Ellen KolbApril 15, 2014Leave a comment

Musings from the sidewalk: 40DFL Spring ’14 comes to a close

(This is a personal reflection and is not an official statement on behalf of 40 Days for Life.)

Me & my big mouth …

And to think it started with a few "likes" ...

And to think it started with a few “likes” …

As those who follow the blog’s Facebook page know, I made a commitment recently to give an hour to 40DFL for each new “like” on the Facebook page. Five or six, I figured. Nope: try nineteen. Readers shared the challenge, and the clicks just kept on comin’.

As laughter subsided – especially from my husband, who saw what was coming even when I didn’t – I looked nervously at the vigil schedules in Concord and Manchester alongside my work and family schedules. I had only six days before the end of the campaign. Abby Johnson’s talk about priorities and comfort zones was still ringing in my ears. I put my name down on the vigil schedule where I could.

(And for those of you considering stepping up to be coordinators in the next campaign in September, I hereby note that I still owe thirteen hours.)

Some of you may be thinking what’s the big deal? Being out there on the sidewalk outside the abortion facility comes as naturally as breathing to some people. Not to me. My views of sidewalk witness have changed quite a bit over the past thirty years. I am not courting arrest. I am not trying to spit in the eye of the neighbors or the clients or the workers or even the abortionists. I simply want to witness for life without anyone getting mad at me. And I don’t want to be out there alone.

Timid enough for you?

Here’s what I saw as a very inexperienced 40DFL supporter last week. Maybe it’ll give you some encouragement to join me in the fall.

Concord: invitation to “pledge a protester”

My first time slot was in Concord. The Feminist Health Center is on Main Street, at an intersection with a quiet residential side street.   I was alone, with the Concord 40DFL coordinator Christine Suarez scheduled to join me later.

There’s a little sign on the lawn in front of FHC, a backhanded tribute to 40DFL: “pledge a protester.” The idea is for anyone who supports FHC to donate money to offset pro-life witness outside the facility. The sign indicates that somewhere between $2000 and $2500 has been donated. Is that for this campaign, or over several years? No telling. So there, is the message. It fits with the banner across the front of the building that advises uncritical minds that “safe and legal abortion IS pro-life.” For those keeping track, $2500 would cover six-tenths of one percent of what FHC spent on compensation, wages, and salaries for executives and employees in 2011, according to the FHC’s IRS Form 990.

From January 2014: Concord Feminist Health Center, with supporters countering the March for Life

From January 2014: Concord Feminist Health Center, with supporters countering the March for Life

I had no sign to carry. In my pocket was a scrap of paper with the address and phone number of the CareNet a few blocks away. Thus armed, I took a deep breath and started praying. I walked on the sidewalk past the front of facility, up Thompson Street to the back driveway, and back to Main Street. There was virtually no traffic in or out of the FHC except for two women who appeared to be bringing in their lunch. They looked at me curiously but made no remark. There were a few passersby to whom I gave a nod and a smile.

A few residents on Thompson Street looked on without interest. The presence of witnesses outside the FHC is old news to them. I wonder how much more interest the neighbors will have if the 25-foot buffer zone now under consideration at the State House passes. Perhaps next time, I’ll be legally obliged to be on their sidewalk.

An hour went by on the cloudy day as I prayed holding my Rosary. Yes, that Catholic thing that seems to draw particular ire from abortion supporters of the keep-your-rosary-off-my-ovaries ilk. I wasn’t using it to show off. Quite the contrary: the Rosary helps keep my prayer focused, away from worry, not about me.

Halfway through the hour, Christine arrived. She greeted me like a treasured friend, even though it was the first time we met. I admire her commitment and her cheerful spirit that have obviously done so much to make 40DFL in Concord a force to be reckoned with (that pledge-a-protester sign speaks volumes). No sour face or wrinkled brow for her: a true witness for life and hope.

Thus passed an uneventful hour. No one yelled or jeered as I made my way back and forth. No one threw anything at me. No patient crossed my path. I’m not even sure anyone made a “pledge.” Barely a ripple. A gentle beginning.

