Sidewalk Counselors Tell Women: 'We Love You, We Support You, and You're Not Alone'
Sidewalk counseling is rightly considered the last line of defense in the pro-life movement, by saving lives through genuine compassion.
GRANITE CITY, Ill. — Even on a sunny day, Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill., has an uninviting look to it. The concrete façade and tiny windows of the abortion center contrast sharply with the bright red brick of Gateway Regional Hospital across the street.
Kasey Schwartz, a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, found herself outside of the Hope Clinic earlier this month. People were outside the center protesting, while designated escorts from the center stood ready to accompany women into the facility for their appointments.
Schwartz and four of her friends had come to the abortion facility on Aug. 6 for a different purpose: sidewalk counseling.
“We were able to share our message of hope with the patients, their families and even some of the clinic workers,” Schwartz told the Register. She said their message of compassion was the same whether women were coming or going.
All five had participated in the first-ever National Pro-Life Generation Sidewalk Day on Aug. 6, organized jointly by Students for Life of America and the Sidewalk Advocates for Life. Granite City was one of the 30 locations across the United States. Participants received “sidewalk counseling 101” training in a “Facebook Live” event hosted on Students for Life’s Facebook page, followed by an advanced training webinar by Sidewalk Advocates for Life.
The training helped Schwartz and her team especially engage with a man who seemed particularly upset after dropping his wife off at Hope Clinic. After assuring him that they were there to listen, not judge him, the man opened up that his wife had serious health complications in the pregnancy and felt abortion was her only option. Schwartz and the other sidewalk counselors told the man they were very sorry to hear what he and his wife were going through and offered him some resources about post-abortion counseling.
“He thanked us for the resources and for being respectful in the way we were going about our counseling,” she said.
Spreading Standard Practices
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, told the Register that her organization and Sidewalk Advocates for Life started the National Pro-Life Generation Sidewalk Day to spread awareness about this important face of the pro-life movement and expand the presence of trained sidewalk counselors across the country.
Hawkins said sidewalk counselors are valuable because the decision a woman makes to have an abortion can really boil down to one person.
“That counselor can literally be the one person who says: ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Hawkins said. “The challenge is getting to that point of having the conversation.”
Lauren Muzyka, executive director of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, told the Register that sidewalk counselors should remember they are there for the mother and the baby. A sidewalk counselor has to be trained to speak to a woman’s psychology: “We’re counseling a mother in crisis.”
The Sidewalk Advocates’ webinar explained to participants the guideposts for sidewalk counselors called the “five-point method”: 1) smile and greet with love; 2) give literature and explain the pro-life help; 3) ask and listen about why she is there or what she needs; 4) solve the problem by offering concrete solutions; 5) empower her to leave, which includes an invitation to the local pregnancy-resource center.
“These guideposts model for people how to lovingly approach someone who is in crisis, in self-preservation mode,” she said. While no two conversations will ever be the same, Muzyka added that each woman “needs to know someone is there to help with the real concrete issues that bring her to the abortion facility in the first place.”
What Happens on the Sidewalk Matters
Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood director-turned-pro-life advocate, told the Register that trained sidewalk counselors are effective and can be “an outward reminder of [a woman’s] inward conscience” through compassion and understanding.
Sidewalk counseling — “done right,” Johnson qualified — also has a negative impact on Planned Parenthood’s abortion business.
In 2009, Johnson’s last year as director of the Planned Parenthood facility in College Station, Texas, she went to a Planned Parenthood conference that had a break-out session called “Anti-Choice Harassment.” Johnson said she learned that on days when prayerful pro-life witness and sidewalk counseling took place outside Planned Parenthood abortion businesses, those centers saw as much as a 75% no-show rate for abortion appointments.
“No one really wants an abortion — they just feel they have no other choice,” said Johnson, who now leads a ministry for former abortion workers called And Then There Were None. “They are looking for a way out.”
Not everyone is called to sidewalk counsel, Johnson added, but everyone can pray peacefully.
But a person should never attempt sidewalk counseling without proper training, Johnson said, and under no circumstances can a person come to the sidewalk harboring any kind of anger.
Any kind of aggressive or intimidating anti-abortion approach turns the abortion center into a safe haven for women who are feeling vulnerable and frightened — and that actually boosts Planned Parenthood’s bottom line.
“I witnessed this firsthand when I was in College Station,” she said.
From 2001 to 2003, Johnson said there was a group of “very angry people” picketing her Planned Parenthood business, “yelling and screaming” at the women coming in. One person held a six-foot-tall sign of an aborted baby’s corpse, another dressed up like the grim reaper, and another shouted, “Repent or you’ll go to hell!” on a bullhorn.
“The women just saw the clinic and ran for us,” Johnson said. “There’s no way you’re going to talk with a guy holding a six-foot picture of an aborted baby.”
Every day this group of aggressive anti-abortion protesters turned out was a great day for Planned Parenthood’s business, Johnson said, because abortion-minded women felt safe inside and kept their appointments.
However, this all changed in 2004, when 40 Days for Life brought a whole new approach: kind people offering compassion and support. The signs, the costumes and aggression were gone — and the Planned Parenthood center felt the economic hit.
“The women would then stop and talk to the pro-lifers, and it was terrible for us as a clinic, because people were actually leaving,” she said.
Both Johnson and Hawkins said aggressive anti-abortion protesters are not representative of the pro-life movement.
“I don’t think it’s a pro-life stance to go out and yell at women,” Hawkins said. But she added that when those situations arise, sidewalk counselors need to separate themselves from aggressive protesters and “show women you are not with them.”
“If that woman perceives you are part of the protest crowd, that woman shuts down,” she said. In certain places, her organization’s sidewalk counselors wear matching, friendly shades of blue, green, pink or purple.
“You don’t want your loving, compassionate outreach to be confused with what they’re doing.”
The experience of sidewalk counseling also changes the sidewalk counselors. Schwartz said she knew all of the statistics on abortion and felt compelled to get the training to be a sidewalk counselor. But the statistics all melted away at Hope Clinic, she said, as the focus became the faces of women who emerged from its dark-blue doors.
“The picture of her face — seeing all that heartbrokenness — that is what fires us to go back to the clinic,” she said. Her group plans to return soon to offer more compassion and concern.
“They need someone to tell them, ‘We love you, we’re here for you, and you’re not alone.’”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
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