Protest or Peaceful Presence? Picketers Take a Stand Against Abortion – What I Found When I Crossed the Line

Paul Henke, organizer of Redding’s 40 days for Life, walks behind some of the groups anti abortion signs. 10/2/19

More than a month of organized opposition to abortion has begun at a local women’s reproductive health center.

Sept. 25 marked the beginning of a “prayer vigil” at Women’s Health Specialists, on Victor Avenue. It’s part of a movement called 40 Days for Life which invites individuals to participate in “prayerful, peaceful, presence” at more than 500 clinics that provide abortions across North America. According to their materials, this particular movement has an impressive record of activism including over 16,004 “babies saved from abortion”, 190 abortion workers “converted” (to Christianity I assume) and 100 abortion centers closed.

The local target of their “presence” is Women’s Health Specialists, a series of small, unassuming buildings located on the corner of Victor Avenue, near Highway 44.  If you’ve driven by on Victor Avenue you may have seen a protester or two on the corner there, some with graphic signs. Paul Henke, organizer for the local 40 Days for Life event, was quick to inform me that these graphic signs are not part of his group’s activities. “The guy on the corner there, he’s out here all year long and he’s been doing this for about 25 years. He’s not part of what we’re doing. He does his own thing. 40 Days for Life doesn’t use graphic signs.”

Instead, down the cross street, closer to and facing Women’s Health Specialists, was where I found the 40 Days for Life folks gathered. Although the local event page, which asks participants to sign up for slots online, showed minimal engagement (most days showed less than 3% of their shifts covered), on the day I showed up, there were about a dozen people on site, including children. It was a high-engagement day for the activists, “because it’s Wednesday, surgical abortion day.”

Women’s Health Specialists is the only surgical abortion provider in Shasta County, according to Danielle Brewster, Public Relations Director for the local Redding Office. According to their website, they are an independent, not-for-profit clinic that provides abortion, adoption, contraception and fertility services care, birth control and sexual health screening. They operate four licensed clinics and four satellite sites across northern California, including their Redding clinic which provides surgical abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and their Chico clinic which provides surgical abortions up to 14 weeks.

Individuals picketing the clinic with 40 Days for Life were mostly gathered behind parked cars near the clinic. There I found blankets laid out, a play space for children, and a group of articulate, well-presented women, one holding a large Bible. When I asked them what brought them to the clinic they were passionate and persuasive.

Rita, with 40 Days for Life, prays at the Women’s Health Specialists fence line. 10/2/19

Rachel, who had fiery eyes and a quiet, arresting voice, was quick to speak up.

“Everyone knows abortion is a conflicting decision, but we are here to offer compassion, hope, love. Pro-life people know a woman gets to make a choice. We’re just here to say, ‘How can we support you to have more options?’ The premise of the pro-life is often misrepresented. We are not here to try to take away a woman’s choice.”

Anna, another activist on site, shared the story of a woman who came over to talk to her while she stood on the picket line. She eventually brought this woman to CareNet Pregnancy Center, where she got a free ultrasound and “saw her baby for the first time.”

“She was crying” Anna said. “All she wanted was to be a mother.”

They said the community reaction to their activism is mixed, but mostly positive. For people driving by it’s about 90/10 positive, said Paul Henke.

“Most people honk but some people give us the finger,” he said.

And what about the women receiving services at the clinic?

“Definitely less than 20% will come over to talk to us, but some do,” Henke said.

One might argue that it’s a little hard not to engage with the activists. In accordance with the law, Paul Henke told me, group members don’t cross the fence line into the clinic’s private property. He and others described the group’s activities at the fence line as quiet prayer and calling to women walking into the clinic with an offer to talk or pray with them.

Danielle Brewster told me a different story. “We have protesters who racially profile folks. Sometimes they are verbally aggressive, physically aggressive. We have one protester with a camera who tries to intimidate clients and staff.”

In response, staff and volunteers wearing yellow or rainbow traffic vests with the label “client escort”, work at Women’s Health Specialist on abortion days. They stand by the fence line too, on the clinic side, ready to walk newly arriving clients into the clinic and help them avoid any unwanted interactions with protesters.

Paul Henke assured me that every demonstrator on site has signed a statement of non-violence in order to be there. It was clear from talking to him and other protesters that they are aware of concerns from clinics about violence and harassment and that they are attempting to show a different, kinder, gentler side to the anti-abortion movement.

