40 days of hassles

Anti-abortion protesters target a Sacramento clinic—and enlist help from the bishop of Sacramento

Jaime Soto, the bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, protesting outside the Pregnancy Consultation Center in East Sacramento.

Jaime Soto, the bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, protesting outside the Pregnancy Consultation Center in East Sacramento.

Photo By kel munger

To learn more about 40 Days for Life, go to www.40daysforlife.com/sacramento.
To learn more about the services offered at Pregnancy Consultation Center, go to www.pregnancyconsultation.com.

Jaime Soto, the bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, paced quietly on the sidewalk outside the Pregnancy Consultation Center, a few feet down from three other people who had gathered to protest the abortion services offered at the private East Sacramento clinic.

Dubbed 40 Days for Life, the demonstration was timed this year to coincide with the Lenten season, from February 13 through March 31, when many Christian denominations prepare for the Holy Week preceding Easter by praying, fasting, performing charitable works and renouncing earthly pleasures. The “40 days” refers to the length of time that Jesus was believed to have spent in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan.

So last week, the bishop shared the sidewalk protest with others who oppose abortion. While two men and a woman held signs and passed out fliers near the intersection of 53rd and F streets, dozens of people entered the building—it houses cardiologists, endocrinologists, ophthalmologists, obstetricians and gynecologists—and the bishop walked quietly, a rosary in his hand.

Soto served as co-adjutor bishop of Sacramento until the retirement of Bishop William K. Weigand in 2008. Before that, he was an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Diocese of Orange County. In addition to opposing abortion, Soto has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage.

“There’s religious significance for us … and the idea of providing a prayerful and a quiet witness to our belief in the dignity of life, particularly around places where the practice of abortion continues,” Soto said.

Not everyone agrees. In fact, 40 Days for Life—as evidenced by the presence of the bishop—has the imprint of a particular religious creed. Included as part of the event is a series of special worship services including all-night “Gethsemane Prayer Vigils” at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Sacramento.

According to Soto, religious views are missing from public discussion of important issues, including abortion. “What happens a lot of times today is that religion as part of public discourse is being pushed out,” he said. “There are many people who say that religion has no place in public discourse.”

From his perspective, opposing abortion “is not a religious position.”

“It is a reasonable position. What we hold to from what our faith tells us is also what reason tells us,” he said. That means that participating in 40 Days for Life—even in front of a private medical practice that serves people of all persuasions—“is both religious and reasonable.”

Soto pointed to the movement to end slavery in the United States, which involved many religious people. “In many ways, we believe that we are in that kind of a struggle right now. We have a religious fervor about it, but we also have a reasonable argument for why America should treat women better than the practice of abortion.”

Down the sidewalk from the bishop, local anti-abortion activist Julian Woodruff questioned a woman’s right to abort her fetus.

“I think that some of the public is of the opinion that a woman has a right to her own body,” he said. “The body, in the instance of a woman being pregnant, becomes that baby’s residence. So the woman is evicting this other human being from its residence.”

People need to be educated about abortion because they don’t know the facts, Woodruff said. “Life begins at conception. When the sperm and the egg unite, that’s when human development begins. It’s a human. It has 46 chromosomes, and it’s going to develop into a human being. It’s not going to develop into a rose. It’s not going to develop into an orangutan.”

Well, maybe. Some pregnancies result in chromosomal abnormalities, and some of those defects involve fetuses with more—or less—than the 46 chromosomes Woodruff cites. Second-trimester abortions are often the result of serious genetic abnormalities and birth defects. The earliest that some of these defects can be detected is in the second trimester, the period between 12 and 21 weeks, when terminating the pregnancy is more difficult and often requires a two-day procedure.

That’s where Pregnancy Consultation Center, which performs second trimester abortions, enters the picture. In a story about the clinic in SN&R six years ago (“Inside the abortion clinic” by Chrisanne Beckner; January 29, 2004), a staff writer described the inner workings of the clinic, as well as the sort of prenatal defects observed there—as varied as hearts that are malformed and fetuses in which the internal organs are developing outside the body.

Wynette Sills, the Sacramento coordinator for 40 Days for Life, suggested to SN&R that terminating the pregnancy in such a case might not be the best choice. “Are you really sure that an abortion in those later months is going to be your best emotional choice?” she said. “If the baby is going to die anyway, might it not be better to let whatever is going to happen happen?”

While terminating a pregnancy as the result of an abnormality is a worst-case scenario, most second-trimester abortions are not performed because of defects, medical problems with the pregnancy or to save the life of the mother. According to a 2007 study from the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton in Great Britain, the major reasons women wait until the second trimester are because they either did not know they were pregnant or misjudged how far the pregnancy had progressed. These delays in seeking an abortion are often complicated by difficulty arranging and paying for the procedure, which can be complicated further by unstable personal relationships, including fear of parents or partners.

Sills told SN&R that 40 Days for Life, which has been active in Sacramento since 2007, had selected the Pregnancy Consultation Center because it “is a place that is very busy and also does abortions through six months, and had not really received sustained attention.”

The 40 Days for Life protest in East Sacramento that included Soto seemed quiet and contemplative, which was quite different from the scene at the Planned Parenthood clinic a short hop across the grid. There, a regular protester that volunteers call “Old Yeller” was, well, yelling.

When a woman got out of her car, he began to shout at her not to kill her baby and that Jesus loved her. He wore a sandwich board with a picture of a perfect, smiling baby on it, which he lifted and waved toward the doors of the clinic. The volunteers lined up between him and the entering patients.

Raquel Simental, the public affairs director for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, told SN&R that the clinic has had no increase in the number of protesters recently. “These are the usual protesters; they’re just coming a little more frequently.”