Note: All of the quotes in this blog post are paraphrases, not actual quotes.
Meeting at the sidewalk.
A couple weeks ago, during the SFLA conference, I met a woman named Wynette who also lives in my area. She asked me to get in touch if I was interested in doing any local pro-life work.
Up to this point, almost all of my pro-life activism has been online (pretty convenient, fighting the good fight in my pajamas in bed, isn't it?) I've never done sidewalk counseling, and SPL isn't large enough to have local chapters (yet!). But I got in touch with Wynette and she invited me to see what their sidewalk counseling is like, so I decided to check it out.
I really wasn't sure what to expect. I vaguely imagined a dozen or so pro-lifers outside the "buffer zone" of some clinic with young women (and their escorts?) walking in and out of it regularly. I imagined women my age in scary situations, feeling very intimidated and alone and desperate, asking me why they shouldn't get an abortion. What would I say? Most of my discussions (okay, arguments) about abortion have been through the anonymity of the internet. I'm exchanging highly philosophical ideas with (for the most part) other people not in crisis pregnancies. Most of us are arguing from the comfort of our homes about situations we aren't experiencing. That's very different then standing face-to-face with a frightened woman and telling her she will be glad she chooses life. Can I say that? Do I know that? I only want to be completely honest with this hypothetical woman, and that may not necessarily mean she'll refrain from abortion. What then?
So all this was going through my mind as I drove to the clinic. I arrived, and it was very quiet. I was expecting the buzz of basically a mini-protest, a back and forth between opposing groups. I guess I'm too used to San Francisco! Instead, I saw a single elderly lady, standing outside the driveway to the clinic. She looked like this:
|Meet Susan. Please note her homemade apron specifically designed to hold all her sidewalk supplies.|
As soon as she saw me she smiled and waved. That's because she smiles at waves at pretty much every single person or car she sees. She's just a smiling and waving kind of gal. I walked up to her and told her I was looking for Wynette who, as it turned out, was just pulling up.
Susan started telling me all about the literature they hand out, the people she meets, how she ended up doing sidewalk counseling in the first place, how some people in her family reacted to that, and many other stories. And she is a great storyteller. Great enthusiasm, vocabulary, emphasis, she even does the voices of other people in her stories. I was impressed with her on those grounds alone. :)
Susan mentioned that the sidewalk counselors are not allowed to step beyond a certain boundary on the sidewalk—basically they can't enter the parking lot of the clinic, they must stay on the public sidewalk next to it. There was a clinic escort that stayed in the parking lot to ensure this; she was a woman who looked to be about my age. I thought it would make for a very interesting blog post to speak to the escort and get her perspective on the sidewalk counselors and on her job as an escort, so I started walking towards her to ask her if she’d be interested in an interview. But I hadn’t gotten within 20 feet or so when she said (politely, but firmly), “You actually can’t go past that line.” I said, “If you want me to leave I’ll leave, but I’m not with them [gesturing to Susan and Wynette]. I was hoping to do a sort of point-counterpoint blog post about this situation and wanted to get your take.” But she said no, once I associate with the protesters I can’t go past the line.
So I went back to the sidewalk. Susan told me they’ve had situations where mothers drop off their daughters for abortions, and while the daughters are in the clinic, sometimes the mothers come out and talk to the sidewalk counselors. She said she’s seen mothers change their mind and want to go back into the clinic to talk to their daughters, but once the mothers associate with the sidewalk counselors, the clinic workers won’t let them back inside. I didn’t see anything like that while I was there, but Susan said she’s seen it happen more than once, and seen mothers get quite distraught about it.
From time to time the clinic escort would take a camera out of her satchel and take photos of the sidewalk counselors. The counselors told me the escorts do this to be intimidating, but I’m not so sure. If I wanted to intimidate people by taking photos, I’d be ostentatious about it; I’d walk close to them and hold the camera at eye-level. This escort kept her distance and had the camera about at waist-level. I don’t know why though—perhaps they want to make sure all the clinic employees know what all the sidewalk counselors look like, in case any of them try to enter the clinic? Not sure. In any case, if Susan or Wynette noticed getting their picture taken, they would just smile and wave.
Susan told me that only the day before I showed up, they had a young woman (I’ll call her “Mary”) park in the clinic parking lot, but go toward the sidewalk to have a cigarette. Mary stayed within the buffer zone, maybe 4 or 5 feet from Susan. Susan stepped over the line to ask if Mary was all right, but the clinic escort (a man this time) told Susan to stay back. So she did.
Susan began to ask Mary questions about her situation and to offer her a list of alternative resources. The clinic escort came over and stood between Susan and Mary, trying to block Susan from Mary’s sight. So Susan just kept sticking her head to one side of the escort and then the other, continuing to talk. Mary told Susan she believed she had a life inside her, but she was scared to have a child. Susan talked to Mary about the resources available. The escort spoke too, telling Mary that she didn’t have to listen to Susan, and that she was free to make whatever choice she wants and she could still get an abortion. Somewhere in all of this, Susan gave Mary her business card, which includes her cell phone number.
Eventually Mary got up from the curb, and, instead of going into the clinic, she walked back to her truck. The escort followed her, continuing to remind her that she need not listen to Susan, and she could still have her abortion. Even so, Mary got in her truck and left the clinic, with Susan signaling for Mary to call her if she wants to talk more.
Caring for the born and unborn.
I’m glad Mary chose not to get an abortion, but I hope she does call Susan. It sounds like she was in a pretty tough situation, and Susan works very hard to help the women who decide to carry their pregnancies.