Danielle’s response? Even when picketers are nonviolent, being watched and called out to while simply trying to access medical care is harassment.

“When you have to cross a line of folks. . . just to access your reproductive and sexual healthcare . . . it interferes with our client’s rights to safe, confidential access,” Brewster said.

Clinic staff and volunteer escorts say that while the picketers at the clinic create a hostile and uncomfortable environment, their presence also encourages them to continue to remove barriers to women accessing their reproductive and sexual healthcare.

And they’ve come up with an ingenious response. Women’s Health Specialists use the very presence of on site demonstrators to raise funding and support for their local clinic, through their Pledge a Picketer campaign.

Brewster again: “This is a way that clients, staff and the community can take action and continue to fund our clinic and the work that we do and make access possible.”

Basically the program allows donors to pledge money based on the number of picketers who show up each day. I had to admire their creativity.

Whether you believe abortions are an unfortunate necessity or an unjustified evil, most of us agree that the decision to have an abortion is complex and difficult and it would be better if the need for abortion was rare. So how are these two groups working to reduce the need for abortions in Shasta County? This question seemed to resonate surprisingly little with both sides. While the anti-abortion folks answers fell back on ideas like supporting crisis pregnancy centers, counseling and support, and natural family planning to reduce the need for abortions, Brewster simply responded that Women’s Health Specialists doesn’t work to reduce women’s need for abortions.

“We support them to have access when they need one,” Brewster said.

But I think Women’s Health Specialists are doing a little more than she’s giving them credit for. Sex education and access to contraceptives, especially long-lasting ones, have been proven to decrease abortions worldwide. The UN estimated that that contraception already prevents 112 million abortions each year. And while Women’s Health Specialists clinics “provide all methods of birth control” and offer significant education about birth control on their website, CareNet Pregnancy Center’s website offers . . . abstinence.

Women’s Health Specialists also holds Peer Education Prevention Trainings for teens and young adults.

“We talk about the barriers young people face, birth control, STIs,” Brewster said. “We break down stigmas around these issues and tell people how to get help. When we offer them compassionate non-judgmental healthcare we awaken and empower them.”

They offer a stipend for young people to attend as a way to honor their time and commitment to learning, growing and becoming peer educators.

Which is why, surprisingly, pledging a picketer may actually reduce abortions more than prayerful, peaceful, presence at a clinic site.

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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45 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

    Tactics employed by “40 Days for Life” have included shoving cameras in the faces of girls and women attempting to enter women’s clinics (as mentioned above), making a big, intimidating show of taking down client’s car license plate numbers, surrounding women and throwing “holy water” on them, and screaming things like “Don’t murder your baby!” If those tactics aren’t being employed here, I suspect it’s only because small, out-of-the-way cities like Redding that attract few protestors aren’t a main focus of this malignant group.

    Also, enough can’t be said about heavily religious fake “clinics” like Carenet. These so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” use deception and outright lies to guilt and terrorize desperate girls and women into foregoing their legal right to terminate their pregnancies:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201602/crisis-pregnancy-centers-traumatize-women-through-deception

    • Avatar Annelise Pierce says:

      Patrecia: We’ve all heard the stories of what happens during clinic protests nationwide. For this article I wanted to look specifically at what seems to be happening at our local clinic and hear from people on both sides. Especially with something as divisive as abortion politics, it’s important for us to ask questions and seek to understand. At least I think so.

      • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

        I felt it was important to give readers an idea of what “crisis pregnancy centers” (mentioned in your article) are all about, and what the group these protestors are affiliated with actually represents.

    • Avatar Ashley Slack says:

      You are misunderstanding who is with a 40 Days for Life vigil, and who just happens to be protesting at the same time as us, because the tactics you are describing are absolutely prohibited by 40 DFL. I am so sorry to hear that this is what you have witnessed by some, but I assure you, it is NOT what 40 DFL is about, or what we do.

      • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

        I couldn’t find any verification that those terrorist tactics are now specifically prohibited by 40 Days for Life. However, the basically fact-less anti-abortion propaganda promoted by groups like this incite the massive amount of violence committed against women’s clinics, their staff, and their patients nation-wide.

  2. Avatar Michael Kuker says:

    It’s seems to me this would have been a good opportunity to mention the long history of terrorism against Women’s Health Specialists. This facility was the target of arson at least three different times.

