If there is one good thing that has come out of the fight for abortion rights this year, it is that there are so many great books coming out which tell the story from every angle. Published in April 2022, Lauren Rankin’s Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America is the go-to book to learn about the unsung heroes of the abortion access movement: clinic escorts.
Even if you have never been to an abortion clinic, you have likely heard of or seen the hoards of often Catholic or Evangelical Christians who stand outside harassing patients and trying their hardest to impede clinic access. If you haven’t had to encounter them yourself, you might think of them as a caricature of hateful misogyny, but they are usually the final bosses in an increasingly long list of obstacles which (in this case, literally) stand in abortion-seekers’ way of getting this simple procedure.
Clinic escorts are the only reason that so many people are able to get the medical care they need, and Bodies on the Line tells their story.
From Wrath of Angels to Bodies on the Line
I chose to read this book following James Risen and Judy Thomas’s 1998 book Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War because they both document the violence and chaos that takes place outside of abortion clinics, but in opposite ways. Wrath of Angels follows the events leading up to the rise and fall of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue in excruciating detail and from a nonbiased point of view. The topic of clinic escorts came up a few times, but in their earlier days they could not always compete with the relentless lawlessness of Operation Rescue and similar sit-in and blockade movements. For a while it seemed that they were losing the battle.
Bodies on the Line was refreshing to read after Wrath of Angels because, obviously, I was actually rooting for the protagonists this time (as was the author). The anti-abortion protestors, or “antis,” as escorts call them, were just as present as they were in Wrath of Angels, but Bodies on the Line also had the advantage of being released 24 years later. The 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibited protesters from blockading clinic entrances, only appeared near the end of Wrath of Angels, while Bodies on the Line dedicates a whole chapter to how the FACE Act changed the protesting and escorting landscape.
Why clinic escorts are so important
Rankin’s book also introduces us to 40 Days for Life, another anti-abortion protest group which began in 2004. (You may remember them as the scrappy heroes of the Christian propaganda movie Unplanned.) It was great to be brought up to speed and to understand the sheer scale of what clinic escorts are up against, such as the group Love Life, who disguises their massive protests as Christian rock concerts as a way to avoid ordinances against blocking the street in front of clinics.
The call for volunteers
With her understandable portrayal of clinic escorts and defenders as brave, unrelenting heroes, it’s clear that Rankin is hoping that her book will inspire readers to volunteer as escorts themselves. So it felt like perfect timing when I received a long-awaited email from my local Planned Parenthood the same day I finished the book, asking me which position I’d like to take as a volunteer. “Escort” was the first option, and I’m sure escorts are much needed.
I actually chose not to become a clinic escort because I knew secondhand from Rankin’s book what escorts have to deal with day in and day out. Rankin told the story of one escort whose foot was run over by a protester, one who was protecting a clinic door while a protester literally breathed down her neck, and how escorts would have to lock arms and legs to form a human wall in a not-so-fun game of Red Rover when protesters tried to hurl themselves through. I knew I wouldn’t perform well in such a high-stress situation, but it made me admire those who can even more.
If you are up for the task, then I do wholeheartedly encourage you to contact your local abortion clinic and see if they need escorts or other volunteers. (If that’s not your speed, then I have many more ideas on how to protect abortion access here.) Whether or not you decide to take action, Bodies on the Line is a great starting point to learn about the important work of the underappreciated heroes who use their own bodies to protect abortion patients and providers.