Most pro-life people are familiar with sidewalk counselors, activists who spend time outside of abortion facilities, praying, and attempting to offer support to the women going inside. However, much of the attention they receive comes from very good or very bad news. What is the day-to-day experience of a sidewalk counselor like?
Enza Rattenni, executive director and sidewalk counselor at Aid to Women in Toronto, “stumbled upon” the work after filling a contract position there three years ago. Meeting and talking to women is a highlight, she told The Interim, especially watching them “begin to understand when it’s wrong and choose life.” One woman in particular, whose story Rattenni told at this year’s March for Life candlelight vigil, stands out. “There was a conflict on the sidewalk, between me, her, and the friend who brought her,” Rattenni reported. “She had started the (abortion) procedure, but after meeting for dinner and sharing ourselves with each other, she decided to keep the child who was born in March. She’s a very strong girl.”
Doris Gagnon, who coordinates the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants sidewalk counseling ministry in Ottawa, has been counseling since 2008. She works outside of Ottawa’s Morgentaler abortuary, located downtown on Bank Street. During the first 40 Days for Life campaign in the city she saw three girls go into the centre while she was praying outside. Two sat on a bench nearby after leaving the facility. Gagnon wanted to talk to them, but “didn’t know what to say – all I remember is that it wasn’t very convincing.” Nicole Campbell, who was coordinating 40 Days for Life at the time, introduced her to the idea of reaching out in a “more professional” way. After shadowing Campbell for a few days, Gagnon was invited on a trip to New York, sponsored by Campaign Life Coalition, where she was trained by Monsignor Reilly of the Brooklyn-based Helpers of God’s Precious Infants ministry.

One of Gagnon’s favourite stories took place in 2011. A prayer volunteer stood on Bank Street with a sign, when a couple passed by and spoke to her. They said: “Two years ago, we were coming to this abortion clinic, someone gave us a brochure and it made us change our mind.” Gagnon “can’t be sure who it was that he spoke to,” but she stresses that “all of our volunteers have a role to play in saving children’s lives.”

Though testimonies like these show that their work is having an impact, sidewalk counseling is not without its difficulties. “You want to be (reaching) them all the time, but you’re unable to,” explained Rattenni. “You have other obligations … and you don’t want to burn out. You don’t want to feel guilty for not being outside – that’s also a real challenge for me.”

Gagnon recalled the frustration of one particular encounter. A woman who had recently immigrated to Canada was frightened that “her husband would throw her out on the street.” Grateful for the information Gagnon gave her, she used a nearby payphone to call her husband at work. Gagnon was told, “he’s coming. He’s going to meet me upstairs” before the woman went into the facility. The counselor “stayed and leafleted all the men that I could see, hoping to intercept him,” but was unsuccessful. Since she did not see the woman afterwards, Gagnon guessed that she went through with the abortion. “Knowing that she is being coerced, and that (the abortion facility) won’t do anything to prevent it…you feel powerless.”

In an area of pro-life work where disappointments are common, both activists must depend on forces outside of themselves in order to persevere. Rattenni has come to accept that, rather than changing a woman’s mind, her role is “to provide them with true and accurate information in a loving way.” Ultimately, though, she “can’t control what they do.” She prays and tells God “that they are His children, so He needs to take care of them.” Gagnon, too, relies heavily on prayer. She notes a comparison made by Monsignor Reilly: praying in front of abortion centres is like praying on Calvary. Knowing that she can “(unite) her sufferings to Christ,” and that “God went through something like” what she feels, is her consolation.

How do fellow pro-lifers and the general public perceive the work of sidewalk counselors? Gagnon receives “a lot of prayer support – maybe not on Bank Street, but in general.” She wishes she could tell the public that she is not harassing women. Instead, she offers “information that, in many cases, is withheld from them by the abortion clinic.” Concealing this information means “violating” standards of bodily autonomy and informed consent, she maintains. “If seeing (an aborted child or child in the womb) is information that could make her change her mind, then it should not be withheld.”

 “The pro-life community understands what we do,” says Ratenni. “If pro-lifers ask how many babies I save, I have to say “I didn’t do it. It’s not me.” She tells others that “we want to make sure that you are encouraged, supported, and could shine instead of remaining in the darkness of abortion…we’re not there to tear (a woman) down…(we) want to teach her that she is strong, smart, capable, and has a community that can support her. We want to help her be the best woman she can be – that is what being pro-woman is.”

Sidewalk counseling is not for everyone. Rattenni advises those interested in the ministry to “make sure you’re drawn to it for the right reasons and that you’re committed.” This work “is not a one-day training session.” The first step should be to “seek out people who are doing it and learn from them.” She recommends prayer and being involved in a community of faith as well.

Gagnon urges potential counselors to be prepared. “Do your research – get informed before you get on the sidewalk. Get training, if you can, and find a mentor. Know your rights (and) where you can stand within the limits of the law.” Having information and resources to give is also crucial. “If you do not have concrete help, you might as well just stay home.” Her most important advice runs like a thread throughout her work: “Don’t go alone, without prayer support, or (without having prayed) yourself.”