40 Days for Life
by Taylor Cameron. Madelyn Grant, Stacie Jackson and Molly Tavoletti
Their eyes, nose and mouth are the only parts left exposed to the cutting February wind.
Seven women stand shoulder to shoulder, lining the sidewalk of 1243 East Broad St., their backs mere feet away from the busy street.
They face Founder’s Day Women’s Health Clinic, one of the two abortion clinics in Columbus, Ohio.
To the outside world, they are pro-life supporters protesting the services performed inside the clinic. To each other, they are “sidewalk counselors;” they advocate for life, not against abortion.
Their boots toe the perimeter that divides the property from private to public.The three-foot wide sidewalk that lines the clinic’s front entrance facing Broad Street cannot legally be crossed.
Behind the building, two counselors stand in a brick alley, which provides the public access to the private asphalt parking lot of the clinic.
The counselors in front of the building pray. Those in the back seek to speak with — or yell toward — the women and men walking into the clinic.
“You will miss out on all of your child’s baseball games and dance recitals,” one woman shouts, her hands cupped around her mouth. “You don’t want to miss that stuff!”
This is the mindset of the sidewalk counselors who dedicate 40 days between February and April to support “40 Days for Life.”
40 Days for Life is a national campaign that started in 2007, and is observed during the season of Lent. Greater Columbus Right to Life, a pro-life non-profit organization, coordinates the local campaign. It’s founded on Catholic traditions, although volunteers include everyone from Atheists to priests in training called seminarians. They believe that at the moment of fertilization, a child has been created, and that every life is worth living.
Everyday for 40 days, volunteers are present at the clinic. They pray for the unborn, for the women to have a change of heart, and for these women to go to heaven. They seek to provide women with alternatives to abortion.
It is 10 degrees outside, as three seminarians kneel on the clinic sidewalk. They hold rosaries with bare, pale hands as the sandpaper wind scrapes their cheeks.
The sounds of passing cars muffle their prayers.
“Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…”
“You get the long, angry honk — those are obviously people against you, or you get that ‘beep beep’ which is the happy honk… you just gotta know the difference,” Deacon Tom Gardner said with a chuckle.
The prayer continues amid the street noise.
“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”
The men place their knees against the shoveled snow that marks the boundary between public and private property. The white brick clinic building is identifiable only by its street number.
“It may look like it from the outside like we’re here protesting,” the deacon said. “The main point is to pray — to pray for people’s hearts to be changed so every child will be seen as a gift that can not be disposed of for any reason.”
“Come on back!”
Smiling over her shoulder, Beth Vanderkooi moves down the narrow hallway of her small office, avoiding stacked cardboard boxes and bookshelves that overflow with pamphlets and papers.
The executive director for Greater Columbus Right to Life takes a seat at a wooden desk that fills most of the 8-by-8 office.
As the only full-time staff member of the Greater Columbus Right to Life, Beth manages all aspects of the organization, including managing the finances, distributing email blasts, and coordinating volunteers and fundraising efforts.
“I still get hate mail sometimes,” she said. “But I don’t know how you could still hate me after you meet me.”
Beth grew up in the rural farmlands of Richland County, Ohio, a “country town of people of faith.”
In college, she pursued a career in foreign service with a degree in economics, political theory and international affairs at Ashland University, never imagining that one day she would dedicate her life to leading a pro-life movement.
The turning point for Beth came when she was finishing her last year of undergraduate studies and her fiance was focusing his graduate dissertation on sterilization procedures. His research supported rendering people infertile if they were deemed unfit for parenthood.
Deciding his view points did not align with hers, Beth ended the relationship and re-focused her life on her career. After graduating, Beth worked in the Statehouse as a legislative aid, leading her to become a lobbyist for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
As a lobbyist, Beth lived comfortably with a $2,000 per week spending budget. She frequented fancy steakhouses where should would often rack up several hundred dollar tabs for just one dinner.
“I used to buy a new pair of shoes every week!” she said.
After many years immersed in the world of politics, the former executive director of Greater Columbus Right to Life approached Beth to fill his position when he left.
Beth had previously been a dedicated volunteer for the organization, but never thought it would become her career. She felt as though working as a pro-life advocate was her next step, took a salary cut and accepted this position.
Fast forward three years. She is now the sole leader of the organization and its day-to-day operations. She justified the 50-percent salary reduction with a re-ignited catholic faith.
