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.

Read more interviews:
Sidewalk counseling training resources:

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.

Read more interviews:
Sidewalk counseling training resources:

A former late-term abortion nurse speaks out

Warren Hern is one of the few people in the United States who openly performs abortions even after 24 weeks gestation. He performs abortions in Colorado, one of a handful of states that have no gestational limits on abortion — that is, it is legal to perform abortion for any reason at any point in the pregnancy. (Pro-life advocates on the ground are working to change that.)

3D image of a 28-week-old baby in the womb

Hern has gone on record explaining that the later abortions he performs are not always for women facing any grave medical outcome. He has also published work exploring how abortion workers (both doctors and nurses) are emotionally and psychologically impacted by late-term abortion. His work has been incredibly frank, providing a sharp contrast to the strident euphemisms of many pro-choice advocates.

Julie Wilkinson worked as a nurse in Hern’s clinic for years, but she is now passionately pro-life and works in a NICU instead. I recently read a piece in New American about her conversion. Here are a few random thoughts a bit too long for a FB post:

Though an abortion was not something I ever planned to have, I rationalized the deaths of the infants: All the abused babies and children were better off going to heaven than being born and suffering if they were unwanted.

Several notes about this mentality:

  1. Usually religiosity correlates with being anti-abortion. Still it’s interesting (and disheartening) to see how belief in an afterlife can help people feel complacent about taking lives. This is in line with what we’ve previously written about the “Abortion Religion,” in which abortion supporters appropriate supernatural concepts like reincarnation to justify violence against children in the womb.
  2. The idea that children born of unintended pregnancies will be unwanted is largely a myth. Research has found that the vast majority of women who sought but were denied abortion and went on to birth their children raised their children themselves and bonded to their children just fine.
  3. Notice that very few (if any) people take the above mentality and apply it to born children. We don’t argue that the solution to child abuse is to euthanize the children being abused, so they can be better off in heaven.
Continuing…

I was raised a Christian and still considered myself one, mind you, but I attended church rarely.

This makes sense. Being pro-choice is inversely correlated with church attendance.

After a few weeks, I was taught how to assist with late cases, 13-24 weeks. … I would hand sterile instruments to the doctor so that he could withdraw amniotic fluid from the uterus and replace it with a concentrated urea (salt) solution, which I was responsible to mix. He said that the solution caused the placenta to separate from the uterus, resulting in the fetus dying. The truth was, the babies likely suffered terribly in the salt solution, their fragile skin and lungs being burned.

Good time to suggest everyone read the January 2020 Journal of Medical Ethics article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which argues the fetus may feel pain as early as 13 weeks.

An early troubling situation occurred when a married, successful couple came to visit the clinic. They wanted a child, but they found out at 16 weeks that she was carrying twins and were not sure if twins would fit into their lifestyle. That visit bothered most of the workers, but it was no trouble for the doctor, who aborted the couple’s healthy babies a couple weeks later.

Another example of how later abortions are not exclusively done for medical reasons. On the contrary, based on what information we can find, it appears later abortions are usually not for medical reasons. In fact, Hern himself has published research saying only 30% of his patients seek second and third trimester abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality.

After a couple years, I believe the Holy Spirit began to nudge me.

I feel conflicted about this idea. On the one hand, I’m grateful for every person who moves from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, and I recognize that faith plays a role in those conversions for some people. On the other hand, if it’s the Holy Spirit doing this work, why the subtlety? Why a “nudge”? Why not a massive shove in the other direction, similar to Saul on the road to Damascus?

But I’m an atheist, so for me these questions are really just rhetorical. Whatever her reasons, I’m glad Julie changed her mind.

However, my heart didn’t change overnight. Time was necessary to change my years-long belief in a woman’s “right to choose.”

She’s not alone here. A lot of conversions are stories of a slow process, often over years. Please remember that factor when you’re talking about abortion with people who disagree. Be patient as you plant ideas, and don’t worry if you don’t see any major changes immediately. Just keep going.

After I left Boulder, I never told people what I had done there. I got married, and we had three beautiful daughters. I did not tell them my story either; I just made sure they were raised to be pro-life. It felt very lonely to keep that dreadful secret.

Julie’s reaction demonstrates why it’s so tricky to conduct accurate research regarding people’s feelings about their own choices — people who feel shame, regret, guilt, deep sorrow, or other negative emotions are less likely to speak up than people who are satisfied with their decisions. This problem is one of the major limitations of the recent highly touted study claiming 95% of women do not regret their abortions. Read more here.

Then a few years ago, another person told me I should reach out to Abby Johnson, who was a former abortion clinic director who held retreats for ex-abortion workers. So I did. I found a small, generally invisible group of people who are passionately pro-life. We have seen abortion from the inside, and we know the truth.

Abby Johnson’s pro-life work is unique and so needed. I’m glad she has created this space for former abortion workers.

A former late-term abortion nurse speaks out

Warren Hern is one of the few people in the United States who openly performs abortions even after 24 weeks gestation. He performs abortions in Colorado, one of a handful of states that have no gestational limits on abortion — that is, it is legal to perform abortion for any reason at any point in the pregnancy. (Pro-life advocates on the ground are working to change that.)

3D image of a 28-week-old baby in the womb

Hern has gone on record explaining that the later abortions he performs are not always for women facing any grave medical outcome. He has also published work exploring how abortion workers (both doctors and nurses) are emotionally and psychologically impacted by late-term abortion. His work has been incredibly frank, providing a sharp contrast to the strident euphemisms of many pro-choice advocates.

Julie Wilkinson worked as a nurse in Hern’s clinic for years, but she is now passionately pro-life and works in a NICU instead. I recently read a piece in New American about her conversion. Here are a few random thoughts a bit too long for a FB post:

Though an abortion was not something I ever planned to have, I rationalized the deaths of the infants: All the abused babies and children were better off going to heaven than being born and suffering if they were unwanted.

Several notes about this mentality:

  1. Usually religiosity correlates with being anti-abortion. Still it’s interesting (and disheartening) to see how belief in an afterlife can help people feel complacent about taking lives. This is in line with what we’ve previously written about the “Abortion Religion,” in which abortion supporters appropriate supernatural concepts like reincarnation to justify violence against children in the womb.
  2. The idea that children born of unintended pregnancies will be unwanted is largely a myth. Research has found that the vast majority of women who sought but were denied abortion and went on to birth their children raised their children themselves and bonded to their children just fine.
  3. Notice that very few (if any) people take the above mentality and apply it to born children. We don’t argue that the solution to child abuse is to euthanize the children being abused, so they can be better off in heaven.
Continuing…

I was raised a Christian and still considered myself one, mind you, but I attended church rarely.

This makes sense. Being pro-choice is inversely correlated with church attendance.

