Mark Hayward's City Matters: Abortion battle is fought on a quiet street
Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined women had a constitutional right to abortion and legalized the procedure across the country.
Battles have raged ever since, in legislative halls and courtrooms. On sidewalks and chat rooms. With guns, placards and acrimony. Political careers have risen and fallen on the issue. Abortion doctors and their assistants have been excoriated. Some have been shot, some have died.
Here, too, in Manchester, the battle continues.
On a quiet North End street every Thursday, protesters gather outside the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England clinic. That is abortion day at the clinic, they say, a day where they figure that at least a dozen abortions take place.
They plant protest signs and pictures of the Virgin Mary in snowbanks and parked cars. They stand with heads bowed or trudge along a snow-covered sidewalk.
Most clutch rosaries. Their weapons are literature, a lapel pin with a facsimile of fetal-sized feet, and a 4-inch fetus doll as soft as Play-Doh.
Their ammunition is prayer, and - if they can coax a patient to speak to them - encouragement to consider an alternative.
"The only thing that works is if God touches their heart," said Susan Clifton, a homemaker who used to work as a pediatric nurse. Her face holds a look of sad contemplation over the hours she stands outside.
From 8 to 10 a.m., she and two others stand on a sidewalk outside the clinic.
A security guard keeps clear a path for cars into a parking lot. But for the driveway, the lot is shielded by a 6-foot-high picket fence.
"Good morning, can I speak to you?" asks Catherine Kelley, an Auburn resident who is by far the most outgoing of the three. Hers is a loud-speaking voice, registering just below a shout but loud enough to hear 20, 30 feet away.
She speaks to women exiting cars and walking to the clinic. She offers them something to read. "Women do regret abortion," she tells them.
The Manchester clinic opened in 2002, avoiding the late 20th-century tactics of Operation Rescue, when protesters elsewhere chained themselves to the cars of abortion doctors, held aloft images of aborted fetuses and excoriated patients as baby killers.
"You try to engage them. The word 'kill' is a turnoff," Kelley said.
She said she is a quiet person and this does not come easy for her. She spent her energies catching feral cats and having them neutered before turning to anti-abortion activities five years ago.
Most people ignore her, but this is New Hampshire, where people aren't afraid to speak their mind.
"Get a life. You have no idea what's going on," a woman in a group of three young people says as she walks to the door. A man smoking a cigarette outside the door says "No, thank you" when Kelley asks to speak to him. "Not today," said one woman Kelley had managed to speak to during a previous visit.
She gets no thumbs-up, but a few flash another upward-pointing finger her way.
Planned Parenthood is not happy with the protesters.
The organization has to either hire security guards or off-duty police to make sure the protesters don't encroach, said Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser of Planned Parenthood Northern New England.
A greeter walks to cars and escorts patients to the entrance, using an open umbrella to shield them.
About a year ago, the clinic installed security cameras on the perimeter.
Many patients complain, and the organization logs the complaints, Frizzell said.
"We regularly get complaints about verbal harassment, intimidation," Frizzell said. "The protesters get right in their face, their space. Most (patients) have written material pushed on them. It's an extremely disruptive, often upsetting experience for the patient."
She said patients who arrive by foot or public transportation have to walk past the protesters. And she questioned whether they might have been on their best behavior during my visit last week. Last October, she said, protesters followed home a worker and confronted her. The next day she quit.
Frizzell said Vermont and Massachusetts laws establish buffer zones around abortion clinics. "The time has come for us to begin having a conversation, either with state legislators or the city officials in Manchester," about such a zone, she said.
Frizzell also said that the protesters are wrong when they suspect that everyone coming into the clinic on Thursday is there for an abortion; some are making appointments or picking up birth control. But she wouldn't detail when abortions take place.
By 10:30 a.m., two of the original three picketers have left, but about eight others have arrived. One Bedford woman fingers a rosary as large as a lasso.
One woman builds up a snow bank and crowns it with a stuffed Teddy Bear and a toy dump truck. A man with an NRA stocking cap carries a sign that reads "Blessed Mother Stop Planned Parenthood." Most walk and mouth the rosary. I get the notion that the volume of prayer here rivals that said by my mother while raising three reckless teenagers in the '70s.
Kelley is also president of Pray for Life Center, a nonprofit organization that rents an apartment across Pennacook Street from the clinic. Protesters use it to warm up and get a cup of coffee. Rooms are filled with statues, photographs of past protests and pro-life pamphlets.
On the line, the protesters chat with the security guard, who politely tells them when they step over the property line.
Kelley said Planned Parenthood stopped paying the $55-hourly rates for police details recently and opted for $9-an-hour unarmed security guards.
One policeman got an earful from his wife when he called her to say where he was working, Kelley said.
A Muslim security guard and Hispanic interpreter have vowed they will never return after learning it is an abortion clinic, Kelley said.
Patients, on the other hand, generally have made up their minds. One once approached Kelley; she was $35 short for an abortion and tried to hit her up for the rest.
While they have seen some change their minds, it doesn't even happen once a month, Kelley said. And sometimes they won't even know.
But on Dec. 27, as Kelley was shoveling snow away from her car tires, a woman approached her and said she didn't go through with it.
"You see a few saves," she said, "a smile, a relief on their faces."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.