Our cultural gaslighting of women who miscarry before 20 weeks

In early 2019, I miscarried one of my twins. I had already known how common miscarriage is, and I suspected that when I began talking publicly about my miscarriage, people I’ve known for years would quietly let me know they had also had pregnancy losses. It was bittersweet for that prediction to come true; their understanding and support meant a lot to me, but I was sorry to learn of their own heartbreaks.

It helped me process to talk about my lost babe with others who have been through it. I joined some online support groups for pregnancy loss where I found additional consolation and connection. Miscarriage is common, but people don’t speak about it much publicly. As I talked privately with so many other women about their losses, I began to see why. 

First, many women feel guilty that they miscarried; they worry that some action they took caused their miscarriage, even though there’s usually no reason to believe that’s the case. Some even think the miscarriage is some kind of fate—a punishment for some past mistake or a reflection of their inability to parent. It’s terrible. Grief is hard enough on its own, without added layers of guilt and shame.

Second, many women worry their grief is stupid or irrational. They experience a lot of gaslighting—nearly all of it, I think, unintentional—from medical personnel, friends, and family. And the lack of compassion seems to get more pronounced the earlier in pregnancy we miscarry.  

Research has found that “gestational age was not shown to affect the degree, intensity, or duration of the grief, anxiety, or depression” for mothers who had miscarried, and yet one of the hallmarks of early miscarriage is “the minimization of the loss by others.” My pregnancy loss groups regularly feature posts lamenting when loved ones make well-meaning but dismissive comments (“You can always try again.” “At least you weren’t further along.” “At least it wasn’t an actual baby.”)

Even therapists don’t always react appropriately. I lost my babe around 6 weeks. The first counselor I saw commented about how that gestational age is “super early.” During our session she mentioned more than once that I may find my grief over miscarrying is a surface emotion for other, deeper issues—seeming to imply losing a baby, on its own, wouldn’t normally warrant this much anguish. At the end of our session, she said “Well I’m glad to work with you, and we can work on processing your… well I guess it’s like a miscarriage, isn’t it?” (I did not continue seeing her.)

These responses are tragic but not especially shocking. Thanks to our fiery, never-ending national abortion debate, there are countless voices loudly and incessantly insisting that human embryos and fetuses are not babies. Worse, they often go further and imply that viewing preborn humans as children is ignorant or superstitious. Example:

Original tweet here.

This kind of condescension insults and silences people (pro-choice and pro-life alike) who grieve their miscarriages as the deaths of their children. 

Original tweet here.

In an article about miscarriage and post-traumatic stress, the BBC interviewed a woman whose reaction underscores the problem:

Toni Edwards-Beighton, 36, says she felt she was losing her mind after a miscarriage in 2016. “I felt my grief was wrong because it wasn’t a real baby – but I was in complete shock,” she says. … “It wasn’t ’tissue’ to me, it was our baby,” Toni says.

My miscarriage broke my heart, but stories like the above make me grateful I have so many pro-life friends and family. I have people in my life who affirm the value and significance of my lost babe not merely as a potential child who will not come to be, but as my actual child, once living and now gone. I have never felt my grief is misplaced or irrational. I have never struggled to reconcile my overwhelming instinct about the reality and value of my child with cultural messaging or social circles persistently arguing otherwise. I have had four children; three of them are with me now, and one is gone. The grief is difficult, but I’m thankful I don’t have to also navigate the gaslighting.

Unfortunately, in addition to dealing with dismissive comments in their interpersonal relationships, people struggling through miscarriage often also encounter insensitive responses from the medical community.

In her recent article “Hospital attitude adds to couple’s heartache,” Sarah Terzo highlights these themes. Lindsey and April Woods lost their daughter through miscarriage in the second trimester, and their grief was only compounded when medical staff repeatedly referred to their baby as “tissue” and—only after persistent requests—provided their daughter’s remains for burial in a bright orange biohazard bucket.

This apparently indifferent approach has been all too common in medical settings. In 2010, Critical Care Nursing Quarterly published “Proof of life: a protocol for pregnant women who experience pre-20-week perinatal loss,” in which the authors conducted a literature review and found there were no protocols for the emotional care for women who experience pregnancy loss prior to 20 weeks gestation. The authors suggested options for better respecting the experience of loss (such as offering a prayer, moment of silence, naming ceremony, referral for perinatal support groups, etc.). But implementation of such protocols has been slow. A 2017 article in the Journal of Perinatology explained that, in an emergency room setting, women under 20 weeks gestation who miscarry get appropriate physical care, but “psychological and bereavement support they need is provided less consistently, or, more often, not at all.” The research found that when women do not receive appropriate emotional and psychological support, their grief is deeper and longer-lasting, and their losses are more likely to trigger unresolved grief and depression during subsequent pregnancies. In contrast, providing proper emotional support to women who have miscarried improves both their mental health outcomes and medical personnel’s work satisfaction.

To that end, in the last few years key stakeholders in emergency room management and pregnancy loss bereavement have worked together to create a position paper addressing care for women miscarrying—at any gestational age. The paper details best principles and practices, emphasizing sensitive and dignified care for the family such as offering bereavement care and culturally competent options for disposition of the child’s remains.

This is a step in the right direction, and I’m hopeful more medical staff can access the education and training needed to better care for people mourning miscarriage. I’m less optimistic about positive changes in our culture as a whole. It’s difficult to see how the abortion rights narrative—that prenatal life is effectively irrelevant—can coexist with our lived experiences of our offspring alive, then gone. I expect as long as so much of society is incentivized to dehumanize our children, my pregnancy loss groups will continue to have posts like this:

“It is just a fetus, tissue, they say
But I know better
It was my child, my baby
A living being
A part of my family”

Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

“I’m here to listen, not to judge.” Interview with a young Catholic sidewalk counselor

Maria on the right.
Signs read “I’m here to listen, not to judge”
and “We bring hope, love, and support.”



How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?

I got started with sidewalk advocacy when I joined my pro-life student group in college: Bama Students for Life! I had learned that the abortion facility less than a mile from our campus was the busiest facility in Alabama; that fact was a big catalyst in my pro-life advocacy. At the time, the facility performed nearly 70 abortions a week. So many were being killed, and I felt I could no longer stay silent.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

On Saturday mornings I go to the closest abortion facility. I’ve coordinated with some friends from my church who also go, and there’s usually a handful of other local pro-lifers present, so on a regular Saturday there’s about 8–10 people out there. Because there are so many of us, we’ve gotten in the habit of splitting the group up across the sidewalk: groups of two or three will stand on either side of the entrance to the small parking lot to do outreach, and four or five people will stand a little further away to pray. Those doing outreach try to approach the people in their cars as they drive in or out. We also call out to people walking from their cars to the building, saying things like, “I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through right now, but I’d like to hear your story, and I want to know if there’s any way I can help. I’ve got information about free local resources that I would love to share with you.”