    • Avatar Annelise says:

      Michael: my brief google search yields nothing on this topic. Could you share a link?

      • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

        I ran across an article on the history of violence directed toward the Women’s Clinic in Redding (which included more than one arson attack, an attempted bombing, and other acts of violence) not long ago, but for some reason I can’t find it anymore either. The Women’s Clinic itself may have that information.

      • Avatar Michael Kuker says:

        from the June 7, 1992 Redding Record-Searchlight:

        “The Feminist Women’s Health Center in Redding has been the scene of three fires, including two by arson, in less than three years.”

  3. Avatar Carol Cowee says:

    Good, balanced article.

    • Avatar Annelise Pierce says:

      Carol: Thank you! I learned from individuals on both sides of the picket line and I hope I have represented them well.

    • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

      Personally I’m not sure there is more than one legitimate side to this issue. No matter how well behaved (and anti-abrtion groups often aren’t), these people are going where they haven’t been invited to push their religious agenda on women who have already given this matter a considerable amount of thought (in fact they’ve probably thought of nothing else). They don’t need religious guilt or any other form of harassment – no matter how well-intentioned anti-abortionists think they are.

  4. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    There was a clinic in Anchorage that was always being picketed by very vocal, harassing anti-abortionists. One woman was the target of this, and when a harasser called, “Don’t go in there; we can help you!”, she responded, “Can you refill my birth control prescription?” With apologies to the men who read this, it seems that so often, men are at the forefront of these movements. They wouldn’t tell a stranger what food to buy or what shoe to wear; why would they even consider telling a stranger what to do with her body? I say, go do something worthwhile such as helping the homeless or providing foster care for abused children. Rather than harassing women, anti-abortionists should line up at every hospital delivery room and adopt every baby who is the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Problem solved.

    • Avatar Annelise says:

      Beverly: I appreciate your sentiments here although I do want to push back on the idea that the problem of unwanted pregnancies is solved by adoption. For the child involved in adoption, the trauma of losing their first mother, no matter how loving the new family, embeds in the brain. Adoption is always born from heartbreak, loss, grief. Whether the child is able to overcome this greatest of losses will be due in large part to the quality of the family who adopts them and the resources they are given access to.

      • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

        Adoption absolutely is NOT the answer to unwanted pregnancy. African-American, other minority, and disabled children are grossly over-represented among the hundreds of thousands of children waiting for adoption in this country, including children born with drug and alcohol-fetal syndrome – a serious life-long disability (there will be many more as abortion becomes less accessible). “Christian” anti-abortion people are not exactly lining up to adopt those children.

        The answer is exactly what Women’s Health Specialists and other Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics provide – affordable effective birth control (the most effective forms can cost as much as $700.00), and failing that, access to early abortion (as 99 percent are).

      • Avatar Marilyn says:

        Is dealing with the trauma of being adopted worse than never being given the chance at life?

        • Avatar Annelise says:

          Marilyn: This question assumes a false dichotomy. Our choices are not merely abortion or adoption. My argument is that offering woman and men contraception and sexual education is the best solution to unwanted pregnancies and the best alternative to abortions.

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        Annelise, my “solution” was offered tongue in cheek. Of course adoption is not the answer. The answer is not to bear an unwanted child in the first place. My point is that no matter the reason for terminating a pregnancy, it’s no one’s business except the woman – not even the sperm provider whether he’s husband, boyfriend, or rapist. I don’t know why the U.S. is so backward in this area except that the religious right and commandeered politics.

    • Avatar Tim says:

      Telling men they have no say in foetal rights seems like telling northern whites they should have had no say in ending slavery. Besides, nearly half of aborted children are male. Even in the case of rape, which is the worse sentence for the innocent victim: 9 months of disfiguring involuntary labor or the death penalty?

      As for the Foster system, it is broken. Loving conservative couples are turned down for batshit crazy reasons like having venison in the freezer (because god forbid you teach an orphan independent life skills like hunting). Meanwhile the system encourages large foster homes which are kind of like the human equivalent of puppy mills where each unit is seen as a means of profit.

      • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

        Tim,

        The actual victim is the girl or woman who was raped. As people who follow proven science know, 99 percent of abortions are performed at a stage of pregnancy when there is virtually no chance that the organism present can experience pain or any awareness of what’s happening in its environment (per every legitimate researcher and medical organization world-wide). The remaining one percent often involve wanted babies that have died in the womb, or are horribly deformed, suffering, and dying.

