member of an anti-abortion group. By 10 a.m. they were several dozen, carrying signs featuring crucified baby dolls pierced with forceps and dripping entrails to the base of the cross.
They stood with their toes on the yellow line that marks the state-mandated 35-foot buffer zone between themselves and the clinic's entrance. It prevented them from moving closer, but not from bellowing phrases including "They're killing babies in there," "You know what murder looks like," and "A heart filled with sin will never know love" at clients as they enter the clinic. At any sign of confusion or hesitation by the individual entering the facility, the bellows became screams.
I'm not there to confront protesters or prevent them from speaking their minds or engaging the clients. As an escort, I can accompany the client only when asked. I'm told my mere presence brings them comfort, but amid the hymns, the yelling and the posters of mangled fetuses or fresh-faced newborns that say "Choose Life," I sometimes wonder what purpose I serve. When Dr. George Tiller was killed this past weekend, I remembered why I spent a year on a waiting list to put on that penny in the first place.
I have a sister who is a year and a half younger that I am and who moved to Boston just before I did. She bakes me cookies when I am sick, makes me mixed CDs when I turn a year older and makes me feel like the best writer on Earth when my topics are as mundane as morning coffee. In many regards she is my best friend.
She is also a grown woman who, at some point, may need one of the many services Planned Parenthood has to offer: Be it blood pressure screenings, cervical cancer or breast exams, contraception or abortion. She is entitled to all of these services under the law and, if she felt that someone might try to deny her access to these services, I would like her to know that her big brother will always be there to clear a path. Though many women who come to Planned Parenthood neither have nor want such assistance, I and my fellow escorts present an option for those who feel threatened.
And, despite Dr. Tiller's murder, we're not going anywhere.
My fellow escorts vary in age, but many had volunteered their services long before John Salvi killed two receptionists in 1994 at clinics in Brookline, Mass. -- which is directly across the street from the Boston Planned Parenthood. They remember when women in our state were denied not only abortions, but also simple contraception. In our three-hour shifts together, I've learned that not only are the veteran escorts unmoved by anti-abortion violence, but incensed that anyone would believe such actions would make them abandon rights they've worked their whole lives to attain and protect.
I am under no illusions that my presence or that of any other escort could have prevented Dr. Tiller from being killed. I also know that, in the same year Salvi committed his murders, an anti-abortion activist named Paul Hill killed both a doctor and a clinic escort in Pensacola, Fla.
However, I also know that my sister recently married, and that her father-in-law loves tending the garden that surrounds his Brookline home. He is, of late, a grandfather twice over and will often take his grandson into the backyard to play among the meticulously kept bamboo shoots and dollar plants. He tends to both his plants and his family with the same gentility he uses when delivering babies as the head of pediatrics at an area hospital. Two years ago, he told us that his name was on the watch lists of several anti-abortion groups for performing the abortion procedure throughout his career.
That anyone would want to do to he or my sister what was done to Dr. Tiller erases any doubts about where I will be when my name comes up on the escort schedule in a few weeks. I'll be in the clinic, saying a prayer for Tiller and my family before lacing up my penny and standing sentry outside. I'll be there to help, and I won't be alone.