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?

For me, the most difficult thing is knowing what to say. I stumble over my words all the time, and talking to strangers makes me extremely nervous. I deal with that by trying to imagine what I would want to hear if I was the woman walking into the facility. I practice saying things to myself in the car on the way over. Obviously each person is unique, so I don’t want to sound scripted, but practicing certain phrases helps me feel more comfortable.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?

Yes! Lately I’ve been using the “This is not your only choice” pamphlet from Human Life Alliance. I also have several handwritten cards that I use if someone seems like they’re going to change their mind and leave; the cards list the closest local resources and include my personal phone number so they can reach out if they want to.

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?

Yes — On the cards I give out I’ve list a couple different pro-life pregnancy care centers and a place that can help with housing. I also have the contact info for those places saved in my phone, along with information about what services they provide and whether they have any Spanish-speaking employees.

Do you have religious beliefs? If so, how do those influence your work? How do you handle religious differences between you and the people you meet?


I do! I’m Catholic and my faith influences my work in that I make a point to pray before, during, and after sidewalk advocacy. That said, I agree with the information in Sidewalk Advocates For Life’s training guide, which suggests the following topic progression: first, address the mother and her crisis; second, talk about her baby; and last, you could ask about her faith background (if she has one). Rehumanize International also talks about this progression under “Dialogue Tips” in our handouts here. Most women, in my experience at least, are in crisis mode. They want to know first and foremost that you genuinely care about them and you want to help them through this crisis.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?

I get this rarely; the vast majority of people coming into the facility I go to are there for abortion. However, I typically respond explaining there are so many other organizations that provide birth control that don’t kill human beings.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?

That they’re scared because the pregnancy was unexpected, or that they don’t have the finances to take care of the child.

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?

I don’t have ongoing relationships directly, but one of the friends from church who goes with me usually stays in contact with them.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

I see them pretty rarely, and when I do, I struggle to know what to say beyond, “You don’t have to work here.”

Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?

I’ve witnessed my fair share of bad sidewalk advocates — so I won’t deny that they exist — but in my experience, the good greatly outnumber the bad. When I was in college, our student group made a point to try to convince other local advocates to use more loving and helpful signs. It didn’t always work. There was one man who’d carry a large sign with a swastika comparing abortion to the holocaust, and he refused to get rid of it because he had painted it himself. In those instances we distance ourselves as much as possible and carry signs like “Here to listen, not to judge.”

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?

It’s my understanding that buffer zone laws were created in response to some extreme measures taken by pro-lifers (like chaining themselves to the doors of facilities to keep people from going in). Obviously I don’t like these laws because they hinder our ability as peaceful sidewalk advocates to reach the people going in for abortion. When I started getting into sidewalk advocacy, the facility we went to was in a medical office park, so there was a large parking lot between us and the people going in. It makes it really tough to seem compassionate when you have to yell in order to be heard. There was a lot of shouting “GOOD MORNING!” those days.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

Expect to wait around a lot. It takes patience. But also stay prepared so you’re not caught off guard when someone actually takes the time to talk to you and needs help. Preparation is key.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

Donate to local pregnancy centers! If you don’t have the funds, ask if they need volunteers. You can also do a lot of outreach online, in forums and on social media where many people will ask questions if they’re considering abortion. Make your pro-life stance clear to social media friends, and in a nonjudgmental way; you want to make sure they know you’re a safe person to reach out to if they ever find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. If you’re a praying type, pray for the people out on the sidewalk.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?

I think the pro-life movement is vibrant and powerful, and that as a whole, we are most successful when we allow for a diversity of opinion on unrelated issues and focus on the human rights injustice at hand. Let’s spread information about the truth of abortion. Let’s find ways to help parents considering it and heal those who have already gone through with it. Let’s debate which political strategy is going to be most likely to truly eliminate abortion. Basically, I believe the movement would be better if it were tied less closely to specific party platforms. I know too many people who were raised in a pro-life, conservative household, grew up, realized their politics didn’t align with their parents’, and decided that for that reason they could no longer be pro-life. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue, and we have to remind people of that.


Read more interviews:

Sidewalk counseling training resources:

“I’m here to listen, not to judge.” Interview with a young Catholic sidewalk counselor

Maria on the right.
Signs read “I’m here to listen, not to judge”
and “We bring hope, love, and support.”



How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?

I got started with sidewalk advocacy when I joined my pro-life student group in college: Bama Students for Life! I had learned that the abortion facility less than a mile from our campus was the busiest facility in Alabama; that fact was a big catalyst in my pro-life advocacy. At the time, the facility performed nearly 70 abortions a week. So many were being killed, and I felt I could no longer stay silent.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

On Saturday mornings I go to the closest abortion facility. I’ve coordinated with some friends from my church who also go, and there’s usually a handful of other local pro-lifers present, so on a regular Saturday there’s about 8–10 people out there. Because there are so many of us, we’ve gotten in the habit of splitting the group up across the sidewalk: groups of two or three will stand on either side of the entrance to the small parking lot to do outreach, and four or five people will stand a little further away to pray. Those doing outreach try to approach the people in their cars as they drive in or out. We also call out to people walking from their cars to the building, saying things like, “I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through right now, but I’d like to hear your story, and I want to know if there’s any way I can help. I’ve got information about free local resources that I would love to share with you.”

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?

For me, the most difficult thing is knowing what to say. I stumble over my words all the time, and talking to strangers makes me extremely nervous. I deal with that by trying to imagine what I would want to hear if I was the woman walking into the facility. I practice saying things to myself in the car on the way over. Obviously each person is unique, so I don’t want to sound scripted, but practicing certain phrases helps me feel more comfortable.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?

Yes! Lately I’ve been using the “This is not your only choice” pamphlet from Human Life Alliance. I also have several handwritten cards that I use if someone seems like they’re going to change their mind and leave; the cards list the closest local resources and include my personal phone number so they can reach out if they want to.

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?

Yes — On the cards I give out I’ve list a couple different pro-life pregnancy care centers and a place that can help with housing. I also have the contact info for those places saved in my phone, along with information about what services they provide and whether they have any Spanish-speaking employees.

Do you have religious beliefs? If so, how do those influence your work? How do you handle religious differences between you and the people you meet?


I do! I’m Catholic and my faith influences my work in that I make a point to pray before, during, and after sidewalk advocacy. That said, I agree with the information in Sidewalk Advocates For Life’s training guide, which suggests the following topic progression: first, address the mother and her crisis; second, talk about her baby; and last, you could ask about her faith background (if she has one). Rehumanize International also talks about this progression under “Dialogue Tips” in our handouts here. Most women, in my experience at least, are in crisis mode. They want to know first and foremost that you genuinely care about them and you want to help them through this crisis.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?

I get this rarely; the vast majority of people coming into the facility I go to are there for abortion. However, I typically respond explaining there are so many other organizations that provide birth control that don’t kill human beings.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?

