Walking the Line at the Last Abortion Clinic in the Rio Grande Valley

Melissa Arjona wears a pink vest that reads "Pro-choice clinic escort" and "Escolta clinica."
Melissa Arjona volunteers as an escort at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, where anti-abortion protesters try to coerce patients into visiting a nearby crisis pregnancy center instead.

For over an hour, a man in a white shirt yells furiously at any woman he sees exiting the clinic, be it a patient or an employee. When all else fails, he turns his attention to me. “You’re a death escort,” he shouts. “You wear glasses, but you cannot see. You’re blind to murder!”

On and on it goes.

It’s Saturday morning at Whole Woman’s Health, the last remaining legal abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley. The clinic is situated on a corner lot in downtown McAllen, and out front, patients have to run the gauntlet of protesters who line the sidewalk. Most people enter through the back of the building, where a small parking lot keeps protesters at a distance.

But this isn’t just any Saturday morning filled with protesters thrusting gory pamphlets and tiny plastic fetuses through the fence. This is the last day of McAllen’s first-ever 40 Days for Life protest. The worldwide campaign, which started in 2004 in College Station, is supposed to focus on peaceful prayers, vigils, fasting and community outreach to end abortion. For Whole Woman’s Health, it means an uptick in protesters as nothing, not even the rain that swept across the Rio Grande Valley after Hurricane Patricia, deterred protesters from their mission.

Another man turns his truck into the back lot, and a patient comes outside to speak to him. As soon as the man — probably a friend, a father, or a boyfriend — rolls his window down, a chorus of voices erupt from behind the wooden fence just a few feet away.

“We can help you!”

“God doesn’t want this!”

“Come with us!”

Their prayers grow louder.

The man in the white shirt is still the loudest of all. “Be a man!” he bellows. “She’s about to murder your baby!”

The onslaught continues. The patient does her best to ignore them, but the man in the white shirt is incensed.

“You can’t even look at me! You’re a murderer! You’re letting these people sell your baby’s parts!” He’s so loud that, later, patients and staff tell me they heard him inside the building.

I’ve been an escort at Whole Woman’s Health since September 2014, when the clinic reopened amid the ongoing court battle for and against access to legal abortion in Texas. Three days a week, I walk patients from their vehicles to the clinic. I ask them if they want me to take the flyers, rosaries and fetus dolls that protesters give them; most gladly hand them over. Some, panicked by the presence of protesters or chagrined by the tiny fetus dolls held up to their car window as they drive up, don’t even want to leave their car. I apologize and do my best to reassure them that they’ll be okay, and to make sure that they are.

After a few minutes, the man in the truck pulls into the last available space. Two women, both regular protesters, rush around the corner past the “ANTI ABORTION CLINIC” sign at the end of the lot. The sign’s courtesy of Dr. Juan Campos, the family practitioner next door, who owns all of the property surrounding the clinic and allows anti-abortion protesters to use it as their headquarters.

From Dr. Campos’ parking lot, the protesters try to slip McAllen Pregnancy Center brochures through the cracks in the fence; the crisis pregnancy center is a few blocks down the road, and lately, protesters have succeeded in tricking a few patients into following them there.

As soon as the protesters see me walking toward the fence, they snatch the brochures back — they’ve been warned countless times about trespassing — but moments later, they’ve opened the brochures, holding them high over the top of the fence. The man waiting in the truck now has an unobstructed view of the gruesome images meant to guilt women out of choosing abortion, and there’s nothing I, or any of my fellow clinic escorts, can do about it.

Emotions were already running high before 40 Days kicked off in September. The release of the Center for Medical Progress’s highly edited Planned Parenthood videos inflamed local protesters, even though there is no Planned Parenthood here in Hidalgo County and Whole Woman’s Health is not affiliated with the organization. Despite this, in August, one hundred protesters descended upon Whole Woman’s Health here to take part in the first “national day of protest” against Planned Parenthood.

After that, protesters became increasingly aggressive, blocking off the front and back entrances to the clinic. When the clinic’s parking lot was full and patients had to use public parking, they were trailed by protesters recording their every move on phones and camcorders. One protester went so far as to shove her phone under a patient’s umbrella to get a close-up photo.

Now, the protesters appear like clockwork. There’s the group of older women who parade around the clinic in the early morning hours, solemnly praying the rosary and sprinkling holy water around the perimeter. By 8:00 a.m., a group of a dozen or so men from the Knights of San Miguel usually gather in prayer around a table display and try to shove fetus dolls, rosaries and anti-abortion brochures into the open windows of any car that passes by, whether those cars are headed to Whole Woman’s Health or not. Some church groups bring megaphones.

Being a clinic escort can be stressful, and I always have my phone in hand to snap pictures in case anything happens, but I mostly try not to engage with the protesters. However, escorts sometimes can’t help but laugh; an old man once stood at the street corner and proclaimed to anyone who listened that we escorts were there for profit — to the tune of earning 50 cents an hour.

To lighten the mood, we usually have upbeat music playing, which gives us something to listen to besides the droning of prayer and threats of eternal damnation. According to one persistent protester, we’re going to be escorted to hell by the angels of all the babies we’ve helped kill.

I will gladly put up with all of it if my presence as an escort helps even one patient feel safer, and I know it does.

On Halloween, 40 Days for Life came to an end, but already the protesters have gotten bolder about trespassing and blocking the sidewalk. The supposedly peaceful campaign inspired much more than just prayers and fasting — it’s become an excuse to shame and harass patients. I don’t know if this will be the new normal at Whole Woman’s McAllen, but I’ll be here no matter what, wearing my hot pink vest and amassing an ever-growing collection of anti-abortion paraphernalia.

Melissa Arjona is a reproductive justice activist and English instructor in McAllen.

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Published at 3:28 pm CST
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