SOUTH PORTLAND — In the debate over the pro-life presence outside Portland’s Planned Parenthood clinic, the City Council has been predominantly concerned with weighing the rights of protesters against the complaints of Planned Parenthood and its clients.
Having attended the City Council meeting a month ago and followed developments in the paper, I appreciate the council’s concern about the rights of protesters. However, what the council and newspapers have failed to recognize is that not all pro-life speech on the sidewalk is protest.
The word “protest” is derived from the Latin roots “pro” (forth) and “testari” (to call to witness). Indeed, we generally think of protest as being some demonstration pushing against someone or something. We think of a show of power, where the goal is to intimidate a group of politicians or authority figures.
But on the sidewalk outside the abortion clinic, the discourse is often different. Rather than politicians and police, ordinary people are walking by in a crisis of some sort that causes them to want to abort their child.
In places like this, the goal of the pro-life movement isn’t intimidation, nor is it to show power. The goal is to save lives that are in imminent danger — both the lives of children and of their mothers, who too often feel pressured to abort.
Although I’m a South Portland native, my experience on the sidewalk is actually in the Bronx, where I went to college at Fordham University.
I became involved with a local crisis pregnancy center that helped pregnant women through emotional, financial and physical trials that too often accompany a crisis pregnancy.
On Saturday mornings, this center would send sidewalk counselors down to the local abortion clinic, where their job was to offer life-changing words to the women going into the clinic: “I have real help for you.”
Naturally, reactions varied. Some women got defensive, others ignored them, but a good number stopped to talk. Their situations were varied and complicated.
I watched one woman burst into tears in the counselor’s arms as she described how her mother was forcing her to have the abortion and that she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to go home if she didn’t.
We took her for coffee and talked about healing the divide with her mother and about maternity homes she could go to if things didn’t heal and she needed somewhere safe to have her baby. For others, it was the boyfriend who was threatening to leave them if they didn’t abort.
For many it was financially driven. They were afraid they wouldn’t be able to provide for their child.
We could help with that, too. We had baby supplies, contacts with people who could help them find work and even an entire home devoted to helping homeless mothers get back on their feet during their pregnancy and afterward.
If these sidewalk counselors and crisis pregnancy centers hadn’t been there, women who wanted to have their child would be scarred knowing that child had been ripped away from them by circumstances outside their control.
In New York, there is an established structure for getting aid to women who feel abortion is the only option. In Portland, the pro-life presence on the sidewalk is more recent and still developing. Nevertheless, the intention is similar.
The goal isn’t to make a political point, it’s to save lives and inform women about what they’re doing so they don’t make a choice many others have regretted. In talking with the pro-lifers in Portland, there’s hope for printing brochures for the local crisis pregnancy center in the near future. These aren’t efforts that any reasonably minded person would want to discourage.
Should the City Council decide to go through with this buffer zone, I would hope it would allow a hole for sidewalk counselors to get through. They aren’t protesters; they’re charity. It’s not harassment; it’s freely offered and freely refused help.
Pro-life or pro-choice, the presence of sidewalk counselors makes a real choice by no longer making abortion the only option; for the sake of women, the council needs to make an allowance for their much-needed work on the sidewalk.
Joseph Moreshead is a South Portland native who recently moved from that city to Syracuse, N.Y.