The morning after
Roseville clinic struggles with ‘increasingly invasive’ pro-life protests
It is 9 a.m. on a surprisingly warm winter day. While cars are zipping past all of the usual suburban destinations on Sunrise Avenue in Roseville, discontent is brewing in a business park just out of view of the busy street. Past the uniformly cut hedges and one-story business offices, 11 sign-wielding seniors line the end of Sunrise Office Park’s drive. They are your first indication that something unusual is happening in this otherwise quiet business park. This medical complex is home to Roseville’s only Planned Parenthood clinic. Today is the day outsiders descend on this parking lot. Today is abortion day.
More than three decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion still provokes its supporters and foes into action. And the action has been getting heavier in Roseville lately, as pro-choice activists have begun to arrive to counter the well-established anti-abortion protesters who gather there. Planned Parenthood is struggling with the escalating conflict and is now contemplating a ban on the parking-lot protests.
Many of the local pro-life protesters are veterans who stake out territory at other clinics, too. They prop up professionally made signs representing their cause. Some showcase pictures of dismembered fetuses, while some display smiling and healthy (and white) babies. Today, there is a large black-and-white drawing of Jesus holding a fearful woman in his arms.
Among the most vocal of the pro-life group is Wynette Sills. It was Sills who precipitated the firing of teacher Marie Bain from the Catholic Loretto High School. Sills and Bain met on the front lines of another clinic protest, where Bain was working as a clinic escort, helping keep protesters away from patients.
Today, Sills wears a utility apron chock-full of brochures and carries a sign reading, “Abortion hurts for a lifetime.” Sills said she stands here “in ministry, offering a young woman facing an unplanned pregnancy anything she might need so that she would be better able to choose life for her unborn child.” Today she is ministering to a man in a white SUV waiting outside the clinic. She implores of him, “Choose life, Dad. Let your precious son live.” In her attempts to get him to intervene with the abortion that likely is happening inside, she tells him, through his blaring music, that “it takes a man to raise a child” and that “no fancy truck is more important than your wife.” The man in the truck never responds to Sills. Instead he waits, alone, with the windows up.
Opposing Sills and her crew are people like 32-year-old Dali Badgett. She began showing up to counter the pro-life perspective after her 9-year-old son was scared by the image of an aborted fetus when one of the pro-lifers had taken a sign out to Sunrise Avenue. An enraged Badgett dropped her son off at school and came back to give the protesters “a piece of my mind.” Instead she found a newly formed group of sympathetic pro-choice advocates in the parking lot, so she joined their counter-protest. Badgett says she is trying not to argue with the pro-lifers, but her fervor and assertive manner often lead her to verbal conflicts. Badgett invokes her own childhood to explain her pro-choice views: “My entire butt was black and blue because I was put into a foster home and they didn’t love me; they didn’t care about me.” Now she carries a homemade sign reading, “We support your choice.”
Along with the seniors, many middle-aged men meet out here to promote the pro-life agenda. They carry signs, cameras and Bibles. One man, who would identify himself only as Pete, hands out plastic, flesh-colored replicas of 12-week-old fetuses.
The conflict brewing in the parking lot has not gone unnoticed by Planned Parenthood employees. The week marking the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Katharyn McLearan, director of public affairs for the Sacramento region, came out to survey the scene. She says it’s the same people who show up week after week, though in recent months there has been “escalating behavior,” and the protest activities have become “increasingly invasive.” With the increased activity, the clinic is recognizing that “having escorts there is not enough,” she added. Trying to balance the freedom of speech while providing easy access for its patients, Planned Parenthood is considering all of its options.
In 2004, the Sacramento City Council acted, in Planned Parenthood’s favor, to address the demonstrations outside clinics by passing a “bubble ordinance,” which prohibits protesters from approaching patients within 100 feet of a health-care facility’s entrance. At the Roseville clinic, individuals seeking services face an onslaught of protest activity right up to the clinic’s door. Planned Parenthood is weighing the possibility of enforcing a boundary that would bar anybody from assembling on the property who doesn’t have official business there. This exclusion would prohibit not only pro-life activists from demonstrating there, but also pro-choice ones. But in the meantime, Planned Parenthood will continue to enlist volunteers to escort patients to and from the door.
One of the three blue-vested clinic escorts out today is 61-year-old Zohreh Whitaker. A mother and a pacifist, she has a quiet demeanor and a gentle voice. Whitaker keeps a mostly blank face as she strolls the parking lot waiting to assist patients, but her humble presentation belies her deeply held conviction. Whitaker, who is pro-choice, decided less than a year ago that she should “put her money where her mouth is.” So she began to volunteer. She carries a quiet contempt for the pro-life activities she witnesses each week. “I think it’s abhorrent. I think it has nothing to do with Christianity. As far as I am concerned, these people are not practicing what they preach.” As far as her work goes, “it has nothing to do with Christianity or non-Christianity; it’s just about helping people.” Whitaker sees the patients she assists mostly as kids in turmoil who need help. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for these young people to have to deal with these signs. Sometimes they call them ‘murderer,’ and sometimes they say to the man, ‘be a man.’ That is not right.” So, Whitaker arrives early each week to escort and doesn’t leave until every protester is gone.
Just after 10 a.m., the crowd begins to disperse. The quiet seniors are the first to leave, followed by Sills, who rushes off in her minivan. One by one, they load up their signs and give tentative hugs, and everyone makes his way back onto the bustling Roseville street until it’s just Whitaker and an unarmed security guard. It’s after 11 a.m. when the patients—the women whose choices everyone was so concerned about—begin to trickle out of the clinic. They walk slowly, looking exhausted, out onto a now-quiet parking lot. Whitaker is there to wave them goodbye. Their choices have been made. They get into waiting cars and drive away.