Manchester: 40DFL + “the regulars”

Two days later, I was in Manchester. Thursdays are surgical-abortion days at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s Manchester facility. Other procedures might be available as well, but the surgical abortions seem to be limited to that day, according to the regulars. I say “the regulars” to refer to the group that is outside PP every Thursday year-round, without regard to 40DFL. PP has definitely taken note of the year-round witness, as we can see from the buffer-zone bill and Senator Soucy’s grave pronouncements that it’s all about “safety.”

It’s not that there’s criminal activity going on. Ask the Manchester Police Department. PP made much at the Senate buffer-zone hearing about how much they spend on security in Manchester. The PP lobbyist testified that there have been 60 complaints from patients about the people on the sidewalk. When asked how many of those complaints had been reported to the police, as opposed to reported to the PP receptionist, the PP lobbyist was at a loss. That tells me that there has been no patient safety issue that has been brought to the attention of local law enforcement thus far.

In the three hours I spent outside PP on Thursday, I could see that there were at least two simple, no-cost things that PP could do to interfere with the Thursday regulars – but both would mean police involvement. (I needn’t outline the steps here. PP has highly-paid people to figure these things out.) Apparently, whatever PP says about the need for a “patient safety zone” in Manchester, that concern for safety has not yet extended to involving law enforcement to the slightest degree.

The building’s exterior has cameras mounted everywhere. A faded but visible orange line is spray-painted on the property boundary, so everyone on the sidewalk knows where not to go.  We prayed under the polite but watchful eye of PP’s hired security guard. He would occasionally walk past us, between driveways, to keep an eye on things. He was not averse to friendly (if brief) conversation.

I saw a PP worker come out of the building to put something in a car. I smiled at her and nodded. She looked at me as through I were a coiled snake. So much distrust …

40 DFL is about prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil, and community outreach. It is not about pictures of aborted babies. Abby Johnson has written about how such images actually help abortion providers stay in business. One man, who I’m guessing is one of the Thursday regulars, had a bloody-baby sign that he put on the windshield of his parked car nearby. Fortunately, the sign was so small and indistinct from more than twenty paces away that I doubt anyone entering PP realized what it was.

One of the regulars had leaflets that she offered to everyone entering and leaving the facility. She did not block traffic.

I was never with fewer than ten people as I prayed that morning. A young mother with her two preschool-age boys, a smiling woman quietly praying in French, a military veteran in his thirties: a varied group. I saw that there wasn’t much traffic coming and going from the PP lot. As I left, one of the regulars commented to me that this was a very slow business day for a Thursday. A good thing, I hope.

Manchester II: solitude

Palm Sunday, last day of this season’s 40 Days for Life campaign, dawned cloudy with a promise of rain. I had the sidewalk outside PP all to myself. The office was closed, although there was one car in the lot. No guard. I assumed the cameras were turned on. I realized when I got there that I had forgotten to bring my camera-equipped phone, which made me feel very vulnerable. Alone and no camera.

The street was extremely quiet. On the PP side, there’s a RiteAid and a small one-story office building. Across the street are seven old houses of two or three stories each, most of them divided into apartments. A few folks came out to walk their dogs. Even the dogs were quiet; the sight of me didn’t prompt a bark from any of them.

I pace as I pray. In some cities, a person standing on a sidewalk is considered an impediment to navigation. I wasn’t sure what Manchester’s ordinances had to say about that. To be on the safe side, I kept walking. Sixty paces, turn, sixty paces, turn.

The PP building looks unremarkable when it’s closed. The property wouldn’t rate a second glance if not for the stockade fence flanking the driveway. No way to tell that human life is disposable inside, except for the “Planned Parenthood” sign on the building. Unlike the FHC, this Manchester abortion facility has no “pledge-a-protester” sign or abortion-is-prolife banner. There’s a distressing amount of trash on the ground along the building, but I dared not pick it up – that would require reaching across the property line. There’s a plaque on the building proclaiming “Metropolitan” as the company responsible for leasing and management. I guess the lease doesn’t include cleanup. No lipstick on that particular pig.

