Will 2007 be a battle for life? - Catholic Courier

Will 2007 be a battle for life?

On a cold Saturday morning, Rob Pokalsky of Penfield stood on a Rochester street corner speaking into a bullhorn. In his hands was a photograph of a bloody, mutilated fetus.

“By working here, you are supporting an abortion mill,” Pokalsky called out to a Planned Parenthood employee getting out of her car.

For the past decade, Pokalsky, a Catholic who teaches elementary school, has protested outside of Planned Parenthood’s University Avenue location.

There is a yellow line painted on the sidewalk. Pokalsky must stand behind it; if not, he said the clinic would have the right to have him arrested. “Pray for freedom” is scrawled in faded blue chalk next to the line.

Where Pokalsky and his fellow abortion protesters are allowed to demonstrate is the focus of a battle they have fought since 1999 with Eliot Spitzer, who just finished eight years as New York’s attorney general.

And the protesters say they will be watching Spitzer closely as he begins his four-year term as governor.

Abortion and politics

As attorney general, Spitzer obtained several court orders to stop protesters’ use of bullhorns and to create and later expand from 15 feet to 60 feet protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics. In 2002, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the expanded zones, finding that the rules violated protesters’ rights of free speech.

Also that year, Spitzer’s office temporarily closed Birthright of Victor during a statewide investigation of advertising tactics used by crisis-pregnancy centers. The center reopened after agreeing to clarify its stances against abortion and birth control, and stipulate that it was not licensed to diagnose or date pregnancies.

At the time, pro-life groups questioned why they had been targeted for investigation. Yet Spitzer’s office said it was impartially enforcing the law.

Local pro-lifers say they wonder what kind of treatment they will get from the new governor and the new Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress. Although they remain a minority in the Democratic Party, pro-lifers say they are gaining support to reduce the nation’s estimated 1.3 million abortions annually.

“Most Democrats in New York state, including Hillary Clinton, will say reducing abortions is a good idea,” said Carol Crossed of Brighton, a founding member of Democrats for Life of America and a board member of Feminists for Life of New York. “Even doctors are now recognizing they can be involved in the effort to reduce abortions.”

Pro-life groups say in 2007 they want to continue to block funding for embryonic stem-cell research; call for such restrictions on abortion as parental-notification laws; and advocate for laws requiring that women be informed of abortion risks, such as a possible, but controversial, abortion-breast cancer link.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court also is expected to release its opinion on the constitutionality of the 2003 federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The rare, late-term abortion procedure crushes a baby’s skull so it can be removed from a woman’s body.

Clarke D. Forsythe, an attorney and director of the Americans United for Life Project in Law and Bioethics, is author of a central brief in the case and said a decision is expected in February or March. He said the five Catholics now seated on the high court may play a pivotal role in the case, and noted that the Supreme Court already has upheld right-to-know laws in some states that require informing patients of abortion risks. But getting Spitzer to sign a similar law is unlikely, Forsythe said.

“His action as attorney general in limiting the work of pregnancy-resource centers several years ago showed that he’s less than sympathetic for fully informed choice,” Forsythe said.

Spitzer’s stance

Spitzer outlined his abortion stance last February when he accepted the endorsement of abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice New York. He said he believed the state should make abortion safe, keep it legal and make it rare.

“Unfortunately, the likely result of the most recent Supreme Court appointments may be the sharp curtailment or even the reversal of Roe (v. Wade),” Spitzer said. “Indeed, it is part of a larger singular effort to systematically redefine certain core civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution.”

Spitzer said that if the Supreme Court were to limit or overturn Roe v. Wade, he would do everything in his power to preserve access to abortions in the state.

“There are, today, important gaps that must be filled,” Spitzer said.

In his speech to NARAL, Spitzer said he supports better access to family-planning services, better public-education programs, new programs that train doctors in reproductive-health services, expanded prenatal care and measures to speed up adoptions.

Spitzer said access to emergency contraception might cut the abortion rate in half. Yet the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes that hormonal contraception also acts as an abortifacient because it can block the implantation of an embryo.

Saying he is not anti-religion, Spitzer called on pro-choice groups to respectfully engage pro-lifers in moral and ethical debates.

Engaging in debate

Engaging people in the abortion debate is what Pokalsky said he tries to do outside of Planned Parenthood.

Although he can’t cross the yellow line to give out packets of literature, he did catch the eye of one young man dropping off a woman at the clinic. Dressed in blue vests, Planned Parenthood escorts waved their arms to rush the woman into the door as the man looked up at Pokalsky.

“We have a list of doctors,” Pokalsky said. “We can share this with her.”

Later, the man emerged from the clinic and walked back to the yellow line to pick up a packet. He explained that he only brought his girlfriend to the clinic to get her birth-control pills.

“The best thing is to wait until marriage,” Pokalsky said.

At that moment, the man noticed the fetal photograph in Pokalsky’s hand.

“Those are horrible pictures,” he said.

Pokalsky said he realizes that the pictures are shocking, but that abortion also is violent and shocking. The pictures help get the message across, he said, noting that the group gives away more than 500 packets of literature a year.

“People are more receptive now,” Pokalsky said. “In the beginning they would do things to us and spit at us.”

Pokalsky said one former Planned Parenthood employee who converted to Catholicism told him the protests had piqued his conscience.

“I’m a sinner myself,” Pokalsky said. “We don’t judge their hearts, we judge their actions.”

Planned Parenthood

Judgment is something Planned Parenthood of Rochester and Syracuse Region representatives say they try not to dispense along with the 2,004 abortions, 27,069 contraceptive visits, 16,396 sexually transmitted disease tests or treatments, 8,769 pregnancy tests, and 1,763 emergency contraceptives administered in 2001, the last year for which statistics are available. The majority of Planned Parenthood’s patients that year — 34 percent — were 20 to 24 years old.

“We are not out to make judgments, but to be a health-care provider to give them complete information and a safe and respectful atmosphere to make their own decisions,” said Betty DeFazio, corporate director of community affairs and public policy for Planned Parenthood of the Rochester and Syracuse Region.

Planned Parenthood provides medical and surgical abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy and refers women to other providers for later abortions, DeFazio said. The agency also offers gynecological exams; contraception; testing for pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases; counseling; rape-crisis services; and educational programs.

Abortions make up less than 7 percent of the organization’s work, she said, noting that the agency’s main focus is pregnancy prevention through sex-education and birth-control services.

Planned Parenthood began offering abortion services at its facility on Rochester’s University Avenue in 1993. Weekly protests there began about a decade ago, just after a major regional protest.

“When we got here, there was nobody here,” said Mary Jost, a weekly protester and member of Rochester’s Our Lady of Victory Church. “I don’t know what we were expecting.”

A year ago, the group opened the Focus Help Pregnancy Center a few doors down from the Planned Parenthood facility. Since then, the crisis-pregnancy center has helped 20 women, according to Tucker Wilson, a member of St. Joseph Church in Penfield who serves with Jost as a codirector of the center. Among them, Wilson said, was one woman who decided not to have an abortion after talking to staff members at Focus Help.

“People come up and tell us these signs have saved their children,” Pokalsky agreed of the pro-lifers’ efforts. “They thank us for being here.”

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