That they’re scared because the pregnancy was unexpected, or that they don’t have the finances to take care of the child.

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?

I don’t have ongoing relationships directly, but one of the friends from church who goes with me usually stays in contact with them.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

I see them pretty rarely, and when I do, I struggle to know what to say beyond, “You don’t have to work here.”

Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?

I’ve witnessed my fair share of bad sidewalk advocates — so I won’t deny that they exist — but in my experience, the good greatly outnumber the bad. When I was in college, our student group made a point to try to convince other local advocates to use more loving and helpful signs. It didn’t always work. There was one man who’d carry a large sign with a swastika comparing abortion to the holocaust, and he refused to get rid of it because he had painted it himself. In those instances we distance ourselves as much as possible and carry signs like “Here to listen, not to judge.”

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?

It’s my understanding that buffer zone laws were created in response to some extreme measures taken by pro-lifers (like chaining themselves to the doors of facilities to keep people from going in). Obviously I don’t like these laws because they hinder our ability as peaceful sidewalk advocates to reach the people going in for abortion. When I started getting into sidewalk advocacy, the facility we went to was in a medical office park, so there was a large parking lot between us and the people going in. It makes it really tough to seem compassionate when you have to yell in order to be heard. There was a lot of shouting “GOOD MORNING!” those days.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

Expect to wait around a lot. It takes patience. But also stay prepared so you’re not caught off guard when someone actually takes the time to talk to you and needs help. Preparation is key.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

Donate to local pregnancy centers! If you don’t have the funds, ask if they need volunteers. You can also do a lot of outreach online, in forums and on social media where many people will ask questions if they’re considering abortion. Make your pro-life stance clear to social media friends, and in a nonjudgmental way; you want to make sure they know you’re a safe person to reach out to if they ever find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. If you’re a praying type, pray for the people out on the sidewalk.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?

I think the pro-life movement is vibrant and powerful, and that as a whole, we are most successful when we allow for a diversity of opinion on unrelated issues and focus on the human rights injustice at hand. Let’s spread information about the truth of abortion. Let’s find ways to help parents considering it and heal those who have already gone through with it. Let’s debate which political strategy is going to be most likely to truly eliminate abortion. Basically, I believe the movement would be better if it were tied less closely to specific party platforms. I know too many people who were raised in a pro-life, conservative household, grew up, realized their politics didn’t align with their parents’, and decided that for that reason they could no longer be pro-life. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue, and we have to remind people of that.


Read more interviews:

Sidewalk counseling training resources:

The unlikely story of the pro-life author of “Reconsidering Fetal Pain”

[This post is a transcription of a story I told verbally.]

Okay so I want to share this amazing story.

First the background. In the abortion debate there’s controversy over the fetal pain issue. For a long time the prevailing scientific wisdom (though not a consensus) was that fetuses probably couldn’t feel pain before 24 weeks, and maybe even later. And then recently—in January of this year, actually, 2020—an article came out in a well reputed journal—The Journal of Medical Ethics—called “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And there were two things about this article that I found remarkable. The first was that it basically argued that fetuses might experience pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks (so significantly sooner than was previously thought). This possibility has major implications for the abortion debate because something like 10% of abortions happen later than 12-13 weeks, and, you know, what does it mean ethically? So that’s the first major point of this article.

But the other thing about it that was interesting, and the thing that originally caught my eye, is that it was authored by two men who made a point of noting more than once during the article that they do not agree on the abortion debate. One of them is pro-life; one of them is pro-choice. And they were trying to say that their findings and conclusions regarding fetal pain should be considered apart from the politics of abortion, which should be axiomatic but unfortunately is not. Either fetuses can experience pain or they cannot, and we should explore that question regardless of the implications it has, rather than consider the implications and then only explore the question if it’s safe, basically. Anyway, it seems very rare for the two sides of the abortion debate to collaborate on anything, and so it was remarkable to me to see that these two authors who apparently are quite opposed to each other on the abortion issue are with each other on the fetal pain issue.

And I guess I should say: a third important point of the article (that I didn’t realize initially and learned later) is that the pro-choice author, Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, is actually the author of some of the most cited prior work on fetal pain. Specifically, he authored the 2006 British Medical Journal article “Can fetuses feel pain?” in which he argued pain experience may require both neural circuitry (which embryos and early term fetuses lack) and mindful experience (which even late term fetuses don’t yet have). Stuart also co-authored the 2010 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ highly influential research overview “Fetal Awareness,” which argues fetuses can’t feel pain until at least 24 weeks, and possibly not at all during pregnancy, because they are always in a “sleep-like” state. And then in 2020 Stuart co-authored “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which directly contradicts some of his prior work.

So this article is remarkable both because it involves collaboration between pro-life and pro-choice researchers, and because it involves one of the researchers publishing an article that contradicts his prior work, which—even outside the abortion debate—is not very common. So I thought that was fascinating.

Oh, and a distant fourth: it was very well written. I know how difficult it is to communicate technical ideas in layman’s terms that are easy for people to access and read, and it was very well written in that sense too.

So four major takeaways of this article:

  1. It argues that fetuses might feel pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks instead of 24 weeks.
  2. It was coauthored by a pro-life researcher and pro-choice researcher.
  3. The pro-choice author was contradicting his own prior work. And
  4. It was just really well written.

So it definitely caught my attention.

A month later, maybe less, I was on the Secular Pro-Life account on Twitter. And the way I use the account is I mostly just send out original content and try not to spend too much time getting into comment threads and arguments. I just don’t think it’s a very productive use of time, usually. And I don’t usually look at other people’s profiles that much either.

But every now and then if I see someone tweet something I think is particularly clever or funny, I might skim their profile and see if they have more content like that. So I was on Twitter and I saw someone make a comment on a NARAL tweet, I think, that I thought was particularly funny. So I clicked on his profile to see if he had more like that, and the pinned tweet to the top of his profile was this article—”Reconsidering Fetal Pain”—and he had pinned it because he was one of the authors! He was the pro-life author. His name is John Bockmann. And I was a little astounded. I just didn’t think there’d be reason for my circle to cross with his. It never occurred to me to look for him on social media or anything.

But as soon as I saw that he was the pro-life author, I direct messaged him and basically said “I really liked your article. Great work. I would love to ask you some questions about it if you have time.” And he said “Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and email me and I’ll get back to you in the next few days because I’m busy with [whatever].” And so immediately, like in that moment, I emailed him I think a dozen questions off the top of my head about how this article came to be. He indulged me over the next few days and wrote me lengthy responses. Through that back and forth I got to hear more of his story, and I have to say it was fascinating. Very inspiring. And he gave me permission to retell it here.

