If you're a woman in Kentucky looking for an abortion, you aren’t exactly spoiled for choice. The state of Kentucky has one clinic left that is authorised to perform abortions: the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. But in recent weeks, EMW has been the target of fierce anti-abortion protesters, who want to see the state of Kentucky completely abolish the medical practice.

Many of the protesters are members of anti-abortion, fanatic religious group Operation Save America. On the group’s website, they refer to the “abortion holocaust”, declaring that their organisation “takes up the cause of preborn children in the name of Jesus Christ”. The group demonstrates by praying and preaching outside abortion clinics in large groups, carrying placards showing gory photos of mutilated foetuses, and distributing defamatory pamphlets that give out the personal information of the medical staff in the EMW clinic.

This is an example of the pamphlets distributed around the town by Operation Save America. Published on Twitter by @502eire.

The group is very active on social media, where it invites followers to “Ignore Roe”, a reference to Roe vs. Wade, the legislation passed by the Supreme Court in 1973 that legalised abortion up until foetal viability, or the ability of the foetus to survive outside the womb.

When words don't work... Praying for the end of abortion. Ignore Roe. Establish justice. Abolish abortion now. #OSAKentucky #OSA operationsaveamerica.org

Une publication partagée par Operation Save America (@operationsaveamerica) le

Chalk it up. Ignore Roe. Establish justice. Abolish abortion now. #OSA operationsavemerica.org

Une publication partagée par Operation Save America (@operationsaveamerica) le

A “church service at the gates of hell”

Operation Save America conducted a week of protests outside the EMW Center from July 22 to July 29. A judge granted a temporary buffer zone around the clinic for the duration of the protests. Rusty Thomas, who is the director of Operation Save America, told local newspaper the Courier Journal that they were hoping to have the “first abortion-free state in the United States of America”, and that their presence outside the clinic was not a demonstration, but rather a “church service at the gates of hell”.

Kentucky is now one of seven states that have only one remaining abortion clinic, and local activists are fighting to keep it in operation.

Escorts stand with their backs to anti-abortion activists. Photo from website for Louisville abortion clinic centre escorts, Every Saturday Morning.

“The protesters know our names. They can be abusive”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Christine, a volunteer escort at the clinic who walks people from the pavement up to the front door and shields them as much as possible from the barrage of insults that come their way by talking to them and distracting them. She asked to remain anonymous for this article.

The EMW Clinic is the only and last abortion clinic in the state of Kentucky [in 1978, the state had 17 abortion providers. By 2014, that was reduced to only three]. It has been carrying out abortions safely for over 20 years. People can drive six hours just to get there. I don’t think people should be bullied for going to the doctor for any reason. As escorts we can’t stop it happening, but we can ask them if they would like someone to walk with them, and if they say no, we respect that. We’re not security guards.

Escorts stand with their backs to anti-abortion activists. Photo from website for Louisville abortion clinic centre escorts, Every Saturday Morning.

I have been volunteering for four years. We all do it around our schedule. For instance, I have to leave to go to work right after the doors to the clinic open and all patients have been walked in. So we leave once everyone is in, but when the patients are leaving, there will still be people harassing them.

The protesters are there all the time. They know our names; they can be kind of abusive. But we just have to stay focused on the client. The protesters are irrelevant.

The protesters are trying to stigmatise abortion – shame is a huge part of it. They’ll say: “We’re glad you’re afraid, we’re glad you’re upset." When I’m walking with clients I’ll be chatting with them about something banal like traffic or the weather to get their mind off it.

Every day there will be protesters who shove and push, or don’t respect a person’s personal space, but so far there hasn’t been anything really violent. But the tension is high.

The hostile environment around the EMW Center is representative of an uptick in anti-abortion protests nationwide. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) has tracked disruption and harassment at abortion providers since 1977, and according to research published in 2016, there has been an increase in “a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats”. It also notes an “escalation” in Internet harassment and hate speech, particularly after the November 2016 presidential election.

An “unapologetically pro-life” state governor

Coupled with these daily protests are a concerted effort by Kentucky’s governor Matt Bevin — who describes himself as “unapologetically pro-life” — to squeeze out measures that facilitate abortion.

In January this year, the state legislature approved two bills that make ultrasounds obligatory and restrict abortion after 20 weeks. In April, the EMW Center was almost forced to close after the state warned that it would revoke the clinic’s licensing for having inadequate transfer agreements between the clinic and a hospital in the case of an emergency – although those same agreements were approved by the state in 2016. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the centre fought to show that this threat was unconstitutional. And although the centre was granted permission to stay open by a federal court, the case is not yet closed, and the battle is far from over.

Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist