GREENSBORO — On this Saturday, two groups of people stand watch in the 20-space parking lot of a Japanese steakhouse, each staking out their own territory.
When a car pulls in, often with a woman driving, each group springs to action.
Those wearing rainbow-colored vests motion in the direction of the abortion clinic, guiding drivers to the proper place to park. Others, dressed in navy “Sidewalk for Life” hoodies, wave, smile and put their hands in a praying position. Some wield signs, such as one reading “God loves you and your baby. We can help.”
While there’s no shouting or screaming, the scene is no less jarring for those arriving at the abortion clinic for the first time.
I felt overwhelmed when I drove in, and I had no life-changing decision to make. I was there to watch what happens outside the abortion clinic.
The restaurant parking lot is contested ground — an unusual place for actions so significant. Both anti-abortion advocates and pro-abortion rights clinic escorts are represented there, and both sides are aware it can overwhelm those who come.
But both sides stand their ground outside A Woman’s Choice of Greensboro for hours at a time, five days a week. They feel compelled to be there. Both sides believe they are helping the women who come. I spoke to both.
Lauren O., 26, is one of about 50 people who serve as volunteer escorts.
Escorts serve as a friendly face when patients pull in. They offer to walk patients inside the clinic. They speak gentle, reassuring words. They play music over a speaker to dull the volume of the anti-abortion advocates’ words — a request made by patients.
Escorts are essential to the clinic, helping to reduce confusion and ensure patient safety. Wearing rainbow-colored vests, they position themselves on clinic property as well as the adjacent restaurant parking lot.
Because the clinic is not visible from the main road, patients sometimes miss the turn and enter the restaurant parking lot, which is consistently occupied by anti-abortion advocates. If this happens, anti-abortion advocates can be quick to approach the car and initiate conversations about the patient’s reproductive decisions.
“If we weren’t there to contextualize this and tell folks these are protesters, not random well-meaning citizens, not just kind Christian folks, people would be confused, more likely to be misdirected and have a harder time accessing care,” said Lauren, who did not want her last name used to protect her personal security.
Escorts view their role as being there for patients’ needs, not influencing patients’ decisions.
“We’re here to make sure everyone’s safe. That’s the priority, not that everybody gets a procedure,” said Ten H., 24, an escort who did not want their last name used for the same reason.
But Lauren said anti-abortion advocates perceive them differently. She said they push a narrative that escorts want to make the clinic money and force people to have abortions.
Saturday is the clinic’s busiest and most crowded day. As a result, 10-15 escorts are usually present, with about as many — and often more — anti-abortion advocates.
The crowd can be intimidating, though the protesters are rarely effective in halting an abortion. Escorts are there to combat their words with understanding and reassurance.
“It’s given me the opportunity to be the person who looks them in the eye and says, ‘I believe you’re a good person. I believe you’re a good parent,’” Lauren said. “Seeing the relief and the weight roll off their shoulders when they hear that first encouraging word to then have the strength to go into their appointment and do what they need to do is so meaningful.”
Although the clinic may be calmer on weekdays in terms of volume, Ten said that anti-abortion advocates can act more boldly when escorts are in smaller numbers. Generally, there are three to five escorts during the week and a similar number of anti-abortion advocates. The clinic does not allow the anti-abortion advocates to come on its property.
Ten, who is one of the few escorts of color, has heard explicitly racist insults.
“They choose to target me,” Ten said. “I expected that going into this because a lot of times I’ve seen that pro-life or anti-abortion people often have similar beliefs as white supremacists. And so I was anticipating that, but it was just alarming.”
Ten often wears sunglasses and Bluetooth headphones to tune out anti-abortion advocates as much as possible.
Similarly, Lauren said the name-calling has taken a mental toll. She’s been called evil, selfish and “the demonic one.” In therapy, she said she discusses how hearing these repeated comments affects her sense of self and how she must resist internalizing the insults.
Bobby Singleton, co-founder of Triad Coalition for Life, an organization that compiles pregnancy resources and coordinates a daily presence outside the clinic, said name-calling is not allowed by anyone affiliated with his group. Each of the group’s pool of about 50 volunteers has agreed to a code of conduct he says he strictly enforces that prohibits verbal abuse of patients and escorts. It also bans obstructing entry to the clinic.
Singleton said there used to be a group outside the clinic unrelated to Triad Coalition for Life that was combative and shouted at patients and escorts. He said they haven’t been there for months.
Escorts keep coming back, despite the mental toll.
“I think it’s essential that people know that they’re supported when they go to a clinic because of all of the shame and stigma and all of the misconceptions about abortion and about the people who get them,” Ten said.
Positioned just beyond the trespassing boundary is a group of “pro-life advocates.” This is their preferred terminology, rather than the label of “protesters” the clinic and escorts use.
Before a wooden cross, they use a microphone and speaker to promote resources for single mothers and urge those entering the clinic to “choose life.”
“Remember you don’t have to do this,” Becky, an anti-abortion advocate, who did not want her last name used to protect her privacy, said on the mic. “We love you and are praying for you. We don’t want you to be harmed either through this. And this is harmful to you.”
At 10 a.m., about 30 people wearing turquoise “Love Life” shirts arrive at the parking lot. Love Life is a national group whose goal is to establish a consistent “Christian witness” at every abortion center across the country. Every Saturday, during its 40-week campaign, the group walks about a half-mile from Destiny Christian Center to the clinic to pray for the abortion providers, escorts and women terminating their pregnancies.
“This is a business — a business that is making money off death,” a male Love Life leader said. “It’s a place that has a culture of death, and we’re praying that people would choose life. We pray that repentance would happen and people would choose life in Jesus’ name.”
