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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