The abortion clinic in Asheville, North Carolina is located on Orange Street, a quiet street on the edge of the downtown area. It’s only two blocks long and has mostly houses that were built in the 1930s and 40s and have been converted to office buildings for lawyers, beauticians, psychologists, and so forth. The abortion clinic is on the second block and it was built 30 some years ago. It’s a one-story light brown brick building surrounded by a wood fence on one side and a chain link fence on the other three sides. It looks like one of those unattractive public school buildings that are all over the United States.
The preborn babies are killed on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings. The pregnant women arrive periodically in a car usually driven by a man or another woman. Next to the sidewalk in front of the abortion clinic there is a car with a battery-operated speaker on the roof. It’s connected to a microphone that’s in a basket alongside the car. When a car pulls into the parking lot in front of the abortion clinic, a woman picks up the microphone and begins speaking when the pregnant woman gets out of the car.
Waiting for the woman when she gets out of the car is at least one escort and often two. The escort is a pro-abortion volunteer who wears an orange vest with silver stripes, sort of like what construction workers wear when doing highway repair. The escort greets the woman with a welcoming smile and talks to her as she goes from the car to the abortion clinic door. They want to put her at ease, but also to distract her from the voice of the woman on the microphone.
The woman on the microphone has very little time, less than a minute to plead with the pregnant woman to turn away, not go through with the abortion. She will talk about the unborn baby, that it is a gift from God, that to kill the baby is a terrible evil. But she will also talk about the suffering this will cause the pregnant woman for the rest of her life.
Besides the woman on the microphone there are usually two other counselors on the sidewalk. One, usually another woman, stands at the driveway entrance with a handful of pro-life brochures and pleads with the occupants of the car to stop and take one. They rarely do. Another protester, often a man, stands nearby with a pro-life sign of some sort that the car occupants will see as they come down the street and turn into the parking lot. While I am there, I hold up a sign that says “Let your Baby Live!, We Will Help.”
The morning I’m going to tell you about was a beautiful fall morning, bright and sunny with low humidity. This morning, Helen is responsible for the microphone and I am at the driveway entrance with my sign and the brochures. We stand and talk for 20 minutes or so before the first pregnant woman arrives. It’s a conversation we’ve had many times about how discouraging our work is, about how few people respond to the fact that a million preborn babies are killed every year, or try to save these precious lives.
Months and months go by without a woman turning away. I remember my first morning at the abortion clinic when I asked about pregnant women who don’t go through with the abortion. A woman told me: “It happens, but it’s rare.” Well, she was certainly right about that. After spending over one hundred mornings at the abortion clinic, I still haven’t seen a “turn away” for sure. A number of times a woman will go through the door, only to come back out in five or ten minutes. But we don’t know why, because some of the women who go there are picking up contraceptives or have some other business in that building besides having an abortion.
The biggest problem that the woman on the microphone is up against is that the women who come to the clinic are mostly in their 20s or teenagers. They have the perception that they can “end this pregnancy,” and that that will put this unpleasant business behind them. They think they can get on with their lives because they are deceived into thinking it just a “pregnancy,” not a child. This view is reinforced by the Planned Parenthood counselors as well as friends or relatives and the people at the abortion clinic.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Young people don’t have much of a past yet and for them their focus is all on the future and the good life they are sure to have. What they don’t know, and really can’t imagine, is that everyone takes their past with them. The significant things in your life continue on in your memory and you revisit them over and over again until you die.
The sidewalk counselors know this from their own experience (most are in their 60s and 70s) but also from their time here on the sidewalk. Cars go back and forth on the street, and in the course of the morning probably a couple of hundred pass by, an average of one or two a minute. And some of the drivers react to what they see. The ones that are pro-life will smile and wave or give the thumbs up signal. Some will stop and say something like, “thank you” or “God bless you.”
Some of the pro-abortion drivers will give a thumbs-down signal, or give you the finger, or yell something like “get a life” or “go work at a food bank.” Then there are the screamers. The screamers yell whatever comes into their heads and they are distinguished from the others by the violence of their emotion. These are the women who have had an abortion often, or men who have been complicit in the abortions of their partners. And it is really something to see and hear.