After a few weeks, I was taught how to assist with late cases, 13-24 weeks. … I would hand sterile instruments to the doctor so that he could withdraw amniotic fluid from the uterus and replace it with a concentrated urea (salt) solution, which I was responsible to mix. He said that the solution caused the placenta to separate from the uterus, resulting in the fetus dying. The truth was, the babies likely suffered terribly in the salt solution, their fragile skin and lungs being burned.

Good time to suggest everyone read the January 2020 Journal of Medical Ethics article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which argues the fetus may feel pain as early as 13 weeks.

An early troubling situation occurred when a married, successful couple came to visit the clinic. They wanted a child, but they found out at 16 weeks that she was carrying twins and were not sure if twins would fit into their lifestyle. That visit bothered most of the workers, but it was no trouble for the doctor, who aborted the couple’s healthy babies a couple weeks later.

Another example of how later abortions are not exclusively done for medical reasons. On the contrary, based on what information we can find, it appears later abortions are usually not for medical reasons. In fact, Hern himself has published research saying only 30% of his patients seek second and third trimester abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality.

After a couple years, I believe the Holy Spirit began to nudge me.

I feel conflicted about this idea. On the one hand, I’m grateful for every person who moves from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, and I recognize that faith plays a role in those conversions for some people. On the other hand, if it’s the Holy Spirit doing this work, why the subtlety? Why a “nudge”? Why not a massive shove in the other direction, similar to Saul on the road to Damascus?

But I’m an atheist, so for me these questions are really just rhetorical. Whatever her reasons, I’m glad Julie changed her mind.

However, my heart didn’t change overnight. Time was necessary to change my years-long belief in a woman’s “right to choose.”

She’s not alone here. A lot of conversions are stories of a slow process, often over years. Please remember that factor when you’re talking about abortion with people who disagree. Be patient as you plant ideas, and don’t worry if you don’t see any major changes immediately. Just keep going.

After I left Boulder, I never told people what I had done there. I got married, and we had three beautiful daughters. I did not tell them my story either; I just made sure they were raised to be pro-life. It felt very lonely to keep that dreadful secret.

Julie’s reaction demonstrates why it’s so tricky to conduct accurate research regarding people’s feelings about their own choices — people who feel shame, regret, guilt, deep sorrow, or other negative emotions are less likely to speak up than people who are satisfied with their decisions. This problem is one of the major limitations of the recent highly touted study claiming 95% of women do not regret their abortions. Read more here.

Then a few years ago, another person told me I should reach out to Abby Johnson, who was a former abortion clinic director who held retreats for ex-abortion workers. So I did. I found a small, generally invisible group of people who are passionately pro-life. We have seen abortion from the inside, and we know the truth.

Abby Johnson’s pro-life work is unique and so needed. I’m glad she has created this space for former abortion workers.

The religious diversity of the pro-life movement

Last week, we posted the above graphic to our social media pages with the caption “In the United States, 23% of abortion opponents are Catholic and 12% have no religious affiliation. We are proud to stand with our pro-life brothers and sisters of all faith backgrounds to end the violence of abortion!”

We got a ton of likes and shares, and also questions. Mostly, “Wait, what about the other 65%?” and “Where are all the Protestants?”

We did not, of course, mean to suggest that pro-life movement is made up entirely of Catholics and secular people. It’s far more diverse than that. We simply found the two-to-one statistic interesting, in contrast to the oversized role that Catholicism has played in the pro-choice imagination (e.g. “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!”).

Our source is the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, and if you’re as nerdy as I am, you could get lost in that data set for hours. But I won’t keep you in suspense. The religious makeup of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances* is:

  • 38% Evangelical Protestant
  • 23% Catholic
  • 12% Unaffiliated
  • 12% Mainline Protestant
  • 6% Historically Black Protestant
  • 3% Mormon
  • 1% Jewish
  • 1% Muslim
  • 1% Orthodox Christian
  • 1% Jehovah’s Witness
  • 1% Other Faiths

It’s not surprising that, in a largely Protestant nation, the pro-life movement is also largely Protestant. However, no one Protestant tradition commands a clear majority. Evangelical and Mainline Protestants would add up to exactly 50%, but speaking as someone who grew up in a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church, which is officially pro-choice), Pew is right not to group those two together. And as for how Protestant denominations and Catholicism can clash… literal volumes have been written.

Ironically, the godless approach may offer the best chance to unite these disparate factions into a cohesive movement for the human rights of the smallest and most vulnerable humans among us.

*Note: These figures add up to only 99% due to rounding.

The religious diversity of the pro-life movement

Last week, we posted the above graphic to our social media pages with the caption “In the United States, 23% of abortion opponents are Catholic and 12% have no religious affiliation. We are proud to stand with our pro-life brothers and sisters of all faith backgrounds to end the violence of abortion!”

We got a ton of likes and shares, and also questions. Mostly, “Wait, what about the other 65%?” and “Where are all the Protestants?”

We did not, of course, mean to suggest that pro-life movement is made up entirely of Catholics and secular people. It’s far more diverse than that. We simply found the two-to-one statistic interesting, in contrast to the oversized role that Catholicism has played in the pro-choice imagination (e.g. “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!”).

Our source is the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, and if you’re as nerdy as I am, you could get lost in that data set for hours. But I won’t keep you in suspense. The religious makeup of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances* is:

  • 38% Evangelical Protestant
  • 23% Catholic
  • 12% Unaffiliated
  • 12% Mainline Protestant
  • 6% Historically Black Protestant
  • 3% Mormon
  • 1% Jewish
  • 1% Muslim
  • 1% Orthodox Christian
  • 1% Jehovah’s Witness
  • 1% Other Faiths

It’s not surprising that, in a largely Protestant nation, the pro-life movement is also largely Protestant. However, no one Protestant tradition commands a clear majority. Evangelical and Mainline Protestants would add up to exactly 50%, but speaking as someone who grew up in a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church, which is officially pro-choice), Pew is right not to group those two together. And as for how Protestant denominations and Catholicism can clash… literal volumes have been written.

Ironically, the godless approach may offer the best chance to unite these disparate factions into a cohesive movement for the human rights of the smallest and most vulnerable humans among us.

*Note: These figures add up to only 99% due to rounding.

In-depth interview with a millennial 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 who stand outside abortion clinics are there to shame and terrify vulnerable abortion-minded women. But what I’ve witnessed has been quite the opposite: the people who wait outside of abortion clinics (referred to within our movement as “sidewalk counselors”) are selfless, compassionate people trying to help the women who go to clinics because they feel they don’t have a choice.

