Pro-life sidewalk advocacy groups share safety tips after attack at Baltimore abortion clinic

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Nicky Peters stands outside Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, Minn. in 2017. Peters offers information and compassion to women arriving for abortions.
Nicky Peters stands outside Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, Minn. in 2017. Sidewalk counselors offer information and compassion to women arriving for abortions. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Pro-life organizations that engage in praying or sidewalk outreach outside of abortion clinics are sharing what they do for safety following recent reports of two elderly pro-life men being assaulted outside of a Baltimore Planned Parenthood.

“In our training, we cover many techniques to stay safe on the sidewalk — for instance, we always recommend going out with a prayer partner or other sidewalk advocate,” Nate Robertson, the vice president of Sidewalk Advocates for Life (SAFL), told Our Sunday Visitor.

As an organization that works to train, equip and support communities across the United States and the world in sidewalk advocacy, SAFL focuses on safety while teaching people how to encourage and empower pregnant women to choose life outside of abortion clinics.

“We also recommend having a video camera close at hand to discourage criminal activity — or to capture footage of wrongdoing — while respecting the privacy of the women we serve,” Robertson added. “Most importantly, we encourage our advocates to avoid any situation that is unsafe and to contact the authorities if they are threatened or assaulted.”

Through its advocacy, SAFL says that it has witnessed more than 20,000 babies saved. The group strives to be the hands and feet of Christ while offering loving, life-affirming alternatives to abortion.

Their pro-life advocates promise to do this peacefully, Robertson said.

“Our training teaches sidewalk advocates to be a peaceful, prayerful, and law-abiding presence on the sidewalk,” he explained, adding that each person must sign a pledge of integrity before participating in sidewalk outreach with SAFL.

The training also instructs sidewalk advocates on how to defuse tense situations, he said.

‘Overall, it’s very safe’

As the president and CEO of 40 Days for Life, Shawn Carney said that his group also prioritizes safety. The internationally coordinated 40-day campaign aims to end abortion locally through prayer and fasting, community outreach and a peaceful all-day vigil outside of abortion clinics.

Through its work, the group says it has saved more than 23,000 babies since 2007.

“Overall, it is very safe to go out and peacefully pray at almost all of our locations,” Carney told Our Sunday Visitor. “While the Baltimore location is not an active 40 Days for Life site, all 40 Days for Life local leaders are trained in emergency response plans and multiple safety precautions in order to save lives from abortion while keeping ourselves protected.”

Violence after ‘Dobbs’

SAFL, Robertson said, has not noticed an increase in violence after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last June.

“Sidewalk Advocates for Life is always focused on the safety of our advocates, but I am glad to say that — despite the rash of attacks on pregnancy centers, other pro-life organizations, and churches in the wake of the Dobbs decision — our people are not reporting an increase in either violent acts or angry words on the sidewalk,” Robertson said.

“That being said, I think we can all agree that tensions around the issue of abortion are more intense than ever — and in that kind of climate, it can be easy for tempers to flare and for violence to erupt,” he stressed. “It’s important to stay aware of your surroundings, even as you’re reaching out to pregnant moms.”

“Understand your right to free speech and your right to be present in the public right-of-way,” he advised. “Stand your ground, but don’t hesitate to contact the police if the situation warrants it.”

He concluded: “If we don’t stand up for our own rights, who will stand up for these women in crisis, and for the rights of their preborn children?”

It’s an issue the group takes seriously: SAFL will dive even deeper into safety on the sidewalk at its upcoming National Sidewalk Advocacy Conference in October, he said.

At 40 Days for Life, Carney said that they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into safety for their one million participants. Hostility toward pro-life prayer volunteers started rising in 2017, he said, but returned to “normal” after Dobbs, with very few or no incidents.

“Fortunately since Dobbs overturned Roe, we went on offense legally and with security to protect volunteers and saw harassment and violence drop to a five-year low,” he revealed. At the same time, he noted a “dramatic increase in harassment” from law enforcement and the Department of Justice.

Responding to the Baltimore attack

Shortly after the attack outside the Baltimore Planned Parenthood, 40 Days for Life responded on Twitter.

“We are outraged by the recent attack on pro-lifers peacefully praying outside an abortion clinic,” the group tweeted May 31. “This cannot be tolerated — our prayers are with those injured. Let us take a stand against this reprehensible act and pray for the protection of all those fighting against abortion.”

At SAFL, Robertson responded by condemning the use of violence.

“While Sidewalk Advocates for Life isn’t privy to all the details of the incident, what we can say definitively is that no one deserves to be violently attacked for exercising their First Amendment rights to try to save the life of a child,” he said.

“We decry all violence, including abortion itself – and against anyone who is peacefully advocating or praying outside abortion facilities,” he added. “We are praying for the men who were attacked, and we pray for the safety of all those who go to the sidewalk outside abortion facilities to reach out to women in crisis.”

Katie Yoder

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.