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Sidewalk speech

Pro-life counselors take to the Supreme Court laws to restrict their quiet but effective work


PUSHING BACK: Eleanor McCullen (left) stands at the painted edge of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne

Sidewalk speech
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It’s one of the coldest days of the season so far in southeastern Nebraska. A snowstorm approaches from the west, and the winter wind gives bite to the already chilled air. But the weather hasn’t kept a half dozen people, their faces wrapped in scarves, from standing on a sidewalk beside a busy four-lane road. They have stood out here before, enduring worse conditions, weather and otherwise.

Some drivers in passing cars honk and wave at those bundled up on the sidewalk. But these people, their backs turned to the street, ignore the drivers. They face a two-story building sitting beyond a sign warning in red letters: “No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” The building is about 30 feet away and partially hidden by large bushes. Inside, Planned Parenthood operates a mega-clinic occupying the entire first floor. Today will be a day of abortions here.

The pro-life counselors gather as near as they can to the building. They don’t have their heads bent just to soften the blow from the December winds. They are praying for the woman heading toward the clinic’s doors. “Can we help you with something before you go in?” one of the counselors cries out. “You want some information? We have resources.”

“You don’t have to go in there,” another pleads. “We want to help you.”

Sidewalk counselors like these can be found most days outside many abortion clinics across the nation. But the abortion lobby is trying to push the counselors farther back, limiting the amount of information a woman can receive at her moment of crisis.

In 2007, lawmakers in Massachusetts approved a measure creating a 35-foot “buffer zone” to keep pro-life volunteers away from abortion clinics. Cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland, Maine, have passed similar measures.

Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother who has spent the last 13 years counseling women outside of a Boston abortion clinic, is pushing back. She is challenging the Massachusetts law for restricting her free speech on a public sidewalk. Her gentle presence has helped more than 80 frightened, tearful women choose life instead of abortion. But she says the law prevents her from reaching more with her message of love. Her case has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices are expected to make a ruling in June.

“It is at its core a censorship case,” said legal analyst Mary Reichard. The law “makes it a crime even to hand out pamphlets within 35 feet of an abortion business.”

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Jan. 15, Mark Rienzi, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the First Amendment prohibits a law that “makes it illegal to even engage in consensual conversation, quiet conversation, on a public sidewalk, an act that makes that a criminal act for which Mrs. McCullen can go to prison.”

Rienzi argued the sidewalk counselors’ speech is peaceful, an argument supported by the actions of counselors back in Nebraska. The counselors don’t scream, and they follow strict rules: no insults, no talking down to the women, and no violence. Believing they serve as living testaments to the patients, they spend more time praying than talking.

When a young woman comes outside the clinic to smoke a cigarette, one sidewalk counselor drops to her knees and starts to pray. The girl’s boyfriend stands between her and the counselors as the pro-life volunteers speak from behind a white line painted on the pavement marking how close they can get.

“Please, honey,” says Candace Griswold, who has been a sidewalk counselor for eight years, “don’t go through with this. I wish you would talk to us for a minute for yourself and your baby.”

Some of the sidewalk volunteers here have had eggs thrown at them or been pepper sprayed. But they keep coming. The night before my visit more than 75 people came to a prayer vigil outside the clinic. During days abortions are performed, sidewalk counselors work in shifts and are present from 7:30 a.m. until the clinic closes. On most days an armed guard sits in a truck parked near the clinic’s entrance, making sure the counselors don’t get too close.

“We’ve got rosaries, and they’ve got guns,” Griswold says.

IN 2000, THE U.S. SUPREME COURT upheld a Colorado law creating an 8-foot buffer zone around an abortion center’s entrance. But there are four new justices on the court, including two—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito—who may side with the three dissenters of the Colorado ruling who remain on the court. Only two justices who supported that ruling remain on the court.

During January’s oral arguments about the Massachusetts case, a majority of the court seemed skeptical of the law. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal on the court appointed by President Obama, called the 35-foot distance a long way. “I guess I’m a little bit hung up on why you need so much space,” she told lawyers defending the rule.

Alito said the law set up a situation where an abortion clinic employee could escort a client into the zone and persuade her it is a safe facility while a pro-life counselor would be muzzled and unable to express her viewpoint that the center is unsafe. This gives governmental preference to one type of speech over another.

Jennifer Miller, representing Massachusetts, argued the law is needed to solve congestion problems around clinic entrances. Lawyers at the court defending the buffer zone, including representatives of the Obama administration, claimed the sidewalk counselors could get their message out by yelling and holding up signs.

But Justice Antonin Scalia objected to calling the counselors protestors. “That is not how they present themselves,” he said. “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 protestors?”

Scalia suggested a more narrowly tailored law that would bar protests and screaming within 35 feet of an entrance. Reichard, speaking on The World and Everything in It, said yelling would defeat the purpose of counselors who are trying to be friendly, like the case’s main plaintiff: “Mrs. McCullen looks like America’s grandma, very kind and gentle, not sure she could yell if she wanted to. She cannot speak in a calm, conversational manner from 35 feet away.”

OUTSIDE OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD CENTER in Lincoln, the couple on their smoking break go back inside the clinic without acknowledging the counselors. But Sue Johnson, a sidewalk counselor here for 10 years, has plenty of success stories. Last fall a girl, her boyfriend, and her mother walked into the clinic. The counselors could see the mother crying. Soon the girl came running out of the center and into the arms of one of the counselors.

“I can’t go through with it,” she told the counselor. “It’s a boy.” Seeing the ultrasound changed the girl’s mind. She had her baby in October. The counselors collected donations to give her food and diapers.

“It’s always really messy situations, and you just want to fix their lives,” says Johnson, who has attended the births of two children after meeting their mothers on the sidewalk. “But you can’t. All you can do is give them love and be supportive so they don’t feel alone.”

Johnson once jumped into the car of a woman who kept driving past the abortion clinic when it was located on a quiet residential street. Johnson could tell by the girl’s sad face that she didn’t want the abortion. At that old location, an area pro-life group had purchased a home next to the clinic. Johnson took the girl there to cry.

Griswold keeps in touch with five girls who decided to keep their babies. She took them to doctor’s appointments and knows the birth date, size, and weight of each baby. One mother suffering from an abusive relationship lived with Griswold for nearly nine months while she graduated from high school. The mother now attends college. Her baby girl is 4 years old.

Lincoln’s new Planned Parenthood mega-clinic opened in 2012 in the commercial district partly to blunt the sidewalk counselors, who no longer own the property next to the clinic. But the counselors say being on a busy street gives the local pro-life movement more exposure.

Around noon, Griswold is about to end her sidewalk shift. But her counseling sessions aren’t done. Before she leaves her phone rings. “Hello, honey,” Griswold answers. It is one of the young women she met as a sidewalk counselor. They make plans to meet for lunch. Griswold says it will be her treat and she will put gas in the girl’s car for making the trip. Before hanging up, Griswold says, “I love you.”


Edward Lee Pitts Lee is the associate dean of World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Lee resides with his family in Iowa.

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