So, according to John, he was not particularly involved in the abortion debate before. This is one of the remarkable things about this story. I work with pro-life activists all the time, and while I don’t think I know everybody, I know a lot of people or at least have heard of them, and I had never heard of him before. And it turns out he was not affiliated with any pro-life groups. He doesn’t really know a lot of people in the movement. He came at this, from my perspective, totally out of nowhere. He wasn’t especially pro-life—maybe personally pro-life, but hadn’t given it a lot of thought—and a couple things happened that made him change his mind and get more involved.

First, he had children. He got to witness his wife’s pregnancies and the love he felt for his children even before they were born, and that moved him. He felt more passionate and personal about this issue.

Second—and I think this is really important—he saw David Daleiden’s videos about Planned Parenthood’s late-term abortions and selling of fetal body parts. John was just thunderstruck. Horrified. And he really wanted to do something, to be involved somehow. It moved him to want to try to effect some kind of change.

At the time he was in his program to become a military physician assistant, and he had to do a master’s thesis. He was originally going to focus his thesis on obesity. But when the CMP videos came out, John decided he would like to change his project to fetal pain. His thought process was that if we can’t stop late-term abortion from happening, we at least have a responsibility to understand what it means, what it does, and to handle it as humanely as possible. So he started looking into fetal pain.

So that’s the first part of the story: he was moved by his own experiences of fatherhood and his own feelings of love for his preborn children, which I find is an extremely common reason for people to convert to being pro-life. And then also David Daleiden’s videos inspired John. I think this is very important because there’s no way to know how many effects those videos had. I don’t think that they had the effects that Daleiden was hoping for. Planned Parenthood has not disappeared, and if anything they have gone after him very aggressively. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for him, both financially and in terms of the stress of fighting with them. And also the frustration of not seeing them taken down at least a few notches, much less entirely. That’s frustrating, but there’s no way to know who else has been influenced and in what ways, and I imagine that there are countless little interactions that have helped people move more towards our view on things. And you never know which of those interactions, which at the time may seem small, can lead to bigger changes, such as this story—where John was so moved by those videos that he decided to change his thesis and it resulted in a major journal article.

So John Bockmann decided to study fetal pain for his physician assistant program. And in the course of studying that, he read a lot of articles about fetal pain, including ones by Stuart basically saying that fetuses can’t feel pain until about 24 weeks. So John was really involved in that research and very familiar with it when he happened to read a New York Times article in which Stuart seemed to contradict his prior research. I don’t think most people would notice such a contradiction unless they happened to be following his work pretty closely.

And this brings us to the second part of the story that I find moving: I think there are a lot of pro-life people who would view Stuart and authors like him as “the enemy.” I mean he was one of the lead voices basically saying we shouldn’t worry about fetal pain. And if he was wrong, and if it’s true that fetuses feel pain, do you know how many thousands of late-term abortions we perform every year without regard to the suffering that happens before death? It’s of grave moral importance, in my opinion, and I can see how a pro-life person would view Stuart with anger.

But John read Stuart’s work and, instead of lashing out, he did what I would think of as sort of the Josh Brahm approach to the abortion debate: he reached out to Stuart. He emailed and essentially said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve been following your work and I noticed you said this in your interview and it seemed to contradict this aspect of your paper, and I was wondering how you reconcile that? What changed?” And so in May 2016 they started chatting over email. They got to know each other and became friends, which is hugely important. People change their minds through friendship as much as or more than through logic and debate. And in the course of them becoming friends and discussing the fetal pain issue, Stuart changed his mind, or at least thought there might be significant factors that he should address. In February 2018, Stuart was asked to write an article on the current state of fetal pain scholarship, and he reached out to John for input. After much debate and collaboration, they wrote and rewrote their ideas into the article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And as of today, their paper is the 5th most downloaded paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics of all time and in the top 5% of 15M+ research articles scored by Altmetric.

In other words, John Bockmann, who was not particularly involved in the pro-life movement, was moved by fatherhood and the CMP videos to get involved, and when he did get involved he approached the opposition with respect in a spirit of friendship. He didn’t change Stuart’s mind entirely—Stuart is still pro-choice—but he changed Stuart’s mind on fetal pain, and who knows who’s reading that article now? And who knows how it influences their work? Who knows what influence it could have in the long term on the abortion debate? I think John did more than most people ever do, and he did it all because he was curious, respectful, and open. And I just thought it was a wonderful story.

Post script: I asked John to review this blog post for accuracy, and he added this note:

We can find important common ground with our ideological opposites, whether or not any minds change. This ability has huge implications for happiness and meaning, especially with how polarized our world is becoming. We must engage with curiosity, respect, and passion. I want everyone to know this!

John Bockmann

The unlikely story of the pro-life author of “Reconsidering Fetal Pain”

[This post is a transcription of a story I told verbally.]

Okay so I want to share this amazing story.

First the background. In the abortion debate there’s controversy over the fetal pain issue. For a long time the prevailing scientific wisdom (though not a consensus) was that fetuses probably couldn’t feel pain before 24 weeks, and maybe even later. And then recently—in January of this year, actually, 2020—an article came out in a well reputed journal—The Journal of Medical Ethics—called “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And there were two things about this article that I found remarkable. The first was that it basically argued that fetuses might experience pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks (so significantly sooner than was previously thought). This possibility has major implications for the abortion debate because something like 10% of abortions happen later than 12-13 weeks, and, you know, what does it mean ethically? So that’s the first major point of this article.

But the other thing about it that was interesting, and the thing that originally caught my eye, is that it was authored by two men who made a point of noting more than once during the article that they do not agree on the abortion debate. One of them is pro-life; one of them is pro-choice. And they were trying to say that their findings and conclusions regarding fetal pain should be considered apart from the politics of abortion, which should be axiomatic but unfortunately is not. Either fetuses can experience pain or they cannot, and we should explore that question regardless of the implications it has, rather than consider the implications and then only explore the question if it’s safe, basically. Anyway, it seems very rare for the two sides of the abortion debate to collaborate on anything, and so it was remarkable to me to see that these two authors who apparently are quite opposed to each other on the abortion issue are with each other on the fetal pain issue.

And I guess I should say: a third important point of the article (that I didn’t realize initially and learned later) is that the pro-choice author, Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, is actually the author of some of the most cited prior work on fetal pain. Specifically, he authored the 2006 British Medical Journal article “Can fetuses feel pain?” in which he argued pain experience may require both neural circuitry (which embryos and early term fetuses lack) and mindful experience (which even late term fetuses don’t yet have). Stuart also co-authored the 2010 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ highly influential research overview “Fetal Awareness,” which argues fetuses can’t feel pain until at least 24 weeks, and possibly not at all during pregnancy, because they are always in a “sleep-like” state. And then in 2020 Stuart co-authored “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which directly contradicts some of his prior work.

So this article is remarkable both because it involves collaboration between pro-life and pro-choice researchers, and because it involves one of the researchers publishing an article that contradicts his prior work, which—even outside the abortion debate—is not very common. So I thought that was fascinating.