“My faith has evolved as my pro-life beliefs have,” she said.
When Beth was young, it never even occurred to her that people would abort their baby.
Beth believes society identifies an abortion-seeking women as young, impoverished and black.
“But in fact,” she said, “the woman having an abortion looks a lot like me.”
She goes quiet and her eyes shift toward the ground, as if what she had just said was realized for the first time all over again. She shuffles her black flats against the carpet. She looks up, adjusts the pearl white belt on her black dress, and continues.
“There are too many people already arguing about the politics of abortion,” she said. “Prayer is a more effective tool.”
A champagne-colored Nissan pulls into the lot. The occupants stay inside the car for three minutes, before two women exit. The white college-age woman wears a cream-colored sweatshirt and baggy black sweatpants. The older woman carries a purse on one shoulder and a large bag on the other. They rush toward the side entrance like celebrities running from paparazzi — heads down, hands in their pockets.
“There is help out there! They don’t care about you!” a sidewalk counselor shouts.
She reaches out her thick black mittens to get their attention, but neither woman looks up.
“She is having an abortion,” another counselor says referring to one of the women rushing into the clinic. “When they walk in with big duffle bags that’s how you know, because the doctors tell them to bring blankets that will make them most comfortable, since it takes two or three hours for the whole process.”
A Columbus police officer sits in the middle of the lot in a black GMC. Rap music blasts from her car speakers loud enough to be heard 15 feet away.
The clinic has hired her as a precautionary measure. They want to protect the clinic and their patients. She is there to keep the peace.
“I tell both parties to ignore each other,” the officer said. “I have been here two years and I have never seen a physical altercation.”
Although the officer is employed by the clinic, the counselors see value in her presence during the 40 Days for Life campaign.
“She takes ‘blood money,’ but we are thankful she is here,” a sidewalk counselor said, referring to the police officer. “She tends to play a neutral role.”
The clinic parking lot is like a battlefield, and the pro-life protesters are only one side of this war.
Volunteers of the clinic, known as “escorts,” work on the other side of that line.
A sign hangs from the railing of the staircase leading into the clinic. Large pink letters spell out the words “Pledge-A-Protester Campaign.”
“When their clients go in, the clinic asks them for donations on behalf of one of the protesters outside,” the counselor said. “They say they’re using that money to fund their abortions, to make it seem like by us being out here, we’re actually helping them have abortions.”
“To me I see that as a sign that we’re making a difference,” she said. “That’s a sign of desperation on their part.”
A black man pulls up next in a black BMW and drops off his teenage daughter close to the door. A sidewalk counselor immediately walks toward his vehicle, as close as she can without crossing the invisible boundary.
She hands him pamphlets.
He tells the story.
He wants her to keep the baby. She is about to graduate high school and is not ready for this. “I’d be ready to be a grandfather,” he says with a sigh.
“They make their money by doing the abortions,” the counselor tells him. “They’re not going to be there for her 5, 10, 20 years down the road when she regrets her decision.”
“I just don’t want her to make a decision today that’s going to, you know, change her,” the father says. “That’s what I’m scared of, that she’s going to go through with it and she’s not going to be the same.”
“She won’t. She’ll be forever changed,” the counselor replies. “Fight for your grand-baby.”
The counselor reaches into her black-coat pocket and slowly pulled out a two-inch figure, made of rubber, replicating what a fetus looks like at 12 weeks from conception.
Cupping the figure in her left hand, she gently places in the father’s palm.
“This is a baby at 12 weeks, so that’s the actual size and weight,” she explains. “Do you think that will make a difference? Because you can keep that if you want.”
His eyes shift down to look at his hand. He quickly gives it back to her.
“I don’t know, I’m scared, I don’t know…” he says, backing away with hesitation.
“But this might make it more real for her. This is what’s inside,” she replies.
“I don’t wanna carry that thing around with me; that’s creeping me out just looking at,” he says. “That’s a real baby.”
The conversation ends there.
Within one hour, 10 women walk into the clinic. Jeeps, Saturns, Nissans, Mustangs, Fords, BMWs, and mini-vans fill all 22 paved spots.
The clinic’s main parking lot sits behind the building, forcing women to walk through the side brick alley before reaching the main entrance. Clinic escorts in neon pink vests meet each arriving woman at her car.