We already know that most women seek abortion due to economic and social pressure. Both study after study as well as countless personal stories confirm that many women choose abortion because they believe they don’t have the resources to care for a child. Sidewalk counselors work to connect these women to the resources they need. This work transforms—and literally saves—lives.

As a secularist, I do not share the beliefs of Evie Schwartzbauer, the sidewalk counselor I have interviewed here. But I can’t help but be impressed and humbled by the way Evie’s faith clearly inspires, uplifts, and sustains her as she does this physically and emotionally draining work. It’s my impression there are relatively few secular sidewalk counselors. I suspect this is partially because most sidewalk counseling organizations are heavily religious, so it may seem like an awkward fit for an atheist or agnostic. But I also wonder what, in the absence of faith, the secular sidewalk counselor would draw on to do this kind of immediate and intimate work for an extended period of time.

(Evie asked me to emphasize that secular sidewalk counselors are very welcome and indeed could be particularly helpful in many contexts.)

If there are any secularists with sidewalk counseling experience who would be interested in being interviewed, please contact us at info@secularprolife.org.



How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?
I’ve always been pro-life, but for a long time my activism consisted of voting and Facebook debates. I didn’t even know what sidewalk counseling is. In September 2013, I became a part-time administrative assistant for Pro-Life Action Ministries (PLAM), and it’s understood that everyone who works for the organization does sidewalk counseling. Once I learned what that entails, I was eager to try. I had converted to Catholicism and learned about apologetics around the same time I started working for PLAM, and that combination of factors was powerful. When I saw the reality of the situation and learned I could really save lives, my spark of interest in pro-life work was ignited into a true passion. I’m involved in other pro-life work such as art and design projects (when they come up), but sidewalk counseling is my consistent and regular commitment. I can no longer not sidewalk counsel; I know that if I don’t show up, there may be no one else to tell these women that they don’t have to get abortions. No one will be there to let them know there is free help and that they are strong enough to be mothers right now. I feel a strong sense of duty and responsibility to this work and to these women. Sidewalk counseling is direct action—the very last minute help in the pro-life movement.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.
I get up early. Right now it’s winter in Minnesota, so I put on many layers: 5-6 layers of pants, 3 socks, 5-6 layers on top, and scarf, hat, and mittens. Today I wore only two pairs of socks and forgot my scarf, and I noticed the difference. It was 2 degrees out.

Meet Evie.

I drive ten minutes or so to the clinic. On the way I rehearse what I may say. On certain days such as holidays I try to relate my message to the holiday’s theme.

The clinic has a fence to stifle us, but PLAM owns the property right next door. They turned a house into a beautiful chapel with a crucifix outside, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and what we call our “freedom stand,” which is a structure that lets us stand higher than the fence so we have better access to the clients.

The fence dividing the clinic parking lot (left) from the PLAM chapel (right).

When I arrive I park and grab my handbag with my sidewalk counseling literature in it and I go to the sidewalk. I used to put out signs, but I haven’t noticed a difference on the days I forgot them, so I’ve stopped using them. One less thing to do.

I start out in prayer with the rosary. For Catholics, each day has a certain set of mysteries to meditate on. Tuesday is a day to meditate on the Sorrowful mysteries of Christ, and I find it very helpful to think about the sufferings of the Passion of Christ while I’m suffering in the cold and ridicule of others. I know that He suffered too for a good cause: to save souls.

I pray until a car arrives. I try to talk to the people, and when they go inside I go back to praying the rosary. I wait for other cars to pull up. I’ve been counseling long enough that I recognize the slower cars of people looking lost, with a young woman in the car. As the client’s car pulls into the parking lot I offer my literature with my hand out and say something like, “Good morning! I have some information for you!” I hope they roll down their window and accept the literature. If they do, it gives me the longest amount of time to talk with them. If they pull in and park, they are more likely to walk into the clinic and be convinced of their decision regardless of what I say.

I try to let the Holy Spirit take over and guide what I will say. There have been times I’ve genuinely felt the Holy Spirit speak through me, using words and phrases I don’t ever say. But I usually say something such as, “Good morning! If you’re pregnant, congratulations! It’s a shame if no one told you yet, but your baby is a gift. I want you to know that there is free help across the street—anything you could possibly need! Whatever is bringing you here today, we can help you solve your problems nonviolently. You are strong enough to be a mom right now, and we can help you through this! Look at your ultrasound and see your baby girl or boy.”

The clinic is open three weekdays and Saturdays. There are usually 2-5 clients per day, more on Saturdays. In three years of sidewalk counseling, I have helped change the minds of about a dozen women and thus saved the lives of a dozen innocent children (that I know of). Most days, though, I have no luck. I have many heartbreaking conversations with friends, boyfriends, and husbands who are willing to talk with me and who did not want these abortions but were unable to convince their friends or significant others.

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?
You would think the angry clients would be the most difficult. I have had people try to run me over and threaten to beat me up. I’ve had nasty threats, cursing, middle fingers, and people tearing up my literature.

But actually it’s more difficult finding the motivation to get up early and stand in the cold and get ridiculed every week. But as Christians we hope that this earth is not our home and we believe that God sees all of our suffering. We take comfort in scripture such as the beatitudes, which say “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” We can offer up our sufferings and have more merit in our prayers.

And the most difficult aspect is twofold:

1) It is especially heart wrenching facing the ugly reality of abortion every week when I struggle with infertility. I’ve been married six years and have never been pregnant. I watch woman after woman throw away a gift I would give anything for. And I’m not alone. I have a friend on an adoption waiting list with an organization that specifically works with women who were considering abortion. He has been waiting four years so far, and there are 11 more couples on the waiting list. There are no babies to adopt and instead they are being aborted. It’s devastating.

2) It is very hard to see someone I know get an abortion. The hardest was seeing a young girl who I taught in her 8th grade confirmation class a few years ago. She knew who I was and acted casual, but I was shocked. She went through with the abortion; it was so agonizing. Seeing her afterward at a church festival was also very sad.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?
Yes, we have several brochures. The brochure I hand out most is titled “We’re Here For You.” If I talk to someone who is open to leaving the clinic, I give her the brochure which lists all Minnesota pregnancy centers as well as other pro-life organizations that help with resources for pregnancy, adoption, difficult diagnoses, housing, and so forth. If I counsel outside a Planned Parenthood I like to also pass out a magazine put out by Human Life Alliance called “Why Trust Planned Parenthood?” I also have brochures on birth control, Natural Family Planning, and scripture suggesting God is against abortion; I hand these brochures out only if the conversation leads to these specific topics. I bring up religion only if the person indicates they are religious (such as if they have a religious bumper sticker or a rosary on the dash or if they bring up God first).

