Orlando abortion clinic escorts stand guard as Florida's six-week ban looms

With reproductive rights under attack, one volunteer group has committed itself to standing up to anti-choice propaganda outside an Orlando abortion clinic

click to enlarge Volunteer clinic escorts and clinic defense with Stand With Abortion Now outside an Orlando abortion clinic. - SWAN
SWAN
Volunteer clinic escorts and clinic defense with Stand With Abortion Now outside an Orlando abortion clinic.

Less than 12 hours after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law, a small group of volunteer clinic escorts stood guard outside one of Orlando’s only private abortion clinics, where protesters gather daily to harass patients (they call it "help").

It’s a Friday morning. It’s a little after 9 a.m. and the air is already hot and muggy, courtesy of Florida’s April showers. An Orlando Police Department cruiser with rainbow accents, designed to honor the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that occurred just a mile away, sits parked in front of the clinic.

The Center of Orlando for Women is one of the few remaining options that Floridians — and the thousands of Americans who travel to Florida from out of state for care — have for getting an abortion.

This has made it both a haven for abortion access across the South, and a target.

John Barros, a “pro-life” Evangelist who’s protested outside the Center for 20 years, stands in front of the small clinic on Friday, on the public sidewalk, as he does every weekday.

Clutching a pair of crutches, John clasps his hands around his mouth, shouting messages towards the clinic doors that range from offers of assistance to patients inside (“We’ll do anything for you”) to harping on the “horrors” of abortion.

This is his “yell,” said Betty, a volunteer clinic escort and founder of the group Stand With Abortion Now, or SWAN, who spoke with Orlando Weekly.

Barros, or one of his other fellow protesters, do the “yell” each time a wave of patients arrives for their appointments — at least once in the morning and once in the early afternoon, according to Betty.

Generally, this “yell” consists of about how abortion is wrong, that those seeking care from the clinic have other options, and that God wouldn’t approve. Some protesters are more aggressive, shouting that those inside (and the escorts outside) are "murderers."

But on Friday morning, ABBA’s jaunty tune “Waterloo” plays over loudspeakers on the clinic’s private property as John does his morning yell.

Over the course of the morning, Madonna’s classic “Like a Virgin” and Cardi B’s iconic “WAP” featuring Megan Thee Stallion also play over the speakers.

The music, set up by SWAN with the clinic's consent, isn't loud enough to disrupt the small clinic’s neighboring medical offices in a business park just south of downtown Orlando.

But it’s enough to drown out the anti-abortion protesters shouting at the patients who, with varying degrees of confidence, walk in and out of the clinic’s doors.

And those patients aren’t alone.

Volunteers with SWAN, or “SWANs,” as they call themselves, act as clinic escorts and clinic defenders. They take on the task of guiding patients to and from the clinic wherever they’re coming from.

Some patients are dropped off for their appointments out front. Some patients park in a lot behind the small building, and some walk up to the clinic from public transit.

The SWANs, often clad in neon pink vests, accompany patients or walk beside them as they approach the clinic, using umbrellas to shield patients’ faces from protesters.

“One of the things that the anti protesters will do is they will take pictures of everyone coming in and out of the clinic,” Tanya, a SWAN volunteer, told Orlando Weekly. Some of the more “prolific” photographers, she added, will post patients’ faces on their “very open, very public” social media.

click to enlarge A clinic escort (left) blocks an anti-abortion protestor (right) from filming a patient walking toward an Orlando abortion clinic. April 15, 2023. - McKenna Schueler
McKenna Schueler
A clinic escort (left) blocks an anti-abortion protestor (right) from filming a patient walking toward an Orlando abortion clinic. April 15, 2023.

Anne, an anti-choice protester outside the clinic Saturday, wears a recording device that rests on her chest.

But they’re not the only ones who see social media as a useful tool.

Each day the clinic’s open, SWANs show up in shifts to shield patients, offer emotional support as necessary, and to blast protesters’ antics on their TikTok account, which has amassed over 240,000 followers and 15.3 million video “likes.”

On the platform, they’ve created a playlist for videos featuring Barros, who they refer to simply as “John,” and for some of the other “anti’s” (shorthand for anti-abortion protesters) who regularly show up to the clinic, including some folks who travel from outside Orlando.

The activist group’s videos ridicule the protesters and document the group’s interactions with them.

“Daddy Jesus! Give it to us now so that we can harass strangers about their healthcare choices, while we actively vote against benefits for children, benefits for teachers, benefits for parents,” Betty, the group’s founder, cries facetiously in one video, kneeling beside a group of white, praying anti-abortion protesters, wielding a rainbow umbrella.

Their videos showcase the SWANs’ use of musical instruments, bubble-makers, costumes and other creative responses to not only deter and distract clinic protesters, but to also create a less scary situation for clinic patients.

“[We’re] fighting absurdity with absurdity,” Casey, a SWAN, told Orlando Weekly. “It’s insane that these people are out here every single day trying to harass these patients.”

