On a chilly Saturday morning in Northern New Jersey, a woman clutching rosary beads and bags of pamphlets follows a father with his young daughter on an open sidewalk. The father has just dropped his wife off at a women’s health clinic. “Be a man, Dad,” the woman says in a calm voice, while following them until they get in their car and drive away.
By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will have decided one of the most contentious topics facing abortion clinics and their patients today: at what point does a protester’s First Amendment rights interfere with a clinic patient’s right to seek medical care without nonconsensual proselytizing? That is the issue in McCullen v. Coakley, and a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding women’s reproductive healthcare facilities in Massachusetts. Mark Rienzi, on behalf of the anti-abortion activists who are challenging the state’s law, argued that being made to stand outside of a buffer zone inhibits his clients’ opportunities to speak with patients, and therefore is a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. Eleanor McCullen, the 77-year-old self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor” and plaintiff in the lawsuit, claims that she is different from the other anti-abortion protesters because she only wants to talk to women who are seeking healthcare. Her message seemed to resonate with Justice Antonin Scalia, who interrupted when the attorney representing Massachusetts used the word “protesters”:
“I object to you calling these people protesters, which you’ve been doing here during the whole presentation. That is not how they present themselves. They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protesters?”
Justice Scalia’s comments reflect a profound misunderstanding about what actually happens on sidewalks outside abortion clinics. While it is true that not all anti-abortion activists behave the same way, they are all there for the same reason: to deter women from exercising their right to reproductive freedom. It’s important to understand what actually occurs, because even though “sidewalk counselors” can at times appear to be less aggressive, their message is frequently just as cruel as those whose methods are more extreme.
Last December, I co-founded a clinic escort program in New Jersey, Justice Scalia’s home state, which does not have a buffer zone law like the one in question in Massachusetts. Every Saturday, I wake up at 5am, drive to the clinic, put on my yellow crossing-guard-style vest, and walk patients and their companions past a gauntlet of different groups of anti-abortion protesters. Week after week, I stand on the sidewalk and observe their tactics as they try to stop women from entering the clinic.
One group is comprised of Catholic women who are affiliated with a crisis pregnancy center across the street and refer to themselves as “sidewalk counselors,” just like Eleanor McCullen. The characterization they use is intentional, as these women want to distinguish themselves from other, more overtly aggressive groups. These women sometimes carry signs and try to distribute pamphlets, but they prefer a more subtle approach to influencing patients and their companions.
They might begin by knocking on a patient’s car window, an aggressive action in itself, but done with a friendly smile. Then they make their pitch, “We have free sonograms across the street, here is some literature for you on the dangers of abortion, would you like a rosary?”
In my experience, few, if any, patients want to speak with these women. Some patients are polite and say, “No thank you,” while others just ignore them or ask to be left alone. When that happens, the sidewalk counselors step up their game.
“YOUR BABY HAS A HEARTBEAT.”
“THEY PUT YOU ON AN ASSEMBLY LINE IN THERE.”
“THEY TURN YOUR BABY INTO GARBAGE.”
By this time, however, the patients are actively trying to get away from the women, who nevertheless continue to stalk them for as far as they can, often right up to the clinic doors while trying to tell the patients, “It’s not too late, Mom!” They thrust gestational models of fetuses in the patients’ faces and say, “This is what your baby looks like inside of you.” They try to hand pieces of chocolate to patients, saying, “You must be hungry,” knowing that if a woman ingests food within twenty-four hours before she’s supposed to have anesthesia, her appointment will be successfully sabotaged. In short, the end justifies the means, even when, as is often the case, the patient is afraid or in tears.
Everyone is a victim of their proselytizing, no matter their circumstances. I once escorted a very distressed woman and her husband, who explained to a “sidewalk counselor” that their baby was planned, but had Spina Bifida, a serious, untreatable congenital disorder that causes birth defects, severe physical abnormalities, and neurological problems. The couple, plainly distraught, stopped to tell the protester who was following them that they did not want their child to suffer through these horrific complications and asked her, very politely, to please respect their privacy. Undeterred, the woman tried to tell them that they had “options” as she followed them to the door. Over the next three hours, she continued to pursue the husband every time he came out of the clinic to feed the parking meter.
I have also witnessed a “sidewalk counselor” hound an overwhelmed and visibly emotional couple that had asked to be left alone because the woman was miscarrying. The protester tried to convince them that she knew a doctor who could save the pregnancy, which is not just medically impossible, but particularly cruel, given the circumstance.
The “sidewalk counselors” may not be your typical anti-choice protesters, who have become known for carrying bloody signs and loud “street preaching,” but they are just as upsetting, and perhaps even more so, because they do it under the disguise of a loving and caring person. They are not certified therapists or counselors. They have no degrees in psychology. Just because they prefer to talk, and not scream, does not make a difference in the impact or invasiveness of their actions on patients and their companions.
These people are using the First Amendment as justification to force patients, against their will, to listen to their evangelizing and to try to prevent them from exercising their right to obtain abortions. Justice Scalia’s comments reflected a profound misunderstanding of what it’s really like in front of abortion clinics, but whether you call them “sidewalk counselors” or “protesters,” the outcome is exactly the same: women feeling threatened, frightened, and harassed for obtaining reproductive medical care.