ESCORT SERVICE by Esther Nelson

These days, I spend most of my time in Roanoke, Virginia.  I moved here—a three-hour drive west—from Richmond, Virginia.  One of the ways I’m settling into my new community is by volunteering as an escort at Planned Parenthood.

The job is straight-forward:  Greet people as they exit their vehicle when they arrive at the medical facility’s parking lot.  Usually, there are several protestors in front of the building, and clients must drive past them before turning right into the driveway.  Protestors wave pink, plastic bags filled with anti-abortion literature as well as pamphlets that outline a specific, Christian view of “salvation.”  Not many drivers stop.  If they do, I walk over to the line that divides Planned Parenthood property from public space and wave the cars forward.  The drivers are grateful.  So many clients are nervous, upset, and unsure of protocol.  One woman asked me if I was associated with “those people out there,” pointing to the protestors.  “Not at all,” I assured her.  She smiled with relief.

My pink smock identifies me as a Clinic Escort Volunteer, written in both English and Spanish. The proselytizing protestors with their pink, plastic bags plead with clients to talk with them.  Planned Parenthood provides comprehensive reproductive health care for women, not just abortion services.  The protestors, though, focus on abortion.

This was the “in charge” guy during one of my recent shifts.  He was equipped (as is everyone leading a protest) with an electronic microphone.  For the first half hour of my three-hour shift, he tried to engage me in conversation.  “Ma’am, I don’t know who you are or why you are here, but I would love to talk with you about your choice to work with women.  You may think you are helping women, but you’re not, you’re really not.”  When I did not respond, he changed his tactic:  “Ma’am, do you know where you will go when you die?  You can come to Jesus, ask for a clean heart—one that doesn’t shed innocent blood—and God, faithful to his promises, will give you one.” 

I do not engage with protestors.   What I do is turn on my cell phone (Pandora), jack up the volume, and listen to Tracy Chapman, Josh Groban, Sarah Brightman, and other artists I enjoy, holding the phone up to my ear in order to drown out (as much as possible) the protestors’ propaganda. 

I’m especially appalled when the protestors give false information. “If you’ve taken the abortion pill [referring to Mifepristone], we can provide a doctor who will reverse the effects.”  Really?!  The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology does NOT support this:

The “in-charge” guy eventually gave up on me, yet continued his verbal assault on all who parked in the clinic’s lot.  He read a variety of Bible passages—mostly focused on “repenting from sin.”

A couple of protestors on the four-lane highway in front of Planned Parenthood. 

These protestors, no matter how pleasant they may appear, are abusive.  They don’t know each individual woman’s story or her circumstances, yet assume a position of authority over her.  They arrogantly believe they are privy to understanding exactly how their theology should work itself out in the lives of all women.  I know these protestors.  I used to belong to their camp.  They insist they KNOW what God (whatever/whoever that is) demands when really, their “knowledge” suits their own purposes, and they are eager to enforce it.  Patriarchy—in all its glory!

Carol Christ’s definition of patriarchy deserves frequent repetition!

Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.

Patriarchy is NOT an innocuous social system—it has an agenda.  Whenever someone insists on—or even passively acquiesces in the practice of—control over another, it is abuse.  That’s what the patriarchal agenda on abortion is all about—control over women’s reproduction—NOT the sentimental rhetoric of “those poor innocent babies.”  Our patriarchal social system cares for neither women nor children.

So, I continue to do my escort service.  Women are relieved to tell their stories to someone who hears them.  Their stories vary.  I’m happy to listen.  If they present for abortion, they’ve usually thought long and hard over their decision to terminate.   Some women travel from Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia—states that have inhumanely restricted abortion—to Virginia where (for now) the procedure remains less restrictive.

Opponents of abortion (so-called pro-lifers) sometimes provide diapers and formula for the progeny of “rescued” abortion seekers.  Yet, they shy away from providing all children with medical care, food, clothing, and education.  Oh, that’s not our job, they say.  Or, as I often heard growing up, “God will provide.”  Truth be told, God sometimes provides through abortion access.

John Irving (b. 1942) wrote THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, a novel set in Maine that addresses the subject of abortion.  Here is an excerpt:

“These same people who tell us we must defend the lives of the unborn—they are the same people who seem not so interested in defending anyone but themselves after the accident of birth is complete! These same people who profess their love of the unborn’s soul—they don’t care to make much of a contribution to the poor, they don’t care to offer much assistance to the unwanted or the oppressed! How do they justify such a concern for the fetus and such a lack of concern for unwanted and abused children? They condemn others for the accident of conception; they condemn the poor—as if the poor can help being poor. One way the poor could help themselves would be to be in control of the size of their families.”

The bottom line:  Whether or not to carry a pregnancy is a decision women need to make for themselves in collaboration with whomever (or nobody) they choose.   As Irving tells us through his novel—Those (referring to migrant workers) who work and live in the cider house are the ones who make the rules for the cider house.  By analogy—Those who can become pregnant are the ones to make the rules about whether or not to continue their pregnancy.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

13 thoughts on “ESCORT SERVICE by Esther Nelson”

  1. I applaud your activism and your patience with a MALE protester – obscene – what man has the RIGHT to be talking about what women need or are doing????? I could not do that job – I would become a screeching crazy woman almost instantly…. Bless you for doing what I could not. Bless you for helping our women who desperately need out support.


    1. Thanks Sara. So far I’ve only seen one person (a man) verbally engage with a male protestor. The man had driven his wife to Planned Parenthood and while she was being seen by a doctor, this man (in the facility’s parking lot) and the male protestor (out on the sidewalk) spoke loudly with each other. After 45 minutes or so, the man who had brought his wife to the clinic walked away saying, “These people are impossible to talk to. They’re closed off.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brava, Esther, and thank you both for the important work you are doing as well as for this wonderful essay. People, especially women, purposefully and and courageously taking care of each other is how the real work of change happens. By your actions, your quiet message of how the world should be rings in such a more impactful way than the protestors’ bullhorns.


    1. Thank you, Susan, for reading and commenting. There is SO much misinformation surrounding abortion. I think if our schools provided sex education, not propaganda, to our children early on, we would not face some of the difficulties surrounding abortion care that we do now in the U.S.


  3. I was so happy to read about your work as an escort for Planned Parenthood. My mother worked for Planned Parenthood as a social worker in Washington D.C. and was totally devoted to its cause. I have often thought of her in the past year and how upset she would have been about these big steps backward. Anyhow, so glad you are doing this in Va. and writing about it. Thanks also for the reminder of Carol’s definition of patriarchy.


    1. Thanks, Sally, for reading. We do seem to be taking huge strides backwards these days surrounding social issues–LGBTQIA+, trans people, immigrants, etc. I feel all I can do is “hold steady,” supporting people that many would like to see obliterated. We live in extra-turbulent times!


  4. Thank you, Esther for your service. I was an escort here in Dallas in the early 1990s, and I find it unbelievably surreal that escorting women past these misguided humans is still necessary. Even after hours of training it was difficult and stressful not to engage with these people. I came home drained. I could not do it now without becoming super angry at these harassers. Bless you for your patience and calm, because that’s exactly what the patients need.

    Liked by 1 person

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