“Be a man-stop your woman from killing your baby!”
“Mommy, don’t kill me!”
“You are going to be the father of a dead baby!”
These were just some of the comments being screamed Saturday by protesters standing outside an abortion clinic I visited. These statements, and others like them, were being directed at women and their male companions as they approached the clinic— often by people holding signs that read, “Babies are murdered here” or “Danger! Baby killing zone.”
Was this clinic in Texas, Mississippi, or another Red State with a long history of opposing a women’s right to choose? Nope, it was in the blue state of New Jersey and in the very blue city of Englewood, a municipality that President Obama carried in 2012 with over 70 percent of the vote and where local Republicans didn’t even field a candidate to oppose the reelection of the Democratic mayor (PDF).
So why did I visit an abortion clinic for the first time in my life? Because I was confused as to what is the real face of the people gathered outside of abortion clinics.
Last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told us that these people are not anti-abortion “protesters.” Instead, he glowingly described them as, “counselors” who wanted “to comfort these [pregnant] women” by speaking to them, “quietly and in a friendly manner.”
Scalia offered these remarks during oral arguments in a case challenging the legality of a Massachusetts law that imposes a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics which anti-abortion protesters are prohibited from invading. The Justice implied that a buffer zone was not needed because the people outside these clinics were not angry protesters, but rather a collection of kindly “sidewalk counselors.”
But something wasn’t adding up. Katie Klabusich, who has volunteered for years escorting pregnant women into clinics, told me a far different story. She spoke of numerous incidents where anti-abortion protesters would scream in the face of pregnant women in the hopes of shaming and bullying them to not enter the clinic.
So this past Saturday, I ventured out on a cold, snowy morning to see what was really up. What did I find? Well, upon parking my car about a block and a half from the clinic, I could hear screaming. I couldn’t make out the words but it was being directed at a woman approaching the clinic by a group of male protesters standing on the doorstep of the clinic. New Jersey doesn’t have a buffer zone law like Massachusetts. (New Jersey does ban electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place.)
This group of men had formed an angry gauntlet in front of the clinic. They held signs bearing photos of dead babies, Biblical verses, and allegations that baby-killing was taking place at this facility.
I can’t even imagine what a woman who is likely emotionally distraught over the prospect of having an abortion is feeling as she approaches this group of men. In fact, to be brutally honest, I felt anxious as they glared at me when I neared the clinic’s entrance.
But one thing is clear, they were not there as Justice Scalia claimed, “to comfort women.” They wanted to intimidate women to not enter the clinic.
Besides this group, there were a few women who would respectfully approach pregnant women in the vein of “sidewalk counselors.” While they were friendly, their agenda was clear: To convince every woman not to have an abortion. They handed out pamphlets explaining alternatives to abortion. They even offered free sonograms to pregnant women in a van parked outside the clinic. As one “counselor” explained to me, “Once a women sees her baby, she will never have an abortion.”
Finally, there was a vigil of about ten people standing hand in hand across the street form the clinic praying quietly. They didn’t engage with anyone but they would pray louder as women approached.
And in the midst of this sea of people screaming, counseling and praying were a group of about eight volunteers donning yellow jackets that read, “Pro-choice clinic escort.” These people—whom one of the “sidewalk counselors” referred to as “deathscorts”—would safeguard the women entering the clinic, at times even forming a human shield around them.
What was taking place at this clinic in northern New Jersey was not an isolated event. These battles are playing out across the country. Most are peaceful but since 1975 there have been over 4,700 incidents of abortion-clinic violence including arson, bombings and even murder. In fact, one out of five reproductive healthcare facilities has been subjected to anti-abortion violence.
After being at this clinic for only an hour, it was clear that Justice Scalia’s description of what was taking place outside abortion clinics was woefully incomplete. Was he wildly uniformed or intentionally creating a false narrative to support his own political beliefs?
But what I can tell you with great certainty is that the people I observed were not “counselors,” but protesters. They were not trying to “comfort,” but to prevent abortions. And to be honest, I doubt any one of them would deny that.
The Supreme Court decision regarding the Massachusetts law is due in June. The question is will the other Justices be taken in by the fairy tale being spun by people like Scalia or will they open their eyes to what is really happening outside abortion clinics on a daily basis? The decision they render will answer that question.
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