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?
I refer women to the closest pregnancy help center. The clinic I counsel outside of the most has a pregnancy help center right across the street, so it’s easy to suggest they go there for a free walk-in appointment. When I counsel in front of Planned Parenthood, I suggest a center a block or two away. These centers have trained professionals who are excellent at comforting and encouraging the women who go to them.

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?
As I mentioned, I’m Catholic. Being Catholic affects everything in my life. I try to always do the right thing and to speak to people in a way that they will see Christ through me. I desire for all people to know God and to not be hurt by sin, so if the Holy Spirit moves me to say something in a certain situation, I let Him move me. (This is never anything along the lines of calling women murderers or condemning anyone to hell or anything like that.) My first duty is not to preach the gospel; it is to try and save lives. If the conversation leads that way, I may simply say God gave this woman a gift and He will help her through this situation.

Most sidewalk counselors I’ve met are Catholic. I have met some Protestants. There’s been some tension there. I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous group AHA (Abolish Human Abortion). One of their members told me their second goal is to save the baby, and their first goal is to “save people,” meaning preach the Gospel using condemning language about murder and hell. Many sidewalk counselors have tried to tell AHA that their methods only turn women away; they are neither “saving people” nor saving lives. Many of us have been frustrated trying to convince them that it’s more helpful to encourage women and let them know about the resources available. In general I’ve found that new sidewalk counselors are sometimes eager to “save” others on the sidewalk and can become distracted, but over time we’ve realized the “you do you” approach is the most fruitful in our efforts to save lives. For the most part sidewalk counselors of different denominations do all get along with each other and recognize that we have the same goal. Some of the AHA members have softened their approach and multiple women have been helped and their babies saved.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?
Some women say they are not at the clinic for an abortion, but in many cases they simply don’t want to tell me. I usually respond, “Well, if you’re pregnant or know someone who is pregnant, there is free help across the street. No one needs an abortion.” If the woman is adamant she is at the clinic for a check-up or anything other than abortion, I may say, “Let me help you find a healthcare provider that respects all life. This place kills children for a living. You deserve real healthcare.”

If I’m counseling outside a Planned Parenthood, I have a lot more to say about how the organization takes advantage of vulnerable women to maximize their profits. At Planned Parenthood I also talk to the escorts about the reality of what Planned Parenthood does. I point out that if PP really cared about women, the organization would not promote lifestyles that increase a woman’s risks of STDs and unplanned pregnancies. If PP really cared about women they would include education on fertility awareness and NaPro technology, both of which can help couples actually plan to be parents.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?
The most common reason women give is that they can’t afford another baby right now. The second most common is that they aren’t ready for a baby right now. I tell them about the plethora of help available and that a sibling is a great gift for their other children.

Sadly, the third most common reason is that their doctor told them to go to the clinic, saying the baby “isn’t compatible with life,” “is going to die anyway,” or “is already dead.” I suggest we can get them to another doctor for a second opinion, or, if the child is truly dead, I point out it’s safer to get a D&C at a hospital. Doctors refer these women to a clinic because it’s faster and cheaper, not because it’s safer.

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?
There was a woman I stayed in touch with during and after her pregnancy; I tried to get her as much help as possible. She struggled with addiction but her baby was born healthy. Unfortunately I lost contact with her when her phone number no longer worked. Her child is now in the custody of her grandfather. Another woman was a friend of mine who I convinced to keep her baby on Valentine’s Day. She gave birth to a baby boy and moved to Texas. There was a man I worked with to try to convince his girlfriend not to have an abortion, sadly to no avail. He and I now have a “pen pal via text” type friendship. I also have an ongoing friendship with a woman I persuaded to keep her baby. She is very grateful. She has sent me pictures and I have since helped her with two Christmas bundles of food and gifts. We’re Facebook friends.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?
At the clinic where I primarily sidewalk counsel, I’ve never met the abortionist. I have seen the nurse only once when she came out to take a video of me with her phone. She said she was going to show the law “how awful I am,” I think because I touched their fence? I don’t know why specifically, but nothing ever came of it. I have an interesting ongoing conversation with the security guard who is a fallen away Catholic. I believe and hope he will soon come back to the Church.

At Planned Parenthood, I speak to the volunteer escorts even though they are told to put headphones on and ignore us. I say, “You know why they tell you not to talk to us? Because they know if you listen long enough you’ll discover the truth about this place and about abortion. They want to keep you in the dark. We are both here because we want to help women. I just want to give them life-affirming healthcare.” If staff come out for a smoke break, I ask them to look up Abby Johnson’s testimony. I say “She was where you are, and 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?
Unfortunately that might be true for some people’s experiences, because on public property anyone can come out. I believe it’s more common in the South; sadly there is footage out there, usually older footage from Southern states. But these methods are shunned by the pro-life movement and by people trained in sidewalk counseling. We know that approach simply doesn’t work. I think it’s rarely used anymore except by the hardcore AHA people or perhaps ignorant passionate people who don’t know better. But I find if these people continue to go to the sidewalk they learn from the experienced counselors who hopefully convince them to use a message of encouragement and support.

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?
Buffer zones suck. Buffer zones actually make normal, peaceful sidewalk counselors look aggressive because we are placed so far away we have to raise our voices to even be heard, which seems like yelling and obviously has a negative connotation. If there were no buffer zones it would be clearer that I am just someone who wants to help, instead of looking desperate and crazy from a distance. Planned Parenthoods are also often built in a way to keep the parking lot very far away, preventing sidewalk counselors from speaking to the women. It’s frustrating.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?
I actually wrote a piece for young people on sidewalk counseling I hope to use at a pro-life event someday:

Imagine there’s an outreach activity done all over the nation, and if you were to step in and try it, you’d be more successful than 90% of the people who have been doing it for years? If you knew you’d be great at it, would you give it a shot? Because I know! You wouldn’t even have to try as hard as the others. Just by being you, a millennial or a Gen Zer, you could save so many lives. This activity is sidewalk counseling. And right now, the majority of sidewalk counselors in the State of Minnesota are older than your parents or are your grandparents’ age. They can and do say so many wonderful things to abortion clients and they have years of experience. But they could say all the right things and a young pregnant mother won’t even turn her ear because she doesn’t feel like they can relate to her experience. Just even seeing a young person such as yourself opens the door to a conversation she might never have had with someone else. Young women especially. If you just step out and give it a go, the fruits of your efforts will be so amazing. In this case your youth is your power. We would be so effective if more of you stepped up to this very important work of saving lives on the front lines in the battle over abortion.

I do want to clarify that the veteran sidewalk counselors are invaluable to the cause and I am grateful for all of the hard work and training that they have done. But I would like to think most of the current older sidewalk counselors would agree that younger sidewalk counselors would be effective and would want more young people joining them.

