Abortion foes, accustomed to small wins, ready for a big one

Published 5:29 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The first of them arrived outside the clinic past 4 a.m., before a steady rain fell and a scalding sun rose, and all along, they had prayed for a moment like this.

It’s abortion day at Planned Parenthood and, try as they might, those who lined the street hadn’t had much luck changing any minds.

Now, a patient pushes out of the center’s doors, limply drags her feet across the parking lot, and heads straight into the arms of an anti-abortion counselor who, a short while earlier, asked her not to do what she came here for.

One of the clinic’s rainbow-vested workers, Allison Terracio, sees what’s unfolding and cries, “They got one!”

A majority of Americansbacks abortion rights, and Terracio believes the anti-abortion group’s sidewalk coterie uses trickery, empty promises and manipulation in the guise of kindness to sway women from something they’ve already carefully thought through.

She is as alarmed as her opponents are hopeful.

As the patient walks away with the counselor, it feels as if every eye on the block has followed. The circle of praying Catholics, the smattering of evangelicals at every clinic driveway, even the lone protester here, Steven Lefemine, who stands by himself with a sign with a graphic photo of an aborted fetus, all seem riveted by the apparent change of heart.

“This is a glorious thing that’s happening here!” 66-year-old Lefemine exclaims.

For tens of millions of Americans who see abortion as wrong, it’s gone this way for a half-century: One woman swayed to reconsider as dozens of others follow through. One clinic’s doors closed only to see desperate patients go elsewhere. One law passed, another overturned.

A movement built of tiny steps and endless setbacks, though, now seems poised for a massive leap.

The possibility of looming success, perhaps undoing the constitutional right to abortion found in Roe v. Wade, isn’t talked about much here, though. That’s left to others entrenched in this fight. Those here on the front lines of the battle are focused on the task at hand: To change a single mind and, in their eyes, save a single life.

When that happens, Valerie Berry, the 27-year-old program manager for the biggest of the groups here, A Moment of Hope, says she’ll feel the tingle of goosebumps or the well of tears. Sometimes, she has burst into a joyous dance.

On this day, she’s not there yet with the patient who exited the clinic. But the woman is here beside her, sharing her story and openly discussing if there’s some way she can have another baby.

“It’s a miracle every time it happens,” Berry says. “In some ways, even a conversation is a miracle.”

Berry and a colleague lead the woman across the street from the clinic to their group’s idling RV, where she says she’s about seven weeks pregnant. She tells of a tough upbringing in foster care, an abusive partner who’s now out of the picture, the struggles of raising a 3-year-old, the problems with money, the hope of finding a new home and starting a career in music, all the things that seemed impossible even before her period failed to arrive and morning sickness started sapping her will.

Yet for all the reasons the woman lists to end her pregnancy, Berry feels encouraged that she’s reaching her. When she suggests the woman come see a doctor allied with her group who can prescribe something for the nausea while she weighs her decision, she is receptive. And when a colleague floats considering adoption, the flat rejection of the idea assures them.

“No,” they say the woman told them. “My child will be with me and we’ll just tough it out.”

The goosebumps return. Berry is tingling. Something miraculous is happening.

___

Talk to someone who’s been immersed in opposing abortion long enough and they’ll tell you the disbelief they felt when news of Roe broke and the naïve certainty they had that it would be overturned in a couple of years. They’ll tell you about the politicians who collected their votes and never delivered, and the judges seen as allies who went on to disappoint. They’ll tell you how the issue ended friendships or landed them in handcuffs or brought them heartache again and again and again.

And yet, here they are, all these years later, in the fight so long some have grandchildren at their side.

They made arguments about biology and fetal development that rarely swayed, then shifted to pleas rooted in civil rights and religion. They lobbied for laws on parental notification and waiting periods and licensing, really anything that might jeopardize an abortion facility’s operation, down to the width of its hallways. And, as a raging faction grew restless, some formed human blockades outside clinics or were driven, in the most extreme acts of anti-abortion radicalism, to plant a bomb, set a fire or draw a gun.

