Vest-wearing volunteers escort patients at Lakeland’s only abortion clinic to provide a buffer between patients and anti-abortion protesters. Move comes after passage of restrictive abortion laws in Alabama and other states.
LAKELAND — Even on sunny days, Donna Windsor carries an umbrella when she dons an orange vest and takes her position in the parking lot of the Lakeland Women’s Health Center.
Windsor unfurls the gray umbrella when a patient arrives at the clinic, the only one in Polk County that performs abortions. She deploys the parasol as a visual screen between patients and anti-abortion demonstrators stationed on the sidewalk in front of the property at 4444 S. Florida Ave.
Windsor, a Lakeland resident, sometimes also plays music on her phone as an aural buffer against what she calls the “harassment” patients face from the protesters.
“I even have some earmuffs I can give them if they don’t want to hear them,” she said.
The presence of Windsor and other volunteer escorts marks a new phase in the dynamics around the clinic, which opened in 1975. Anti-abortion advocates, who prefer the description “pro-life,” have demonstrated intermittently outside the clinic for decades but have been a more regular presence in the past year or so on Wednesday and Fridays, when abortions are performed.
Windsor, 43, and other abortion-rights advocates began showing up on the sidewalk in June, holding signs bearing such statements as “Her body, her choice” and “Keep abortion safe and legal,” to provide a counter-presence to the anti-abortion demonstrators. But Windsor said the situation was uncomfortable, and she didn’t think she and her allies were really helping patients by merely adding to the mass of people holding signs.
Windsor, president of the newly formed Pro-Choice Advocacy League, decided a better approach would be to create a team of patient escorts. They received permission from the clinic to be on the property — in areas off-limits to the anti-abortion protestors — and began their escort duties last month.
“We probably doubled the number of willing participants because they were much more interested in being on the clinic property, helping women, than they were being in front of the clinic mixing it up with the other groups,” Windsor said. “They were no threat to us as counter-protesters, but some people just felt more secure being in the role of patient advocate rather than protesters.”
Claudia Slate, another regular escort, said she welcomed the change in strategy. She said the presence of abortion-rights supporters prompted opponents to turn up in larger numbers, fueling an escalation that only added to the sense of potential unease for patients.
“We started thinking about what our goal really was, and we realized it was not really to be visible to those (driving) on South Florida Avenue,” she said. “To be honest, when I drive by you can barely read the signs. It was to support the clients, not really to convince anybody.”
Escorts wear neon orange vests with the words “PRO-CHOICE CLINIC ESCORT” printed in black type on the front and back. Windsor said her organization received the vests at no charge from a national nonprofit, the Clinic Vest Project. She donated two-way radios that volunteers also carry.
The League’s Facebook page has 111 members, and Windsor said about 25 have so far received training to be escorts.
Some Planned Parenthood clinics have used escorts for years to shepherd patients through parking lots that attract anti-abortion advocates. Planned Parenthood previously operated a clinic in Winter Haven that offered abortions, but it closed in 2016.
The Lakeland clinic is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood and is owned by a company based in Clearwater. The owners and staff of the clinic do not talk to the media.
Time of tension
The emergence of patient escorts comes in a time of increasingly fraught conflict over abortion. In May, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most restrictive abortion law in decades, one that bans virtually all such procedures, without exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Georgia and other states have adopted laws nearly as restrictive.
Such laws face legal challenges, and many who oppose abortion hope the process will prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that established the right to an abortion at the federal level.
“I feel like it’s had a sense of urgency more and more, but I would say two things concern me,” Windsor said. “One is public statements our legislators have made that if they had the chance they would adopt something like Alabama (did). Also, we have had legislators that diverted tax dollars to support those clinics, the ones that try to talk women out of having abortions.”
Windsor referred to pregnancy help centers, facilities that offer such services as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling but don’t perform abortions or refer women to clinics that do. The Florida Legislature began allotting state funds to a network of such centers in 2006 and established permanent annual funding of $4 million last year.
Critics call the pregnancy centers “fake clinics” and accuse them of giving women false information, such as material suggesting links between abortion and breast cancer that lack a scientific basis. Directors of area clinics have said they only provide accurate medical information.
Polk County has such centers in Lakeland, Winter Haven, Bartow and Lake Wales. Options for Women, a few blocks from the Lakeland Women’s Health Center, recently bought a former car dealership adjacent to the clinic and installed a sign at the edge of the property.
Windsor said she fears the nearby sign, bearing the phrases “pregnancy help clinic” and “FREE medical services,” might cause some patients to mistake the Options location for the Lakeland Women’s Health Center.
Marilyn Paul, executive director of Options for Women, said the organization will be opening a center at that site that will offer services similar to those available at its main location.
Slate, a retired college professor, said she’s worried about the national trend toward greater restrictions on abortion rights.
“I’m old enough to remember the time before Roe v. Wade, and I grew up not having a choice,” she said. “I have five grandchildren. I don’t want them, boys or girls, to go back because there will be abortions; it’s just whether they’re legal or not. Women died (from illegal abortions) when I was a teenager. If it takes being ostracized or having people scream at you, I wouldn’t do that for anything but for this issue I feel really, really strongly about it.”
Windsor said some League members are active in such political groups as the Democratic Women’s Club of Lakeland, the League of Women Voters and Lakeland Indivisible and Indivisible East Hillsborough. She said some hail from outside Polk County, many are retired and 10 to 15 are men.
Windsor said some, like her, have had abortions, while others say they would not choose to have an abortion but support the right of women to do so.
