The Clinic Vest Project: Their Vest is Their Voice

Dawn is breaking on a Saturday before Easter, and about 60 anti-abortion protesters begin massing in front of the EMW Women's Surgical Center in downtown Louisville, KY.

With a portable loudspeaker in one hand and a microphone at his lips, one protester launches what ultimately becomes a two-hour sermon of shame aimed at clients seeking legal reproductive healthcare.

But clinic escorts are ready. About 40 of them form a line on the sidewalk in front of the building, and they, too, are loud and clear — yet they never have to utter a single word.

What they are wearing does all the talking.

They sport neon vests the color of traffic cones. The escorts create a human chain so bright that from a distance it looks as if a giant has drawn a huge orange slash on the city block with a colossal Sharpie.

“The vest is a powerful thing,” says Benita Ulisano, a clinic escort in Chicago and board member of The Clinic Vest Project. “It communicates a sense of peaceful authority to anti-choice protestors, and a sense of protection for our patients and their companions.”

Since 2013, the non-profit has provided 1,800 vests — free of charge — to clinic escort groups in 26 states and in Canada. The project received a grant from Abortion Conversation Project to help distribute more vests.

In Louisville, EMW staff members “value and appreciate the escorts immensely,” says the clinic director. “When we warn patients about the protestors outside and their anti-abortion clinic next to us, it is so great when we can tell them to ‘look for the people in the orange vests and they will keep you company and bring you to the right door.’ ” 

“We frequently have patients sigh with relief when they see the vest,” says Louisville escort Pat Canon.

The vests also make a statement to the general public as motorists drive past clinics. “The escort vest is an obvious sign we stand for pro-access,” Canon says. “It clearly shows we are there to support patients going into the clinic in a non-judgmental way.”

Escorts let the vest speak for them on the sidewalk, keeping personal conversation among themselves to a minimum and never engaging with protesters.

 Clinic escorts at EMW in Louisville, KY

Clinic escorts at EMW in Louisville, KY

But away from the clinic, the escorts play a vital role in starting conversations that challenge abortion stigma. The Louisville escorts routinely get together after volunteering, and some will share about their own abortions and the stigma they have faced.

“They always say they are grateful for the non-judgmental space to freely talk about their experiences,” Canon says. “Some people say they haven’t had that freedom to talk about their abortions for as long as 20 years.”

Also, when Canon is away from the clinic and out socializing, she often mentions her volunteer work and is amazed by what happens next.  “One by one, people will pull me aside and privately tell me their abortion stories,” she says. “ They are so relieved to be able to tell someone they know will not judge them.”

Clinic vests are so effective at communicating assurance that some anti-abortion protesters have begun wearing them to try to deceive patients into walking with them. But once they open their mouths, their fraud is exposed.

The Clinic Vest Project, which serves 55 escort groups at 85 clinics, provides vests in turquoise, orange, and pink with wording such as “Pro-Choice Clinic Escort”  or “Clinic Escort Volunteer.” Vests also are available with Spanish text.

But no matter the color or language, clinic vests blare one unmistakable message: This is a person you can trust.

Ulisano remembers the time a man brought his daughter to the clinic and initially waved her away. “But then he asked who we were and asked about our vests,” she recalls.

After she explained, the man was grateful for her help. “He said, ‘I trust you. Please walk my daughter in,’ ” Ulisano recalls. “He told his daughter to stay close to ‘the lady in pink.’ That meant the world to me.”

~By Karen Harris Thurston

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