        And until men are in a position to experience the pain, disability, and mortal danger of childbirth (14 times greater than a legal abortion, and much riskier in America than in other developed countries), and life disruption, there should be no equal say.

        Finally, perhaps you missed the fact that Christian couples are in many cases the ONLY people who can can adopt. Trump has now supported religious-affiliated foster agencies in turning down gay and lesbian couples and other propsective parents they don’t approve of on religious grounds, while still being prioritized for government funding.

        • Avatar Tim says:

          There is not a county-run foster program in California that discriminates against gays. They all discriminate against (non trophy) hunters & fishers.

          And I’d call being killed victimized. You are implying that you’d commit no wrong if you murder someone while they’re under anesthesia and can feel no pain.

          • Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

            Former childrens’ services employee here.

            It is simply untrue that foster care “discriminates” against hunters/fisherman. People from all kinds of backgrounds and interests become foster parents.

            Firearms MUST be completely inaccessible to minors in foster care, meaning “teach an orphan independent life skills like hunting” is prohibited.

          • Avatar Tim says:

            Aside from the blatant irresponsibility of being forbidden from teaching firearm safety to teens living in a home with firearms, the home environment check also looked for home-harvested protein (which at the time included even backyard chickens & eggs).

            So yeah, they don’t discriminate against hunters as long as they don’t eat what they kill and they are willing to support a shoddy & hypocritical “abstinence only” firearm policy (which is kind of like not discriminating against gays as long as they observe celibacy)

          • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

            Tim,

            If you want to teach children important life skills, help them get a good education.

            I can recall several incidents in Shasta County in which teenagers were shot (fatally and with serious injuries) while supposedly being taught to handle a fire arm safely by an adult so-called “expert”, or while hunting with adults. Many more local children of all ages have been victims of accidental shootings where there were guns in the home. No reputable foster care agency would place a child with someone who wants to make handling lethal weapons a part of the child’s life.

            And your comparison between guns and gay people is ludicrous. No one is asking you to do away with your wife (if you have one) and go through life alone. Having your life revolve around guns is a choice. Being gay is not.

          • Avatar Tim says:

            Patrecia,
            You’re right that there are lots of things to teach foster youth: reading maps, navigating public transit, cooking from scratch, cleaning, budgeting, time management, business manners & formal dining, resume & interview skills, negotiating for raises/cars/houses, fixing flat tire/dead battery, gardening, dealing with government bureaucracies, etc — but none of those are requirements or even priorities of HHSA. Ome could say they’re really in the business of turning child dependents into adult dependents…

            And while their anti-gun stance is a major problem, it does not just affect firearm hunting. The prohibition on unbutchered meat affects sustenance fishing, archery hunting, trapping, raising sheep or meat rabbits, etc.

            But yes, firearms contain an element of danger yet once again you’ve fallen into denominator neglect. There are millions of hunters in the US against dozens of accidents. Hunting is statistically safer than driving or boating. Or football for that matter.

            I honestly won’t be surprised if in my lifetime counties ban foster parents from owning cars since owning a car is such a dangerous remnant of toxic individualism. Why risk a ward of the state killing himself and others joyriding when everyone can just take public transit or private services like uber&lyft?

            PS: I hope you did not mean to imply that homosexuals are incapable of controlling their sex drives because having your life revolve around sex is a choice too.

          • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

            Tim,

            And I hope YOU didn’t mean to imply that gay marriages and relationships are all about sex. That’s no more true for gay people than it is for you or anyone else.

            The rest of your post above is just as bizarre, and basically fact-less.

          • Avatar Tim says:

            I’m saying both are lifestyles and it is dumb & unjust to ask folks to live a closeted life if they wish to foster.

            And no, my post is not factless. The US averages 2,400 hospitalizations from hunting accidents each year. ~30% of those are lacerations and ~20% are bone breaks & sprains. ~50% are gunshot wounds which kill 75 annually. But the denominator you continually neglect is the 90 million casual hunters in the US (and 20 million serious/dedicated hunters).

            Contrast that with boating: 2,900 annual injuries & 700 deaths spread amongst 16 million recreational boats in the US. Or how about football? 18 high schoolers die annually (and countless injuries) out of 1.1 million players.