While seemingly silly and lighthearted on its face — the protesters call the SWANs “carnies” — the group says their unconventional approach helps make themselves (and the clinic) more approachable for patients. Literally.

It can also help dial down the intensity of the situation for patients who might otherwise face unguarded harassment from protesters, who are known to confront patients in their vehicles and stalk them up until they reach the clinic’s private property.

“It is very serious work,” Lily, another SWAN, asserted. “It is life-changing for some people, and it is life-threatening for others.”

“It is very serious work,” said Lily, one volunteer with SWAN. “It is life changing for some people, and it is life-threatening for others.”

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Incidents of assault and battery outside abortion clinics — including kicking, shoving, slapping and other physical altercations — have risen over the years, from 15 reported incidents in 2018 to 123 in 2021, according to a report from the National Abortion Federation.

Clinic staff and escorts at a Clearwater abortion clinic earlier this year asked their local city council for help, telling the Tampa Bay Times they’ve seen increased hostility from protesters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision last year.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has also reported a surge in harassment of abortion clinics, highlighting a tumultuous journey faced by the owner of a clinic in Jacksonville.

A federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, makes it illegal to block the entryway of an abortion clinic, and to trespass or threaten violence. But the 1994 law doesn't block protesters from holding up graphic anti-abortion signs, or shouting outside of a clinic.

It’s not a safe (or paid) job, showing up to help protect patients from harassment.

One of the anti-choice protesters, according to SWAN member Winnie, has brought her own gun.

The clinic itself hires off-duty cops a couple days per week to keep an eye on things, to stand guard, and intervene if the protesters cross onto clinic property.

Orlando Police officer “Danny” Torres on Friday walks the perimeter of the property, out front and in the back, where the parking lot is located, to make sure protesters don’t trespass onto the clinic’s private property to harass patients who are out of sight.

click to enlarge Orlando Police Department Pulse police cruiser sits parked outside of Orlando abortion clinic - McKenna Schueler
McKenna Schueler
Orlando Police Department Pulse police cruiser sits parked outside of Orlando abortion clinic

For the SWANs, being there for patients who are seeking medical services from the Center (abortion care or not), and documenting what they see from protesters online, is important to them — and they hear as much from their followers as well.

“Our content is definitely revolutionary in the sense that it shows people that we don't have to be polite or play by the rules anymore,” said Stella, who focuses on SWAN’s social media. “We have to sort of expose the rising fascism in Florida and the United States for what it really is. And being polite hasn't really gotten us anywhere.”

Adopting a brand of ‘revolutionary optimism’

Stand With Abortion Now is a grass-roots, volunteer-based group that first emerged in 2022.

Adopting a brand of "revolutionary optimism," the group currently has about 50 volunteers, according to a leadership committee of six volunteers that Orlando Weekly spoke to.

They have folks outside the clinic every day it’s open, from the time that the first patient pulls into the clinic’s driveway (if they drive themselves) to the departure of the clinic’s final surgical patient in the afternoon.

But they still consider their group scrappy. Scrappy, but determined.

And it started with the fall of Roe on June 24, 2022.

“I just started shaking,” shared Betty, the group’s founder. “I was angry. I was furious.”

She didn’t want to stew in her rage, or just sit in her house crying. She wanted to do something about it, to fight the vitriol of those who would rather see abortion care fully abolished.

She Googled her nearest abortion clinic, where John — and other protesters — had become regular fixtures.

The clinic staff told her they’d never had any clinic escorts outside, so it was usually just the protesters gathered out there.

At first, it was just Betty, who had no prior experience as a clinic escort. She quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. It was too much for one person.

She connected with other now-SWANs who similarly wanted to have some productive way to channel their inner turmoil — their fear, their rage.

And she made a TikTok video — which is how Casey found SWAN.

click to enlarge A group of volunteer clinic escorts, "SWANs," protect abortion clinic patients from harrassment - SWAN
SWAN
A group of volunteer clinic escorts, "SWANs," protect abortion clinic patients from harrassment

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Casey shared, as an advocate for abortion rights.

She applied to volunteer for Planned Parenthood, which also runs a clinic escort program, but never heard back.

And, the group admits, SWAN’s approach to escorting is different.

“[We’re] fighting absurdity with absurdity,” Casey, a SWAN, told Orlando Weekly. “It’s insane that these people are out here every single day trying to harass these patients.”

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Unlike Planned Parenthood, which adopts a strictly non-confrontational approach toward protesters, SWAN will directly engage with those who try to harass clinic patients.

They’ll talk to the protesters, aiming to gauge the safety level, with a goal of distraction or de-escalation as necessary. “And then, two minutes later, we’ll be doing the escort role, and protecting patients’ privacy and covering their faces,” said Winnie.

The group, which identifies as “explicitly anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-LGBTQ, and class conscious,” communicates with other volunteer clinic escort groups in neighboring parts of the state, such as the Umbrella Brigade and Swan City Defenders, both in Lakeland, and the Women’s Advocacy Movement in Pinellas County.

