Safe, Legal, Inaccessible: Harassment Rachets Up in Allentown

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Safe, Legal, Inaccessible: Harassment Rachets Up in Allentown

Eleanor J. Bader

In Allentown, PA, a confluence of anti-abortion lawmakers, religious groups, and fanatical individuals come together to make the provision of reproductive health services as difficult as possible.

There’s a poster in the hallway of the Allentown Women’s Center in
Allentown, PA, that quotes esteemed Rabbi Moshe Sofer [1762-1839]: "No
woman is required to build the world by destroying herself."

That sentiment has goaded AWC staff to provide a wide range of
reproductive health services to women of the Lehigh Valley for 31
years; it has also goaded local anti-abortionists who relentlessly
picket, taunt, and pray outside the clinic’s doors.

Allentown is one of America’s hotspots, locales where a confluence of
anti-abortion lawmakers, religious groups, and fanatical individuals
come together to make the provision or acquisition of reproductive
health services as difficult as possible.

The tactics of Allentown’s antis have ranged from "sidewalk
counseling," to prayer vigils, home pickets, and Internet harassment.
On Good Friday, for example, the AWC was subject to "spoofing." In that
incident hundreds of clinics across the U.S. received
computer-generated phone calls showing the number of the Allentown
Women’s Center on their caller ID. "The recipients picked up and got 45
seconds of babies crying and a man asking them if they heard the
millions of children they were killing," says AWC Executive Director
Jen Boulanger.  The AWC subsequently received dozens of calls from
irate providers. "When we finally figured out what had happened we got
the FBI involved and emailed a warning to clinics affiliated with the
National Abortion Federation and the Abortion Care Network," Boulanger
says. "The FBI has been great." Nonetheless, a week later the
Reproductive Health and Counseling Center in Chester, PA. was similarly "spoofed."

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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While the spoofing incident was a first, from four to six days a week
protesters can be seen and heard at AWC.  They’ve undoubtedly been
encouraged by Pennsylvania’s many abortion restrictions:  The state
mandates a 24-hour wait between counseling and surgery; there is a
parental consent requirement for girls under 18; and Medicaid pays only
for the abortions of women who’ve been raped or victimized by incest.
What’s more, says Boulanger, "government officials and police officers
in Allentown are afraid of lawsuits."

And perhaps they should be. Since 2004, the antis have brought numerous
cases against the AWC, the City of Allentown, its police department,
and Boulanger herself. One lawsuit was settled in 2007 by Mayor Ed
Pawlowski, a Democrat who graduated from Chicago’s Moody Bible
Institute and whose resume boasts a stint in college ministry.  In that
case, Pawlowski paid 13 protesters $10,000 each, essentially caving to
allegations that their free speech rights had been impeded. "The Mayor
told me that he sees the lawsuits as our fault and thinks we should pay
the City $430,000 because that’s what the City has spent overall,"
Boulanger continues "Now, when we ask him for help with the protesters,
he says, ‘No. I’ve already spent $430,000 on you.’"

Even more maddening, she adds, three picketers are presently suing
again, once more charging that there is a conspiracy between the
clinic, Boulanger, and the City to violate the protester’s free speech

A recent Saturday protest gives the lie to these assertions.  On a
warm, sunny Saturday in mid-April, more than 70 members of Helpers of
God’s Precious Infants – men, women and children – spent approximately an
hour on the sidewalk facing the clinic. The Helpers, a 20-year-old
group founded by Brooklyn, NY’s Monsignor Philip Reilly, see women’s
health centers as "places where Christ is re-crucified." Their mission,
according to their website, is to "remain with the children during
their hour of death." On this particular day, they were led by
Allentown Bishop Edward C. Cullen and sang, chanted, and prayed the

Closer to the AWC entrance, a tiny but vitriolic group accosted women
and their support people as they got close to the building.   The six
protesters offered a shrill chorus:

"You won’t just kill a baby. You’ll die of breast cancer if you have an abortion;

"You’re killing all your relationships…They’ll all be dead after this;

"Mommy, stop. Mommy, don’t kill me;

"Sweetheart, don’t you see. People DIE in there;

"Women always regret their abortions. You can change your mind."