I guess I was lucky in how I came to start sidewalk counseling. It’s been hard since then to recruit others. They are more likely to do well here if they are not shy and if they feel knowledgeable about abortion. Once you start doing it you finally understand how vitally important it is and how much difference you can make. But it’s hard to get people to come in the first place.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?
I would tell them to look at this amazing image you guys made:

(Here’s the pic on FB if you want to share it…)

And I would tell them to pray about it or think about where their passions and talents lie and figure out what part of the movement they believe would benefit the most from their work. There are so many ways to help.

But if they are interested in directly saving lives, sidewalk counseling is that work. Trained sidewalk counselors and staff at pregnancy help centers are the ones who are speaking to the women themselves and who have a direct line to saving those lives. The sidewalks and the help centers are the places with the most dire need, but particularly the sidewalks because there isn’t 100% coverage yet and we always need a lot more people there. Additionally if pregnancy help centers are short volunteers, their hours may be shorter, such as being open only three days a week instead of six. There’s no telling how many women were going to go to a pregnancy help center but it wasn’t open, so they chose abortion instead. An open abortion clinic with no one outside offering help, not even a sign–that’s hopelessness. There’s no chance of a woman changing her mind. But even people out there praying can be seen as a sign to a woman who was praying to God to give her a way out of this abortion she felt forced into.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?
This is a most important and difficult question.

What the movement gets right: I think the number of different ways people can be involved is amazing. There’s no shortage of information out there from the pro-life movement. If you want to research abortion and the facts of fetal development, it’s out there. There are so many wonderful organizations to team up with and get involved. That’s a good thing we have going for us.

What we could do better: We could improve on our divisiveness and our effectiveness at decreasing abortion numbers. We could work on legislation to overturn Roe v. Wade. And we need to fight the bad image we have. When people think of pro-lifers they think WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant [usually male]). They think “those crazy protesters,” because pro-choicers continually point to photos and footage of the bad eggs. And in some place the “crazies” are still alive and well.

I feel when I started sidewalk counseling, I was awakened into fully being pro-life. Before sidewalk counseling, I voted pro-life and I stated I was pro-life on Facebook, but that was it. I believe the majority of the people who attend the March for Life are more like I was originally. They don’t know how to put their pro-life beliefs into real action, or they believe they are too busy. I think we need to better emphasize how to turn belief into action. It seems like hundreds of thousands of people attend a rally or march or walk with a “checklist” mentality: “I did my pro-life thing for the year. Check.” If the same number of people who go to marches were at the abortion clinics, these places would be shut down. The community would see the uproar against abortion and realize they don’t want abortion in their neighborhood. I think this video explains how sidewalk counseling started, what it looks like now, and where to move from here.

As a Catholic, I believe there should be more masses said outside of abortion clinics. From the secular standpoint, I think the pregnancy centers need to unite as one organization that will become more competition for Planned Parenthood. New Wave Feminist’s President, Destiny, has an idea for an app called Help Assist Her that sounds amazing. If that app existed and there was a FEMM center in every major city that would drastically help our cause.

***

Learn more about the Help Assist Her app.
Read the perspectives of a woman who did not have anyone to tell her she could keep her pregnnacy.
Read the perspectives of another sidewalk counselor.
Read the perspectives of a woman who runs a pregnancy resource center.

In-depth interview with a millennial 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 who stand outside abortion clinics are there to shame and terrify vulnerable abortion-minded women. But what I’ve witnessed has been quite the opposite: the people who wait outside of abortion clinics (referred to within our movement as “sidewalk counselors”) are selfless, compassionate people trying to help the women who go to clinics because they feel they don’t have a choice.

We already know that most women seek abortion due to economic and social pressure. Both study after study as well as countless personal stories confirm that many women choose abortion because they believe they don’t have the resources to care for a child. Sidewalk counselors work to connect these women to the resources they need. This work transforms—and literally saves—lives.

As a secularist, I do not share the beliefs of Evie Schwartzbauer, the sidewalk counselor I have interviewed here. But I can’t help but be impressed and humbled by the way Evie’s faith clearly inspires, uplifts, and sustains her as she does this physically and emotionally draining work. It’s my impression there are relatively few secular sidewalk counselors. I suspect this is partially because most sidewalk counseling organizations are heavily religious, so it may seem like an awkward fit for an atheist or agnostic. But I also wonder what, in the absence of faith, the secular sidewalk counselor would draw on to do this kind of immediate and intimate work for an extended period of time.

(Evie asked me to emphasize that secular sidewalk counselors are very welcome and indeed could be particularly helpful in many contexts.)

If there are any secularists with sidewalk counseling experience who would be interested in being interviewed, please contact us at info@secularprolife.org.



How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?
I’ve always been pro-life, but for a long time my activism consisted of voting and Facebook debates. I didn’t even know what sidewalk counseling is. In September 2013, I became a part-time administrative assistant for Pro-Life Action Ministries (PLAM), and it’s understood that everyone who works for the organization does sidewalk counseling. Once I learned what that entails, I was eager to try. I had converted to Catholicism and learned about apologetics around the same time I started working for PLAM, and that combination of factors was powerful. When I saw the reality of the situation and learned I could really save lives, my spark of interest in pro-life work was ignited into a true passion. I’m involved in other pro-life work such as art and design projects (when they come up), but sidewalk counseling is my consistent and regular commitment. I can no longer not sidewalk counsel; I know that if I don’t show up, there may be no one else to tell these women that they don’t have to get abortions. No one will be there to let them know there is free help and that they are strong enough to be mothers right now. I feel a strong sense of duty and responsibility to this work and to these women. Sidewalk counseling is direct action—the very last minute help in the pro-life movement.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.
I get up early. Right now it’s winter in Minnesota, so I put on many layers: 5-6 layers of pants, 3 socks, 5-6 layers on top, and scarf, hat, and mittens. Today I wore only two pairs of socks and forgot my scarf, and I noticed the difference. It was 2 degrees out.

Meet Evie.

I drive ten minutes or so to the clinic. On the way I rehearse what I may say. On certain days such as holidays I try to relate my message to the holiday’s theme.

The clinic has a fence to stifle us, but PLAM owns the property right next door. They turned a house into a beautiful chapel with a crucifix outside, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and what we call our “freedom stand,” which is a structure that lets us stand higher than the fence so we have better access to the clients.

The fence dividing the clinic parking lot (left) from the PLAM chapel (right).

When I arrive I park and grab my handbag with my sidewalk counseling literature in it and I go to the sidewalk. I used to put out signs, but I haven’t noticed a difference on the days I forgot them, so I’ve stopped using them. One less thing to do.

I start out in prayer with the rosary. For Catholics, each day has a certain set of mysteries to meditate on. Tuesday is a day to meditate on the Sorrowful mysteries of Christ, and I find it very helpful to think about the sufferings of the Passion of Christ while I’m suffering in the cold and ridicule of others. I know that He suffered too for a good cause: to save souls.

