Book Review: ‘Bodies on the Line,’ by Lauren Rankin

Rankin, who spent years escorting at a clinic in New Jersey, charts the rise of this practice with evident admiration for the forerunners whose trials and errors shaped the tactics volunteers use today. The book is thick with testimonies from dozens of clinic escorts, but none of them stick around or stand out enough to give the text an emotional or narrative core. Details of the escorts’ histories run together, in part because their work is, by nature, repetitive. (Laws restricting abortion access vary by state, but anti-abortion protesters are a constant.)

With the great breadth of case studies she conveys, Rankin leaves little room to explore the thornier questions she glances past. Aside from blockades, which a federal law made illegal in 1994, these demonstrations can present a conflict between one constitutionally protected activity (speech) and another (abortion). Rankin implies that lawmakers should impose greater penalties and restrictions on demonstrators, but she never lays out exactly what the ideal set of laws would be, or how they would balance the competing rights of patients and protesters.

But “Bodies on the Line,” like clinic escorting, is primarily concerned with the personal side of abortion care. As volunteers wrap their bodies around a patient to shield her face from a protester’s camera, they are not thinking about the legislators who passed a law requiring her to make two separate appointments, 48 hours apart, for her procedure, in an effort to discourage her from following through. “It’s about responding, as a human being, to another human being’s needs,” Rankin writes — an act of service that recognizes reproductive health care “not as a caustic political fight but as a matter of human dignity.”

As Rankin acknowledges, the book comes at a critical moment for the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, as the Supreme Court prepares to hand down a decision on Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Given the court’s conservative majority, the justices may take the opportunity to gut Roe or overturn it completely. But “the law isn’t the beginning or the end of abortion access,” Rankin writes. The very need for clinic escort teams is a testament to the inability of current laws to secure safe, comfortable care for patients.

In an age of constitutional protections for abortion care, those limits are discouraging. When such protections are threatened, the knowledge that legal rights were just one chapter of the playbook can offer something like hope. In Texas, where a 2021 law compelled clinics to cease providing abortions after as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, organizations have raised money to help people travel out of state for later abortions. Clinic escorts are repurposing their skills by offering other services for those patients: hotel booking, airport pickups and a friendly face in a town far from home.

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