Oh, and a distant fourth: it was very well written. I know how difficult it is to communicate technical ideas in layman’s terms that are easy for people to access and read, and it was very well written in that sense too.

So four major takeaways of this article:

  1. It argues that fetuses might feel pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks instead of 24 weeks.
  2. It was coauthored by a pro-life researcher and pro-choice researcher.
  3. The pro-choice author was contradicting his own prior work. And
  4. It was just really well written.

So it definitely caught my attention.

A month later, maybe less, I was on the Secular Pro-Life account on Twitter. And the way I use the account is I mostly just send out original content and try not to spend too much time getting into comment threads and arguments. I just don’t think it’s a very productive use of time, usually. And I don’t usually look at other people’s profiles that much either.

But every now and then if I see someone tweet something I think is particularly clever or funny, I might skim their profile and see if they have more content like that. So I was on Twitter and I saw someone make a comment on a NARAL tweet, I think, that I thought was particularly funny. So I clicked on his profile to see if he had more like that, and the pinned tweet to the top of his profile was this article—”Reconsidering Fetal Pain”—and he had pinned it because he was one of the authors! He was the pro-life author. His name is John Bockmann. And I was a little astounded. I just didn’t think there’d be reason for my circle to cross with his. It never occurred to me to look for him on social media or anything.

But as soon as I saw that he was the pro-life author, I direct messaged him and basically said “I really liked your article. Great work. I would love to ask you some questions about it if you have time.” And he said “Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and email me and I’ll get back to you in the next few days because I’m busy with [whatever].” And so immediately, like in that moment, I emailed him I think a dozen questions off the top of my head about how this article came to be. He indulged me over the next few days and wrote me lengthy responses. Through that back and forth I got to hear more of his story, and I have to say it was fascinating. Very inspiring. And he gave me permission to retell it here.

So, according to John, he was not particularly involved in the abortion debate before. This is one of the remarkable things about this story. I work with pro-life activists all the time, and while I don’t think I know everybody, I know a lot of people or at least have heard of them, and I had never heard of him before. And it turns out he was not affiliated with any pro-life groups. He doesn’t really know a lot of people in the movement. He came at this, from my perspective, totally out of nowhere. He wasn’t especially pro-life—maybe personally pro-life, but hadn’t given it a lot of thought—and a couple things happened that made him change his mind and get more involved.

First, he had children. He got to witness his wife’s pregnancies and the love he felt for his children even before they were born, and that moved him. He felt more passionate and personal about this issue.

Second—and I think this is really important—he saw David Daleiden’s videos about Planned Parenthood’s late-term abortions and selling of fetal body parts. John was just thunderstruck. Horrified. And he really wanted to do something, to be involved somehow. It moved him to want to try to effect some kind of change.

At the time he was in his program to become a military physician assistant, and he had to do a master’s thesis. He was originally going to focus his thesis on obesity. But when the CMP videos came out, John decided he would like to change his project to fetal pain. His thought process was that if we can’t stop late-term abortion from happening, we at least have a responsibility to understand what it means, what it does, and to handle it as humanely as possible. So he started looking into fetal pain.

So that’s the first part of the story: he was moved by his own experiences of fatherhood and his own feelings of love for his preborn children, which I find is an extremely common reason for people to convert to being pro-life. And then also David Daleiden’s videos inspired John. I think this is very important because there’s no way to know how many effects those videos had. I don’t think that they had the effects that Daleiden was hoping for. Planned Parenthood has not disappeared, and if anything they have gone after him very aggressively. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for him, both financially and in terms of the stress of fighting with them. And also the frustration of not seeing them taken down at least a few notches, much less entirely. That’s frustrating, but there’s no way to know who else has been influenced and in what ways, and I imagine that there are countless little interactions that have helped people move more towards our view on things. And you never know which of those interactions, which at the time may seem small, can lead to bigger changes, such as this story—where John was so moved by those videos that he decided to change his thesis and it resulted in a major journal article.

So John Bockmann decided to study fetal pain for his physician assistant program. And in the course of studying that, he read a lot of articles about fetal pain, including ones by Stuart basically saying that fetuses can’t feel pain until about 24 weeks. So John was really involved in that research and very familiar with it when he happened to read a New York Times article in which Stuart seemed to contradict his prior research. I don’t think most people would notice such a contradiction unless they happened to be following his work pretty closely.

And this brings us to the second part of the story that I find moving: I think there are a lot of pro-life people who would view Stuart and authors like him as “the enemy.” I mean he was one of the lead voices basically saying we shouldn’t worry about fetal pain. And if he was wrong, and if it’s true that fetuses feel pain, do you know how many thousands of late-term abortions we perform every year without regard to the suffering that happens before death? It’s of grave moral importance, in my opinion, and I can see how a pro-life person would view Stuart with anger.

But John read Stuart’s work and, instead of lashing out, he did what I would think of as sort of the Josh Brahm approach to the abortion debate: he reached out to Stuart. He emailed and essentially said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve been following your work and I noticed you said this in your interview and it seemed to contradict this aspect of your paper, and I was wondering how you reconcile that? What changed?” And so in May 2016 they started chatting over email. They got to know each other and became friends, which is hugely important. People change their minds through friendship as much as or more than through logic and debate. And in the course of them becoming friends and discussing the fetal pain issue, Stuart changed his mind, or at least thought there might be significant factors that he should address. In February 2018, Stuart was asked to write an article on the current state of fetal pain scholarship, and he reached out to John for input. After much debate and collaboration, they wrote and rewrote their ideas into the article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And as of today, their paper is the 5th most downloaded paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics of all time and in the top 5% of 15M+ research articles scored by Altmetric.

In other words, John Bockmann, who was not particularly involved in the pro-life movement, was moved by fatherhood and the CMP videos to get involved, and when he did get involved he approached the opposition with respect in a spirit of friendship. He didn’t change Stuart’s mind entirely—Stuart is still pro-choice—but he changed Stuart’s mind on fetal pain, and who knows who’s reading that article now? And who knows how it influences their work? Who knows what influence it could have in the long term on the abortion debate? I think John did more than most people ever do, and he did it all because he was curious, respectful, and open. And I just thought it was a wonderful story.

Post script: I asked John to review this blog post for accuracy, and he added this note:

We can find important common ground with our ideological opposites, whether or not any minds change. This ability has huge implications for happiness and meaning, especially with how polarized our world is becoming. We must engage with curiosity, respect, and passion. I want everyone to know this!

John Bockmann

Interview with a post-abortive sidewalk counselor: love, not shame, is the key

Interviewer’s note: study after study confirm many women choose abortion because they feel they don’t have the resources to care for a child. Sidewalk counselors work to connect these women to resources in their communities. This work transforms—and literally saves—lives.