A pink ultrasound bus from the Pregnancy Network, a Christian, multi-denominational organization seeking to serve Triad women facing unplanned pregnancies, is parked prominently. It’s available for free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and STD tests. The mobile unit started coming to the clinic in 2018. The organization also has its information plastered overhead on the closest billboard to the clinic.
For the past two and a half years, Becky, 38, has spent nearly every day at the clinic during its operating hours. She said it’s what God has called her to do and that he gives her the words to reach out to women.
“Any of the tough information that we tell women is because we want them to know now while they still have a choice instead of them finding out after they no longer have a choice, so any of the tough information is said in love,” Becky said. “We’re here in love. We’re not here in judgment.”
Shanda, 45, who also did not want her last name used to protect her privacy, started coming to the clinic more than two years ago. She said her first experience was confusing as she came by herself and was mistaken as a patient.
As a Black woman, she said she looked like most of the people who go into the clinic. That observation highlighted the need for her to represent her anti-abortion viewpoint. Black women in North Carolina have the highest rates of abortion, at a rate of 21 per 1,000 people, according to 2019 data from the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics.
Shanda comes to the clinic about three times a week. She tries to talk with patients about “choosing life,” but she doesn’t scream at them.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the number of people going into the clinic, she said. On average, she said maybe one in 25 women will stop on their way into the clinic, but it’s always a guessing game.
“You can go all week and not have a single connection or you can go the following week and have like three or four a day,” Shanda said.
While anti-abortion advocates’ efforts may not stop many abortions, Shanda easily recalls success stories that inspire her to keep showing up in the hopes of adding to her list of patients who didn’t have abortions.
“When you start going through your phone and you’re looking at the pictures of babies that are actually here because of you, the moms that call and say thank you for either walking me through this or thank you for referring me to post-abortive counseling — that’s all the reward there is,” Shanda said.
Becky also said she’s held babies born after a mom continued a pregnancy to term, even thrown baby showers for them.
Both said it’s not their place to change someone’s mind, but they feel it’s important to be outside the clinic to offer an alternative viewpoint or be a sign that they don’t have to terminate the pregnancy.
“We stay as long as we can to reach out to as many women as we can, because we don’t want to miss that one,” Becky said.
The abortion clinic wasn’t always this fraught scene. Located just back from the main road, the 2,772-square-foot building with two operating rooms was known only to employees and those seeking its services.
But that all changed when anti-abortion advocates started having a daily physical presence outside the clinic.
“They have signs. They yell racially charged really disgusting language and say really inaccurate and harmful things to our staff and our patients under the guise of sidewalk counseling,” said Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy & operations at A Woman’s Choice, in reference to the environment seen across the independent abortion provider’s clinics. “It’s a challenge that we constantly see.”
The rise of activity outside the abortion clinic emphasized the need for escorts to help ensure patients could enter the clinic safely and prevent confusion from crowds unaffiliated with the clinic and lacking medical credentials.
Now, a scene of anti-abortion advocates and escorts is common outside clinics across the state and country.
In addition to the abortion clinic in Greensboro, A Woman’s Choice operates clinics in Raleigh, Charlotte and Jacksonville, Fla. The independent abortion provider has had a presence in North Carolina for 14 years. In 2017, the Charlotte facility opened to expand access, specifically locating near the airport to facilitate easy travel.
Fifteen clinics offer some form of abortion services in North Carolina. They are located in Wake, Mecklenburg, Orange, Durham, Guilford, Buncombe, Cumberland, Forsyth and New Hanover counties.
In 2019, the most recent year for which complete data exists, 143,004 pregnancies among North Carolina residents were reported to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics. Of the known pregnancies, about 16 percent were terminated through an abortion procedure, amounting to 23,495 abortions performed.
“The history of violence against abortion providers, clinic escorts and abortion nurses is well documented and it’s not that far in the past,” Lauren said. “It’s not that far removed and it’s still very present in my mind.”
A Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte received a bomb threat credible enough to evacuate patients in January 2021.
Gavin said operating abortion clinics is a challenge in the midst of passionate anti-abortion advocates, employee recruitment, strict state regulations requiring mandated scripted counseling and a 72-hour waiting period and the looming threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the Supreme Court.
“Whatever the outcome is will have a huge effect on abortion care throughout the United States,” Gavin said. “And so I think it’s fair to say that we’re all anxious and that Roe has the potential to become decimated and so it really will be left up to the states, which is scary.”
At age 20, Lauren terminated an ectopic pregnancy, one in which the fertilized egg grows outside the uterus. It was a vastly different experience than patients encounter at A Woman’s Choice of Greensboro’s clinic. Instead of going to an abortion clinic, she received a shot of methotrexate, a drug used to medically induce miscarriage, at the hospital.
“I was catered to as a white woman having an abortion for what society labeled a medical reason,” Lauren said.
She made her decision in consultation with her doctor and free from encounters with anti-abortion advocates. Without a crowd second-guessing her, she was able to feel at peace with her decision.
But spending days outside the clinic as an escort reveals that most women don’t get to have her experience, though she wishes it were the norm.
Lauren and Ten both dream of a day when clinic escorts aren’t needed and there’s cultural acceptance around abortions, so everyone feels safe and confident in their decisions.
Becky and Shanda dream of a day when abortion is no longer legal and practiced. They wish to see abortion no longer promoted or funded by the government, and instead want the emphasis to turn to pregnancy centers and adoption.
But, for now, the action and noise in the parking lot outside the clinic will continue to ebb and flow with its operating hours, as onlookers continue to take a special interest in the decisions being made inside. Neither group plans to go anywhere.
UNC Media Hub reporter Rachel Crumpler is a senior from Winston-Salem majoring in journalism and minoring in history and social & economic justice. Kathryn Osygus is a senior from Waxhaw who studies journalism at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a specialization in photojournalism.