A day in the life protecting the sole abortion clinic in a South Texas community

This is part three of three from our series A breakdown of ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ in the Rio Grande Valley. To read more and view the rest of the series, click here

Whole Woman’s Health, the Rio Grande Valley’s only reproductive health center offering abortion care, stands on the corner of Main Street and Houston Avenue at the southern edge of McAllen’s bustling downtown shopping district. Every morning, like dozens of other clinics across Texas and the rest of the country, it is greeted by a familiar, albeit unwelcome, sight: anti-abortion protesters. Although they stand out as they flank the clinic, they are not the only constant presence at the clinic. Behind the wooden fence on the west side of the clinic, there is another group of people: the volunteers of South Texans for Reproductive Justice.

Every morning, they show up, ready to escort patients and determined to ensure their safety and privacy. I spent two days in early August at Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen to see for myself what a day in the life of a clinic escort is like in the densely Catholic, majority Latinx city in south central Hidalgo County. Here is what I learned.

Downtown McAllen is fully alive and booming by 7 AM. Cars that have just exited the highway zoom down Main Street. Public transport carries locals to work. People cycling to their jobs hop on and off sidewalks and weave the unforgiving streets of the bicycle-unfriendly city.

An anti-abortion sign in the empty lot next to Whole Woman’s Health, property of the medical clinic next door | Photo by Frank Segovia

On any given morning, one might spot an all-white single-deck bus barreling down Houston Avenue. These buses, with their iron-meshed windows tinted to opacity and “GEO Transport” written on the side, are carrying immigrant detainees to their hearings at Bentsen Tower. The federal building looms over McAllen less than a mile from Whole Woman’s Health and is also the site of many protests, most recently against the Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policies which have led to the separation of countless refugee parents and children.

Outside of Whole Woman’s Health, on the building’s North-facing wall, a beautiful and brightly pigmented mural depicts a journey of several brown-skinned women from anguish to relief. Relief, perhaps, of being able to enact their own bodily autonomy. The powerful and hopeful mural was painted in the summer of 2015 by local Donna artist Corina Carmona. In downtown McAllen, it stands in stark contrast, hopeful resistance even, to the realities unfolding to many within the area.

From the self-proclaimed sidewalk counselors to the yellers, a typical morning at Whole Woman’s Health

Most weekdays, the clinic’s hired security guard, Rey, arrives at Whole Woman’s Health before anyone else. A metal workstation fan hanging from the clinic fence blows cool air at a lawn chair outfitted with a side table and umbrella stand. Rey stands nearby, scanning the property for patients or protestors.

However, Rey isn’t alone, even at this early hour. In front of the clinic, five to 10 people have already gathered with signs. One sign is an enlarged image of the Virgin Mary. Another reads “STOP KILLING BABIES.” In the alley behind the clinic stands the founder of McAllen Pregnancy Center (MPC), Yolanda Chapa, and a volunteer for the crisis pregnancy center.

Protesters sometimes bring children to the clinic and tell them that babies are being killed inside | Photo by Melissa Arjona

For a decade, McAllen Pregnancy Center has been sending disruptive and aggressive self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” to Whole Woman’s Health property to interfere verbally and physically with anyone seeking abortion care.

Of course, not all of the anti-abortion protesters present are directly from the McAllen Pregnancy Center. Many are from the “pro-life” ministries of their churches, which communicate and coordinate with MPC.

The owner of local restaurant Gumbo’s Deli paces the alley behind Whole Woman’s Health with MPC pamphlets in his coat pocket | Photo by Melissa Arjona

As patients arrive, Rey directs them to park on Whole Woman’s Health property and walks them inside.

Melissa Arjona and Amanda Garza, a pseudonym to keep the clinic escort’s identity confidential, are the first clinic escorts to arrive. Together, they run South Texans for Reproductive Justice, a group of about 15 volunteers that rotate escort duty every weekend.

The women have their essentials for the day: umbrellas, bug spray, a portable speaker to drown out shouting protesters and a good self-pep-talk.

“I sit in the car for ten minutes before I actually get down. I’m like, you can do this.” Garza expressed that she doesn’t necessarily want to be at the clinic, but she feels the work that clinic escorts do is indispensable.