"I’ve tried everything to keep women from killing their babies and am
now going with the selfish angle," says protester John Dunkle. "I tell
her that a woman who kills a baby is three times more likely to die
within a year of the abortion than a woman who carries her child to
term.  Why is this? I’m not sure, but it’s been proven. Then, 20 years
later, she may get breast cancer. I appeal to her feelings about saving
herself, letting her know that she is harming herself."

Dunkle is no neophyte to the anti-abortion cause.  The publisher of a
website called SKYP, Stop Killing Young People, he champions the use of
force to stop abortion and provides a cheering section for such
incarcerated felons as Michael Griffin, James Kopp, and Eric Robert
Rudolph. What’s more, two years ago Dunkle was permanently enjoined by
the Department of Justice from publishing the names, addresses, and
photos of providers and patients on his website. DOJ found that SKYP
violated FACE by explicitly threatening to harm those listed on the

"I was imprisoned dozens of times when I was in Operation Rescue,"
Dunkle reports. "But we failed. We were chicken. As soon as the
government levied fines we backed off. A few people kept at it but
they’re all in jail." He now contents himself by protesting at two
clinics, the AWC and a Planned Parenthood in Redding, PA. "I was a
coward," he mumbles, turning from me as a patient walks toward the AWC
entrance. "Don’t kill your baby," he shrieks.

Clinic escorts do their best to shield patients and their support people, literally wrapping them in a 12-foot tarp to form a barrier as they move toward the entry area.

"This is torment," says Howard, who is at the AWC with his friend
Tania. "She’s been contemplating this for the past few weeks," he
begins. "She doesn’t need this badgering.

"Being told, ‘please, mommy, stop,’ will always be with me," says
patient Chelsea K. "These protesters are a burden on a day when my
heart is burdened enough. I feel I’m entitled to do what I feel is
right for me."

Volunteer clinic escorts and staff agree, and do whatever they can to
support the patients. When the protesters are particularly hostile, or
when they grab at people, police are called. "They are very responsive
and come right away," says clinic director Boulanger. "The problem is
enforcement. Since the financial settlement the police have had to
bring all complaints to the City Solicitor, a mayoral appointee, and he
decides whether to prosecute. Since the settlement in 2007, he has not
prosecuted anyone."

The Solicitor did not respond to calls or emails from this reporter.

Meanwhile, Dunkle and veteran protester Gerald McWilliams picket
Boulanger’s home every third Sunday. A clinic physician is also
picketed at home.

While other staff have not been targeted in this way, they are
repeatedly rebuked. Administrator Renee DeLorme, for one, says that she
was startled when a protester came up to her on the anniversary of her
brother’s death and said, "Maybe you should think about your brother
when you’re killing babies in there."  DeLorme is still incredulous.
"There was no compassion in her voice. She just dug in. She obviously
waited for the anniversary so this was premeditated and it really set
me off."

Counselor Katherine Wilgruber came to the AWC as a 19-year-old
volunteer. "The first thing I heard was, ‘You’re a traitor to your
generation." At the time, Wilgruber says that she was totally unaware
of anti-abortion tactics. "I was floored that they would reach out and
touch patients. Before this, I had no idea people were harassing women.
I was horrified."

But like others at the AWC, the presence of the anti-abortionists has
cemented Wilgruber’s belief in the efficacy of choice and has
intensified her commitment to women needing reproductive health care.
Boulanger calls it upholding women’s human rights.

Heads nod as AWC Assistant Director Sara Faisetty sums what others are
feeling. "I have two kids so know that motherhood is the hardest job in
the universe. If someone is not ready to be a mother she should have an
abortion or put the baby up for adoption. This is not a dental office.
The women who come here are dealing with a huge, life altering decision
and to be bombarded by people calling them names and misinforming them,
fuels my fire. When they scream at me it has the effect of making me
more invested in what I do, in choice."

While all concede that time spent dealing with the antis would be
better spent caring for patients, to a one they are resolute: Neither
John Dunkle nor the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants will change their
decision to provide reproductive health services to the women who need

Patients’ and their supporters’ names were changed at their request.

THE AWC has had a Pledge a Picketer program. People can contribute by sending checks to 1409 Union Blvd., Allentown, PA 18109.

There is presently legislation pending to make it a criminal offense to
insert someone else’s phone number into a caller ID. Contact your
legislators about the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009.