*On Saturday, August 22, 2015, the Respect Life Committee of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church (my own parish!) hosted one of hundreds of nationwide protests against Planned Parenthood, calling for an end to its federal funding.
When my friends and I arrived at Planned Parenthood’s Arizona headquarters in Phoenix, there were already plenty of people gathered on both sides. Planned Parenthood (PP) had closed all its clinics in town today, in anticipation of the protests, and directed its supporters to this location. So right off the bat, we thanked God that there were no abortions performed at Arizona PP clinics today. And we were also proud that thousands turned out to all the locations in the state, positively dwarfing the number of PP supporters who showed up — though I will concede that they had the better, louder sound system.
There was the weird symbolism of the PP counter-rally being staged within the parking garage, which gave the appearance from the outside that they were in a cage, in the dark. Their loudspeaker boomed, and there was plenty of cheering as the guest speakers (employees, volunteers, at least one doctor) spoke to the group. Never once did I hear mention of the undercover videos, or the baby organ harvesting, or the national scandal. And never once did it appear that anyone there had any clue why we were protesting on this particular day. There was only talk of the “good work” that PP accomplishes in the lives of women, and a defense of people’s “freedom” to control their own bodies and the size of their families.
This was the scene when we first walked up. The PP gathering was nearing an end, and ours was soon to begin. The pro-life crowd you see here was not the main group; that gathering was down the sidewalk and around the corner, where we eventually planted ourselves.
Encountering The Walking Wounded
As their speakers finished, we realized that the main pro-life gathering was around the corner on the adjacent street. So we made our way over there. While most of the pro-life crowd looked on toward the guest speakers, which left their backs to the building, I was fascinated by the (ever-dwindling) group of PP supporters and kept looking in their direction. They stood under the garage roof holding signs while their loudspeakers blared some tunes. Because their system was so loud, I pretty much missed all of the wonderful pro-life speakers, but was able to observe the pro-“choicers” as they observed us. One elderly man quietly held a sign that said: “Another Father Supporting PP”. Clearly for him it was personal, and it made me sad, wondering what abortions he supported in the past. There was the smiling, pretty blonde who held up a vulgar poster festooned with a colorful representation of her vagina, labeled “mine”. What could bring a women to be so proud of such a display? Wounds, I kept thinking. These people are so wounded. Another woman held a sign with a vulgarity that I won’t repeat, but thankfully, there were only two lewd signs in the bunch.
One PP supporter held her sweet baby girl, about a year old, and the friends around me got that little one to wave at us. She was adorable. I prayed for her, that she might grow up to be a strong pro-life warrior some day, as so many of the friends around me had — even those raised to be staunchly pro-abortion, even those with abortions in their own past.
Then there was the uncomfortable-looking young man (dragged there by his girlfriend, perhaps?) who awkwardly held a “REAL MEN STAND WITH PLANNED PARENTHOOD” sign. He was putting on a good face, but to my friends and I, he was unconvincing. A pro-life man started challenging him in a loud voice across the concrete, “Real men don’t kill babies, they protect their women and their children! That’s what real men do!” Over and over, he called the young man out, while the young man looked away or down. On the one hand, the pro-life man was right to challenge this other man to authentic masculinity, and to the protection of women and children which exists in a man’s DNA. But his emotions pushed him too far, and it eventually denigrated into a berating of the younger man. People, this is not necessary! We must not scream or berate or spew ugliness, no matter how much evil exists in front of our eyes. There is enough ugliness, darkness, and violence within the walls of a Planned Parenthood, and we do not do our cause any good by adding to it from the outside.
As I looked, not with hatred or fear, at the faces across the concrete, I wondered about each one, praying as I wondered: How did they get to a place in their lives that would put them here, defending an organization that is responsible for so much death, so many innocent lives lost, and now exposed to all as butchers, selling the prime cuts of human organs to a willing research market? How did they get to a place of defending the indefensible? Again, I thought of the wounds that must have brought them here.
I held my sign aloft (“Planned Parenthood LIES to you”) and looked pleasantly at the PP supporters, even swaying along to the cool tunes blasting out of their speakers. I swung my sign back and forth to the beat, and occasionally pointed to the words. I received some befuddled smirks. I kept wondering: Have any of you even watched the videos? Sitting over to the right, on the stairwell were some grim looking abortion advocates, watching us with flat affect. Meanwhile, the road in front of them was filling up with what was ultimately estimated to be 1,200 to 1,600 pro-lifers (with several thousand more at other Phoenix-area PP locations).
I couldn’t see above the crowd to observe how far it reached, so I just turned my attention back to the PP supporters. There was a city official, a news crew, and police officers standing and patrolling between the two sides, while the music was so loud in the clinic garage that it was not really feasible to initiate a conversation. I never felt unsafe, not for a moment, which was nice, because I didn’t known what to expect.
My 360° view of the gathering. I couldn’t see most of our own people, so I concentrated on the pro-“choice” group, who looked visually “caged” to me, even the folks on the stairwell. Two of their signs were overtly vulgar, but thankfully the rest were not obscene, unless you count the “Pro-choice CATHOLIC! I’ll pray for YOU” sign. That was the saddest of all.
“Did You Watch The Videos?”
