Now that the Supreme Court has struck down Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone surrounding abortion clinics, similar laws in other areas are also beginning to disappear. Since anti-abortion protesters now have more access to women outside of clinics, does that mean they’ll successfully be able to convince more people not to end their pregnancies?
Probably not, at least according to one prominent anti-abortion protester who’s been standing outside of clinics for decades.
Ann Scheidler founded the Pro-Life Action League, a Chicago-based group that works to end abortion, with her husband back in 1980. Now, she serves as an expert spokesperson for so-called “sidewalk counseling,” the anti-choice strategy to dissuade women from going through with an abortion by making contact with them outside of clinics. But in a recent interview with Vocativ, Scheidler acknowledged that her approach doesn’t necessarily change a lot of women’s minds.
When asked about the success rate of counseling women entering abortion clinics, Scheidler responded, “It’s very low. I will readily admit that.” She explained the tactic is still important because every life saved counts, but noted that women’s attitudes toward the procedure have changed now that abortion has been legal for more than 40 years. “Overall, we were more successful maybe 15 years ago than we are now,” she said.
Scheidler’s anecdotal evidence is borne out by the research in the field. Although it’s difficult to track how many women have changed their minds after coming into contact with anti-abortion protesters, several studies have found that those experiences mainly inspire negative emotions — like anger and guilt — without actually leading women to skip their appointments.
For instance, a 2013 study that involved interviewing 1,000 women who had abortions found that seeing protesters outside of the clinic made many them feel upset, and those negative feelings increased as women’s contact with protesters increased. But participants said that encountering abortion opponents didn’t actually change their mind about the procedure itself.
“Protesters are upsetting, but they don’t have an effect on women’s long-term feelings about their abortions,” Dianna Greene Foster, that study’s lead author, explained in a recent interview with TIME. “A woman’s reasons for having an abortion are much more salient than the brief yelling or talking from protesters.”
Nonetheless, Scheidler’s organization continues to tout sidewalk counseling as an area where abortion opponents can have a real impact. “The Pro-Life Action League believes that sidewalk counseling is the most effective means of saving lives — both babies and mothers — from abortion,” the group explains on its website. “Our goal is for every abortion facility in the country to have a pro-life presence during all hours of operation.”
Although abortion opponents have been very successful in framing their advocacy in terms of “counseling” — emphasizing that kind, gentle, grandmothers simply want the right to quietly approach women outside of clinics — the individuals who help escort women past clinic protesters say that’s not actually the case. Protests outside of abortion clinics have a history of turning violent, and protesters often rely on tactics that more closely resemble bullying than counseling. Clinic escorts say that some protesters try to block patients from getting out of their cars. Others try to follow them inside the clinic. Some will call out to the patients by name, take photos of them, or threaten to call their family members to tell them where they are.
And now, as states scramble to figure out how to enact legislative fixes in the wake of the recent buffer zone ruling, there’s already been an uptick in harassment and intimidation outside of abortion clinics. “We have seen a significant difference since the law was struck down,” Marty Walz, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, noted this week. “We now have protesters in larger numbers and much closer to our doorway, harassing our patients as they approach the health center.”