            Death rate:
            Hunting: 1 in 1,200,000 casual hunters (1 in 266,000 serious hunters)
            Football: 1 in 61,000 players
            Boating: 1 in 23,000 boats

        • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

          Tim, until men serve as anything other than sperm donors to a pregnancy, they have no say in the woman’s decision. Being supportive or helping with household chores or providing income are not the same as enduring a pregnancy.

  5. Avatar Anita Brady says:

    I am thinking that the same tactics of these protestors used at other medical facilities (ie. Urology Offices) would NOT be allowed.

    You know what they do at such clinics? They perform vasectomies, and test and arrange for men to have their prostates removed at local hospitals. Both of those procedures make men infertile.

    • Avatar Annelise Pierce says:

      Yes, but a vasectomy, unlike many contraceptives, is not viewed as abortafacient by the anti abortion community. Great idea for preventing pregnancies though! And one you rarely hear the anti abortion movement talking about.

      • Avatar Anita Brady says:

        If an egg doesn’t get fertilized, there is no fetus. It is very convenient for the pro-birth folks, especially the those with XY chromosomes to make the argument you mention..

  6. Avatar Alice Hoveman says:

    To prevent abortions, I say mandatory vasectomies for all males at puberty. Only when they are married, with written permission of an adult (non-familial) female wife willing to accept the consequences, can they have it reversed. I wonder how many men will step up and support abortion prevention in this way? Good article!

  7. Avatar Chris Solberg says:

    The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me….

    Mother Theresa speaks about abortion

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MY-YMbzVGM

  8. Avatar Chris Solberg says:

    Quotes from Mother Teresa on Abortion

    “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted, and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child, and be loved by the child. From our children’s home in Calcutta alone, we have saved over 3,000 children from abortions. These children have brought such love and joy to their adopting parents, and have grown up so full of love and joy!””Any country that accepts abortion, is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants.””It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.””America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts –a child –as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters”And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”(Mother Teresa –“Notable and Quotable,” Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14)

    “But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child -a direct killing of the innocent child -murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love -that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told thathe does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. “”What is taking place in America,” she said, “is a war against the child. And if we accept that the mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another.”February1997 -National Prayer Breakfast in Washington attended by the President and the First Lady

  9. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    Commenting on the local clinic the protests there have gone on almost forever it seems. I would avoid getting on 44 at that on ramp to avoid the protests. School buses would drive by there and many students jeered at the protesters. One of the male protesters actually chased down a school bus, SUHSD bus, and boarded it and was shoving pictures of fetuses in student faces until he was removed. He was arrested but only charged with a minor misdemeanor. Today he would be charged with a terrorist act, endangering students. Because a bus driver, a member of The Promise Keepers, had alledgedly admonished his students over their jeering, on bus cameras were installed to film both driver and students and avoid they said/they said reactions.

    • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

      Bruce,

      Unfortunately today any attempt to hold him accountable for terrorizing children would likely result in him running to one of the “Christian” legal organizations, which would then threaten a lawsuit because his right to free speech is supposedly being infringed.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Patricia, Commandeering a school bus is not free speech. And if any group said it was it would be the ACLU, hardly a Christian organization.

        • Avatar Patrecia Barrett says:

          Fundamentalist Christians are commandeering nearly everything else (like our federal government and the City of Redding). Why not school buses?

  10. Avatar Gary Rogers says:

    Great story crafted by excellent journalism skills.

  11. Avatar Anita Brady says:

    The pro-birth folks can simply go to that place that is opposite Heaven (in their imaginations). They support their politician’s efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate safety net programs. “Hypocrite” is too nice a name for them.

  12. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    The anti-abortion crowd lost this battle when scientists invented a little pill that takes care of unwanted pregnancies in the first trimester with no more inconvenience than a monthly period. That’s no baby that’s ejected, it’s menstrual fluid with a few dead cells. Their stance on no abortions in cases of rape, incest, known fetal defects and when the life of the mother threatened is not just misogynistic, it’s anti-human.

  13. Avatar Sandra Taylor says:

    The forty days ended November 3rd, and so did their so-called Pledge for Peace. They are here in increased numbers and harassment techniques this morning. There are usually 2-4 very young children with them, today there 7. A large portion of the crowd today are younger adults.

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