Members of a family protest outside of a Planned Parenthood office in St. Louis during a 40 Days for Life campaign.CNS photo

The dedicated pro-lifers who line public roads and sidewalks outside abortion clinics are taking their fight from the streets to the courtroom in response to a growing number of legal challenges. 

Increasing numbers of “sidewalk counselors” — individuals who provide information and advice to pregnant women as they enter abortion clinics — are both being prosecuted for their actions and challenging laws that restrict their ability to deliver the pro-life message. In several cases, those charges have come from the federal government under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act

Passed in 1994 as a way to limit violence outside abortion clinics, the FACE Act has been used with greater frequency in recent years. Since the start of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009, the Justice Department has filed eight cases under the FACE Act, a sharp increase from the one case filed during the previous eight years.

Legal challenge

Mary Susan Pine is among those facing a civil suit under the FACE Act. The suit claims that Pine, a resident of West Palm Beach, Fla., stood in a driveway and blocked a car from entering an abortion clinic in 2009. 

Pine, a Catholic who founded a local pro-life group called Faith Action Counseling and Education for Life, denies the allegations, saying that she and her fellow counselors are always careful not to block anyone from entering a clinic. 

“Of course you can’t stand in front of their car, but I don’t know who would,” Pine said. “And not only that, but I want to be able to talk to them. You can’t talk to somebody if you’re standing in front of their car.” 

Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal group representing Pine in the case, said in a statement that the lawsuit is “politically motivated and patently frivolous,” and that it is “designed to intimidate pro-lifers.” Pine, who in her 20 years of counseling at clinics has battled local ordinances, been arrested for trespassing while on public property and faced other lawsuits, agrees. 

“This to me is just another tactic,” she said. “It was no surprise because they’ve have tried all kinds of different things through the years [to stop us]. We are just simply letting women have information and letting them talk to us if they want to, but [the clinics] fight to make sure the women don’t have access to that information.” 

Facing persecution

Another Catholic who has seen increasing hostility — and legal trouble — over his efforts is Dick Retta of Rockville, Md. The 79-year-old Retta, who spends at least three days a week visiting clinics in the greater Washington, D.C., area, told Our Sunday Visitor that after 14 years outside clinics he is now encountering more resistance. 

“It is only lately that I’ve experienced more adversity,” he said. “Over the years I’ve had people push me, I’ve been spat on, nothing greatly serious. But in a very short period of time I’ve had a number of things happen.” 

Those recent incidents have included people stealing Retta’s fliers and becoming physically violent. One person pushed him down on the sidewalk, causing him to suffer a back injury. Another sprayed him in the eyes with pepper spray, temporarily blinding him.  

Retta has been forced to call the police several times and, in the latter case, even pressed charges. 

But according to the federal government, Retta is the one at fault. He’s being charged under the FACE Act for blocking access to a clinic, even though Retta said that not blocking an entrance is the No. 1 rule for sidewalk counselors. 

“When I got the charges, I was shocked,” he said. “They are also accusing me of being very aggressive, saying that I harass these women and I bother everybody that comes out of the abortion clinic. They don’t accept what I’m doing, that I am offering the women help.” 

Buffer battle

In other parts of the country, both local and state laws have established “buffer zones” that create restricted areas around abortion clinics. The laws limit pro-lifers from standing on public property within a set distance of the clinic. 

In Massachusetts, one of three states with a buffer zone law, the restricted area was increased in 2007 to 35 feet. A group of pro-lifers recently filed a civil suit, claiming the law infringes on their First Amendment rights of free speech, and the Massachusetts Catholic Conference has been a vocal opponent of the law since it was first established in 2000. 

Daniel Avila, former associate director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told OSV that there has been an ongoing battle over the law, which proponents argue is necessary to create a peaceful atmosphere outside clinics. 

“The problem with that argument is that the law is an across-the-board restriction that would apply even to peaceful attempts to persuade women not to go through with abortions,” Avila said. “And as the court hearings brought out, the law would apply to any kind of communication on public sidewalks in that area. So the law clearly goes too far.” 

Efforts misunderstood

Pine believes that the opposition to sidewalk counselors is rooted in a misunderstanding of what they do, even among fellow pro-lifers. 

“The media makes us out to be something we are not, and I think if it was really known what we actually do out there, we would have more support,” she said. 

Retta agrees, adding that his work is not just about saving babies but extending God’s love to pregnant women, post-abortive women and even clinic workers, a mission that is born out of his deep faith. 

“I am doing God’s will,” Retta said. “I don’t condemn anyone; I am not accusing them of anything. I am inspired to be there by the love of Jesus Christ.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.