One of my first experiences ever at an abortion facility was on March 31, 2011. I arrived early, just as the workers were approaching. I remember thinking of what horrible things were set to occur that day. I was emotional about it and had a strong sense of helplessness. As I left for my early morning classes, I hoped deeply for the sidewalk counselors’ success. Later that day I received an email from my good friend Wynette, who wrote with an elated enthusiasm that not one, not two, but three young women had changed their minds at the sidewalk that day and their babies had been saved! This is the true face of sidewalk counseling.
Unfortunately, many Americans' only exposure to sidewalk counseling has been related to the controversies associated with the pro-life movement that have been so copiously covered by the media. The peaceful free speech exercised by nearly all counselors has been deceptively conflated with the rare instances of extremism that these same counselors have consistently decried. For example, NARAL claims that there have been 6,100 acts of violence and over 156,000 acts of disruption at clinics since 1977. I guess we’re supposed to infer from these numbers that the tactics of sidewalk counselors are anything but peaceful, indeed, are quite consistently violent.
In reality, NARAL's numbers are deliberately misleading; I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s adage, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” How does NARAL manufacture such a grandiose figure? They key is in the wording in “acts of disruption.” This spin term is subjectively determined by the clinic workers themselves. These so called acts need not be illegal, charges are not filed let alone convictions garnered. A graphic sign, a counselor affirming that a public sidewalk is in fact public, these interfere with business as usual at the clinic and are thus are labeled “disruptive.” The fact that these contentions are perfectly legal and non-violent is intentionally misconstrued. In the 41 years of the pro-life movement there have been eight homicides against abortion facility workers. Major pro-life organizations have repeatedly and consistently denounced such acts of violence. Yet to this day, people use these crimes to poison the well and undermine sidewalk counselors’ compassionate message.
My first exposure to the sidewalk happened over three years ago; since then every experience has made me more pro-life and has proven to me the justness of our cause. Sidewalk counselors have been falsely slandered, and I feel I should use my own experiences to set the record straight.
In many ways the sidewalks outside of abortion facilities have become a microcosm of the larger debate. Not only are the talking points of both sides well on display, but the truth of their claims is also played out. What choices do “pro-choice” escorts think pregnant women should be able to hear about? Is the pro-life movement run by old sexist men? In visiting the sidewalk, you are confronted with so many realities of abortion. The marketing and mechanics of the clinic, the employees of the clinic and their interaction with the counselors. The friends and family that accompany these women to the clinic. And most graphically, the aftermath and removal of the remains of these procedures. For anyone who has never read accounts from the sidewalk or is unsure about abortion in general, I challenge them to venture to their nearest clinic, where reality will overcome previous perceptions.
One of the first observations one makes when visiting a clinic is how much thought goes into the design and marketing of a clinic. Besides the counselors and their signs, there is no overt evidence that the building is in a fact an abortion clinic. In fact the “A” word is avoided like the plague. Phrases like “Women’s Health,” “Reproductive Health,” and “Family Planning” abound. So I ask: if abortion is a human right, akin to speech or assembly, why don’t clinics proudly state that they offer the “A” word?
The actual layout of the clinic itself, including the clinic’s neighbors, are considered with the sidewalk counselors in mind. For example, the original Women’s Health Specialist Clinic in Sacramento had an L-shaped design, with its parking lot internalized within the property, to make the distance from the sidewalk to the door as short as possible. When the counselors were still successful, the clinic escorts put sheets over the metal fence on the back side and played loud music through concert speakers to drown out the appeals of the counselors. Eventually a new solid fence was added. Later, Women’s Health Specialists changed locations altogether, moving to a location co-occupied by Woman Infants and Children government assistance program as well as a substance abuse counseling program. The media subsequently criticized those on the sidewalk for making it uncomfortable to access those programs. Thus Women Health Specialists shamelessly used impoverished women and children as well as recovering addicts as human shields against the just cause of these sidewalk counselors
The clinics’ attitude toward the friends and family that accompany these women also speaks volumes. It is rare for a woman to come to a clinic completely alone. Oftentimes they are joined by their mothers, sisters, friends, boyfriends, or husbands, because they have asked for emotional support through this tumultuous time. Yet once arriving at the clinic, the woman is often isolated form her friends and family and instructed to turn off her phone. The clinic thus ensures that any doubts already being experienced by these women are not compounded by the reservations of those who brought them.
In addition to the lack of respect shown to these women’s families, clinic escorts routinely attempt to intimidate those sidewalk counselors exercising their free speech rights. I have personally had escorts come up right in my face and take my picture numerous times without my consent. I’ve had them state that I’ve been cited and served by a court ruling and then have them issue court documents that were several years old dealing with a completely different group. I’m not a lawyer, but I think that constitutes fraud! And I have them lie to me about the borders of the buffer zone. Don’t take my word for it; check out these videos for evidence of this intimidation and lies toward myself and my friends.
The Aftermath of Abortion
One of most compelling events at the sidewalk is watching the fetal remains of these procedures being removed. Once a week, a bio-hazardous waste truck comes and carts away that week’s portion of Women’s Health Specialists’ more than 6,000 annual abortions. Witnessing this, it’s impossible not to marvel at the fact that these atrocities are taking place right in the middle of residential neighborhood of Sacramento. It becomes clear that there are thousands of acts of violence being performed at clinics, but they are not being committed by these peaceful sidewalk counselors.
A Ray of Hope
In the literal shadows of these injustices, a small band of volunteers is all that stands as an appeal for these innocent children and a pro-life resource for these frightened women. These men and women—in my experience, mostly women—selflessly give their time to a ridiculed cause. Often times their compassion is met with profanity and spite, and yet they remain resilient. Outside of their fellow counselors and the women they help, it is unlikely that anyone will ever appreciate their presence, and yet they remain steadfast. So I ask, would you describe a nationwide effort consisting mostly of women offering help to other women as a “War on Women”?
So the next time you read an article about anti-abortion violence and intimidation, ask yourself: why does the media highlight the murders of 8 people, murders that have been condemned by sidewalk counselors, to slander these very sidewalk counselors? And at the same time, the media ignores the countless lives these people have saved through their efforts. Here’s to using this knowledge to support our community’s sidewalk counselors, whether it be with our time, money, or just our encouragement. And here’s to us overcoming our own reservations to join our rightful place beside them on the sidewalk.
(Check out the list of ways you can support sidewalk counselors from HowToBeProlife.com.)