People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement (and even some within it) tend to believe that those who stand outside abortion clinics are there to shame and terrify vulnerable abortion-minded women. Interestingly, in this interview Serena discusses these very type of ultra-aggressive protestors and how they make her goalsto reassure women and get them resourcesmuch more difficult. Still, she’s tenacious.
I’m an atheist. I don’t share Serena’s beliefs about God or Jesus. But I can’t help but note how Serena’s faith encourages and emboldens her to love and support other people in difficult circumstances. It’s admirable work. (You can also read an interview with a secular sidewalk counselor here.)

Meet Serena


How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?
I got started sidewalk counseling after seeing Unplanned. I had gone to the movie not even knowing what it was about and it was like watching my life unfold before my eyes.
I was raped at 13 years old by an uncle and taken for an abortion at Ulrich Klopfer‘s clinic. For 30 years I did not talk about my abortion because it was something I wanted to forget happened. It was by far worse than my rape. I didn’t know what abortion was when I went to that clinic but once I learned, it almost destroyed my life. I nearly lost everything. My marriage was almost over, and I was using drugs and alcohol to numb my pain.
One night after drinking heavily, I texted some friends to come get me. I knew I had too much to drink and I didn’t want to end up in jail. But no one would come get me. I had burned all my bridges. I sat in my car and cried and prayed for help. That night God met me in my car and lavished me in a love that I had never felt before. I made it home and my husband welcomed me back. That began my healing process from my rape. But I never talked about the abortion.
When I saw Unplanned, I felt moved to tell the rest of my story, though I wasn’t sure how exactly. I called our local Right To Life and asked if they ever minister to women before they go to abortion clinics. They explained they were going to start training people to sidewalk counsel in response to Whole Women’s Health opening nearby. I signed right up and began going to the clinic.
It’s so important to have peaceful people at the clinic. On the day of my abortion, no one was there. I will never know if it would have made a difference in my story, but I want to make sure that people know that they can make a difference for someone else.
What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

Going to the clinic requires me to be ready to love others well. We really want to be a peaceful presence that is lead by the Holy Spirit on how to reach women. We want to love not only the mothers, fathers, and other family members but also the escorts and staff. We want to give the support so many of them are looking forin the moment, during the pregnancy, and after the baby is born.
What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?
Escorts block us with their umbrellas and play music so the women can’t hear us. We also have to deal with another group who come out with mics to “preach.” They shame the women who then run right into the clinic. There have been times when we will get the attention of a father in the car and it looks like he is going to come over and talk, but the other group will call him a coward and he instead looks down and won’t come over. They are also known to put ladders up and yell at escorts. It’s awful.
During my own abortion, I remember the clinic telling our family that there would be people outside who hated us, so make sure to walk in quickly. Groups like these who shame women confirm the clinic workers’ warnings. I’ve worked with many post-abortive women, and something I often hear is “the protesters were yelling at me and I just wanted to get away.” In contrast, I had a woman share her story of two peaceful sidewalk counselors praying. She broke away from her parents and went to them for help. She said she could sense their love and knew they were safe. 
Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?
We hand out mom bags which include local resources, a free ultrasound coupon, and info about what abortion is (and that it’s not her only choice). I personally try to put a hand written note, a bracelet, and some type of lotion or something to make her feel loved. If she returns a second day we also include abortion pill reversal information. We also try to let her know about a website (Her Michiana) that can help with many of her needs as well as resources for the dad.
Do you have religious beliefs? If so, how do those influence your work? How do you handle religious differences between you and the people you meet?
I’m a Jesus follower and that helps me love others well. When I’m at the clinic or talking to an abortion-minded woman, I talk about Jesus in a way meant to bring hope, not shame. I want her to know she is so loved. Sometimes you can tell that someone is not really interested and you can feel push back. At that point I will not talk about him, but hope they will know his love by my actions.
How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?
We have people who walk by the clinic all the time; it’s always a teaching moment to educate others on what abortion is. Some people just don’t know and we have the opportunity to have a conversation (not a debate, but a conversation). People seem more open to talking if we approach them in a non-confrontational way. 
What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?
I talk to women daily and they have shared so many reasons they come to the clinics. Some feel like they are not supported by family or the boyfriend, some think they can’t afford a baby, some are scared of Covid. Some have been told something is wrong with their baby and abortion will show “compassion.” In the case of my rape at 13 my family was told abortion would fix my trauma. It was all a lie. 
Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

I make a point of interacting with clinic staff because the Jesus I serve can reach anyone. I speak truth in love to them and pray for them. I try to reach them were they’re at.
I did befriend one of the escorts. Our first encounter did not go well. I shared my story with him and he cussed me out and flipped me off. The next week the escort was drinking a Snapple and made a face like it was terrible. I laughed and said “That bad?” and he laughed too, talked about how they changed the recipe. After that we started talking more, and he has since shared his story with me. He helps knit hats for premature babies! He has misplaced compassion that he doesn’t even understand. 
Other escorts don’t always like that he talks to me but he does it anyway. I’m going to keep showing him love and compassion. I believe it’s just a matter of time before he leaves.
Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?
Trained sidewalk counselors are not there to shame women at all. Sadly, there are people who go to the clinics to shame women and it’s hurtful and counterproductive. The women don’t realize we are different groups; they lump us together. I try really hard to separate myself from anyone who is not being peaceful. If a woman is taken there against her will I hope she looks for the people praying, not shouting. There are people who will help and love you well. 
What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

Go to the training. Make sure that you conduct yourself in a way that is loving; don’t say anything that will hurt a woman for the rest of her life. Offer her hope. Be the hope. Love her, love him, and love the baby well. They are all God’s kids. 

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

If you come across a woman who is in a crisis, meet her with love. Listen, discern, and respond. Figure out what is driving her to abortion and how to meet that need.
If you are part of a church, allow people to come in and talk about abortion. When the church doesn’t talk about abortion it sends a message that we are okay with it. Women in the church have gone from the pew to the abortion clinic because they believe people will gossip instead of help them. [See the Pastor Pledge from The Equal Rights Institute.] If you are a pastor who doesn’t know how to talk about it, invite me to speak. You can also make sure your local pregnancy centers are supported.   
Read more interviews:
Sidewalk counseling training resources:

Interview with a post-abortive sidewalk counselor: love, not shame, is the key

Interviewer’s note: study after study confirm many women choose abortion because they feel they don’t have the resources to care for a child. Sidewalk counselors work to connect these women to resources in their communities. This work transforms—and literally saves—lives.

People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement (and even some within it) tend to believe that those who stand outside abortion clinics are there to shame and terrify vulnerable abortion-minded women. Interestingly, in this interview Serena discusses these very type of ultra-aggressive protestors and how they make her goalsto reassure women and get them resourcesmuch more difficult. Still, she’s tenacious.
I’m an atheist. I don’t share Serena’s beliefs about God or Jesus. But I can’t help but note how Serena’s faith encourages and emboldens her to love and support other people in difficult circumstances. It’s admirable work. (You can also read an interview with a secular sidewalk counselor here.)