I pray until a car arrives. I try to talk to the people, and when they go inside I go back to praying the rosary. I wait for other cars to pull up. I’ve been counseling long enough that I recognize the slower cars of people looking lost, with a young woman in the car. As the client’s car pulls into the parking lot I offer my literature with my hand out and say something like, “Good morning! I have some information for you!” I hope they roll down their window and accept the literature. If they do, it gives me the longest amount of time to talk with them. If they pull in and park, they are more likely to walk into the clinic and be convinced of their decision regardless of what I say.

I try to let the Holy Spirit take over and guide what I will say. There have been times I’ve genuinely felt the Holy Spirit speak through me, using words and phrases I don’t ever say. But I usually say something such as, “Good morning! If you’re pregnant, congratulations! It’s a shame if no one told you yet, but your baby is a gift. I want you to know that there is free help across the street—anything you could possibly need! Whatever is bringing you here today, we can help you solve your problems nonviolently. You are strong enough to be a mom right now, and we can help you through this! Look at your ultrasound and see your baby girl or boy.”

The clinic is open three weekdays and Saturdays. There are usually 2-5 clients per day, more on Saturdays. In three years of sidewalk counseling, I have helped change the minds of about a dozen women and thus saved the lives of a dozen innocent children (that I know of). Most days, though, I have no luck. I have many heartbreaking conversations with friends, boyfriends, and husbands who are willing to talk with me and who did not want these abortions but were unable to convince their friends or significant others.

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?
You would think the angry clients would be the most difficult. I have had people try to run me over and threaten to beat me up. I’ve had nasty threats, cursing, middle fingers, and people tearing up my literature.

But actually it’s more difficult finding the motivation to get up early and stand in the cold and get ridiculed every week. But as Christians we hope that this earth is not our home and we believe that God sees all of our suffering. We take comfort in scripture such as the beatitudes, which say “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” We can offer up our sufferings and have more merit in our prayers.

And the most difficult aspect is twofold:

1) It is especially heart wrenching facing the ugly reality of abortion every week when I struggle with infertility. I’ve been married six years and have never been pregnant. I watch woman after woman throw away a gift I would give anything for. And I’m not alone. I have a friend on an adoption waiting list with an organization that specifically works with women who were considering abortion. He has been waiting four years so far, and there are 11 more couples on the waiting list. There are no babies to adopt and instead they are being aborted. It’s devastating.

2) It is very hard to see someone I know get an abortion. The hardest was seeing a young girl who I taught in her 8th grade confirmation class a few years ago. She knew who I was and acted casual, but I was shocked. She went through with the abortion; it was so agonizing. Seeing her afterward at a church festival was also very sad.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?
Yes, we have several brochures. The brochure I hand out most is titled “We’re Here For You.” If I talk to someone who is open to leaving the clinic, I give her the brochure which lists all Minnesota pregnancy centers as well as other pro-life organizations that help with resources for pregnancy, adoption, difficult diagnoses, housing, and so forth. If I counsel outside a Planned Parenthood I like to also pass out a magazine put out by Human Life Alliance called “Why Trust Planned Parenthood?” I also have brochures on birth control, Natural Family Planning, and scripture suggesting God is against abortion; I hand these brochures out only if the conversation leads to these specific topics. I bring up religion only if the person indicates they are religious (such as if they have a religious bumper sticker or a rosary on the dash or if they bring up God first).

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?
I refer women to the closest pregnancy help center. The clinic I counsel outside of the most has a pregnancy help center right across the street, so it’s easy to suggest they go there for a free walk-in appointment. When I counsel in front of Planned Parenthood, I suggest a center a block or two away. These centers have trained professionals who are excellent at comforting and encouraging the women who go to them.

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?
As I mentioned, I’m Catholic. Being Catholic affects everything in my life. I try to always do the right thing and to speak to people in a way that they will see Christ through me. I desire for all people to know God and to not be hurt by sin, so if the Holy Spirit moves me to say something in a certain situation, I let Him move me. (This is never anything along the lines of calling women murderers or condemning anyone to hell or anything like that.) My first duty is not to preach the gospel; it is to try and save lives. If the conversation leads that way, I may simply say God gave this woman a gift and He will help her through this situation.

Most sidewalk counselors I’ve met are Catholic. I have met some Protestants. There’s been some tension there. I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous group AHA (Abolish Human Abortion). One of their members told me their second goal is to save the baby, and their first goal is to “save people,” meaning preach the Gospel using condemning language about murder and hell. Many sidewalk counselors have tried to tell AHA that their methods only turn women away; they are neither “saving people” nor saving lives. Many of us have been frustrated trying to convince them that it’s more helpful to encourage women and let them know about the resources available. In general I’ve found that new sidewalk counselors are sometimes eager to “save” others on the sidewalk and can become distracted, but over time we’ve realized the “you do you” approach is the most fruitful in our efforts to save lives. For the most part sidewalk counselors of different denominations do all get along with each other and recognize that we have the same goal. Some of the AHA members have softened their approach and multiple women have been helped and their babies saved.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?
Some women say they are not at the clinic for an abortion, but in many cases they simply don’t want to tell me. I usually respond, “Well, if you’re pregnant or know someone who is pregnant, there is free help across the street. No one needs an abortion.” If the woman is adamant she is at the clinic for a check-up or anything other than abortion, I may say, “Let me help you find a healthcare provider that respects all life. This place kills children for a living. You deserve real healthcare.”

If I’m counseling outside a Planned Parenthood, I have a lot more to say about how the organization takes advantage of vulnerable women to maximize their profits. At Planned Parenthood I also talk to the escorts about the reality of what Planned Parenthood does. I point out that if PP really cared about women, the organization would not promote lifestyles that increase a woman’s risks of STDs and unplanned pregnancies. If PP really cared about women they would include education on fertility awareness and NaPro technology, both of which can help couples actually plan to be parents.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?
The most common reason women give is that they can’t afford another baby right now. The second most common is that they aren’t ready for a baby right now. I tell them about the plethora of help available and that a sibling is a great gift for their other children.

Sadly, the third most common reason is that their doctor told them to go to the clinic, saying the baby “isn’t compatible with life,” “is going to die anyway,” or “is already dead.” I suggest we can get them to another doctor for a second opinion, or, if the child is truly dead, I point out it’s safer to get a D&C at a hospital. Doctors refer these women to a clinic because it’s faster and cheaper, not because it’s safer.

