US clinics now provide escorts for patients attending women's centres to protect them from militant protesters, whose tactics now threaten to infiltrate the UK

It's not yet 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning in New York and I'm confronted by a group of people standing in front of a nondescript doorway, waving four-foot high placards and shouting: "They murder babies here!" There are already a dozen anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic and the day has barely started.

Here to act as an "escort" – ensuring patients, whether they are having abortions or not, enter the clinic safely – I already feel intimidated. So, imagine that you're a woman who has miscarried and someone shouts at you: "Carrying babies in your uterus is a gift from God"; or imagine simply going to the doctor and being told you're "going to hell". Imagine being an African-American woman on your way to a women's health clinic and being surrounded by people screaming: "They want to kill black babies."Can you imagine how upsetting and emotionally traumatising that is for patients?

To help these women, volunteer organisations have sprung up in the US to offer support. Once I'm inside the Choices Women's Medical Center in Queens, Mary Lou Greenberg, the volunteer clinic escort director, gives me guidelines about privacy (for safety, nobody refers to anyone else by name); instructions on how to escort (approach patients, gently inform them you're with the clinic and that you're there to guide them inside); and warnings about proximity (never stand in front of, or block, a patient's path; never have contact with a protester; protect the patient by acting as a buffer). I'm then handed a white medical coat (so as to be clearly visible to patients) and a big badge with "Choices Clinic Escort" on it. I feel like a walking target – I'm in the US, they have guns here. What if an anti-abortionist decided to let off a few rounds?

Eliza, another escort, reinforces my worry. "I am aware that there has been bad violence outside other clinics, that people have come in with guns, that people have died ... They say: 'The people in the white coats – they are butchers,' so if some guy is walking by and gets really angry, we're the ones who are going to get it."

I'm conscious that my fear is nothing compared to the women who have, in many cases, travelled great distances to attend the clinic and whose security and safety we have a duty to protect. When we go outside, we escorts – a mixture of women and men between 20 and 60 years old, from a variety of backgrounds and professions – are outnumbered by protesters. The clinic regularly faces over 40 protesters a day.

Until now, my only experience with anti-abortionists had been with the (relatively) quiet protesters outside the Marie Stopes clinic in London's Bloomsbury, who mostly pray and hand out objectionable leaflets; here, it is very different. "You're murdering children!" shout the (mostly male) protesters as we wait, silently. But it is when a woman walks towards the clinic that all hell breaks loose: she is immediately surrounded and screamed at.

Many times I saw patients crying as they were shouted at. I could only attempt to get close and offer soothing words, but that doesn't protect them from the abuse and aggression.

Eliza tells me: "Someone was coming in for a follow-up, as she had had an abortion the week before, and she told a protester, 'My baby didn't have a heartbeat, so we had to abort,' and the protester responded by saying: 'Oh, they lied to you. Your baby did have a heartbeat. It was alive and you killed your baby.' The level of hatred that is directed at these women – a lot of whom aren't even getting abortions – is unconscionable. If you've not escorted, you don't know how bad the intimidation can be."

Another clinic escort, Cathy, adds, "It's very stressful. I've been bumped around by them a lot because I'm trying to protect patients. You always know there's a bit of a physical risk – the chance that they are going to break the rules first – and that is scary."

Everyone I spoke with was shocked at how bad anti-abortion harassment has become and often didn't realise it was happening in a major city like New York, as opposed to the Bible belt in the deep south. Could the sort of harassment experienced in liberal cities such as New York spread to the UK?

"We haven't reached a point in the UK where clinic escorts are needed yet, although that doesn't mean protesters don't cause some women considerable distress," says Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. "The number of protesters involved is relatively small, and within the anti-choice movement itself there are many who do not believe standing outside clinics targeting pregnant women is a moral or productive way to proceed. But many people are shocked this is happening here at all – we are a pro-choice country and the fact a single woman should have a poster waved in her face and a leaflet thrust in her hand as she makes her own choice to access a legal healthcare service causes concern."

Furedi concedes that the UK might be heading towards more aggressive anti-abortion protesting. "The anti-choice movement is increasingly borrowing tactics from the US, whether it's in the form of abortion clinic protests, demands for new regulations on how clinics work, or calls for the prosecution of doctors – not for failing to care for women properly, but for failing to fill in paperwork correctly. So far they have been largely unsuccessful, but we need to be ever vigilant."

While there aren't yet plans in place to have escorts at British abortion clinics, further protection of patients is possible. Kate Smurthwaite, comedian, activist and vice chair of Abortion Rights UKtells me that the campaign's "policy on all pro-choice activity is guided by the wishes of clinic staff. If clinics do want assistance – counter-protests, clinic escorts – they can get in touch. We have a nationwide network of supporters and local pro-choice groups that can be mobilised even at short notice to support staff and service users in whatever way is appropriate."

Is being reactive, rather than proactive, the way forward? Greenberg at Choices suggests that women's rights have been undermined because "people in the women's movement who consider themselves pro-choice have not taken it on ... Overall, the climate is such that it encourages these protesters to come out. This is part of a larger political battle … a war on women." © Guardian News and Media 2014