No distractions to prayer that morning. I thought of a lot of people to lift up in those prayers. I thought of the people who work at the facility during the week, and I wondered how to reach across the chasm to them. I thought about the patients, and I wondered how many of them know that their “trusted health care provider” would shut down the facility – cancer screenings and all – rather than stop offering abortions. I thought of the landlord, to whom PP’s just another tenant. I thought of the health-care professionals who are complicit in abortion.  I thought of the 40DFL vigil participants who are as nervous as I, and of the vigil coordinators whose work is so important. I thought of our overwhelming need for peace,.beginning in the womb.

From Luke’s Gospel: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

I returned to my car after two hours. No one came running up to me and said I want to leave the industry or I’ve changed my mind about having an abortion. No heroics for me. All I could say was that for a couple of hours, I’d stood vigil.


The next 40 Days for Life campaign will begin in late September. I’ll play my small part in it, and I invite you to join me.





Abby Johnson

Ellen KolbApril 7, 20147 Comments

What’s your standing appointment?

Abby Johnson at Dartmouth (photos by E. Kolb)

Abby Johnson at Dartmouth (photos by E. Kolb)

When I heard that Abby Johnson was coming to New Hampshire to talk about her work, I made up my mind I was going to see her no matter what. My family’s calendar promptly sprouted four other events for the same day. But still … Abby Johnson. Ever since I read her book Unplanned and learned about her ministry to women who like her once worked in the abortion industry, I’ve wanted to meet her in person.

You haven’t read Unplanned? Bookmark this post and come back to it later. (Please.) You have to read Abby’s book first. I consider it a basic book. In brief: she spent eight years working for Planned Parenthood, even winning an award for her management of a PP facility in Texas. One “aha” moment followed another until, quite to her surprise, she turned her back on the abortion industry and went pro-life. She now has a husband and three kids and a fourth child on the way; she has one book behind her and I’m sure others ahead of her; she’s a social-media powerhouse; and while based in Texas, she travels for a speaking schedule that would leave me gasping for air.

(Did I get her autograph? No. I keep forgetting that getting a book on Kindle means the author can’t inscribe the book. Not the first time my fondness for e-books has backfired.)

An unhurried visit

So what does this force of nature look like in real life? Arriving at her event, I walked towards a small auditorium on the Dartmouth campus in Hanover and passed a young woman with a robust laugh, a big smile, and baby in her arms. I did a double take, and sure enough, that was the face on all the publicity flyers. No backstage prep for Abby Johnson. There she was, casually and comfortably dressed, greeting people as if this were her regular neighborhood.

I expected protesters outside the event. There were none.

Once the program began and Abby took the mic, she spoke for an hour to the 70 people who came to hear her. No props, no graphics, no special effects. Then she stayed for another hour and a half to answer questions. That’s amazing to me, steeped as I am in a political culture where the stars all have entourages and tight schedules.

Priorities and standing appointments

Her manner is friendly and warm – and no less blunt for all that. Speaking to a room full of people supportive of her work, she wanted to know something: do we spend time on the front lines, outside abortion facilities (while I hate using the word “clinic” in that context, Abby uses it freely), listening to the workers and the women going in? And if we don’t, what are we waiting for?

A challenge to her listeners: what's your standing appointment?

A challenge to her listeners: what’s your standing appointment?

I squirmed at that. I would rather face a legislative committee any day. On a whim, I told people a few days ago that I’d spend an hour with the current 40 Days for Life campaign for every new Facebook “like” on my page. Three people promptly hit the “like” button. Now I’m scheduled for shifts in Manchester and Concord next week, and I’m nearly petrified at the prospect. But that’s where the action is, according to Abby.

