At 6:30 a.m., when most Yalies are asleep in bed, a small group of dedicated activists takes to the streets twice a week to defend what they see as an essential human right.
Tuesdays and Fridays, students from the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale drive to the Bridgeport Summit Woman’s Center to shield women going in for abortions from the intimidation they face from anti-abortion activists outside the clinic.
Rachel Goodman ’05 is one of 15 students who began standing guard outside the clinic this semester.
“The first time I went, I thought, ‘What are we going to do standing there in these ridiculous yellow pinnies?'” Goodman said, “but I think the women really appreciate having someone there so it’s not a completely hostile environment.”
The escorts, wearing yellow pinnies with “Escort” written in black across their fronts and backs, are not officially associated with the clinic.
“The escorts are here to defend the women’s personal liberty — to make their own moral decisions,” said one escort who wished to remain anonymous.
Dagney Pitts, an anti-abortion activist from Calvary Church in Trumbull, said she has been coming to the Summit Women’s Center since high school. Pitts said she considers herself a “counselor.”
“We’re here for the women because a lot of times they don’t have information,” Pitts said. “We can’t force people to change their minds.”
When a car pulls up into the gravel parking lot across the street from the clinic, the anti-abortion activists and the escorts rush over to the car.
“If you’re coming to the clinic, you don’t have to stay here,” Pitts shouts through the opening door. “There are other options. This is a dangerous place.”
Four escorts move toward the woman getting out of the passenger’s seat. At the same time, Pitts holds out a leaflet with information about an anti-abortion help line.
“She can be hurt here,” Pitts shouts. “We have help for you. You don’t have to stay here.”
One escort, who said it was her first time coming down to the clinic, said she had not expected the atmosphere to be so charged.
“I thought it would be much more orderly. I didn’t know you’d have to run over [to the cars],” she said. “I support people’s right to express themselves. But to me, this is almost an assault.”
Cori Rowland, 12, and Kelly Vazquez, 15, also members of Calvary Church, said they have been coming to the Summit Women’s Center for as long as they can remember.
“We’ve been here since we were little,” Rowland said. “We wheeled around in little carts.”
Now the girls, dressed in their school uniforms of khaki shorts, knee highs and burgundy polo shirts, come to Bridgeport before school every Tuesday and Friday, the two days each week the clinic performs abortions. They said sometimes their class from Christian Heritage School comes with them to pray.
“It makes me feel happy inside that I can be involved in saving people’s lives,” Rowland said.
Vazquez’s mother, Carmen Vazquez, said she began coming to the clinic after seeing the movie “Silent Scream,” which shows a videotaped abortion procedure.
“I just could not believe what was happening,” Vazquez said.
Vazquez said that over the 12 years she has been a sidewalk counselor at Bridgeport, 975 women have changed their minds after being approached by herself and other anti-abortion activists. Vazquez said Calvary Church has a ministry to help women who choose to keep their babies.
“We supply them with maternity clothes, baby clothes, health insurance, job opportunities and Sunday school classes on parenting and nutrition,” Vazquez said. “Some of them wind up getting married. Marilyn [Carroll] was the maid of honor to one.”
Carroll, who calls the escorts “deathscorts,” said Calvary’s ministry has also helped women who have gotten hurt in the clinic.
“We visit them in the hospital and get them legal help,” Carroll said. “We bring them to church and let them know the love of Christ.”
The battle between the anti-abortion and abortion rights activists does not stop at the clinic sidewalk. The anti-abortion forces filed a lawsuit in May against the clinic, the city of Bridgeport, and several Bridgeport police officers, alleging that these and other unnamed defendants attempted to limit the free speech of anti-abortion advocates.
Sarah Gray ’04, a RALY organizer, said she believes the suit is a nuisance lawsuit.
“[The protesters] are using it as a club to try to run the clinic out of money,” Gray said. “[They’re] trying to be troublesome and kill the clinic any way they can.”
Don Waters Jr., 21, was waiting outside Friday morning while his 18-year-old fiancee was having a checkup at the clinic.
“Why don’t you go upstairs and support your girlfriend?” Carmen Vazquez yelled at Waters.
Waters said the anti-abortion activists should go do something productive “like joining a bingo club” instead of meddling in other people’s lives.
“It’s everybody’s choice to do what they do, and not everybody’s got the perfect life that they have,” Waters said. “We’ve already got one kid, and the circumstances are not right to bring another baby into the world. I take good care of my daughter, but I can’t afford to have another.”
Waters said that while he is personally against abortion, he does not think it’s right to “bring a child into the world if you know you can’t support it.”
He said he has half a mind to bring his car down to the clinic with abortion rights signs.
“We’re going to follow people to their cars, saying it’s your choice, you’re doing what’s right for you,” Waters said. “The girls won’t listen to [the anti-abortion advocates]. They’ll listen to me because that stuff goes in one ear and out the other.”
Emilio Santos has a lot of experience turning the other cheek. Santos works for a security company and has been stationed at the clinic as a security officer for the past three months.
“They say hurtful stuff. They use whatever means that work, whosever feelings they hurt,” Santos said. “But you can’t be opinionated. You just come to work, and that’s it.”
Leslie Cozzi ’03 said the anti-abortion protesters are often verbally abusive toward the escorts.
“They tell us we are rude and our mothers are ashamed of us,” Cozzi said.
She said it’s sometimes hard not to respond to their insults.
“The first time, Rachel [Goodman] was totally a fire plug and started talking back to the protesters,” she said.
Siobhan Doherty-Rogers, an administrator at Summit Women’s Center, called the escorts “invaluable.”
“I feel that if the escorts were not out there supporting patients and family, many people would not come in,” Doherty-Rogers said.
Cozzi said she has never felt physically threatened while escorting at the clinic.
“But,” Cozzi said, “I was scared the first time I got back. When I realized this is what it’s like to have an abortion in this country, when I thought about the propaganda and the misinformation [the anti-abortion activists] used and about how people don’t value the lives of women, that’s what scared me more than being there.”
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