Susan and Wynette and their fellow sidewalk counselors meet at the sidewalk every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning (those are the times the clinic performs abortions). But on the days they aren’t at the sidewalk, Susan drives all around delivering diapers and car seats and other supplies to the women she’s met from sidewalk counseling. Susan works with various groups to support women in crisis pregnancies, and she told me those groups get a lot of donor support (go pro-life team!). Apparently it’s not uncommon for strangers walking down the street to see the sidewalk counselors and just hand them cash. They tell Susan, “Here, help the mothers. Help their babies.” So she does.
Susan does this work so often, in fact, that random strangers in her day-to-day life have gotten to know her for it. For example, for a long time Susan would go to a local McDonald’s drive thru each morning to get an unsweetened iced tea. She would chat with the drive thru lady (who I will call “Liz”) while she waited, and they got to know each other. Liz asked why Susan’s car was filled with signs and pamphlets about abortion, and Susan explained her sidewalk counseling. Other days Liz asked why Susan’s car was filled with baby supplies, and Susan would explain the follow-up care she does with the women she’s met.
Then one day, Susan got a cryptic voicemail from Liz (who found Susan’s phone number in the phone book—how old school is that?) Liz left a message about how she was in a bad place and needed Susan’s help. Susan tried to call back but couldn’t get through, so finally she left a message saying “Liz, I’m going to be at your McDonald’s tomorrow at 6:30am. I hope you’ll be there.”
Susan showed up at McD’s the next morning, and Liz came running out from behind the counter to her, smiling and exclaiming “Susan! Susan! I made the right choice!”
Susan, confused, said, “Oh that’s great, honey! …what choice is that?”
“I just found out I’m pregnant and I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I am choosing life for my baby!”
And then Susan and Liz cried and hugged, and everyone else in the McDonald’s hugged (according to Susan).
Liz explained that her boyfriend didn’t want her to carry the pregnancy, but she had decided to anyway. She said, “I know you’ve talked a lot about how you help women in need, and I don’t know if you’re for real, but…here I am! I need help!” And Susan was glad to help.
Fast forward to the delivery. Susan went to visit Liz in the hospital. When she got there, she realized Liz’s boyfriend was also there. He approached Susan and asked, “Are you the woman that helped Liz keep the baby?” “Yes,” Susan answered nervously. Then he smiled and shook her hand. “Thank you so much!”
Liz is now a big proponent of the pro-life movement. She gave Susan permission to use a picture of her newborn son in one of Susan’s signs:
Apparently, they are celebrating this l’il guy’s first birthday in the next couple weeks! And of course, Susan will be there.
Susan showed me the list of resources the sidewalk counselors give out. It includes STD treatments, mammograms, OB-GYN care, maternity homes, financial assistance, adoption agencies, and post-abortion counseling. They even have a handout specifically for women going to the clinic for services other than abortion; it’s called something like “I’m Not Here for An Abortion,” and it explains why the sidewalk counselors protest abortion and which local clinics provide all the same services without doing abortions. Susan says many women have thanked her for the information and turned right around to go to those other clinics.
Susan, Wynette, and the other sidewalk counselors offer pamphlets to every car driving in and out of the clinic. Many times the drivers will stop and take the information and then be on their way. There’s often no time for dialogue, which is why it’s great that they have all their information printed and ready to send home with people.
However, some parts of their literature made me hesitate. For example, they had a brochure called “Before You Choose…” A lot of the brochure was great. It had information about fetal development and hotlines to call for counselors “to help you locate food, money, shelter, and more in your local community.” But on the other side, the brochure had a lot of information about the risks of abortion for women.
Now, I understand that abortion does include risks for women, and I believe women should be aware of those risks before they make a decision. That’s basic informed consent. However, I think informed consent means informing women of the risks in an objective way, and I worry this brochure overstates the case. For example, the brochure talks about how “13 major studies in the U.S. and 27 worldwide show that women who have an abortion increase their risk of breast cancer.” I’ve written extensively on the abortion breast cancer link before, and I understand pro-lifers diverge on this issue, but I do think the strongest case we can honestly give is that studies have conflicted. An honest assessment of a woman’s risk would include acknowledging the many studies that have not found a correlation between abortion and breast cancer.
The brochure also talked about the emotional effects of abortion on women, the problems with how well abortion clinics are regulated, and other physical risks of abortion. I think there are arguments worth making for all of these (we need look no further than Gosnell to see that), but again, I want to make sure that anything pro-lifers tell women is factual. We have truth on our side; we need not diverge from it.
I wanted to tell Wynette and Susan about my hesitations, but I was worried I would hurt their feelings. I also worried I had little right to say anything, considering they are out there for hours every week trying to help women in desperate situations, and I’m comfortable in my apartment, blogging away. Even so, ours must be the side of facts, so I went ahead and let them know I had concerns about the pamphlet. Happily, they were completely receptive to my thoughts. Wynette pointed out that the pamphlets hadn’t been updated in ages, and that she’d love to have updated literature. So that’s something I hope to help them with (and if anyone reading is interested in that project, please email email@example.com and let us know!)
Overall it was a very informative and inspiring experience! If you’re interested in helping with social support work, consider the following opportunities:
- Help SPL create secular sidewalk counseling materials that objectively inform women about fetal development, the risks of abortion, and the resources available to them.
- Raise money or gather supplies for local pregnancy resource centers. Check out NationalBaby Shower Day’s website for some ideas on how to do this.
- Contact local PRCs and find out if anyone involved does sidewalk counseling. See if there are peaceful counseling groups you can join to try to reach women with crisis pregnancies. I expect most sidewalk counselors would be happy to have any additional people come support them, and this may be especially true if you are a secularist. Wynette told me she thinks the presence of young, secular people can really help diversify the counselors’ approach—you never know what type of person a woman may most want to talk to.
(Check out the list of ways you can support sidewalk counselors from HowToBeProlife.com.)