One morning I arrived early with the microphone and speaker. I had set the speaker on the roof of my car and put the microphone in a basket near the rear tire. I was getting my foam-board sign out of the trunk when a woman came up the sidewalk behind me. She began screaming at me, “You don’t know what it’s like for these women who come here. You’re a man and you don’t know what they are going through.” She said this over and over. She looked to be in her early 30s, attractive, with light brown hair in a pony tail. She started to cross the street to her car, but stopped in the middle, turned and yelled at the top of her lungs, “You’re a man, not a woman; you have a penis, not a vagina!” (I’m not inventing this). Then she turned and walked to her car. She had probably had an abortion herself, and this outburst was the only way she could tell her story.
Then there is the man in the shiny black Lexus who drives by every couple of weeks or so. He stops his car, rolls down the window, and shouts “F--- you, f--- you” over and over. His face is so contorted with anger and hatred that I wouldn’t recognize him if I walked past him on the street an hour later.
One morning, a veteran in the sidewalk advocacy work told me about a note that was found next to a bush in front of the abortion clinic about ten years ago. It was pinned to the ground by four tooth picks. A man had addressed it to his aborted child, who, he wrote, was now in heaven with his mother. He said that it was not his idea that the baby be aborted, that he had pleaded that it not be done, that he now begged for forgiveness. The sidewalk counselors treated the note as something sacred, a sort of monument to the aborted baby, and wouldn’t touch it, although the husband of one of the women came to the sidewalk and photographed it. A couple of weeks later it was gone and then in the next week they found it across the driveway under another bush. It looked like a dried up leaf. One of the women took it home and preserved it between the pages of a book.
All of the protesters can tell stories about the screamers. They go by a few times a week, some new some who have gone by before. What they shout differs from one to the other, but the furious outpouring of emotion is all the same. They have been not able to “put it behind them.” Instead, it has stayed with them like a wound that will not heal. Not that they think about it all the time, but that the memory of their abortion comes back to them, perhaps as they lay awake in the middle of the night wondering where their child would be today: getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school, getting married. Or maybe the memory would be triggered by a bumper sticker declaring: “It’s a child....not a choice,” or when they learn that someone they know is pregnant.
You see, pro-choice people, who are focused on expediency, still know that if the preborn baby is not killed, it will be born, have a life, however short, however long. They know that however their abortion was justified, abortion takes a life. They know that if they had been killed before birth by abortion, they wouldn’t be here today. So killing the preborn baby is a horrendous thing for the woman and man, but especially the woman. This is not like killing your next door neighbor, or a bank teller, or even a relative. This is killing your very own child and it is something that – once it has been done – will never go away. For everyone but the most morally obtuse, it is an absolute horror. The English have a folk saying: “An old sin casts a long shadow.” That applies perfectly to those who have been complicit in killing their own preborn child.
Today, a dozen or so cars pull into the parking lot at the abortion clinic and, like the other mornings, the women pass through the door in a relentless stream. But then something different happens. A woman drives into the parking lot in a black SUV, and parks on the right side alongside the building. She sits there for a few minutes, and then gets out. But a couple who came in after her now stand at the top of the stoop near the door waiting to get in. (The abortion clinic has a rule that when one couple is inside going through registration and security, no one else can come into the building).
So the woman with the SUV stands at the bottom of the steps for a couple of minutes, and then she turns and walks back to her car. We’ve seen this before plenty of times. I think that maybe she is just going to sit in the car while she waits her turn, or maybe she forgot something. But to feel useful, I walk down the sidewalk until I am directly across from her. I hold up my sign (Let Your Baby Live!, We Will Help) which she can see if she looks out the passenger window of her car. I yell to Helen, who is 20 feet away: “She’s gone back to her car.” But Helen continues to plead with the woman at the top of the stoop, who has not yet gone inside.
So I continue standing there, holding my sign and watching the woman in the SUV. And then I see her lean forward and rest her head on the steering wheel. I walk back to Helen and tell her what I’ve seen. She immediately turns from the couple on the stoop to the woman in the SUV. She tells me to go back and to hold my sign up high. Helen then begins to speak to this woman. She starts with, “I can see that you are troubled” and goes on with non-stop pleas.
Now I’m standing there holding my foam-board sign high over my head, which is tiring even though it’s light. I try holding it with one hand and then the other. Then I see the woman put her hand to her face and I yell to Helen, “I think she’s crying.” Helen has real range and she adjusts her pitch to take this in.
