It’s a blustery day on the street in front of the Southwestern Women’s Options clinic, but neither wind, nor rain nor sleet stays these anti-abortion protesters from their self-appointed crusade.
A small group has come out today at the Lomas NE site – a few men and one distressed-looking woman, who is kneeling on the concrete, head bowed, rosary in hand.
And he is here.
Phil Leahy is almost always here or there at the Planned Parenthood clinic on San Mateo NE – for nearly four decades, four days a week, from about 7 a.m. until noon, urging women to change their minds about whatever has brought them to the clinics.
He assumes it’s for an abortion, though the clinics provide other health care services and counseling.
To Leahy, it all reeks of murder and godlessness.
He’s 84, a frail but resilient man with a bushy white beard, a fanny pack and a rosary. Both his sweatshirt and baseball cap are adorned with a glittery image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On his jacket hangs a tiny pin with the image of St. Josephine Bakhita, considered a symbol of women emancipated from oppression and victimization, an interesting choice for an advocate against a woman’s right to choose.
Some abortion opponents call him the Pro-Life Saint.
“I’ve been doing this since 1981,” he said. “It is my Catholic tradition. It is crucial that I be here.”
Not everyone agrees.
“I have a lot of resentment for these (expletive) guys,” said Sri Louise, who has felt the need to enter the abortion fray as states including Alabama, Georgia and Missouri enact laws that make abortions nearly impossible to obtain and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which has given women the right to safe and legal abortions since 1973, seems more and more unsettled. “We have so many other things to work on, but now we have to go back and deal with these guys who think they can harass women by exercising their own freedoms. But they don’t get to do that.”
Anti-abortion sidewalk protesters, or “antis” as clinic workers call them, have long protested outside abortion clinics, forming unwanted, unabashedly religious gantlets of volunteers who believe that life begins at conception and that they have a right to dictate a woman’s life choices.
They shame clients, shout at them about saving their souls and their “babies,” scare them into believing the false notion that all an abortion gets them is unending physical and emotional pain and a nonrefundable ticket to fiery pits of hell. Rarely do the clinics call police to shoo them off unless violence is threatened. The policy has been to ignore the protesters, who stay on the public sidewalks.
But a few antis have found a way to get closer to the San Mateo clinic by placing makeshift scaffolding or cars in the alley behind the clinic from which they can stand above the fence line to shout at women as they arrive.
Leahy is one of the men who sit atop the perch.
“I try not to yell or be belligerent,” he said. “I’m here to let women know there’s another choice.”
This, even though the women do not seek his prayer or his counsel.
“When I got my abortion 15 years ago, that old decrepit guy on the back of the fence became part of my personal story and personal life forever,” one woman said. “I was already very nervous, but I wasn’t actually shaken until this crazy man started yelling, ‘God loves you and your baby. Don’t kill your baby. We love you. We can help you. You don’t have to kill your baby.’
“What old farty men like Phil don’t understand is that we women are perfectly capable of deciding and praying about our choices all on our own,” she continued. “They do not understand that the stigma comes from them, that they are the most traumatic thing about the procedure.”
Over the years, Leahy has been severely injured and had bones broken by people who have not wanted him there. One man took a baseball bat to Leahy’s scaffolding, knocking him to the ground. Last March, he was struck by a cyclist – an accident, he said.
So why does he devote time in a place where he is not wanted? Leahy doesn’t offer much insight. There is no personal connection to an abortion or pregnancy. He’s never been married, never had children.
“I just believe that life is precious and that if a woman has a right to her belief I also have a right to my belief and so does that life inside her,” he said.
Women like Louise say they are tired of ignoring people like Leahy, especially as conservative lawmakers across the country chisel away at Roe v. Wade. She plans to organize a loud counterprotest at the San Mateo clinic and is reaching out to other like-minded folks on Facebook.
“I’m just done,” she said. “You don’t get to harass women. You don’t get to keep them from their own health care. You don’t get the moral superiority.”
Leahy just doesn’t get it.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.