the end of Bronx Abortion

Bronx Abortion was a little clinic. Open one, maybe two days a week, and providing only abortion care, its footprint was relatively small. About a thousand patients a year. Bronx abortion was a pre-Roe clinic. According to longtime manager Irene, it opened in the three years between New York decriminalizing abortion and the Supreme Court’s issuing of Roe v. Wade. Bronx Abortion was also a post-Roe clinic. Situated in well-protected New York, it continued to see patients after the Dobbs gutted abortion protections nationwide.

Bronx Abortion is gone.

Clinic escorts and patients alike arrived on January 7th to find the clinic closed. Two days later we learned that the clinic manager had passed away. Suddenly and unexpectedly. In addition to leaving us broken-hearted, it left the future of the clinic in a state of uncertainty. The following weeks laid bare how central Irene was to Bronx Abortion opening its doors every Saturday. She knit together a precarious system of staffing and resources to sustain services. The owner, a long-retired provider, was ready to sell. Staff members weren’t eager to continue on without Irene’s support and advocacy. Escorts began tapping into our communities and encouraged local providers to expand services with the purchase of the building. A New York clinic seriously considered only to determine that it would be too costly to upgrade our wee pre-Roe clinic. While we explored next steps, the owner accepted an offer for the building. He insisted he wanted the building to remain an abortion clinic. The new owners are in the building trades.

The number of patients per year may have been small but the place the clinic occupied within its community was substantial. While the health care industry divests from the Bronx, the clinic remained. Clinics matter to their local communities and they matter to the national landscape of abortion access. Across the country, 96% of abortions are provided at clinics, 60% at independent clinics like Bronx Abortion. Now, 22 million women live in states with total or near total bans on abortion (this is how the data is reported, rather than for all people with uteri). We knew this was coming. We KNEW that a court with three Trump appointees would gut Roe the moment they could. And we knew what that would mean in states like Idaho and Oklahoma where trigger bans and zombie laws made clear what was to come. But the loss of Bronx Abortion was so unexpected. Perhaps naively so. And it is a worrisome lesson as to the precarity of abortion access. New York is one of ten states with expanded protections in place. These states are likely to serve more and more out of state patients as abortion bans worsen. Access faltering in one state affects access nationwide. How many clinics are one or two aging staff members or an apathetic owner away from closing?

Escorts have lost our clinic.

Having had some time to mourn the loss of Irene, we pivot to mourning the loss of Bronx Abortion. And it does feel like a death we need to mourn. Escorts tend to be external to their clinics, physically and organizationally. But we also tend to be very attached to our particular clinics. We build our volunteer programs around the needs of this one entity and commit ourselves fully to ensuring access to that specific space. There is also a deep trust that develops between escorts and clinic staff as we collaborate in the choreography of abortion from start to finish. Our shared purpose is strengthened by constant threat under which we collaborate.

This partnership with Bronx Abortion began roughly six years ago when anti-abortion protestors reappeared outside the clinic’s front door. Since then, by conservative estimates, nearly 300 people put on our clinic escort vests (first pink, then rainbow) and guided patients safely along the sidewalk and into the clinic. We staffed over 250 Saturdays and filled something like 1500 volunteer slots, beginning with just two or three escorts a weekend in the early years and reaching shifts of ten to twelve in periods of peak chaos. We explained to new escorts that there is no normal shift. Every weekend our situation was different – different team, antis, patient needs, weather, sidewalk vibes, you name it. But most always, we made abortion access a little bit easier for folks in the Bronx. Patients and companions. Thousands of them.

Patients navigated priests, friars, nuns, teenage missionaries, police, hoards of praying congregants, and protestors. The protestors. Calling themselves sidewalk counselors, these people blocked patients on the sidewalk, hung inside car windows and opened car doors, threw baby showers next to the clinic entrance, followed people to their cars shouting about abortion reversal, forced literature in hands and bags, filmed without consent, threatened damnation as well as femininity and masculinity. They lied and yelled and coerced, all in the name of God. Some patients laughed it off and once a companion literally twerked on an anti. More often patients registered confusion or fear. Sometimes that fear became paralyzing. That might mean a patient requesting that we fully encircle them from car to clinic. Other times it meant they didn’t keep their appointment.

As much as we love our escort community, we would all much rather have spent Saturday mornings cozy in our beds with visions of patients’ unobstructed abortion access dancing in our heads. The clinic opened at 7 a.m. and early morning weekend train service in New York rarely cooperates. Most of us had one to two hour commutes, depending on borough. When I lived in Queens, I had to leave home by 4:30am to guarantee I’d be to clinic on time (I gained an extra thirty minutes of sleep time when I moved to Brooklyn!). On freezing winter mornings we shoveled snow and packed our mittens with hand warmers. On humid summer mornings we trimmed the bamboo that bordered the side entrance and we picked up trash (and after a passer-by started throwing rocks at us, we collected those too). In the fall and spring we took in the changing seasons and watched the colony of black squirrels scramble through their aerial maze of tree branches and telephone poles. We watched as fire trucks, sanitation teams, parking enforcement officers, and police officers waved and honked in support of the protestors. For about a year, we had protestors onsite who tried to engage us directly with compliments, guilt, shame, racism, body-shaming, whatever they could think of. We trained for dangerous situations but rarely felt cause for alarm on the sidewalk. Aggravated and aggrieved, rage-filled and rage-fueled, sure. Mostly for the fear the protestors did raise in our patients.

It is a unique community, clinic escorts. Twice now I have built a home for myself from within such a community of abortion-loving clinic escorts. First in my early 20s in California and again in my early 40s in New York. At Bronx Abortion we came together from across just about every divide and boundary to support access. Different nations and states of origin, all ages, myriad career paths, maybe half the political spectrum… I am certain it is one of the few spaces where abortion creates unity rather than disrupts it. We put our safety in one another’s hands and tended to each other’s mental and emotional well-being, even when starting a shift as strangers. We strategized, intuited, and more often than not acted in seamless unison to limit protestors’ contact with patients. We vented and documented the behaviors of the antis and worried over the mounting momentum of the anti-abortion movement. In each of these moments our commitment to abortion access deepened. And in the spaces between, we fell a little bit in love with each other.

So now we mourn. For the loss of Irene. The loss of abortion access deep in the Bronx. And the loss of community that we constructed on a sidewalk in the Bronx for a few hours every weekend.

The story doesn’t end there, though. In a clear instance of the universe intervening on behalf of our broken spirits, the same week that brought us news of Bronx Abortion’s fate also brought a request to begin a new escort program at another clinic in the city. We are proceeding cautiously but it is likely that we are about to begin anew. We’ll reactivate our very large pool of escorts for Saturday shifts. Some will return and some won’t. As the years go on, more and more of the volunteers will only know Bronx Abortion from the stories we tell of those bygone days. We’ll support patients and reassure companions and exasperate antis. We’ll also fall a little bit in love with each new cohort of escorts who share our deep, unyielding commitment to abortion access. But for those of us who started at Bronx Abortion, there will always be a little ache for what was.

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