Choosing the life

The locations may change, but the sidewalk clashes continue between pro-life activists and abortion-clinic escorts

Pro-life protester Murray Lewis on the front-line in the sidewalk wars.

Pro-life protester Murray Lewis on the front-line in the sidewalk wars.

Photo by Larry Dalton

For years the same scene has played out on the sidewalk in front of the Women’s Health Specialists building on Folsom Avenue—a scene that recently forced the abortion clinic to find a new home when its lease wasn’t renewed.

A handful of pro-life activists gather at about 9 a.m. with signs reading things like “MOMMY DON’T HURT ME,” and poster-sized photos of dead fetuses. On a day in late August, one protester is even dressed as the Grim Reaper, wearing a mask and black robe, and holding a plastic scythe and baby doll.

The scene is relatively quiet when it’s just the protesters, but it becomes clamorous whenever a car pulls into the clinic parking lot. The protesters swarm toward the car, shouting and thrusting pamphlets toward the windows. They yell, “Love your baby, Mom!” and “Don’t let them kill your child!” One shouts, “We’ll help you, Mom!” and hollers that he will pay the patient $5,000 if she will turn around and put her baby up for adoption. Several protesters pull out video cameras to capture the scene.

Simultaneously, a group of volunteer clinic escorts rushes to get between the patient and the protesters. The escorts hold up large sheets of cardboard to block the protesters’ signs, and turn on a leaf blower to drown out the yelling. One tries to out-shout a protester by hollering the children’s song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

The escorts quickly lead the patient from the car to the clinic door, blocking the protesters’ messages as much as possible. The patient disappears inside, and the scene becomes calm again.

Often just inches from one another, the protesters and clinic escorts relive this same antagonistic experience over and over again, every weekend. On the sidewalk, there is no real dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice activists. No longer fighting each other, these groups now seem to be fighting for the hearts and minds of women seeking abortions, as well as those of the general public.

The pro-lifers won a minor victory when they forced Women’s Health Specialists to uproot, but the sidewalk war continues without end. Both sides agree that the conflicts are unpleasant, yet the same individuals continue to show upsome for more than 15 years.

Why do they do it? And what do they hope to gain?

Barrel-chested Don Blythe holds a giant photo of a bloody fetus. Blythe has been protesting abortion on the sidewalks for 17 years and says he and the other “sidewalk counselors” have two specific goals in mind: “We try to make people in the community aware of the fact that there are child-killing centers all over the Sacramento area. … And we want to try to persuade the couples that are going into the abortion clinic to consider the alternatives.”

He admits that the constant tension on the sidewalks can be emotionally draining. Passing motorists frequently shout or make hostile gestures and have even thrown tomatoes and gasoline on protesters.

“I don’t want anybody flipping me off,” Blythe says. “I like people.” From his perspective, however, dealing with the hostility of passers-by is a minor inconvenience compared with the accomplishments of the protesters.

“They’re flipping off a guy who has been a part of a group of people that has saved 2,000-plus babies in the past 17 years,” he says with real pride. “For every guy that flips us off, we get someone who tells us, ‘Hey thanks for being out here, I appreciate what you do. … My daughter changed her mind, and I have this grandson that I love and adore.’”

Murray Lewis, another protester, has been demonstrating on the sidewalks with Blythe for 15 years. Slightly built and soft-spoken, he says he also dislikes the sidewalk environment but is motivated by his own past experience with abortion.

“I don’t like confrontation. … I don’t see myself doing this except that my own baby was killed 31 years ago. Once I began to size all that up, I thought I could help somebody else making the same mistake I did.” He adds, “I never get up Saturday morning wanting to come out here. Never. Never.”

Both men have faced more than obscene gestures in response to their protest activities. Blythe and Lewis were named in a lawsuit filed by the Women’s Health Specialists (formerly the Feminist Women’s Health Center) in 1995. The lawsuit sought to limit demonstrators’ activities at the clinic’s prior location on J Street and resulted in an injunction that created a 20-foot buffer zone for protesters, barred them from the front door area and parking lot, and barred their video cameras.

Shauna Heckert, director of Women’s Health Specialists, says the injunction did not carry to the clinic’s subsequent locations, but the clinic could seek another injunction in the future. Though the process is lengthy and complicated, Heckert says, “We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.”

Recent legislation in California takes the step of adopting the federal Freedom of Access to Entrances (FACE) Act into state law, but pro-choice advocates say its language is too ambiguous to be enforced by local police. “You’re not supposed to intimidate or harass. You’re not supposed to block entrances, and you’re not supposed to prevent someone from coming in. Well, that language is somewhat vague. What does that really mean?” says Heckert.

Pro-lifer Lewis argues that FACE is biased in that it doesn’t protect pro-life protesters who are assaulted during the course of legal demonstrations in front of clinics.

Some pro-choice advocates think a better solution would be a city ordinance that applies to all clinics. Ordinances in cities such as San Francisco and Santa Barbara outline specific rules for protesters around abortion clinics, making it easier for protesters, escorts, and local police to follow and enforce one clear set of rules at all clinic locations.

Pro-choice activist and clinic escort Lindsay Wanek (standing)on the front-line in the sidewalk wars.

