A woman in her mid-twenties traipses through a layer of freshly fallen snow on her way to Planned Parenthood at Division and LaSalle Streets on the Near North Side. It’s shortly after 9:30am on the Saturday before Christmas, and from a block away she can hear the off-key tones of pro-life advocates joined in song. They’re caroling “Away in a Manger” while standing over a wooden crib, sans baby Jesus, from a large-scale nativity scene. (It “symbolizes the hope that new life can bring as well as the emptiness left behind when an unborn child is killed by abortion,” reads a flyer for the event, the Pro-Life Action League’s seventh annual traveling Empty Manger Christmas Caroling Day.)
As the woman approaches the clinic, the singing grows louder and more fervent: “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care / And take us to heaven, to live with thee there.” Some of the demonstrators hold signs: MARY CHOSE THE BLESSING OF A CHILD. WON’T YOU? and ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS AN END TO ABORTION.
She feels 30 pairs of eyes intensely focused on her. But then she spots a friendly-looking face in front of the doorway—he’s wearing a neon-green vest emblazoned with PLANNED PARENTHOOD VOLUNTEER. “Good morning,” Zach Burgess says cheerily, opening the door of the clinic. He helps buzz her in before heading back out into the bone-chilling cold.
Most abortions at Planned Parenthood are performed on Saturdays. The right-to-lifers know this, of course, so they come to exhibit their disgust. In turn, Saturdays are also when 28-year-old Burgess wakes with the sun to volunteer as a clinic escort. An alternate name for the position might be bouncer: He and four others usher patients in, while keeping the sidewalk protesters outside.
In October, the City Council passed a “bubble zone” ordinance, creating an eight-foot-wide protester buffer around anyone within 50 feet of a medical facility. But antiabortion demonstrators constantly test the new rule. “It’s silly, it’s no doubt unconstitutional, and it’s un-American,” Ann Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League tells us as she hops in her minivan—the one with the KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS bumper sticker—to load up the manger and carolers and drive to the next clinic. Earlier, a frustrated escort called the police on a group of sign wavers who set up shop too close to the front door.
Burgess and the escorts keep the peace without actively acknowledging the protesters. “They make jokes that we’re like the British guards outside Buckingham Palace,” he says. “If we engage the demonstrators, then we’re making it a more hostile environment that the patient has to walk through.”
Volunteering here puts Burgess on the front line of one of the country’s most hotly debated issues: reproductive rights. The desire to be involved in this pro-life versus pro-choice passion play drew the Salt Lake City native to Planned Parenthood six years ago, when the Stanford grad and former Mormon enrolled in the nurse-practitioner program at UIC. “I wanted to do something that was political and volunteering at the same time,” he says. “There are so many things that affect the front sidewalk of health clinics in America, and I’m right there dealing with it.”
Namely, Burgess deals with a menagerie of people he describes as “almost comical.” “Everything the protesters do is to try to get the attention of the patients,” he says, “so they employ a lot of crazy strategies.” On the day of the Empty Manger protest, a slight, elderly woman sprays holy water from a plastic bottle along the base of the building she refers to as “the killing center.” Some protesters distribute hand-knit baby booties to passersby. Others pass out tiny plastic babies, telling women entering the clinic, “This is your fetus.” One man prays the Hail Mary aloud again and again for 30 minutes.
“Sometimes,” Burgess says, “you’ll even see someone dressed like a doctor come up and interlock the arm of a patient and start giving them unsolicited medical advice about all the harm they’re doing to their body.”
And then there are the pro-life pamphlets, which are often rife with misinformation. “The funniest one said people taking the pill are more likely to die of an accidental death and are more likely to get divorced,” Burgess says with a chuckle.
When the protesters run out of patients or passersby to target, they sometimes turn their efforts toward the escorts. “I’ve been told I’m going to hell more times than I can count,” he says. A priest on the picket line once asked him, “Would you be standing outside of Auschwitz when they were bringing Jews in?”
“When you’re escorting alone and a couple people are just digging into you for three hours,” Burgess says, “it starts to wear you down.” Although he tries not to “villainize” the demonstrators, he admits he struggled to maintain his stoicism after Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller was shot to death, allegedly by an antiabortion activist, at his church last May. After Tiller’s death, Burgess overheard demonstrators praying “for the people who were arrested in the cause of stopping abortion.”
Still, Burgess says he keeps Tiller’s assassination and the 1994 murder of escort James Barrett outside a Florida clinic in the back of his mind during his shift. “Those incidents actually compel me to volunteer more,” he says. “They embolden me.”