She has no patience for claims of I-don’t-have-time. “It’s weird about how we prioritize. I know someone who always has a reason for not signing up [to stand outside abortion clinics]. She’s always busy. But she has a standing appointment every six weeks for four hours with her hair stylist.” Abby says there’s a “strange disconnect” between the horror of abortion and our reluctance to stand up publicly against it. “If they were killing two-year-olds in those clinics, we’d all see the need to be there” defending life. She acknowledges that standing outside the clinics “is not fun, but we need to be that public witness,” overcoming our own “apathy, complacency, busy-ness.”

She recalled that Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL who later became pro-life, once said that abortion promoters in the 1960s knew they could make huge strides if churches stayed silent or inactive on the right to life. Today, she says, “That’s on us as a Christian community. Abortions clinics might as well have a sign up that says ‘we’re open by permission of the Christian community.’ We hear more from the pulpit about tithing than we do about abortion.”

What works?

Her ministry to abortion workers who want to leave the industry has been busy since the day she set it up. “Our biggest group that we utilize [to reach abortion facility workers] is 40 Days for Life.” Abby Johnson’s clinic, back when she was a PP worker, was one of the first places that 40 Days for Life ever covered – and the participants didn’t stick to forty days. They kept coming back, and they slowly built a relationship with Abby, even though she says that sometimes “I thought of turning the sprinklers on them.” She says the pro-life witnesses outside her clinic never called her names, but worked on forming a “genuine relationship” with her, “without persecution and without condemnation. That’s what heals hearts.”

She’s evidently not a fan of showing abortion-minded women graphic photos of aborted babies; that’s not a move likely to build relationships or change hearts. She does, however, like to carry a small fetal model when she’s outside abortion clinics. “Look at the needs of women seeking abortion. Be a problem-solver. No one going in for an abortion is doing so because she’s pro-choice. She feels like she doesn’t have a choice. Focus on her needs; be prepared with information. Once she decides she’s not alone, the connection with her baby follows. Once that connection’s made, she’s not turning back.” And that’s when a little model of a preborn child will resonate.

Signing books after the program. At left: Jen Robidoux of Manchester NH's 40DFL campaign.

Signing books after the program. At left: Jen Robidoux of Manchester NH’s 40DFL campaign.

Her suggestion for a good sign to carry outside an abortion clinic: “Ask to see your sonogram.” She attested that a sonogram image is an effective pro-life influence not only on women, but on men as well. “Being pro-life is not about saving a baby; it’s about building a family.” And in abortion practice, she said, sonograms are usually used only to determine gestational age. It’s time for women to ask to see that image before any “procedure” is done.

It’s not as though a woman seeking abortion doesn’t already know she’s carrying a baby. “We never had a woman come in [to PP] and talk about her ‘fetus.’ Whenever a woman asked if her baby would feel pain from the abortion, we told her the fetus has no sensory development until 28 weeks, even though we knew it was a lie. You have to believe that lie [if you work in an abortion facility] because the truth is far too inconvenient.”

Her work at PP

Which raises a question: how could she work at Planned Parenthood so long? “I loved the job. I believed I was doing a merciful thing. I believed that we were there to reduce the number of abortions,” by dispensing contraceptives. But PP is a business. “We were salespersons. We had numbers we needed to meet. I was good at that, and I was named Employee of the Year in 2008 because of that.” She said there was a “talking point” that PP employees were trained to use with abortion-minded women: “Abortion was the most selfless thing a woman could do for herself, her baby, and her future family.” Then came a budget meeting with increased quotas for the following year – including a doubled quota for abortions. In an agency that supposedly wanted to reduce abortions? Why have a quota for abortions at all? When she asked those questions, the answer she got was “But Abby, how do you think we make our money?”

A-ha moment. “I began to ask a lot of questions. I began to ask myself what we were doing.” All the while, those pro-life witnesses outside her clinic were there, praying for her as well as for all the other workers and patients. One day, it all clicked.

When she left PP, her former employer took her to court (and eventually lost its case). Her former co-workers testified against her and then turned their backs on her. Who stood by her? Her husband – and all those persistent, peaceful pro-life witnesses who had been outside her clinic for years. Years. 

How are we to take it from here?

