Five months after the Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’s buffer zone law, pro-life protesters are taking full advantage of their new found right to promote their agenda to women right up to the clinic’s door.
“Instead of yelling from here, I get to yell from there,” says protester (or, as she prefers to be called, “sidewalk counselor”) Nancy Clark while pointing across the road to the Planned Parenthood building. Clark is one of dozens that can be found on any given day at one of the two Planned Parenthoods across the state that offer abortions. Despite their title-of-choice, sidewalk counselors do not have any credentials or background in counseling, therapy, psychology, or mental health.
Under Massachusetts’s 2007 law, protesters were made to remain behind a yellow line painted on the sidewalk 35-feet from the clinic. The law followed a 1994 attack in which a pro-life activist opened fire in two Brookline Planned Parenthoods, killing two and injuring five. This added to the tally of casualties of the anti-abortion movement, which has racked up eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 181 counts of arson, and 1,495 acts of vandalism.
This past summer, the buffer zone law was challenged. In the case McCullen v. Coakley, plaintiff Eleanor McCullen claimed that the buffer zone law violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The court (which has a more than 200-foot buffer zone of its own) ruled in favor of McCullen, prompting Massachusetts to pass a less aggressive law that allows police to require a protester to stand 25-feet away from the clinic if they were called in response to that demonstrator acting violently, blocking the clinic entrance, or threatening patients. This 25-foot buffer zone, however, is only temporary, lasting eight hours or until the facility closes.
Since the new law was passed, the police have been called several times due to these sidewalk counselors
Said one Boston woman who receives contraception and annual exams from Planned Parenthood, “I would never call them counselors. I’d call them sidewalk terrorists.”
“I can’t even imagine how the protesters don’t understand the level of cruelty to a woman like that,” says Martha Walz, president and chief executive officer of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “All they’re doing is scaring our patients, including patients who are coming in for birth control, who don’t want to have an unintended pregnancy."
“I don’t believe in access to birth control. It’s very harmful,” asserts Evelyn, a sidewalk counselor.
Then how can women avoid being pregnant? Protester Ruth has the answer: “Well, the way to control it is not to hop into bed with every Tom, Dick, and Harry. That’s one way to control it.”
And here is the root of the tension between pro-life protesters and the women in the clinic: the role of women. “We’re not just here for the baby,” insists Evelyn. “We’re here for the mothers, too."
Even as protesters pray the rosary and sing, chanting, “Thou shalt not murder! Your fetus will shed blood!” while holding grisly posters of fetal heads held with forceps and taking pictures of escorts and patients in order to shame them, they maintain that they are helping women.
“The longer you come here and the longer you stand here, you see [abortion] is not helping women,” Nancy says. She explains that abortion allows men to treat women as objects that can be thrown away, avoiding the commitment of marriage and procreation while letting them get what they want sexually. “Men are winning because of the way women are giving themselves away.”
“It’s so core to who we are as women to have autonomy and to be able to make our own decisions about our own bodies and our own lives,” counters Walz. “If we want to have rights to be in school and to work and determine our own success, we have to be able to determine our health care, and whether and when to have children.”
Before becoming president of Massachusetts’s Planned Parenthood League, Walz was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, helping to write the state’s buffer zone law in order to protect the patients and doctors, who are often intimidated and harassed.
What do the sidewalk counselors hope to accomplish? They try to persuade women to go to a crisis pregnancy center, which offers not much else beyond pregnancy tests, basic ultrasounds, diapers, and formula. Centers such as this have been reported to lie to and mislead women in order to convince them to carry the baby full-term, telling them college will be free after they have a child or that an abortion will make them infertile.
When recounting the women they have “saved,” there is a common denominator in the ending of these stories. When protester Meija is asked what became of one woman she convinced to walk away, she replies, “No, no, we don’t know anything about them.”