Photo by Larry Dalton

In the meantime, Women’s Health Specialists are willing to move, mobilize volunteers, and do whatever else is needed to continue to provide reproductive health services to women, including abortions.

A major strategy in dealing with protesters is the use of volunteer clinic escorts. Escorts assist patients into and out of the clinic and keep an eye on protesters’ activities. However, escorts are also not eager to face the weekly conflict, and some who attempt escorting decide not to return after the first day.

Like the protesters, escorts also report incidents of violence and hostility. Sometimes the husband or boyfriend of a patient will shout back at the protesters, and occasionally the altercation becomes physical. Protesters insist that clinic sympathizers and escorts are the aggressors. Escorts disagree, saying the protesters usually start the trouble.

Clinic escort Greg Elvine-Kreis describes how he was wrestled to the ground by a pro-life protester after an exchange of heated words. One of only a few male escorts, Elvine-Kreis admits to having made a vulgar insult to the protester, but says the response was unjustified.

“Those words alone caused him to attack me,” he said. “He came at me, punched me in the face, put me in a headlock, and threw me to the ground.” Police were summoned to the scene and took a report, but no further action was taken.

Despite the unfriendly sidewalk environment, the regular escorts seem as determined to return as the protesters.

“It’s hard sitting out there with those people,” escort Lindsay Wanek admits. “I certainly believe that this is a woman’s right to choose and that I will make sure they know that they’re supported in this community and that they can safely access the clinic. So, knowing that I’m going out there for the women, that helps. That makes me want to do it.”

Tanisha Searle, an escort for Planned Parenthood, says she is motivated by her past experience as a patient. Searle had an abortion in another state nearly 10 years ago and was harassed by pro-life activists.

“We had rocks thrown at the car, and I got down on the floor of the car … and covered my head with a blanket so they couldn’t see who I was. After the procedure, my mom and people had to carry me out to the car through a back entrance, so we could escape, because they broke our windshield and damaged our car. That’s what really made me get involved.”

She explains, “They made me feel that I was doing something horribly wrong, even though I knew this was the best decision for me at 14 or 15. … But it does tug at you because they’re calling you a murderer. That was terrifying.” Now, says Searle, she is compelled to protect other women from intimidation and harassment by pro-life protesters. “I’m tired of watching them completely destroy these women,” she says.

Heckert says, “For our women coming in, even having one protester out there with a sign is disconcerting. [This is a] very emotional time in their life. They’re making a decision that maybe in a better time they wouldn’t have to make. This is really upsetting to the women.”

Clinic escorts have a particular problem with protesters using video cameras, saying they are intended to intimidate women who are seeking confidential services. The protesters say they want to talk to the women, not intimidate them, and insist that they do not videotape individual patients. Instead, they say, the cameras are used only to protect themselves and collect evidence of attacks against them.

Even if they did videotape patients, says Blythe, “So what?” He and Lewis say it’s not illegal, and, in any case, is a petty complaint compared with Blythe calls the severity of “a human life being snuffed out.” Blythe insists, “We’re not violating any laws.” At the same time, he says, “We’re not here to be sweethearts. We’re here to tell people, ‘They’re killing babies.’ And we’re here to talk couples out of killing babies.”

Though pro-choice advocates say they detest the protesters’ actions, they also argue that the protesters are not successful in preventing abortions. Heckert says, “The anti-abortion movement has not been successful. This strategy of fear and intimidation has not stopped women from getting abortions because women need abortions. And when a woman needs an abortion, she’s going to get one. … That decision has already been made.”

Pro-life protesters disagree. “We have a lot of women that we have talked with outside of abortion clinics who have changed their minds. … We have thousands,” Blythe says. Both he and Lewis describe specific children whose parents they personally talked out of an abortion.

One thing is certain: The protesters create real headaches for the Women’s Health Specialists and their neighbors. When its lease on the Folsom Avenue building ran out this summer, it was not renewed. Building co-owner Greg Parry withholds comment on whether or not he was relieved to see them go but acknowledges, “There certainly were complaints from the neighbors. To be honest, [there were complaints] about both sides, about the scene in general, and the state of the parking lot, the state of the property.”

Several clinic escorts feel that the move was due to the protester problem, but Heckert has a more positive take on it, saying “[The lease] didn’t get picked up again, and we also decided that we wanted to move. The good news is that our clinic is growing. Women like our services … and we’ve actually outgrown our facility [on Folsom].” The new space on the corner of Alta Arden and Wright Streets, she says, offers more space and more privacy for incoming patients.

Yet Heckert acknowledges that dealing with protesters is an ongoing issue for the clinic when looking for space. “Our little community in East Sac is incredibly supportive of us, but they hate the picketers. … Absolutely, we have had trouble being able to rent space because of the fact that we get picketed. They come with us.”

Heckert is right. The picketers do come with the abortion providers. When the clinic recently opened its doors for the first weekend at the new Alta Arden location, it only took the protesters half an hour to find and appear at the new location.

Protester Lewis explains, “Our goal is resisting. If you can slow the machine down that’s doing an evil, then that becomes an objective. … And making it more difficult for them makes it less likely they’ll continue.

“We’ll show up wherever they relocate," he promises.