They share tips. Resources. But they also share some of the same protesters, who travel around to various abortion clinics across Florida.

Olivia, 27, was one of the anti-abortion protesters outside of the Orlando clinic the day after Florida’s latest abortion restrictions were signed into law.

She told Orlando Weekly she’s gone out there for four years now, and is there two days a week, in-between full-time work that she did not disclose.

“We’re out here offering women help,” she said, adding that they offer women free financial help, free medical care, “anything that they can need through the duration and after their pregnancies.”

When Orlando Weekly asked how they get women this “free help,” Olivia said they direct women to a local crisis pregnancy center.

Crisis pregnancy centers are fake abortion clinics, sometimes called pregnancy resource centers. They’re generally run by Christian nonprofits, with the aim of persuading people against seeking to end a pregnancy (although they’re often mistaken for real abortion clinics), using manipulative tactics.

In Florida, CPCs also receive millions of dollars in state taxpayer funds alone, and will receive $25 million more when and if Florida’s new abortion law goes into effect.

At this time, that law’s effective date is contingent upon the outcome of a lawsuit filed by abortion providers and advocacy groups concerning Florida’s 15-week abortion limit, passed in 2022.

It’s unclear when a ruling on that will be made, but it’s expected to be sometime after the state’s 2023 legislative session, which concludes May 5.

Reproductive rights advocates have characterized the law as a full-out ban on abortion, since no one really knows they're pregnant at six weeks.

“This new ban is beyond radical, it’s extreme,” Orlando Rep. Rita Harris stated emphatically, in front of the Florida House before the law’s passage. "There are people in this state right now that don’t even know they are pregnant. They don’t know right at this very minute while I stand here before you that there is a complication. This is a death sentence for them.”

The bill includes exemptions for victims of rape and incest up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, provided they can present fully documented evidence of their trauma.

Minors in Florida already face additional barriers to care, and a separate law — mandating that a person seeking abortion see a doctor twice, at least 24 hours apart — makes the notion of accessing safe, legal abortion care within six weeks an even greater impossibility.

The Orlando clinic itself is facing hefty fines from the state for allegedly performing same-day abortions against state law.

But these restrictions to abortion access aren’t uniquely Floridian.

According to the New York Times, most abortions are now banned in 13 states, post-Roe. Four states have gestational limits, and eight states have had abortion bans blocked. Dark money and political influence is behind a national movement to abolish abortion care altogether.

The state of Florida, home to over 50 abortion clinics, has long been a safe haven for abortion care in the South, with neighboring states historically having even stricter restrictions in place. Florida's new restrictions, however, could threaten that if and when they do go into effect.

Betty, SWAN’s founder, told Orlando Weekly she wasn’t surprised by the six-week ban’s passage in Florida. Anyone who was surprised, she said, “hasn’t been paying attention.”

Braving what the future holds together

Clinic staff, according to SWAN, have grown to appreciate their presence — and that’s part of what keeps the volunteers going.

On Saturdays, the Orlando abortion clinic’s staff wear pink “SWAN” shirts, according to Winnie.

“They are so overwhelmingly kind to us,” she said.

Casey shared that, before the SWANs, the clinic had to deal with protesters alone.

click to enlarge Volunteer with SWAN (left) mocks "yell" of anti-abortion protestor John (right) outside of Orlando abortion clinic. - SWAN
SWAN
Volunteer with SWAN (left) mocks "yell" of anti-abortion protestor John (right) outside of Orlando abortion clinic.

“They don't have to deal with the death threats, or the bomb threats, or the gun threats, or any of that stuff alone anymore,” she said.

Now, they “share the chaos,” in Casey’s words.

Clinic staff declined to comment for this story when a reporter visited their property Friday. Orlando Weekly  also called the Center of Orlando for Women clinic three times for comment on this story, without a response from anyone comfortable speaking to the media in time for publication. (Any response received will be added here.)

On June 24, the one-year anniversary of the group’s founding (as well as one year since the fall of Roe), SWAN is planning to host a carnival-themed birthday/fundraiser of sorts at Redlight Redlight, to celebrate their work and to highlight the abortion clinic’s staff.

“We’re really excited to like, kind of rally that support and show them that the community is really behind them,” said Winnie.

While the fate of abortion clinics in Florida (even those that offer other services) is unclear, SWAN’s leadership committee said they’re not going anywhere.

“We have made a commitment to fighting for abortion access and abortion rights in this state and beyond,” said Tanya. “We will do whatever it takes to get people to the care that they need, whether it's in the state or outside of it.”

Similar to groups like the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund and Florida Access Network, SWAN has also gained funding from generous donors (they thank their massive TikTok fanbase for that) and have used some of that to help people pay for their abortion procedures.

Their social media fans have asked if the SWANs will move upstate if abortion clinics shutter, but the SWANs aren't ready to jump ship.

“Even with being in a battleground state, we're definitely going to continue to fight for our community where we are,” said Stella. “SWAN is not leaving Florida.”

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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