The Sidewalk Strategies of an Abortion Heckler

Jul 08, 2014 at 8:29 AM ET

Every Thursday morning, Ann Scheidler stands outside an abortion clinic in northwest Chicago and tries to stop pregnant women from entering its doors. The 70-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of 20 hands women pamphlets detailing malpractice suits filed against clinics and information on how to get free pre-natal care, rather than a $500 abortion.

This brand of pro-life activism, called sidewalk counseling, has been in the spotlight lately after the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone around the state’s reproductive health clinics. The 2007 law aimed to protect women seeking abortions from being harassed by protestors that rally outside facilities armed with signs and rosaries, but in a decision handed down late last month, the Court ruled that the law excessively restricted abortion opponents’ right to free speech. Sidewalk counselors like Scheidler celebrated the decision as a major victory, since buffer zones and bubbles, which still exist in several states and cities, including Chicago, hinder their efforts to speak with women face-to-face.

Scheidler has been fighting on the front lines of the abortion war for nearly four decades, trying to persuade hundreds of women not to terminate their pregnancies. Sidewalk counseling has been around ever since abortion was made legal in 1973, and Scheidler—who started Chicago’s Pro-Life Action League with her husband in 1980—has become an expert on the grassroots method. Based on her own experiences advising women outside of clinics, she instructs counselors in what she calls “a peaceful, compassionate approach” to pro-life activism. We spoke with Scheidler about the finer points of the controversial practice.

When did you get involved with sidewalk counseling?

We were protesting at a clinic in Chicago one morning, and it was the first time I ever saw a woman go in to actually get an abortion. I found it very devastating that somebody would walk in there pregnant and come out with their baby no longer alive. I thought, we’ve got to offer something better than just standing here and saying, “Don’t do this.” We’ve got to find some alternatives. So we started developing materials to hand women to direct them to the nearest crisis pregnancy center, to let them know that there is free help and support available and to give them information on fetal development and the process of the abortion.

How did you develop what’s called the “Chicago Method” of counseling?

Some folks who were doing sidewalk counseling got to thinking about how the abortions that were initially happening in the ’70s were done illegally. [After Roe v. Wade] doctors began to do them in clinics, and we thought that there could be some lawsuits if things were as bad as we thought. We started looking into it, and sure enough there were lawsuits filed against these clinics. So we developed what we call the “Chicago Method” in which we research these lawsuits, write up summaries of the allegations that the women or their families are bringing against the doctor and the clinic and then we hand them to women to alert them to the fact that it’s not necessarily as safe as they think.

What’s the point of these sorts of scare tactics?

We know that women who get to the point where they decide to have an abortion are mainly considering their own situation, and this way we can show them that this isn’t the best thing for them, regardless of the fact that it’s not a good thing for the baby.

How do you approach women who are coming to a clinic?

You don’t get a lot of time to say much. In our particular situation most of the women are coming in cars and driving right into the parking lot. There are also clinic escorts that try to intervene between us and the women. The escorts can be very very aggressive. They hold signs that say “Come Right In,” and they rush up and meet the car before we have a chance to talk to [the women].

What if someone tells you that what she does with her body is none of your business?

We hear that a lot of course, and I would just say, “I understand how you feel, but this is a life that you are carrying, and it is a irreversible decision. Please take a little more time to think about it. I am here because I care about what happens to you and your child, so don’t rush into it.”

But why do you care?

Because every life matters.

Do you think pro-life protestors can become too aggressive?

I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t pro-life bullies out there, because there are. And the reason that we have these bubble zone laws is essentially because there was a lot of aggressive protesting going on, mainly in the ’90s. Some of that was aggressive in an OK sense. Their aim was to save lives, so they were sitting down in front of abortion clinic doors and blocking the entrances and getting arrested. It was traditional American civil disobedience, but as everybody knows, there were also incidents of violence and some shootings, and the people that took it to that level are what brought us these laws.

What is your success rate?

It’s very low. I will readily admit that, but like I said, every life matters. If you’ve saved only one child in your life, that’s a person who wouldn’t be here otherwise. It’s much more difficult now, partly because of things like the escorts, but also because abortion has been legal long enough that of the women who are coming to have abortions, at least half of them are on their second or third or fourth. And trying to convince a woman not to make that choice when she has made it before is much more difficult. Overall, we were more successful maybe 15 years ago than we are now.

Is that a concern?

To some extent. We’ll continue to do what we’ve always done as far as our outreach goes, but you have to realize that sometimes the only thing you can do is to hold a sign. So even if we don’t get to say anything, we know that at least the information was there. There are other ways to reach women. It doesn’t always have to be at the clinic door. But we’ll continue to be at those doors as much as we can.