Abby recently added an FAQ section to her Facebook page, where she suggests ways to get involved in prolife work. Her book Unplanned is a good resource (available from Amazon, though I hope you’ll give your local bookseller a try). Her ministry to abortion industry workers could use help and support (And Then There Were None). These were her closing words at Dartmouth:

“If you have a really active prayer life, that prayer life will move you to action. Find your place in this movement.  If we ask and we’re quiet and we listen, God will answer.”


Let’s hear it for the hosts:

Abby came to Dartmouth at the invitation of Aquinas House, the Catholic Student Center at Dartmouth, and its Walker Percy Pro-Life Initiative. (Walker Percy: now there’s an author to drop everything for.) Co-host: St. Denis Parish. My thanks to anyone and everyone who helped make this event possible.

Amy Smith of the Walker Percy Pro-life Initiative at Aquinas House

Amy Smith of the Walker Percy Pro-life Initiative at Aquinas House


Fr. Francis Belanger, introducing Abby Johnson

Fr. Francis Belanger, introducing Abby Johnson









Ellen KolbApril 4, 2014Leave a comment

OK, readers, let me have it: what can Leaven do for you?

I know the word “blogiversary” is awkward, but I love it, and that’s what Leaven is celebrating: two years in the blogosphere. As part of the festivities, I’d like to hear from the readers who have kept this blog going and growing. Help determine Leaven’s course for the future. I won’t be giving up the political angle of pro-life work – sorry, guys – but if there’s something else on the life issues that I could be covering, I hope you’ll let me know. This poll is multiple choice, and it’ll be open for a week. Go!



Ellen KolbApril 2, 2014Leave a comment

Scott Brown: remember the Blunt Amendment

It’s official, and it’s no surprise: Scott Brown is running in New Hampshire’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, in hopes of replacing Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

I recently had a short, pleasant, and unexpected conversation with him. On this occasion I had no notebook, no audio recorder, and no preparation. He knew I’m pro-life, and I know he calls himself pro-choice. So what about that?

Regarding the right to life, he affirmed “I’m a pro-choice Republican. But I’ve always been in favor of parental involvement. Against federal funding. Remember the Blunt Amendment? I voted for it. That cost me the election.” (That was 2012, when he lost his U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts to Elizabeth Warren.)

Remember the Blunt Amendment. That’s worth mentioning. At the time it came up, Scott Brown said, “No one should be forced by government to do something that violates the teachings of their faith.” That’s the sort of thing that prompted EMILY’s List to support Warren over Brown.

When Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate (the HHS mandate) was first announced, requiring employers to participate in the provision of contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs, Missouri senator Roy Blunt tried to get conscience exemptions written into the law. In the parliamentary whirl of Beltway politics, that meant trying to tack an amendment onto a highway bill. The amendment was killed, with Brown voting with most of his Republican colleagues to support conscience rights. (Maine Republican Olympia Snowe cast the sole Republican vote to kill the measure.)

Brown told me that cost him the election – “and I’d support it again.” Here’s an op-ed he wrote for the Boston Globe in 2012 about the issue.

When he spoke with me, Brown went on to say, “This election is going to be about the economy.” That will be music to the ears of the legacy Republicans who sang the same song in 2012 and then wondered why social conservatives stayed home – not to mention music to the ears of Shaheen Democrats who know that they can make the election all about social issues, knowing “economy” candidates won’t fight back. But I digress.

I give Brown credit for calling me out of the blue, and for being straightforward with me about being “pro-choice.” More so, I respect and thank him for his support of the Blunt Amendment.

This wasn’t a formal sit-down, so I don’t consider it part of my series of interviews with the Senate candidates. The three published so far are with Karen Testerman, Jim Rubens, and Bob Smith.



Ellen KolbApril 1, 2014Leave a comment

Off topic…well, maybe not.

If you live in my neck of the woods, you know Boston lost a couple of firefighters the other day. Not long after that bad news came along, I saw some firefighters in my own town quietly going about their business. Pro-life work, from this neighbor’s perspective. I offer my prayers and gratitude.