Then I see the woman start up her car. I yell to Helen “I think she’s going to back up!” And she does, but she only goes a few feet until her back tire on the driver’s side jumps the curb alongside the building. Then she goes forward and backs up again and jumps the curb a second time. Finally, she backs up, gets it right, turns around, and crosses the lot to the entrance.
By this time, Helen is there to meet her. The woman stops her car and Helen leans in and says something. Then the woman pulls out of the parking lot and takes an immediate left and parks on our side of the street, pointed the wrong way. Helen goes up to the driver’s door and puts her head partway through the window and starts talking to the woman. I walk up the street past the car, go to the other side of the driveway, about 25 feet away and, with my back to the SUV. I hold my sign in front of my chest to catch the attention of the oncoming traffic.
Every minute or two, I turn my head and look back at the car. Helen is still leaning into the car and now she has her hand on the woman’s arm. About ten minutes later, I look back at the car and see that the brake lights are now on. The woman must have her foot on the brake pedal. Helen has moved away from the car, she’s about 15 feet away and she is facing the chain link fence with her head bowed, and her hands clasped in front, apparently praying. So I start praying too. Like a lot of people with a Catholic background, I’m not good at extemporaneous prayer, so after a few “please God keep her out of there,”’s I resort to a string of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s.
After a few minutes, I look back and Helen is back at the car with her head in the window, hand on the woman’s arm. Another couple of minutes go by … and at last, the woman drives away.
I walk back to Helen and ask her what happened. Helen, who has been at her absolute top performance level for over half an hour, is exhausted. She starts with, “She… ,” but can’t go on. I stand there for about twenty seconds and Helen starts again. “She said...”But still she can’t finish.
So I wait until Helen can talk.
The woman is a college student from a nearby county. She found out that she was pregnant and told her father, who was furious. He demanded she get an abortion and kicked her out of the house. She spent the night in her SUV and a few nights with friends, and then came here this morning to get an abortion. She had expected her father to be angry, but was surprised that he wanted her to get an abortion, because he is pro-life. She said she didn’t think she could face him again.
Helen’s tack surprised me. Instead of taking sides against the woman’s father, she said, “Your father is right. Of course he is angry and he should be. You did something very stupid. Your father loves you very much. That is why he is so angry. But don’t compound this problem; don’t make it worse by killing your baby. You and your father will always regret it; you will both suffer.” And this is essentially what Helen told the woman over and over, but in different ways.
Then Helen told her to call her father and tell him where she was and that she couldn’t go through with it. That’s when Helen walked away to stand in front of the fence and pray and the woman made the phone call with her foot riding the brake pedal.
When the phone call ended, Helen had walked back to the car. The woman said: “He told me to come home.” Then she starts crying. Helen held onto her arm and told her about God’s love for her, and then they said a prayer together. On that prayer, the girl drove away.
We walk back to our cars. The morning is over, the escorts have come out of the building with their vests off, a sign that no more women will be coming for an abortion this morning. We are jubilant as we part. We high-five. Helen says “I’m going to cook a great fish dinner tonight.” I respond, “I’m going to buy an expensive bottle of wine.”
Three hours later I am standing on our flag stone patio stacking firewood next to our cobblestone fire pit. I find that I am grinding my teeth and I say to myself, “Calm down! Calm down! It’s okay. She left and she won’t come back.” And I was just a bystander after all.
A few days later, I’m standing in the checkout lane at the supermarket. I look at the photos on the magazine covers on the racks. I see Oprah (“Express Yourself!”), Paula Deen (“Fabulous Chicken Pot Pie!”), and Tiger Woods (“I’m Not the Same Man”). And I think about them, some of America’s stars and role models. No question that they have a talent of one kind or another, but on a moral level, they are likely to be quite ordinary.
But I’m thinking about the women with whom I stand every week on that sidewalk. There is nothing ordinary about them. They differ from each other in that one has been a pro-life activist for over 25 years, another teaches science to home-schooled children; one is a dentist and one is the widow of a Baptist minister. Another one spent 23 years as a nurse missionary in Africa, mostly in the Congo. They range in age from early 50s to early 70s. But they do have a couple of things in common: They are all grandmothers, they are moral stars, and they are all dedicated to saving the lives of preborn babies.