Every Saturday morning at six, Sheila’s television comes on. She listens to it as she dresses, and then she drives to the Planned Parenthood building off I-45 in Houston, dons a neon-green vest that says “Planned Parenthood Volunteer,” and stands by the driveway, outside a tall black metal fence laced with dark vines, for hours. She doesn’t go home until the protesters do. Sheila is 69. She’s been doing this for 20 years.
“I started coming here just before the Republican convention in 1992,” she said when we met at the clinic on Saturday. “I had been to a friend’s funeral, Eileen, and the woman giving her eulogy said, ‘For Eileen, let’s all pledge to do something outrageously liberal.’ So I decided getting up at 6 a.m. and defending the clinic was outrageous enough.”
Sheila doesn’t want her last name in print—“It’s the one little wall I put around myself,” she says. “There are all kinds of people here. Some are well-meaning. Some are mean-spirited. This is the only place you can legally yell at women.”
On a normal Saturday, about 20 protesters gather on the sidewalk here, outside the gate or across the street, sometimes with signs, sometimes with red tape over their mouths that says “LIFE” or “VIDA.” On this day, around 150 people have assembled to launch the Back to Life Walk. It’s a 21-day trek from what they’re calling America’s largest abortion clinic (see this Houston Chronicle blog entry on that claim) to the courthouse in Dallas, the “birthplace of Roe v. Wade.” Thirty-nine women, symbolizing 39 years of legal abortion, are making the trek, beginning today and scheduled to end on Good Friday.
I arrived in the middle of the prayer rally, which comprised several small groups scattered along the sidewalks on either side of the street beside the fenced parking lot. There were many children, large families, often in matching T-shirts, and the majority wore the red “LIFE” tape over their mouths. They stood together with heads down, in groups of five or six, kept off the clinic’s grass by volunteers like Sheila and off the street by half a dozen bored-looking police. A priest stood beside a statue of Mary on a folding table. A short nun in a gray habit wore sunglasses.
The Back to Life walk was organized by Laura Allred, a young Latina who said in the post-prayer news conference that she felt called by God to become an activist when she heard Planned Parenthood was building a facility in the neighborhood where she grew up. “Mostly who would be targeted would be young Latina women,” she said, which led her to select for the walk 39 women in their 20s, largely women of color.
The conference, which didn’t seem to draw any major local news outlets, was held across the street from the Planned Parenthood clinic, crowded deeply onto the sidewalk beside a chain-link fence around a warehouse parking lot. Logistics were not excellent. Once the speakers, walkers, and a young, twisted woman on a stretcher were assembled photogenically, the whole group had to part to let three pickup trucks escape the lot.
Speeches were brief and freighted with the language of social justice. “The God who ended slavery is the same God today,” intoned Pastor Lou Engle. “The God who raised up Martin Luther King and ended the Jim Crow laws will end abortion.” Switching referents, he added, “The women of America have had a trail of tears.”
The King reference was no coincidence—his niece Alveda King was on hand at the rally, to sing a hymn and read from the 13th chapter of Corinthians. “Love is patient, love is kind…” Rev. Arnold Culbreath called abortion the leading cause of death in the black community. Then two walkers told their personal stories. One said she would never have been born if her mother, a college freshman, hadn’t changed her mind the night before her scheduled abortion. The other was 16 years old and five months pregnant when she had her first abortion. “I was kicking and screaming in pain,” she said. “I didn’t get any sedation. The nurses were saying, ‘Be still, be quiet, you made this choice.’”
Protecting women from choice was the day’s painful, earnest theme. “There’s a war on women,” Pastor Engle said, wrapping up the news conference. “And the pro-abortion community would have you believe it’s a war to take away women’s rights to reproductive health. These 39 women have a different story. Abortion hurts women, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually.” He urged the crowd to pray for President Obama “to become a pro-life president. God can do it.”
Some protesters were less positive. “We pray for our president, but we’re opposed to his policies,” began 70-year-old Addison Thorn. “He’s a merchant of death. That’s his title, Merchant of Death.”
“Yeah, the president is even for those late-term abortions, with, like, body parts sticking out,” added Jonathan Davidson, 29.
As a car slowed to pull into the Planned Parenthood parking lot, Davidson jogged up to it, trying to hand the driver a pamphlet. A volunteer in a green vest shooed him off.
Looking proud, he trotted back to me. “It’s not a women’s rights issue,” Davidson said. “They try to make it about women’s health. As if any Christian here would be against cervical cancer screenings or whatever!” He laughed. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a life issue. A zygote is a human life. It’s so simple.” He opened the pamphlet. “See, there’s a heartbeat four days after a missed period.”
“I think it’s week six,” I said.
He smiled indulgently and pointed back at the pamphlet. “By the time a woman pees on a stick and sees two little lines,” he said, “the heart’s already beating. That’s not politics. It’s just science.”
By this time, the 39 women had stretched a little, drawn into a long line, some laughing and some grave, and begun their 250-mile walk to cheers. The crowd dispersed quickly after. The Mary statue was already gone.
Sheila was still there.