The image of an abortion opponent cemented in some Americans’ minds became a rabid protester shouting condemnation and clutching a gory sign, who would do anything to advance their cause, down to committing the very crime of murder they believe abortion to be.

Mark Baumgartner, the softspoken founder of A Moment of Hope, knows the caricature many have of anti-abortion figures like him. He shudders when noisy protesters show up here and wishes Lefemine didn’t bring his big foam signs. He knows a woman arriving here may see everyone on the street the same, but if he could just have her ear for a moment, he thinks he can convince her.

“They’re expecting to get yelled at that they’re going to hell,” says 53-year-old Baumgartner, who left behind his job as a pilot to create the organization. “We’re here to be different.”

This day, megaphone-toting protesters haven’t come and, at times, you hear little more than the hum of the idling RV, where A Moment of Hope has a sonogram suite. Mostly, it’s the sound of passing traffic punctuated by the occasional last-ditch call to a woman before she enters the doors of the clinic, set in an office park and barely recognizable save for the throng of foes it attracts.

“We have a lot of help available!” “It’s not safe in there!” “You can help save a life today!”

At the start, in 2012, it was a one-man crusade. Now, Baumgartner leads a group of employees and volunteers big enough to stand outside Planned Parenthood every minute it’s open.

The first woman that Baumgartner approached a decade ago changed her mind, giving birth to a little girl whose picture hangs beside his office desk. It became the first of what the group regards as a “save,” when someone they’ve interacted with who planned to have an abortion changes their mind.

Last year, they estimate about 1,600 women had an abortion at the clinic. They logged 66 saves.

They were the work of the group’s “sidewalk counselors” who are positioned at nine checkpoints stretched across the entirety of this sprawling city block. In a synchronized routine, each of them dons a neon vest and a Motorola radio earpiece on which they pause for a morning prayer, then use it to spread word of arriving clinic patients.

If their outstretched hand manages to stop a motorist headed to Planned Parenthood, they’ll try to start a conversation and offer a gift bag with a loofah, Lifesavers, granola bars and a 2-inch-long plastic model of a fetus 12 weeks into its development. Pamphlets cite Bible passages, have one of the gory photos the group says it frowns upon, and include the false assertion that abortion is riskier than giving birth. A handwritten note, with cell numbers for Baumgartner and Berry, pleads with the reader.

“It is not too late to change your mind,” it says. “There are caring people who want to help you.”

Inside the group’s RV, the woman who emerged from the clinic is deep in conversation with Berry and one of the A Moment of Hope interns, who bonded with the woman over their shared childhoods in foster care. The woman is in her early 20s, dressed in a tie-dye hoodie and carrying a Seagram’s ginger ale.

After about 10 minutes, she agrees to go with Berry across town to the OB-GYN’s office.

The woman walks back across to Planned Parenthood’s lot and Berry stops at the driveway, careful not to pass the invisible line between public and private that could yield a call to police.

As she nears her blue sedan, though, she encounters Terracio. The A Moment for Hope team is alarmed.

They try calling out to her and get no response. Berry sprints to and from the parking lot next door trying to find a better vantage, then furiously texts her.

“You don’t have to go back in there!” Baumgartner calls.

Under South Carolina law, a woman arriving for an abortion would have already undergone a waiting period and advised to read a lengthy document detailing fetal development, from when a heartbeat is detected to when fingernails grow to when the unborn can hiccup for the first time.

Terracio, a 45-year-old who also serves as a county councilwoman, says those due in to take an abortion pill or undergo a brief surgery have already thought through what they wanted. Nothing Baumgartner and his crew can offer, she says, will change the circumstances of the prospective mother’s life.

“I’m not in the business of convincing anybody of anything,” Terracio says.

At the property’s edge, no one can hear what Terracio is saying to the woman, but she is now turned away from her car toward the clinic’s doors. Baumgartner is growing pessimistic, talking of the “spiritual battle” that is underway and how “powers of darkness” are at work.

