Kelsea McLain
Kelsea McLain, Triangle Abortion Access Coalition / Designed by Lara Witt

One year post-Roe is an as-told-to series led by Prism’s Editor-at-Large Tina Vásquez, marking the milestone by featuring new and veteran advocates and organizers, abortion storytellers, providers, clinic directors, abortion fund volunteers, and reproductive justice organizers. You can read the complete series here

Clinic escorts are some of the abortion rights movement’s unsung heroes. These volunteers safely guide patients into clinics, protecting them from the chaos created outside by anti-abortion protesters. In North Carolina, anti-abortion groups like Love Life are notorious for drawing loud, disruptive crowds outside clinics. These protests, often sold to the public and media as “prayer marches,” are not only intended to intimidate and dissuade patients from accessing care, but also to conduct surveillance. Kelsea McLain told Prism that since the Dobbs decision, anti-abortion protesters from groups like Love Life have taken to doxxing clinic escorts, photographing the cars and license plates of patients from out of state, and threatening to report them to law enforcement.

McLain is the deputy director of Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund and the founder of North Carolina’s Triangle Abortion Access Coalition, a volunteer collective of clinic escorts that loosely formed in 2010 and formalized around 2018 when McLain shifted away from working inside clinics. She was initially drawn to working in abortion access after her own abortion at a clinic in Florida was protested. Volunteers in the collective primarily focus on clinic escorting, but the work also encompasses counter-protests, fundraising efforts on behalf of local abortion funds, and community engagement around abortion rights in North Carolina—a topic made infinitely more complicated by Senate Bill 20

Until recently, North Carolina was an outlier in the South where abortion could be accessed through 20 weeks gestation. The state’s new anti-abortion law, SB 20, which goes into effect July 1, bans medication abortion after 10 weeks and procedural abortion after 12 weeks. SB 20 also comes with a host of new restrictions, including an additional in-person appointment for patients that is required at least 72 hours before they can access care. Earlier this month, North Carolina providers filed a federal lawsuit challenging the provisions of the law, arguing many are unclear and unconstitutional. The new, unnecessary hurdles—like the additional in-person appointment—effectively give patients fewer than 12 weeks to access care. 

Reported on less extensively is the provision of the law that requires the North Carolina Medical Care Commission to rewrite regulations on clinics by Oct. 1. This allows the state to impose further restrictions, such as requiring clinics to have an ambulatory surgical center license—something that does not benefit patients and is not medically necessary, according to medical experts. Saddling clinics with unnecessary regulations is a common strategy deployed in anti-abortion bills because it leads to clinic closures—something McLain said we will likely see in North Carolina. 

The founder of the Triangle Abortion Access Coalition recently spoke to Prism about SB 20 and what it’s like to be on the front lines of clinic access in North Carolina. Here she is, in her own words: 

What’s interesting about our role is that the work hasn’t changed much over the last year—and that’s actually surprised us. I think our work will shift significantly in the fall, after October, when some of SB 20’s more extreme restrictions around building requirements go into effect. 

We have not heard anything from clinics, but we know how these kinds of unnecessary restrictions play out for independent clinics. This is how clinics get shuttered, and I’m worried we’re going to see that happen in North Carolina because I already know the majority of independent abortion care providers in North Carolina cannot meet the requirements. I’ve worked in abortion care. After the 12-week ban goes into effect in July, they’re going to take a big hit. Many clinics depend on second trimester care to subsidize the cost of first trimester care. All of that adds up to our clinics struggling after July 1. But I know these clinics will fight to keep their doors open until the law makes it impossible.

It’s called a 12-week ban, but it’s really an 11-week and three- or four-day ban because of the new restrictions. You have to get that first appointment in with enough time to be seen by 12 weeks and then go through the 72-hour waiting period. A lot of people access abortion care after 12 weeks, but now in North Carolina, people are just going to have to hope clinics have availability to see them multiple times before 12 weeks.

If clinics shut down, the needs of the community will shift. This is why we want to have a really large, robust, well-trained group of abortion rights activists. We’re ramping up with new volunteers and virtual and in-person trainings related to clinic escorting and abortion rights advocacy using the reproductive justice framework. As bans roll out, we want to focus on informing the community about what the laws are. 

One of the goals of anti-abortion laws is to create a lot of confusion and chaos in the community that impacts access before the ban is even implemented because people don’t know what their rights are. They don’t know they can still access abortion care in their state. We see how this plays out because we get private messages on social media from people asking whether they can still get birth control and if Plan B is still available. The effects of misinformation are very real. We need people to know abortion is still legal in North Carolina. We also want them to know how they can access abortion care after 12 weeks and how they can access care if clinics shut down.

We can’t get complacent. Every restriction, every ban is a serious attack on our freedoms and on our autonomy.

