Paula Harris was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, where she went to college and where she was involved in community issues in the East New York neighborhood before moving to Pittsburgh in 1980. Paula has been a paralegal for over 35 years; since 2008, she has worked on death penalty cases at the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Paula began escorting at two abortion clinics in December 1992, when her younger son was 7 years old. She started at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center (ARHC) in East Liberty and Women’s Health Services (WHS) downtown. After a couple of years, she became an escort coordinator, the person in charge of the day on the street. The WHS merged with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania (PPWP) over a decade ago, and since then, Paula has divided her Saturday mornings between AHRC and PPWP. Paula is also a long-standing Board member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pennsylvania ACLU, where she serves as secretary of the Executive Board and a member of the Public Education and Diversity committees.
1. Why did you first start escorting? What has motivated you to continue for so many years?
PH: I grew up before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal again. I had college friends who had to undergo “back alley” abortions in the late 1960’s and very early 1970’s at great risk to their lives. Once Roe became the law of the land, women’s clinics became a primary target of those opposed to the court’s ruling. I knew of protests at clinics but had no idea they were occurring in my city. A woman with whom I’d been friendly for a couple of years asked me to join her one Saturday morning while she was escorting. She thought that it was something that not only would be important for me but that I could do successfully. It was a rainy cold day in December and I was trained right on the spot. That morning I quickly recognized that escorting spoke not only to my sense of fairness but to my deep concerns about women’s rights. That was 1992 and I’ve been escorting ever since. That I’ve continued to escort is a sad comment on the state of women’s status in this country. My preference, and I believe the preference of the escorts I volunteer with, is to have women enter and leave their doctor’s offices as anonymously as they go to the supermarket or the gym. Many women go through a lot after making a decision to have an abortion. They must decide whether to tell their family and friends, find someone to accompany them, find a clinic, get to and from the clinic, and have the resources to pay for the procedure. Then there’s the recovery and afterwards. The escorts have seen themselves as a part of that process in our own determination to make sure that women can physically get access to the clinics. My admiration and respect for the patients is a huge part of why I continue to escort.
2. Describe the protester activity in Pittsburgh before the buffer zone was created. Did it change over time?
PH: Before we had the buffer zone, protesters could and did walk with the patient up to the door of the clinic and very often just stay there, standing near the escort who was at the door. The area around the door would be congested, with protesters crowding around for one last word with the patient. Many times protesters would open the door of the clinic and shout inside before running off. I have had to physically keep the door closed by putting my full weight against it. Sometimes the protestors attempted to physically intimidate patients and their companions which resulted in heated and occasionally dangerous situations. With as many as several hundred protesters at the clinics, the whole situation on the street was chaotic and created a public safety issue. Pedestrians found it difficult to walk down the street, trying to get past the clinics, without getting caught up in the crowd. The Pittsburgh Police Department assigned two officers to the downtown clinic on Saturday mornings but after several years they were withdrawn due to budget concerns and, while they were available to come if the clinic called, their non-presence exacerbated the tensions on the street. Many patients would enter the clinics crying after confronted with words and signs meant to intimidate and threaten them.
3. What has been the impact of the buffer zone since 2005?
PH: The buffer zone has almost completely reduced the physical tensions on the street. No one is allowed to patrol, picket, or congregate within 15 feet of the clinic door, including demonstrators, clinic staff, and volunteer escorts. It allows the patient a small area where she can take a deep breath, free from the physical presence of someone trying to convince her to change her mind. Pedestrians can easily navigate the sidewalk in front of the clinics as they walk through the buffer zone. The protesters continue to carry their signs and approach patients as they walk down the street to the clinic. It is still easy to hear them from the doorway of the clinic, and even inside the clinic, from 15 feet. But the buffer zone does a great job of preserving public safety, protecting the patient, and upholding the First Amendment rights of the protesters. Even with the lawsuits filed by the protesters, they have come to accept that its real, legal, and that they have to live with it.
4. What challenges still remain in Pittsburgh for patients and employees seeking to enter an abortion clinic without harassment?
PH: Other than the 15 foot buffer zone in front of the clinic doors, the situation on the street remains the same. From the beginning of the buffer zone to the clinic door is about five steps, traversed in seconds. Patients still need to walk past protesters and their signs, still hear their words, still have literature thrust at them as they walk to the clinic. Clinic staff are told that their jobs are hurting women and are implored to quit and get real employment and the escorts are called murderers and Auschwitz guards. Many of the challenges remain but the physical tensions on the street have been reduced, the police are called less often, and the patients feel safer.
5. We are so grateful for all you have done to ensure people have safe passage into clinics in your community. Can you tell us a story e from your years of volunteering that demonstrates the importance of clinic escorts?
PH: We are with patients for about 30-45 seconds while we escort them to the clinic door. We don’t know their names or where they’ve come from and will never see them again. The clinic staff often convey to us the thanks of patients we have escorted to the clinic. Many say that they would have turned back if we weren’t there. But occasionally there is a unique opportunity to get to know them. Sometimes a patient needs transportation to and from the clinic and I have picked them up from their homes and taken them back. These are the only times that I have gotten a chance to talk to them and get to know them a bit. One time I drove a patient, a minor who was a victim of rape, to her home a couple of hours outside Pittsburgh during a snow storm. I got into a conversation with her mother, who accompanied her. They lived in public housing and the mother had had a difficult time getting the money together for the abortion, even though she had a job in a nursing home. Here was a woman who was fiercely dedicated to her daughter, and even though she worked, had to scrape together the money to help give her child a future. Talking with her made me angry at the unfairness of the situation and made me think about the connection between reproductive rights, economic inequality, and the need for medical access. It was a searing reminder of why I escort.