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?
There was a woman I stayed in touch with during and after her pregnancy; I tried to get her as much help as possible. She struggled with addiction but her baby was born healthy. Unfortunately I lost contact with her when her phone number no longer worked. Her child is now in the custody of her grandfather. Another woman was a friend of mine who I convinced to keep her baby on Valentine’s Day. She gave birth to a baby boy and moved to Texas. There was a man I worked with to try to convince his girlfriend not to have an abortion, sadly to no avail. He and I now have a “pen pal via text” type friendship. I also have an ongoing friendship with a woman I persuaded to keep her baby. She is very grateful. She has sent me pictures and I have since helped her with two Christmas bundles of food and gifts. We’re Facebook friends.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?
At the clinic where I primarily sidewalk counsel, I’ve never met the abortionist. I have seen the nurse only once when she came out to take a video of me with her phone. She said she was going to show the law “how awful I am,” I think because I touched their fence? I don’t know why specifically, but nothing ever came of it. I have an interesting ongoing conversation with the security guard who is a fallen away Catholic. I believe and hope he will soon come back to the Church.

At Planned Parenthood, I speak to the volunteer escorts even though they are told to put headphones on and ignore us. I say, “You know why they tell you not to talk to us? Because they know if you listen long enough you’ll discover the truth about this place and about abortion. They want to keep you in the dark. We are both here because we want to help women. I just want to give them life-affirming healthcare.” If staff come out for a smoke break, I ask them to look up Abby Johnson’s testimony. I say “She was where you are, and 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?
Unfortunately that might be true for some people’s experiences, because on public property anyone can come out. I believe it’s more common in the South; sadly there is footage out there, usually older footage from Southern states. But these methods are shunned by the pro-life movement and by people trained in sidewalk counseling. We know that approach simply doesn’t work. I think it’s rarely used anymore except by the hardcore AHA people or perhaps ignorant passionate people who don’t know better. But I find if these people continue to go to the sidewalk they learn from the experienced counselors who hopefully convince them to use a message of encouragement and support.

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?
Buffer zones suck. Buffer zones actually make normal, peaceful sidewalk counselors look aggressive because we are placed so far away we have to raise our voices to even be heard, which seems like yelling and obviously has a negative connotation. If there were no buffer zones it would be clearer that I am just someone who wants to help, instead of looking desperate and crazy from a distance. Planned Parenthoods are also often built in a way to keep the parking lot very far away, preventing sidewalk counselors from speaking to the women. It’s frustrating.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?
I actually wrote a piece for young people on sidewalk counseling I hope to use at a pro-life event someday:

Imagine there’s an outreach activity done all over the nation, and if you were to step in and try it, you’d be more successful than 90% of the people who have been doing it for years? If you knew you’d be great at it, would you give it a shot? Because I know! You wouldn’t even have to try as hard as the others. Just by being you, a millennial or a Gen Zer, you could save so many lives. This activity is sidewalk counseling. And right now, the majority of sidewalk counselors in the State of Minnesota are older than your parents or are your grandparents’ age. They can and do say so many wonderful things to abortion clients and they have years of experience. But they could say all the right things and a young pregnant mother won’t even turn her ear because she doesn’t feel like they can relate to her experience. Just even seeing a young person such as yourself opens the door to a conversation she might never have had with someone else. Young women especially. If you just step out and give it a go, the fruits of your efforts will be so amazing. In this case your youth is your power. We would be so effective if more of you stepped up to this very important work of saving lives on the front lines in the battle over abortion.

I do want to clarify that the veteran sidewalk counselors are invaluable to the cause and I am grateful for all of the hard work and training that they have done. But I would like to think most of the current older sidewalk counselors would agree that younger sidewalk counselors would be effective and would want more young people joining them.

I guess I was lucky in how I came to start sidewalk counseling. It’s been hard since then to recruit others. They are more likely to do well here if they are not shy and if they feel knowledgeable about abortion. Once you start doing it you finally understand how vitally important it is and how much difference you can make. But it’s hard to get people to come in the first place.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?
I would tell them to look at this amazing image you guys made:

(Here’s the pic on FB if you want to share it…)

And I would tell them to pray about it or think about where their passions and talents lie and figure out what part of the movement they believe would benefit the most from their work. There are so many ways to help.

But if they are interested in directly saving lives, sidewalk counseling is that work. Trained sidewalk counselors and staff at pregnancy help centers are the ones who are speaking to the women themselves and who have a direct line to saving those lives. The sidewalks and the help centers are the places with the most dire need, but particularly the sidewalks because there isn’t 100% coverage yet and we always need a lot more people there. Additionally if pregnancy help centers are short volunteers, their hours may be shorter, such as being open only three days a week instead of six. There’s no telling how many women were going to go to a pregnancy help center but it wasn’t open, so they chose abortion instead. An open abortion clinic with no one outside offering help, not even a sign–that’s hopelessness. There’s no chance of a woman changing her mind. But even people out there praying can be seen as a sign to a woman who was praying to God to give her a way out of this abortion she felt forced into.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?
This is a most important and difficult question.

What the movement gets right: I think the number of different ways people can be involved is amazing. There’s no shortage of information out there from the pro-life movement. If you want to research abortion and the facts of fetal development, it’s out there. There are so many wonderful organizations to team up with and get involved. That’s a good thing we have going for us.

What we could do better: We could improve on our divisiveness and our effectiveness at decreasing abortion numbers. We could work on legislation to overturn Roe v. Wade. And we need to fight the bad image we have. When people think of pro-lifers they think WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant [usually male]). They think “those crazy protesters,” because pro-choicers continually point to photos and footage of the bad eggs. And in some place the “crazies” are still alive and well.

I feel when I started sidewalk counseling, I was awakened into fully being pro-life. Before sidewalk counseling, I voted pro-life and I stated I was pro-life on Facebook, but that was it. I believe the majority of the people who attend the March for Life are more like I was originally. They don’t know how to put their pro-life beliefs into real action, or they believe they are too busy. I think we need to better emphasize how to turn belief into action. It seems like hundreds of thousands of people attend a rally or march or walk with a “checklist” mentality: “I did my pro-life thing for the year. Check.” If the same number of people who go to marches were at the abortion clinics, these places would be shut down. The community would see the uproar against abortion and realize they don’t want abortion in their neighborhood. I think this video explains how sidewalk counseling started, what it looks like now, and where to move from here.

As a Catholic, I believe there should be more masses said outside of abortion clinics. From the secular standpoint, I think the pregnancy centers need to unite as one organization that will become more competition for Planned Parenthood. New Wave Feminist’s President, Destiny, has an idea for an app called Help Assist Her that sounds amazing. If that app existed and there was a FEMM center in every major city that would drastically help our cause.

***

Learn more about the Help Assist Her app.
Read the perspectives of a woman who did not have anyone to tell her she could keep her pregnnacy.
Read the perspectives of another sidewalk counselor.
Read the perspectives of a woman who runs a pregnancy resource center.