It’s really dangerous when people get complacent. When Roe was overturned, we still had abortion access in North Carolina, and I think people were comforted by that. Now we have a 12-week ban going into effect. People will still be able to access care, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will always be able to in our state. We can’t get complacent. Every restriction, every ban is a serious attack on our freedoms and on our autonomy. I think there has been too much hand-holding and tip-toeing from national advocacy groups around the reality of what these bans mean. Now is the time to really listen to the grassroots groups battling this shit on the ground. I actually don’t want to hear anything from Planned Parenthood right now—not even our local affiliate—because they’re not the ones at risk when restrictions go into effect. They will keep their funding and keep their damn clinics open in North Carolina if they want to, and they’ll close them if they don’t. They have a brand new [$10 million] facility in Charlotte, yet you have [CEO and President of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic] Jenny Black basically saying all of their clinics are at risk. It makes me really upset. Planned Parenthood isn’t at risk. Our indie clinics may actually have to close after July 1 because they can’t pay their staff because of changes that have happened to abortion law. 

I don’t know how honest clinics are choosing to be right now, if they’re trying to figure things out. I continue to tell our escorts that if our clinic closes, we will probably be the last ones to know because they have to keep information under wraps so it’s not weaponized against them. 

Antis have also figured out how to use different kinds of information to harass clinics. Something we’ve observed is that antis really love to use clinic inspection reports as a weapon to terrify people. They have figured out the systems that dictate and control abortion care providers, and they’re figuring out how to navigate within those systems. That’s part of what makes me nervous about SB 20 going into effect. A tool of the new law is that it creates more and more regulations clinics will be subjected to, and that opens the door for anyone to lodge a complaint, have the clinic inspected, and make that clinic a living hell for patients, providers, and staff. 

Outside of clinics, there’s been a shift in protesters’ priorities and how they choose to terrorize people. They are monitoring people’s license plates to see where they are coming from, and they will work it into their harassment. They’ll say something like, “I see you drove from Alabama, where abortion is illegal. You should be concerned about that.” They have their cameras set up to film every single vehicle that enters and exits the clinic. They also make speeches outside of the clinic about how people are traveling to the clinic from outside of the state and how they are going to share that information with law enforcement because it’s important “not to break the law.” 

Something I’ve been personally dealing with is that local antis who regularly come to our clinic doxxed me and several other activists. This kind of thing happened before Dobbs, but after Dobbs it’s become much more scary. A Facebook profile has been set up that posts mostly screenshots of activists’ social media. They grab our posts, they grab posts from Triangle Abortion Access Coalition, and they post photos of us and screenshots of people who like our posts. It’s clearly an attempt to build a public document of all the abortion supporters in the community. 

Facebook will not take it down, even when pictures of my home appeared on the page. It was clear someone had driven by my house and taken pictures of my house and vehicles. My address also appeared on this Facebook page. The post said people needed to mail me materials and visit my home to implore me not to support abortion. It seems that the harassment is getting a lot more personalized among people who don’t see Dobbs as a victory and don’t view our 12-week ban as a victory because they would like to see abortion banned entirely. 

A very clear and present threat—and something we, as a clinic escort team, train around and work against—is the way anti-abortion groups weaponize law enforcement processes against patients, providers, and most commonly against clinic escorts. During their preaching and shouting, they routinely say they view us as a threat. They view us as violent. They constantly threaten to call the police on us. We have since changed our escort protocol, but years ago, we had a volunteer falsely charged with assault, and they were dragged into court. The case got dropped because we had different camera angles of what really happened, which was that the woman assaulted herself. Even though the case was dropped, it scared me. This woman took time out of her life to manufacture a story and find a lawyer and pursue a case and create this big mess. It’s these sort of backhanded tactics that worry me.

At the end of the day, we’re here to try to help ensure that people’s fundamental right to abortion care is not impeded or restricted or hindered. I hope that brings patients comfort.  

Clinic escorts are the target of so much of the harassment and vitriol because we are literally on the front lines of the abortion clinic, and we disrupt antis’ goals of filming people and trying to harass people. Our escort group practices non-engagement and deescalation, so to the extent that we can, we try to pretend they’re not there, and we focus on getting people into the clinic. Sometimes ignoring them only makes them more upset. 

[The anti-abortion group] Love Life is very active in North Carolina. They have really figured out the formula for intensifying harassment at clinics and bringing danger to activists who support abortion rights and then sanitizing their efforts to the public and media. Every bit of extremism and violence we’ve encountered over the last three years has been tied directly to Love Life. The current stalking I’m undergoing, the pictures of my home on Facebook, it’s all tied to people wearing [Love Life’s] blue shirts. It’s kind of exhausting. We are focused on patients, but we also need to pay attention to who is taking our picture and where we are standing when the picture is taken so that when we later see that picture online, we have some idea of who took it. We know these people are armed. In [2021], a guy [accidentally] shot himself outside of a clinic in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he was a Love Life guy. 

Clinic escorts are volunteers, and this work comes with serious dangers, but we know that going in. The heart and soul of what we do is providing a community-led response to the challenges our local abortion providers face. More broadly, we want to combat the hostile environment, intimidation, and shame that anti-abortion groups bring to the clinics as a weapon against people who are just trying to access care. 

We joke that we’re glorified parking attendants, trying to usher people through the chaos created by antis. Emotionally, it’s not easy work, but clinic escort groups play an important role. Our goal is to make sure patients don’t get violated by anti-abortion protesters or the police. At the end of the day, we’re here to try to help ensure that people’s fundamental right to abortion care is not impeded or restricted or hindered. I hope that brings patients comfort.  

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.