I was blessed to be in a rare patch of shade, so I lifted my sunglasses and started to look directly into the eyes of my “opponents”. I felt concern, sadness, incredulity, maternal care, and utter confidence as I searched their eyes for any signs of … what? I don’t know. But I kept searching. I looked into the eyes of successive PP supporters and smiled at them. Each one of them met my gaze for about one second, then quickly looked away – every time. It almost became a game to me. Will the next one look away as soon as I catch his or her eye? Yup. It was uncanny!
Finally I came to an older man standing quietly to the side:
There he is! My new friend, to the right standing next to the column.
His face was kind, and I could see his friendly blue eyes clearly, even from so far away. I looked at him with a smile, and he was the first to hold my gaze. He smiled back at me politely and didn’t look away. I decided to ask him the burning question. I yelled out above the music and the pro-life speakers (whom I could barely hear): “Did you watch the videos?!” He mouthed something back, but I did not understand. My friends and I started to yell together, in hopes he could hear: “Did you watch the videos?!” Still he could not hear us, and we both chuckled our frustration and tried again. Nope. My friend Alishia turned to me and said, “Give me your sign! Do you have a pen?” Brilliant! I dug a pen out of my purse and she began to write, big and bold enough for him to see it. I smiled back at him while I waited, and then looked at the woman with the “Medical Students for Choice” sign. I smiled at her and shouted: “My son is a medical student!” She smiled back, and I said, “He’s pro-life!” I wish I could have talked more to her. I just envision her ending up as an abortionist, and my heart breaks. (Abortion is not healthcare, my dear, because killing is not healing. Don’t waste or pervert your degree! Do good! Be a healer! Do no harm!)
Alishia completed the sign, I held it up for the man I had engaged, and I pointed to the words: “Did you watch the videos?” He shook his head no. He had not. I wonder now if he even knew, or if any of them knew, what the videos are? I turned to the others across the way who were looking on with amusement at this unexpected and friendly interaction between sides, and I pointed to the sign and asked the same question: “Did you watch the videos?” One woman nodded yes, and I nodded back, smiled and gave her a big thumbs up. At least she had bothered to watch. At least she knew what heinousness she was defending.
Alisha’s awesome, hastily made sign.
I felt we had really made a connection with that nice man, so Alishia whipped up a second sign that said, “Come talk!” and he agreed! We made our way to the side of the building where he met us just outside the garage. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, each of us standing on our own side of the caution tape, police nearby. We joked that neither of us was dangerous, and then I asked him why he was here. For the first few minutes, I simply listened attentively, without interrupting. Most of his initial explanation was that he truly believes that “a woman has the right to choose to do what she wants with her own body”, and he wants to support that “right”. He had a very kind and gentle demeanor, very open and sincere.
We talked for 45 minutes, and for most of the conversation he even moved out of the taped off area and into the middle of the “pro-life sidewalk”. I was vaguely aware that there were some curious pro-lifers listening as best they could, and some people were taking pictures, but for my part, I was truly engrossed in our conversation. I will not divulge anything he said to me of a personal nature, of course. Aside from the personal, we spoke of science and religion, of fetal development, of integrity and principles. I was able to ask the questions I have asked on my blog, and I was hopeful to get answers. For example, when we were talking about the humanity of the unborn, he was not convinced that a pre-viable baby was a baby at all. I asked him if he had ever been conceived. I looked at him and he looked at me. No answer. I asked again. He didn’t know what to say. To spare the awkward silence, I told him that I had been conceived, and reemphasized: “I was conceived in my mother’s womb, and I even know where I was conceived! TMI, I know!” So I asked him again, and he joked by saying, “I wasn’t conceived…” and pointed to the sky, and Alishia said, “The stork brought you!” He laughed and agreed. (I still hope someone will answer that question for me one day.)
He brought up Richard Dawkins (whom he admires) and I brought up Peter Singer (whom he hadn’t heard of), and I challenged him on both a personal level and a scientific one. When he gently suggested that my views on abortion were merely religion-based, I reminded him that I was using only secular arguments and science, and I informed him of secularprolife.org. When I told him that the “end does not justify the means” (we don’t do bad things in order to bring about a good) is a principle for both religious and non-religious, he disagreed. So I asked him: “When your children wanted to get into a good college, did you tell them it was okay for them to lie and cheat to get there?” Of course not, he concurred. So, I repeated, we don’t do bad things in order to achieve a good end. He agreed that this was a “general, broad principle” with which he agreed, but somehow it didn’t apply to killing innocent children in the womb.
When he spoke of drone strikes and we discussed war and bombs, I assured him that I don’t believe in targeting and killing anyone, especially the innocent. And even the guilty must not be killed unless we are acting in proportionate self-defense, or battling an armed combatant in a just war. I hope he apprehended the consistency of my views, which of course are the Catholic Church’s views, reflecting natural law — i.e., the moral law, accessible by the use of human reason alone. When either I, or one of my friends, gave him a fact about Planned Parenthood’s profits or their practices or their callous mindset, he admitted that he was “cynical” about our claims. That’s okay, we said, look it all up for yourself. It’s all there, nothing hidden. You don’t have to take our word for it.We talked about much, much more in that 45 minutes, and others came in and out of the conversation (including my friends Mary and Bridget, and a pro-life man holding a sign listing the price of baby parts, a sign which my new friend took great offense to). As we parted, I gave him my email and blog info, which he took. We left without coming to an agreement, but we are not enemies.
All things considered, it was a good day.