They’re all young men and women hired by the Founder’s clinic to accompany each patient from her car to the clinic. Along the way, they engage the women in conversation as the sidewalk counselors shout emotional pro-life pleas.
“It can be frustrating,” one of the counselors admitted. “But us just being out here, they know that we love their baby. Even if we don’t get to talk to these moms they know we care and we’re out here.”
The second shift of sidewalk counselors arrives to relieve the first team.
All the counselors huddle together for warmth and swap stories of their morning encounters.
A black mustang turns right into the alley, forcing the huddle to disband.
‘That’s the doctor” they all say, somewhat in unison.
]They follow the car to get as close as they can. The Mustang door swings opens to reveal Dr. Harley Blank.
Blank stands 5-feet 10-inches tall with fringes of grey hair.
He graduated from The Ohio State University Medical School in 1964 and in February 1973, he performed the first legal abortion in the state of Ohio.
“I have a really hard time calling him ‘doctor,’” one of the counselors said.
“He thinks of himself as one, though,” another one added.
Walking quickly in a black trench coat, he swings open the metal framed door and disappears into the clinic.
Inside the Clinic
The lobby walls are light blue and the furniture looks more like that of a grandmother’s house than a doctor’s office, complete with floral couches and coffee tables. The waiting area smells like vanilla. A corner TV plays an episode of House Hunters.
The sliding glass window that divides the receptionist desk from the waiting area displaying an 8-by-11 pink chart held up with clear tape. It’s a price list for abortions, based on the number of weeks pregnant. There are additional fees for anesthesia or pain medication.
In a waiting room upstairs, through a narrow, white-walled staircase, a clinic nurse in blue and pink scrubs sits on a couch.
“I actually began as an escort outside,” she explained. “I came once with a friend, and saw how women were being treated by the protestors and wanted to help them. I quit a much higher paying job to become a nurse inside the clinic.”
She spoke freely, but asked to remain anonymous because the clinic frequently deals with “spin doctored” media reports, she said. She shifted into a cross legged position and began speaking about the protestors.
“I understand they have the right to free speech, but I still think it’s not right to stand out there with misinformation to get someone to change their minds about such a big decision.”
A second nurse enters the room, dropping down next to her on the couch.
“I’m sorry, I was in a procedure,” she explains, removing a surgical mask from her face.
The nurses inside the clinic work with the same passion as those who protest outside, keeping the woman’s health their number one priority.
“Do I wish women would stop having abortions? Absolutely. No one, including myself, wants these women to go through this,” one of the nurses says. “But the reality is that if we weren’t here doing it, that wouldn’t stop it from happening. Without clinics, women would be in back alleys or their boyfriend’s buddy’s apartment, risking their lives to end their pregnancies. We’re just giving them a safe place.”
The nurses agree protestors affect patients, which is why the clinic brought escorts to walk the women into the building. The nurses say the escorts are trained to say ‘I can walk you inside’ or if the women seem visibly upset they say ‘you don’t have to listen to them.’
“At this point they’ve had time to weigh their options,” the nurse says about the patients. “They have gotten in their cars, driven to the clinic, and so not much at that point will change their minds. But that doesn’t mean they’re not shaken emotionally.”
In order to provide an avenue for the women to express these emotions as well as to monitor their current mindset the clinic requires some paperwork.
Upon entering the clinic, a woman fills out a form to gauge her emotional stability with the decision she is making. It includes basic medical history questions as well as questions asking how confident she is on her decision.
If a women seems to be wavering in her decision, clinic staffers provide a pamphlet entitled, ‘Unsure about your pregnancy? A guide to making the right decision for you.’ It asks questions about her plans and dreams for the future and what her values and beliefs are.
The journal asks a patient to think through the abortion process. At the least, this journal will make them more confident in the decision they are already considering.
The clinic advocates for pro-choice, by working with each woman on an individual basis on her healthcare needs, and the 40 Days for Life campaign focused its efforts on the pro-life cause by trying to provide women with alternative options to abortion.
Walking past the reception desk on the left, towards the exit, the clinic doors swing open to Front Street, a gust of wind blows inside.
Two sidewalk counselors stand side by side facing the door with pamphlets in hand waiting for the next woman to arrive.
Though the 40 Days campaign concluded on March 29, 2015, the sidewalk counselors remain present outside the clinic, striving to educate women all year round.
“I think the clinic does think they’re helping women,” said a sidewalk counselor. “But we’re trying to help them too.”