Eight-year-old Abraham Hebert stood against the Clapp building in downtown Portland on Friday morning wearing a bear hat with ear flaps, his gloved hands wrapped around a wooden stick.
“Adoption is a loving option,” said the sign on the stick. Abraham had made it himself.
The boy was in a line with 10 other children and their parents outside the entrance to Planned Parenthood’s clinic on Congress Street. Every one had a sign. Some showed quotes from Scripture; others announced that murder was happening inside the clinic. Several had blown-up pictures of fetuses, one whose entangled intestines could clearly be seen from passing cars.
Planned Parenthood employees call it “the gantlet.” And soon, it could be gone.
The City Council is scheduled to take a final vote Monday on a proposal to create a 39-foot buffer zone around entrances to reproductive health care facilities, where protesters would be banned. Planned Parenthood’s clinic near Monument Square is the only reproductive health care facility in Portland.
Portland’s sidewalk protests are similar to those in cities across the country, creating conflicts between freedom of speech and access to health care.
Since the summer of 2012, protesters have stood by the entrance to the Clapp building on Friday and Saturday mornings – and lately on Wednesdays, too – hoping to spread their message to anyone who will listen, particularly the women who are minutes away from having abortions.
“We’ll be here for them, if they change their minds,” said Donna Hebert, Abraham’s adoptive mother, who says she had four abortions before she found God more than 20 years ago.
Hebert, who lives in Waterboro, started the protests after she was contacted by a friend in North Carolina who told her about the abortion clinic in Portland. The same friend connected Hebert with Leslie Sneddon, a woman from Richmond who also deeply regretted her multiple abortions and now regularly protests with her children.
“We’ll help them,” Hebert said of the women who enter the clinic. “That’s what I wish happened for me.”
Helping, however, is the opposite of what the protesters are doing, said Eric Covey, the Maine grass-roots organizer for Planned Parenthood.
He said patients have come into the clinic in tears. They have canceled appointments. They have written testimony saying they feared for their safety.
The buffer zone would create enough space for patients to access the clinic “free of harassment and intimidation,” Covey said.
‘A WIND TUNNEL’
Now, patients can be escorted by “greeters” from Planned Parenthood, the volunteers who began standing next to the protesters outside the building about a year ago.
Joan McDonald, who has been involved with the pro-choice movement since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, was one of two escorts who waited on the sidewalk Friday. She said she offered to help after walking past a protest one morning with her grandchild.
She arrived around 8:30 a.m. Friday, an hour before any protesters showed up. The board atop the nearby Time and Temperature Building said 45 degrees, but it felt much colder around the corner of Congress and Elm streets.
“It’s a wind tunnel,” said McDonald, who wore flannel-lined cargo pants. Soon, she said, she’ll wear long underwear on days she volunteers.
If the City Council enacts the buffer zone, it will take effect Dec. 18. The protesters have said they would challenge the decision in court, as anti-abortion protesters in other cities have done. In the meantime, they said, they would simply move across the street.
Whatever happens is part of the Lord’s plan, Sneddon said.
“If He wants us to cross the street, if He wants his message proclaimed to other parts of Portland, so be it. We’re going to be fine with that,” she said.
She applies the same philosophy to the negative reactions from people she encounters during the protests.
They were relatively subdued Friday morning, aside from a few swear words flung Sneddon’s way as she tried to hand cards and pamphlets to people walking by. Others in cars on Congress Street shook their heads. One woman gave the protesters a thumbs-down; another told them they were mean.
“I just say praise the Lord. Give thanks to God,” Sneddon said.
Most people either took her handouts or politely declined. One woman thanked them for being there.
“It was calm today,” McDonald said. “Every day’s different.”
COMMENTS ABOUT THE KIDS
The number of protesters ranges from a handful to a few dozen. There were 14 of them Friday: Sneddon and her boys, Hebert and four of her children, and her friend Daniel Fitzgerald with five of his kids.
Lynne Holler, the clinic’s other greeter, said she hears many comments about the children. All of them are home-schooled, their parents said. Abraham is the youngest.
“He loves being out here,” Hebert said. “He loves to stand up for the life of the babies.”
A little before 11 a.m., the kids started to get restless. How much longer, they asked, and could they go to McDonald’s after?
The meter was up on Hebert’s parking space, so they piled up their signs to leave.
No protesters have shown up for city meetings on the issue of the buffer zone yet, but they’re considering going Monday.
“We’re praying about it,” Sneddon said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: