Breaking Down Barriers to Abortion Care: Bronx Clinic's Escort Program Clears a Daunting Path

Abortion is healthcare. Abortion is personal. And people needing abortions have a right to a safe and private environment in which to access care, free of harassment. Yet those seeking abortions often have to navigate through a gauntlet of anti-choice protesters who want those rights taken away. Intimidation, guilt, yelling, and blocking physical access are some of the tactics used to unnerve patients trying to enter clinics where abortion services are performed.

A clinic in the Bronx, only a few blocks from the Einstein campus, won’t let that happen. They instituted a volunteer-based clinic escort program. It started in 2017 when patients were being targeted by 40 Days for Life, an international anti-abortion group that organizes coordinated religious protests at clinics where abortions are performed as well as abortion referral centers.

Einstein Medical Students for Choice were a big part of building the program and the clinic’s first student partners,” said *Chelsea, co-coordinator of the clinic escort program.

Each Saturday, from 6:45 to 9:30 a.m., a cadre of 8-10 volunteers assemble, including a lead escort and trainees. When patients arrive, the volunteers – who wear identifying vests – gently approach and introduce themselves, getting ahead of one particularly aggressive protester who shows up weekly. “We don’t add to the confusion and engage in shouting,” says *Julie, the volunteer coordinator. “We ensure that patients know that we are with the clinic and that we are here to show them where to go. If they look a little lost, we approach them very slowly and guide them through to the clinic.”

There are also Spanish speaking clinic escorts available. And escorts have also informally helped with other pressing issues. One recently stayed in the waiting room with a patient’s two young children, and, afterwards, escorted the patient, who is in a domestic violence situation, across the street to a police station.

Training is done with Einstein Medical Students for Choice annually and the clinic now partners with another student group, “If/When/How” at Brooklyn Law School. A New York City-based synagogue also partners with them through a once per month “adopt a weekend.” Julie, a medical student at Einstein, started clinic escorting in her first year. As volunteer coordinator, she is responsible for training and scheduling Einstein students as clinic escorts. Says Julie, “I really enjoy being able to get medical students involved in a way that’s outside their school experience.”

There is no shortage of volunteers who are on their active escort list. They have 125 to 150 from all walks of life. “When the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade came down, we received more than 100 queries from people who wanted to volunteer but we were already well-staffed and couldn’t accept new volunteers, though we are grateful for everyone’s support,” says Chelsea.

Fortunately, none of their volunteers or patients have experienced physical assaults. Unlike when she was a clinic escort in California and witnessed assaults and who was assaulted herself with pepper-spray, Chelsea says that she never fears for her safety or that of staff, volunteers, and patients. There has been shoving and pushing at times – sometimes a grab. But volunteers are trained to intervene and prepared to body block anyone who tries to enter the clinic. One notable anti-choice activist, a local Franciscan Friar well-known for getting arrested for invading abortion clinics since the 1990s, protests occasionally. In early December, one of his acolytes tried to force his way in and was effectively body-blocked by the clinic escorts.

“Other people nationally known for clinic invasions have come to the clinic,” says Chelsea. “We train really well for all situations and are well-prepared for whatever comes up.”

The clinic escort program does not lack funding. Supplies and identifying escort vests are donated. The only thing they sought funding for was transportation for volunteer escorts during the pandemic. Many of the volunteers live in Queens and Brooklyn and had to leave their homes very early in order to get to their escort duties at the clinic by 6:45 a.m.

They are also pretty self-sufficient. T-shirts they produced supported purchases of masks to provide volunteers, staff, and patients, and other supplies.

Asked how someone can help beyond volunteering, Chelsea says that people should support independent clinics, where 60% of abortions are performed, by donating to abortion funds. There are also groups, such as the Brigid Alliance, that help with costs and logistical challenges, such as travel expenses and childcare, a major barrier to abortion access.

“People seeking abortions face so many barriers to accessing what should be a safe and private procedure – right down to crossing the threshold to the clinic,” says Yaron Tomer, M.D., chair of the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center who recently visited the volunteers at the clinic. “I commend the Bronx clinic for providing this very important service and am proud of our medical students’ long-standing commitment and service.”