Amidst jeers, taunts and prayers spewed by pro-life activists, a group of volunteers clad in neon yellow vests stand at the entrance of the Sarasota Health Center of Planned Parenthood, silently ignoring whatever words are thrown their way. As patient escorts, they endure heavy glares and nasty comments in an effort to protect clients as they arrive.
Every Friday the local Planned Parenthood performs a myriad of surgical procedures, including but not limited to abortions. And every Friday, without fail, community religious groups come out to protest and cajole the women and partners who enter the clinic.
“Most of them are pretty quiet, but there’s a handful who are loud and target the patients and the individuals who are with the patients,” alum Lauren Brenzel (’09) and current Planned Parenthood lobby receptionist said.
In an effort to disrupt the protestors and calm the nerves of visitors, Sarasota’s branch created the escort program about three years ago, soliciting help from supportive community members, but primarily drawing from the New College student body. Each semester an employee, currently Brenzel, offers a short training session for all new volunteers that explains the local affiliate’s policies on confidentiality and privacy, legal matters, approaching the patients and engaging with the protestors.
“It becomes upsetting when you’ve got somebody who’s directly yelling and targeting and saying things … and it falls really outside of social norms,” Brenzel continued. “When you’re going to a place where you don’t expect to have to ignore somebody, as we’ve been taught growing up, don’t ignore somebody trying to talk to you really, it creates a weird situation, so that what we kind of want the escorts to be able to guide individuals through.”
The goal of escorting is to protect patients from judgmental overtures by the protestors, which includes being approached and handed pro-life literature as well as being coerced into “sidewalk counseling.” Instead, volunteers are coached to always stay silent no matter how much the protesters attempt to interact with them.
“The less you feed them the less upset they are, the less vocal they are,” Brenzel added.
Third-year Julia Desangles became a Planned Parenthood escort last semester after seeing Brenzel advertise for it on the student forum.
“I really wanted to support women who already had to make a really hard decision and deal with people trying to divert them, change their mind or shame them,” Desangles said.
Starting March 5, religious organizations will begin a campaign called the 40 Days for Life, self-described as “a focused pro-life campaign with a vision to access God’s power through prayer, fasting and peaceful vigil to end abortion.” During the 40 Days, protestors picket Planned Parenthood Health Centers across the United States and in 11 other countries.
“They have their constitutional right to be there and even though I disagree wholeheartedly with what they’re doing and I think there are much better ways that they could be spending their time, that constitutional right is important,” Brenzel said. “So as long as they’re not impeding upon the ability of my patients to receive the healthcare that they want to receive, it’s not as much of an issue.”
In order to prepare for the large-scale protest, Brenzel began recruiting more volunteers and hosted another training. Amongst them was third-year and VOX (Voices of Planned Parenthood) member, Amanda Bragg, who could not volunteer last semester because of scheduling issues, but was excited to take part this semester.
“I want to be able to help others who might need surgery, not even just related to abortion, and to protect them from those who are screaming at them and just being generally horrible,” Bragg said. “First and foremost they’re trying to push their beliefs upon other people, which is just incorrect in general, but I also think it’s just very ridiculous that they stand there every week and instead of thinking of ways they can help reduce teenage pregnancy and reduce STIs and STDs in elderly communities … it’s very disheartening, but a good reminder of why we’re doing it.”
Although training only occurs once a semester, Brenzel expressed a hope that eventually she can create a more consistent relationship between Planned Parenthood and the New College student body in an effort to keep a continuous stream of volunteer escorts.
For more information about becoming involved with the Sarasota’s Planned Parenthood, email Lauren.Brenzel@ncf.edu or Caitlyn.Miller@ppswcf.org.
Information from this article was taken from http://www.40daysforlife.com/.