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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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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.
LifeNews Note: Monica Snyder is a co-leader of Secular Pro-Life, where this article originally appeared.