The umbrellas are not only to protect the escorts from the blaring sun (temperatures on the days I visited reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit) but also to afford patients some privacy. According to clinic escorts, religious intimidators have in the past recorded patients’ faces, even placing their phones underneath umbrellas when these have been taken out.

Clinic harassers don’t just terrorize patients with the threat of making their faces public; according to escorts, men regularly also approach patients, bring their faces only inches from the patient’s, and proceed to tell them that abortion is murder and a variety of medical untruths. All while maintaining a threatening stance.

When escorts aren’t there

When the parking lot on Whole Woman’s Health property is full, patients must park a tenth of a mile away. The rented parking lot is vulnerable to trespassing by anti-abortion protesters since it’s out of view from clinic staff.

Whenever clinic escorts have posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs at this parking lot, they are quickly taken down, usually in the same day and likely by the anti-abortion protesters that have been caught in the parking lot, according to escorts (although none have actually been seen removing the signs).

A woman, who is not a nurse, wearing McAllen Pregnancy Center scrubs in the remote Whole Woman’s Health parking lot | Photo by Melissa Arjona

If they are not around, clinic escorts say that the anti-abortion harassers feel free to do as they please. That typically means patients will be surrounded by a group of protesters frantically praying and begging the patient not to have an abortion, all the way to Whole Woman’s Health property. It can be a lot to endure. Patients will sometimes cling to escort’s arms, cry, or scream back at protestors. When escorts aren’t there, it’s hard to know exactly what goes on.

According to videos shown to Neta by South Texans for Reproductive Justice, the protesters’ attempts at dissuasion include phrases like: “Please don’t kill your baby”; “You will feel guilty forever”; “[The clinic staff] doesn’t care about you”; “Abortion causes depression and suicide”; and “I’ll adopt your baby,” among others.

Protesters sometimes bring children to the clinic and tell them that babies are being killed inside | Photo by Melissa Arjona

However, the most successful way to get a patient to temporarily go to McAllen Pregnancy Center instead of Whole Woman’s Health seems to be by lying and telling patients they must visit a different clinic for their first appointment.

Soon, McAllen Pregnancy Center will move from their location two blocks east of Whole Woman’s Health to a building only 180 feet from the clinic. That move will increase the intensity and frequency of harassment at Whole Woman’s Health, Ray said: “Yolanda used to say ‘get in my car, I’ll take you [to the McAllen Pregnancy Center].’ Now she’ll be able to walk them over.”

McAllen Pregnancy Center founder Yolanda Chapa and a volunteer in the alley behind Whole Woman’s Health. Yolanda is shouting at a patient walking into the clinic | Photo by Melissa Arjona

Fighting for Privacy and Dignity Despite Official Indifference

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, created in response to pro-life violence and murder, is supposed to protect patients and staff from this kind of disruption.

Local clinic harassers, some who impersonate medical personnel, regularly violate city ordinances and even federal law by disrupting sidewalks and alleys and blocking cars from entering the parking lot with their bodies. According to clinic escorts, there have also been instances where anti-abortion protesters have shoved clinic staff and stomped on volunteers’ feet. McAllen Police Department and City of McAllen, however, have never actually arrested an anti-abortion protester despite numerous reports of verbal and physical violence. The City’s code enforcement department is equally unhelpful.

“When code enforcement finally arrives, it’s been two hours, and the protesters are gone. They [code enforcement officers] refuse to look at videos we take. They say they have to actually see it happen. It’s their favorite thing to say,” Garza said.

Arjona recounted a time when a man wearing what looked like a police badge on a neck hanger stood in front of a car trying to enter Whole Woman’s Health property, a federal offense: “When the police arrived, they greeted protesters like familiars, they showed up and shook the guy’s hand and even said ‘hey brother.’”

Neta was able to confirm the identity of the man as Ricardo Garcia, 44, who was arrested in McAllen in 1998 and charged with falsely identifying as a police officer.

Clinic escorts say Garcia returned the next day and bragged to them that McAllen police did nothing to him.