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Volunteer escorts at clinics that provide abortions are shifting their focus

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In states where abortion is still legal or not banned outright, volunteer clinic escorts walk patients to and from the abortion providers' doors as a protective reassurance against protesters. Leticia Wiggins of member station WOSU reports on the expanded role these volunteers are taking on as more clinics close.

LETICIA WIGGINS, BYLINE: In Columbus recently, a dozen antiabortion activists line up along the black fence bordering Planned Parenthood. Some protesters pray with rosaries. A few wear high-tech body cameras to record patients entering the clinic. Others yell through speakers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You don't have to do this. Whatever's happening here today is going to hurt.

WIGGINS: Kathleen Knost stands near the clinic door. Her rainbow-striped vest reads, clinic escort, in black capital letters. She says while protesters are required by law to stay on the sidewalk outside the fence, they interpret that liberally.

KATHLEEN KNOST: They will go inside the bushes and try to yell at people through the fence.

WIGGINS: Knost walks patients from their cars to the clinic to safely have an abortion, which remains legal here for the first six weeks of pregnancy.

KNOST: So we have to introduce ourselves right off the bat and then just sort of escort them in, talk to them as you go in so they don't have to listen to these guys yelling at them from the sidewalk.

WIGGINS: Clinic escorts use their bodies, and sometimes even umbrellas, to shield patients. These volunteers are organized by individual clinics and community organizations.

LAUREN RANKIN: It's really this kind of grassroots, ad hoc, collective kind of experience.

WIGGINS: Lauren Rankin is a writer who has covered the history of clinic escorting. Rankin found the first mention of these volunteers in 1978 at a clinic in Fort Wayne, Ind.

RANKIN: No one was doing anything in terms of law enforcement or protecting the clinics, and they had to protect themselves. And that's really sort of the birth of clinic escorting.

WIGGINS: Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, but that didn't always make it more accessible. In the 1980s, antiabortion activists blockaded abortion sites. Pro-life activists also firebombed clinics in the 1980s. Several doctors doing abortions were murdered in the coming years. Mary Ziegler is a legal scholar at UC Davis who says this resulted in the 1994 Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act.

MARY ZIEGLER: And that essentially makes it a pretty serious crime for people to use force or threats of force to impede access to abortion clinics.

WIGGINS: The so-called FACE Act is no longer relevant in the now over 10 states that fully ban abortion. It also doesn't apply after six weeks in the four states where there is a six-week ban in effect, like Ohio. Without clinics, there isn't a need for the traditional clinic escort role. Lauren Rankin says escorts across the country are pivoting to help patients access abortions.

RANKIN: They're shifting their focus to things like practical support. We're going to have to get people not just out of state, but out of entire regions at this point if they're going to get to a clinic.

WIGGINS: Marcee Lichtenwald is a clinic escort in Toledo who says closing clinics won't stop escorts from helping women find the care they need.

MARCEE LICHTENWALD: Right now, we're just - we're going to continue to keep doing what we do and make sure that people are able to access the care that they need.

WIGGINS: Clinic escort Kathleen Knost says that means if she can't walk with patients at a local clinic, she'll drive them across state lines.

KNOST: People are still going to have abortions, and we're going to help out with that. I know I'll be volunteering to give people rides.

WIGGINS: As abortion bans continue to change, the role of clinic escorts will continue to evolve throughout the country.

For NPR News, I'm Leticia Wiggins in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA'S "PIANOVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leticia Wiggins