Meet Serena


How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?
I got started sidewalk counseling after seeing Unplanned. I had gone to the movie not even knowing what it was about and it was like watching my life unfold before my eyes.
I was raped at 13 years old by an uncle and taken for an abortion at Ulrich Klopfer‘s clinic. For 30 years I did not talk about my abortion because it was something I wanted to forget happened. It was by far worse than my rape. I didn’t know what abortion was when I went to that clinic but once I learned, it almost destroyed my life. I nearly lost everything. My marriage was almost over, and I was using drugs and alcohol to numb my pain.
One night after drinking heavily, I texted some friends to come get me. I knew I had too much to drink and I didn’t want to end up in jail. But no one would come get me. I had burned all my bridges. I sat in my car and cried and prayed for help. That night God met me in my car and lavished me in a love that I had never felt before. I made it home and my husband welcomed me back. That began my healing process from my rape. But I never talked about the abortion.
When I saw Unplanned, I felt moved to tell the rest of my story, though I wasn’t sure how exactly. I called our local Right To Life and asked if they ever minister to women before they go to abortion clinics. They explained they were going to start training people to sidewalk counsel in response to Whole Women’s Health opening nearby. I signed right up and began going to the clinic.
It’s so important to have peaceful people at the clinic. On the day of my abortion, no one was there. I will never know if it would have made a difference in my story, but I want to make sure that people know that they can make a difference for someone else.
What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

Going to the clinic requires me to be ready to love others well. We really want to be a peaceful presence that is lead by the Holy Spirit on how to reach women. We want to love not only the mothers, fathers, and other family members but also the escorts and staff. We want to give the support so many of them are looking forin the moment, during the pregnancy, and after the baby is born.
What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?
Escorts block us with their umbrellas and play music so the women can’t hear us. We also have to deal with another group who come out with mics to “preach.” They shame the women who then run right into the clinic. There have been times when we will get the attention of a father in the car and it looks like he is going to come over and talk, but the other group will call him a coward and he instead looks down and won’t come over. They are also known to put ladders up and yell at escorts. It’s awful.
During my own abortion, I remember the clinic telling our family that there would be people outside who hated us, so make sure to walk in quickly. Groups like these who shame women confirm the clinic workers’ warnings. I’ve worked with many post-abortive women, and something I often hear is “the protesters were yelling at me and I just wanted to get away.” In contrast, I had a woman share her story of two peaceful sidewalk counselors praying. She broke away from her parents and went to them for help. She said she could sense their love and knew they were safe. 
Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?
We hand out mom bags which include local resources, a free ultrasound coupon, and info about what abortion is (and that it’s not her only choice). I personally try to put a hand written note, a bracelet, and some type of lotion or something to make her feel loved. If she returns a second day we also include abortion pill reversal information. We also try to let her know about a website (Her Michiana) that can help with many of her needs as well as resources for the dad.
Do you have religious beliefs? If so, how do those influence your work? How do you handle religious differences between you and the people you meet?
I’m a Jesus follower and that helps me love others well. When I’m at the clinic or talking to an abortion-minded woman, I talk about Jesus in a way meant to bring hope, not shame. I want her to know she is so loved. Sometimes you can tell that someone is not really interested and you can feel push back. At that point I will not talk about him, but hope they will know his love by my actions.
How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?
We have people who walk by the clinic all the time; it’s always a teaching moment to educate others on what abortion is. Some people just don’t know and we have the opportunity to have a conversation (not a debate, but a conversation). People seem more open to talking if we approach them in a non-confrontational way. 
What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?
I talk to women daily and they have shared so many reasons they come to the clinics. Some feel like they are not supported by family or the boyfriend, some think they can’t afford a baby, some are scared of Covid. Some have been told something is wrong with their baby and abortion will show “compassion.” In the case of my rape at 13 my family was told abortion would fix my trauma. It was all a lie. 
Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

I make a point of interacting with clinic staff because the Jesus I serve can reach anyone. I speak truth in love to them and pray for them. I try to reach them were they’re at.
I did befriend one of the escorts. Our first encounter did not go well. I shared my story with him and he cussed me out and flipped me off. The next week the escort was drinking a Snapple and made a face like it was terrible. I laughed and said “That bad?” and he laughed too, talked about how they changed the recipe. After that we started talking more, and he has since shared his story with me. He helps knit hats for premature babies! He has misplaced compassion that he doesn’t even understand. 
Other escorts don’t always like that he talks to me but he does it anyway. I’m going to keep showing him love and compassion. I believe it’s just a matter of time before he leaves.
Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?
Trained sidewalk counselors are not there to shame women at all. Sadly, there are people who go to the clinics to shame women and it’s hurtful and counterproductive. The women don’t realize we are different groups; they lump us together. I try really hard to separate myself from anyone who is not being peaceful. If a woman is taken there against her will I hope she looks for the people praying, not shouting. There are people who will help and love you well. 
What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

Go to the training. Make sure that you conduct yourself in a way that is loving; don’t say anything that will hurt a woman for the rest of her life. Offer her hope. Be the hope. Love her, love him, and love the baby well. They are all God’s kids. 

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

If you come across a woman who is in a crisis, meet her with love. Listen, discern, and respond. Figure out what is driving her to abortion and how to meet that need.
If you are part of a church, allow people to come in and talk about abortion. When the church doesn’t talk about abortion it sends a message that we are okay with it. Women in the church have gone from the pew to the abortion clinic because they believe people will gossip instead of help them. [See the Pastor Pledge from The Equal Rights Institute.] If you are a pastor who doesn’t know how to talk about it, invite me to speak. You can also make sure your local pregnancy centers are supported.   
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Interview with a secular sidewalk counselor

Interviewer’s note: People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement—and even some within it—tend to believe that those standing outside abortion clinics are there to shame and frighten women seeking abortion. Videos of street “preachers” screaming at everyone tend to be much more viral than depictions of people quietly holding signs offering resources. I’m interested in shining more light on the latter group. 

From what I’ve seen, the people waiting peacefully outside clinics to offer help (referred to in pro-life circles as “sidewalk counselors”) are particularly brave and compassionate. In my experience they also tend to be particularly devout Christians. I was therefore happy to get an opportunity to interview one of Secular Pro-Life’s own, Nick Reynosa, on what it’s like for an agnostic to sidewalk counsel.

Before we begin, Nick asked that I clarify that while he sidewalk counsels when he has the chance, he doesn’t counsel on a consistent basis the way some do. He didn’t want to give the false impression that he has devoted the same time and energy as some of his trainers and friends have, although he has enjoyed the experience and will continue to counsel when he has the opportunities.


(Nick in the upper right.)

How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?

My campus pro-life club (through Students for Life of America) went to the sidewalk once or twice a week. In my area of northern California, Students for Life and 40 Days for Life formed a natural partnership such that about a half dozen people would counsel regularly.