Your Stories: Unwed Pregnancy and the Church

On Monday, Secular Pro-Life published an article about Maddi Runkles, a high school senior whose private Christian school has banned her from her graduation ceremony because she is pregnant. We joined a chorus of pro-life organizations, led by Students for Life of America, condemning the school’s action and pointing out that penalizing women for being pregnant is a surefire way to encourage abortions.

Maddi’s story generated a lot of social media attention and discussions within the pro-life community, and our article was no exception. Numerous current and former Christians took to our facebook page to share stories from their schools and churches. While far from being a comprehensive scientific survey, these comments do offer up an interesting qualitative picture. Here’s what you had to say:

Holly M.—My mother went to Catholic school and was forced to drop out of her high school when she got pregnant with my brother at 16. She was punished. She had to get her GED and did not get to graduate with her class at the school she went to her whole life. I went to that same Catholic school. They have since changed that rule and don’t force pregnant teens to drop out but the fact that they once did and they did it to my mother is very upsetting to me. It IS definitely making abortion an incentive by “punishing” pregnant young girls like that.

Christi R.—I am a Christian. This is an issue that does need to be addressed in the Christian community. I teach my children abstinence only, but still inform them of birth control. Abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy, but if they make poor choices they need to know what protection there is to prevent pregnancy even if the protection isn’t 100%. In many Christian communities, the idea is of you teach options you are encouraging options. Sex is still a sensitive subject that is avoided and left to parents. Meanwhile, the Christian schools have an abstinence only stance. If you have a prominent student who has obviously broken that rule, it is a hard decision on how to handle it in the fact broken rules cannot be rewarded. If they appear to sanction the behavior of premarital sex, they risk losing families who send their children to these schools in hopes of surrounding them with like-minded families. It can be destructive to a school’s population. I don’t support the actions they chose, but I can understand it was a difficult one.

Kali F.—I walked pregnant at graduation (at a public school). The gowns are so loose that you couldn’t tell I was pregnant, even though I was about 6 or 7 months. This isn’t about what the other students would think; they just want to punish her for going against their morals.

Barbara S.—I went to a Catholic university and I remember a couple of pregnant students; a girl used to bring her baby to class sometimes, another spoke in class about initially wanting an abortion and then changing her mind… nobody judged them or anything.


Tiffany M.—My parents got pregnant with me while attending Bob Jones University. You can imagine the chaos that ensued.


SheriLynn H.—A classmate of my son’s graduated with him yesterday from a Catholic high school in the most conservative diocese in the US, cap, gown, shook the bishop’s hand, etc., and she is about 6 months pregnant. Another graduate had a 10-month-old baby in the audience. I am happy that pro-life really means pro-life around here.

Kaitlyn V. (in reply to SheriLynn)—I knew we must be from the same area when I read “most conservative diocese in the US”! And I was right 🙂 My high school treated a similar situation very differently when I attended. Just makes me happy to hear that another local Catholic school is focusing on what truly matters.

Nicole P.—A lot of churches need a heavy dose of grace. Before I joined my church I asked about their pro life views. They said when there were pregnant teens they embraced them & gave them showers just like they would married women.

Abigail G.—My sister was not allowed to attend our church’s senior banquet because she was pregnant. I was enraged at the way they treated us (I say “us” because I had a child outside of marriage, and I could sense the judgment from some of the other church goers).

Your Stories: Unwed Pregnancy and the Church

On Monday, Secular Pro-Life published an article about Maddi Runkles, a high school senior whose private Christian school has banned her from her graduation ceremony because she is pregnant. We joined a chorus of pro-life organizations, led by Students for Life of America, condemning the school’s action and pointing out that penalizing women for being pregnant is a surefire way to encourage abortions.

Maddi’s story generated a lot of social media attention and discussions within the pro-life community, and our article was no exception. Numerous current and former Christians took to our facebook page to share stories from their schools and churches. While far from being a comprehensive scientific survey, these comments do offer up an interesting qualitative picture. Here’s what you had to say:

Holly M.—My mother went to Catholic school and was forced to drop out of her high school when she got pregnant with my brother at 16. She was punished. She had to get her GED and did not get to graduate with her class at the school she went to her whole life. I went to that same Catholic school. They have since changed that rule and don’t force pregnant teens to drop out but the fact that they once did and they did it to my mother is very upsetting to me. It IS definitely making abortion an incentive by “punishing” pregnant young girls like that.

Christi R.—I am a Christian. This is an issue that does need to be addressed in the Christian community. I teach my children abstinence only, but still inform them of birth control. Abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy, but if they make poor choices they need to know what protection there is to prevent pregnancy even if the protection isn’t 100%. In many Christian communities, the idea is of you teach options you are encouraging options. Sex is still a sensitive subject that is avoided and left to parents. Meanwhile, the Christian schools have an abstinence only stance. If you have a prominent student who has obviously broken that rule, it is a hard decision on how to handle it in the fact broken rules cannot be rewarded. If they appear to sanction the behavior of premarital sex, they risk losing families who send their children to these schools in hopes of surrounding them with like-minded families. It can be destructive to a school’s population. I don’t support the actions they chose, but I can understand it was a difficult one.

Kali F.—I walked pregnant at graduation (at a public school). The gowns are so loose that you couldn’t tell I was pregnant, even though I was about 6 or 7 months. This isn’t about what the other students would think; they just want to punish her for going against their morals.

Barbara S.—I went to a Catholic university and I remember a couple of pregnant students; a girl used to bring her baby to class sometimes, another spoke in class about initially wanting an abortion and then changing her mind… nobody judged them or anything.


Tiffany M.—My parents got pregnant with me while attending Bob Jones University. You can imagine the chaos that ensued.


SheriLynn H.—A classmate of my son’s graduated with him yesterday from a Catholic high school in the most conservative diocese in the US, cap, gown, shook the bishop’s hand, etc., and she is about 6 months pregnant. Another graduate had a 10-month-old baby in the audience. I am happy that pro-life really means pro-life around here.

Kaitlyn V. (in reply to SheriLynn)—I knew we must be from the same area when I read “most conservative diocese in the US”! And I was right 🙂 My high school treated a similar situation very differently when I attended. Just makes me happy to hear that another local Catholic school is focusing on what truly matters.

Nicole P.—A lot of churches need a heavy dose of grace. Before I joined my church I asked about their pro life views. They said when there were pregnant teens they embraced them & gave them showers just like they would married women.

Abigail G.—My sister was not allowed to attend our church’s senior banquet because she was pregnant. I was enraged at the way they treated us (I say “us” because I had a child outside of marriage, and I could sense the judgment from some of the other church goers).