“It’s like the jaws of hell,” he says. “She’s trying to snatch this one”

Berry begins doubting her decision to have the woman follow her to the doctor’s office instead of just driving her. She says she always wants to be sure not to overstep and make someone feel uncomfortable. She wanted to give the woman space, she said, and in the moment and yards that now separated them, it seemed everything they’d talked through suddenly dissipated.

The door of her blue sedan never opens and, with a few steps of her Crocs, it’s clear she is headed back inside. But if she came out before, Berry rationalizes, surely she could again. The last sentence she musters before the woman disappears through the clinic’s doorway feels tinged with hurt and concern and desperation.

“Whenever you’re ready, we’ll be right here, OK?” she calls.

___

Inside the buildings where abortions are offered, workers say women who pass a throng of protesters will say: “They don’t know my life. They don’t know what I’m going through.” Outside, the sidewalk counselors say the arriving women often tell them: “Thank you for stopping me. I was hoping I would see some sort of sign not to go through with this.”

Inside, this is seen as a fundamental woman’s right, a type of healthcare that deserves no stigma attached. Outside, those who oppose abortion see it as pure evil that must be stopped.

Both sides see the truth as plain.

For so many who have been drawn to the anti-abortion cause, it’s baffling and frustrating how often their appeals feel unheard. It’s not 1973 anymore: They wonder how anyone could deny the scientific leaps, the advances in fetal viability, the way a heartbeat from inside the uterus can be heard and an image seen. To those with whom they disagree, they ask: Where is the line? When they hear talk of a fetus, an embryo, a clump of cells, they wonder, at what point will someone acknowledge it’s a baby?

So they return, time and again, to the pews where they pray for change, to the statehouses where they lobby, to the marches and protests where they chant. And they return here, to Middleburg Drive in South Carolina’s capital, beneath the magnolias and atop sunbaked swaths of asphalt, to plead their case.

The clinic door has shut and the woman with the blue sedan, the one who seemed to take to heart what the A Moment of Hope team told her as she sat in their RV, is inside.

At the foot of the closest driveway to Planned Parenthood, tension is high. Baumgartner is scratching his beard. An intern is frozen and pensive. Berry is tapping off a string of last-ditch messages to the woman.

“I promise we’re not gonna force you to do anything … Even if they can make it possible for you to have an abortion today, would you let us talk more? I can see you’re really hurting … Would you be willing to wait to do it for a couple days or a week to let us help you? I actually saw a 7-week baby on an ultrasound this week. The heartbeat, head, etc. were clearly visible. It’s not nothing … I can tell you’re a caring person. Because of that, the guilt on your conscience will hang heavy … Praying right now you’ll be overwhelmed by God’s love and know we love you and can help you every step of the way.”

No reply comes. Berry’s teammates are spread across hundreds of yards and most only know morsels about the woman from a group text. They heard she exited the clinic and went on the RV. Now, Berry texts again with a bleak update. “Please pray,” she writes, and up and down the block, they silently do.

“Lord, change her mind.” “Give her the courage to leave.” “God, save her from the evil of this.”

When the woman exits about two hours later, she gets in her blue sedan and stops at the edge of the driveway. She tells the sidewalk crew she gagged trying to swallow pills to induce abortion. She had the pregnancy ended by surgery instead, and when she says it out loud, she begins to sob.

Shonda Johnson, a 48-year-old housekeeper at a veterinary hospital who volunteers for A Moment of Hope, rubs the woman’s back and listens as she said she felt guilty. Thirty-two years ago, Johnson came to this very site for the very same reason, a decision she later came to see as wrong.

“When I saw those tears rolling, I knew exactly where she was,” she says.

When word reaches Berry, she chokes up. She grieves the baby that won’t be born. She prays for the woman’s healing. She second-guesses the choices she made. She keeps texting the woman in the weeks to come, and plans are made to meet, though it never happens. She used to feel beaten up for days after a moment like this, but she now believes it still may lead the woman closer to God.

In the long fight against abortion, there have been many days like this one. But they’ll return when the clinic reopens. They’ll return even if Roe falls. Many expect the fight to continue to their grave.

They’ve never felt more hopeful. A change, they are sure, is coming.