“I’ve been the patient who needed to walk into that clinic,” Windsor said. “Fortunately for me, it was upstate New York in winter, so I didn’t have to deal with protesters.”
The League enlisted an organizer from Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida to conduct its initial training for escorts. Windsor directed another session Wednesday evening attended by eight women who appeared to range in age from the 30s to 70s.
Windsor led the volunteers through four pages of advice and guidelines. The manual advises escorts not to engage with protesters, whom Windsor described as “anti-women’s health activists.”
“It does get difficult sometimes not to respond to them because they push,” said one escort who asked not to be named. “They want a response.”
Windsor and other escorts said some protestors yell such statements as “Don’t kill your baby.” They said one man, a regular on the sidewalk, has told women arriving for appointments he would give them $200 not to have an abortion.
“They’re still yelling things that are personal and are just not OK — ‘You’re the mother of a dead baby. You’re doing the devil’s work,’ things like that are not OK,” Windsor said. “Nobody should have to endure that to go to her doctor.”
Windsor said some patients are coming to the clinic for birth control and other services, even on days when abortions are performed.
Some of the regular protestors are affiliated with 40 Days for Life, an international group that organizes what it calls prayer vigils during the Lenten period each spring. Local participants, who call themselves “sidewalk advocates” or “sidewalk counselors,” have expanded those vigils and now have a presence outside the Lakeland clinic throughout the year.
The protestors are legally restricted to the sidewalk in front of the property. The clinic’s management recently installed a solid, plastic fence, roughly 4 feet high, in the grass a few feet from the sidewalk.
Windsor said anti-abortion advocates sometimes venture onto the grass to call out to patients but return to the sidewalk if an escort starts to take a photo or a clinic staffer appears to be watching. At the training session, Windsor encouraged escorts to observe protesters carefully and to take pictures of them to help with identification in case of an incident.
“Don’t dismiss violence as, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen’,” Windsor told the other escorts. “This is Polk County.”
The two sides sometimes call law enforcement on each other. Records from the Lakeland Police Department show officers have responded to 20 calls at the address since the start of 2018. The calls were classified as complaints of suspicious incidents, persons or vehicles, trespassing, noise disturbances, civil disputes and requests for patrol.
LPD records show the calls resulted in two trespass warnings but no arrests.
Amy Smith of Winter Haven is the local coordinator for Sidewalk Advocates for Life, a nonprofit based in Texas. She trains local anti-abortion advocates to hold vigils in front of the clinic.
Smith said she and others in her group call out to patients in the parking lot, trying to persuade them to visit Options for Women or another pregnancy care center in hopes they won’t have an abortion.
Smith said no one in her group holds signs with pictures of aborted fetuses, as some anti-abortion demonstrators do. And she said she hadn’t heard any advocates offer money to patients or talk about dead babies.
Mary Rutherford, who regularly joins anti-abortion advocates on the sidewalk, said no one with the 40 Days for Life group engages in the tactics Windsor described. Rutherford, retired director of Options for Women, said she has heard of others making provocative statements or holding “ugly” signs but said her group avoids that approach.
“I pray out there,” Rutherford said. “I think that’s the most powerful thing we can do is pray. … We have about two seconds to say anything to her (a patient), and that’s why I think people lose their patience sometimes on the pro-life side. They want to say something more dramatic.”
Smith acknowledged that the fence and the umbrella-wielding escorts have made it more difficult for anti-abortion advocates to get the attention of patients.
“It does block out access to the clients a lot more, so it makes reaching out to the women a lot harder,” Smith said. “But essentially what we’re there to do is pray anyway, so we don’t feel like it’s a hindrance to that. We’re out there to pray and to be peaceful and to be law-abiding, and we want to keep doing that, so it doesn’t really stop anything.”
Windsor said patients and those who accompany them seem to appreciate the escorts, as do the clinic’s employees. In the training session, she told the other women to approach patients gently and immediately back off if they aren’t receptive.
“We give them their space because this is a hard day,” she said. “Even if they’re just there for their birth control, they have to deal with all that stuff.”
Windsor said the escorts in their orange vests have received encouragement from some people just driving past the clinic.
“We do get a few who stop by and are just inspired by what we’re doing,” she said. “We had an Instagram model who saw us and brought us doughnuts and milk. She goes for health care and is harassed every time.”
Though Rutherford said she and her allies don’t intend to shame women for considering abortions, Slate said patients and family members often feel judged on what already is likely to be an emotionally difficult day. Slate, 70, brings her therapy dog, a goldendoodle named Teddy, on days she works as an escort.
She said visitors to the clinic seem especially relieved by the presence of Teddy, whose wagging tail signals they are welcome.
Slate told of one episode that made an impression on her. A young couple arrived in the parking lot, and the man remained with their vehicle as she escorted the woman into the clinic. Hearing the calls of anti-abortion advocates, the man turned toward them and called out, “Leave me alone.”
“I went with him and said, ‘Are you ready to go in?’ ” Slate said. “He seemed very upset. He put his hand on his heart and he said, ‘I have enough love in my heart for the children I have.’ That really got to me. I thought, ‘What a hard decision. Whatever they’re deciding, it’s their decision and it’s not an easy one’.”
Leah Fish of Lakeland was one of two escorts at the clinic Wednesday morning. Fish, 72, accompanied a young woman and another woman who might have been her mother into the clinic and then chatted amiably with the older woman later as they returned to their vehicle.
“There’s been family members and partners who have come out and thanked me when I’ve been here,” Fish said, “just for being a friendly, smiling face.”
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.