So through the pro-life club I started sidewalk counseling in Sacramento in 2011. After I left the sidewalk during one of my very first visits, the other counselors saved three babies in a single day! So that was a fortunate and very encouraging beginning.

Sidewalk counseling is a great way to help women at the one-on-one level. Often pro-lifers are discouraged by a seeming lack of political progress, but the individual victories at the sidewalk can be encouraging. You really see how you can make a difference. Also sidewalk counseling helps you get to know the flesh and blood members of the pro-life movement, which serves as a powerful contrast to the stereotypes the media portrays.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

I try to create a peaceful presence and provide women materials and references to local pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) (usually located in close proximity to the clinic). Not all pro-lifers at the sidewalk necessarily talk to the women; conversations are usually reserved for more experienced (and usually female) counselors. The rest of us keep a general presence, often holding signs with information, being eyes and ears in case there are any altercations, getting water or snacks for the group, and sometimes providing more security than one or two female counselors might have alone. Many of the counselors who aren’t interacting directly with the women approaching the clinic take the time to pray instead, though of course that’s not something I do personally.

Typically at least some of the women accept our information. Nearly always some passersby will hurl profanity or flip the bird. It’s common to hear street preachers mix evangelization with sidewalk counseling. It’s also common for clinic escorts to play loud music or put up barriers like tarps in order to block the women’s view of the counselors.

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?

By far the hardest part is being a man. Successful male counselors are unicorns. Pregnancy is an intimate, personal, and deeply feminine experience. Often women associate their situation with their sex lives and this association make establishing trust and comfort with a man more difficult. Women going to the clinic often seem to feel more comfortable talking with other women, so if possible, I defer to the female counselor present.

However there are some circumstances in which it’s helpful to have a male counselor. For some women, interacting with a man who cares about what they’re going through can be a refreshing experience. And for some, having male counselors there makes them feel safe from an abusive situation. Additionally, men sometimes accompany the women in their lives to abortion appointments and end up waiting outside. Some of them find it helpful to talk to male counselors about the experience.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?

Yes, usually basic information about abortion and marketing materials for local PRCs. If you’re going to sidewalk counsel, I would recommend you read through these materials before you start handing them to people. Make sure you understand and agree with what you’re telling others. Some publications are particularly religious, or anti-sex or anti-contraception. Not all pro-lifers agree with those views. Usually, though, the reading material is straightforward, honest, harmless, and very helpful.

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?

Yes, I usually refer to local PRCs, primarily for pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling. I try to send them to the closest PRC with the highest level of medical services. It’s also common for counselors to refer to maternity homes.

It’s my impression most sidewalk counselors are fairly devoutly religious, but you’re an agnostic. How does being a secular person intersect with sidewalk counseling? Does it hinder you in any ways? Help you in others?

I think being secular can be very helpful when you’re speaking to women, because you’re presenting life-affirming resources that are religiously neutral and unlikely to come off as anti-contraception or anti-sex. I think female secular sidewalk counselors have the greatest potential of any demographic to connect with women at the clinic.

But being non-religious can be negative in two ways: (1) People tend to assume all of us at the sidewalk are from the same group or all together, which means if someone evangelizes at the sidewalk I’m held liable for everything they say, despite agreeing with probably very little of it. (2) If and when religious sidewalk counselors find out I’m agnostic, some feel the need to evangelize to me. They often believe that without faith in God, a person cannot believe in or access objective morality, and so they find a secular pro-life worldview nonsensical, and they want to debate it.

While I don’t especially want to be evangelized to, I do admire the honesty. Sometimes Christian pro-lifers will be happy to have a secular person around to show that this is not a purely religious issue, but then the same people will argue that secular morality is impossible. I’m glad to get along well with religious allies, but if they really do think my worldview is foolish, I’d rather they be honest about it than placate or tokenize me.

Overall I think the fact that I’m at the sidewalk is encouraging to some but also causes cognitive dissonance for others.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?

I say three things:

  1. I’m sorry if they felt we were making an assumption about why they were there. We’re just trying to provide options to women in difficult situations.
  2. If they are there for contraception services, I recommend they get their contraception from providers that do not offer abortion, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). Some counselors keep lists of local FHQCs. There are actually 25 FHQCs in the San Francisco area alone.
  3. I let them know that life-affirming clinics like PRCs often offer health care services like STD tests and pregnancy tests.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?

  1. Economic concerns
  2. Tumultuous and dysfunctional relationships
  3. Educational concerns (primarily among younger women)

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?

No, but I know this is very common. Often women who choose life will be in touch with PRCs for several years to come.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

Yes. It has been almost universally negative. Everything from them playing loud music and erecting large barriers, calling the cops unjustifiably, threatening with non-existent buffer zone laws, taking my picture without my consent, etc.

Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?

I find this to be patently absurd. I have only seen pro-life women being harassed, yelled at, cursed at on the sidewalk. While it is true that are clips of people doing this sort of thing in 1980s and 1990s, this behavior has almost entirely fallen away. The most common sight at the sidewalk is harmless middle-aged Catholic women.

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?

Buffer zone laws are blatantly unconstitutional. If they were consistently applied for all political topics, they would severely restrict all forms of speech and activism. As such, even a lot of passionately pro-choice people should oppose buffer zone laws.

I’ve never had my speech restricted but I have been threatened by escorts with nonexistent buffer zones. Another time I encountered some ridiculous doublespeak from the San Francisco Police Department. They began our interaction by claiming that “buffer zones are unconstitutional” and then proceeded to cite a city ordinance (which was a buffer zone in all but name) and threaten us with a citation. We promptly called the bluff, and nothing happened to us.

Pro-Life San Francisco actually maintains access to legal assistance in case there’s a problem, but I find that if they try to cite us and we threaten action, they usually back down because the law is already on our side.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

You shouldn’t feel guilty if you decide not to do it. There are many ways you can help women in need. If you are going to counsel and you’re a man, I would suggest making sure a female counselor is also there. But overall I think it is a great way to see the movement in action and help women in your community.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

Be a brand ambassador for your local PRC. Distribute their contact info everywhere: community poster boards, campuses, restrooms, gas stations, anywhere and everywhere helps. Attend annual fundraising dinners at local PRCs and donate. Help your local campus student group; they are often the best contact for the 18-24 age group where nearly 40% of abortions occur.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?

The pro-life movement is doing an excellent job of providing a peaceful, compassionate, consistent, and nearly ubiquitous presence at abortion clinics throughout the country. However, too often well-meaning counselors mix their evangelization with their sidewalk work. The simple fact is that many secular women are on the fence about getting an abortion but not on the fence about premarital sex, contraception, and cohabitation. The stakes are too high for a potentially off-putting overtly religious approach, at least at the outset. Choosing life is a life-altering decision, and we are most effective when we focus on that specific issue and take care not to spend energy on other issues that may be major differences between the women and the counselors they’re speaking to.

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