When I came into Pro-Life Action Ministry’s building, it felt a lot like stepping into the Lutheran church in the small town where I grew up. I sat down at a table where Debra Braun and her coworker Joan Appleton were folding informational brochures and told them a little about myself and NSU. I had originally planned on interviewing just Deb, but she explained that they were short-staffed that day and had to be doing some busy work during the interview, which was more than okay, because Joan got to chime in halfway through (her timing in speaking up is kind of humorous) with some really poignant things to share. I realize this is a bit of a long read, but it’s worth it.
I saw a term on your website — sidewalk counseling — can you explain what that is?
DB: Sure. Basically, that’s a term that our organization coined in 1981 when we started this ministry. And, basically, we decided to go out to — I started here in ’86 but the organization has been around since ’81. And it’s just a last minute intervention to try and offer a woman help and the love of Christ on her way into the abortion clinic — one last chance to rescue her and her baby from an abortion. And because we have to do it on the public sidewalk of the abortion clinic, that’s why it’s called sidewalk counseling, as opposed to counseling in a pregnancy center.
I know you just mentioned it, but you’ve been doing this for how long now?
DB: Well I’ve been sidewalk counseling for about 28 years, but, out at Meadowbrook, it’s been about 10 years. But there are six abortion centers in the Twin Cities, so we try to have volunteers and staff out at all the places at least when the women are going in.
How do you know when that is?
DB: Well, just from our experience in 30 years of ministry, we’ve gotten to know pretty much the schedules of the various abortion clinics, and then we’re sometimes there also when the women are leaving after the abortion if we have enough volunteers, but, just from experience, we know the days are different when they are doing abortions and when they’re not doing abortions, because they have more staff when they are, we see women going in with a friend or with a boyfriend or with their parents. If it’s a birth control day, typically the women just go in by themselves and they’re only there for, I don’t know, twenty minutes, whereas on abortion days they’ll be there for three or four hours.
Oh, okay. I saw on the website how many abortions this ministry has stopped (over 2,500), but do you know how many you personally have stopped?
DB: People have asked me that before — I’ve never actually kept track. Um… gosh. Probably close to 200? I don’t know. Now after doing this 30 years, I wish I had kept track [laughs]. I mean, I suppose I could go back in our records, because we document the babies saved…
Joan: But that would take forever.
DB: I know [laughs]; it would take a long time. That’s why I’ve never done it.
Why did you start doing this?
DB: When I was a teenager, I saw a program on abortion, and I saw the pictures of what happens to a baby in an abortion, and it really affected me and made me want to get involved. And then when I was in my senior year of college — I was going to school in Moorhead — an abortion clinic opened up in Fargo. So I went out there with the priest from my college church and several others and we prayed, and then I started going out there and just holding a sign of an eight-week developing baby. And then after that, I worked for National Right to Life, which is all good — the education and the legislation against abortion — but I really wanted to do the direct action work: actually talking to the women. So I moved back to the Midwest and got a job here. I mean, we do some education here and a little bit of legislative work, but other organizations focus on that more. We’re focusing on actually being out there at the clinics praying and talking alternatives.
So is this a volunteer position or is it paid?
DB: I am paid — we have a small staff and many volunteers.
Are you funded by the church you rent this building from then?
DB: No, we rent from this church, but we’re an interdenominational organization and our funds come just from people who support us — individuals.
Ok. So what keeps you going now? Why do you keep doing this?
DB: Well there’s certainly the joy of seeing a baby saved. When we’re able to talk a woman out of an abortion and she has her baby, it’s wonderful to see that baby, but, even moreso for me, it’s seeing the joy of the mother. I should show you a picture here. This little baby was saved from Meadowbrook, and her mother stopped by when she was a couple months old, and it was actually on a Good Friday when she stopped by, and we had been out all day at Planned Parenthood for our vigil. But anyway, she said to me, “Thank you for saving my baby’s life,” and she was just so happy, and actually, there’s another picture here, when this baby was a newborn — we had met his mother out of the abortion clinic too — and she changed her mind. And when he was born, she called me and asked me over to visit him, and she was in the bedroom holding her baby, and she said to him, “Say hello to your savior.”
DB: I know [laughs], “Hi, I saved your life — you’ll meet another savior later on in life I hope.” But to hear someone say that about you, it’s very rewarding. It can get tough out there, you know, when the weather’s bad or we get harassment from passersby, but when a baby is saved that makes it all worth it.
Yeah, that’s part of why I noticed you guys — I’ve been a parking lot attendant for the Wild’s hockey games, so I know some of those days are just awful to stand out there for even just a couple hours.
DB: Oh, ok. Yeah, you have to be really motivated to put up with that.
Yeah. You started talking about my next question — what are the typical reactions you get from people out there?
DB: I would say the most common reaction is just ignoring us. Some get upset, and we just had a study released recently that was done — I think it was commissioned by abortion providers to see what sort of reaction the protesters have on — they call us protesters, but we’re not really. We’re sidewalk counselors. We’re not out there so much to protest abortion as we are to counsel the women. But they said the women who reacted most negatively were those who were having the hardest time making the decision about the abortion. So if a woman reacts strongly to us, we know that her conscience is probably bothering her and there’s a possibility that we can save her baby’s life. And that’s what happens sometimes — the women who are the most emotional towards us end up changing their minds. And then there are others who very gratefully take the literature and are actually looking for a way out. Some of them have actually told us, “I was praying to God last night for a sign if he wanted me to do this or not, and this is it. You’re my sign.” So yeah, the reactions of the women vary greatly.
Are there any particular situations that were really hostile that you remember?
DB: Um… I had one incident — it’s kind of interesting because I think being a woman is helpful. I once was out at Planned Parenthood in St. Paul and that’s when there was a Burger King next door — it’s a Dairy Queen now, but…
Joan: Oh, it’s a Dairy Queen now?
DB: Yeah, for years it has been.
DB: Um, and there was a man who dropped off his sister, and I was talking with him in the Burger King lot, which was just around the corner from Planned Parenthood. And he was threatening to hit me or do something to me if I didn’t leave him alone but he just didn’t get in his car and leave, he just kept talking to me, probably trying to justify his sister’s abortion. But I was trying to get him to go back in and take the literature to his sister. He wasn’t going to do that. One of my coworkers was there, also sidewalk counseling. He’s a tall man, pretty imposing, um, but very gentle. He came around the corner because he was concerned about me and what was going on, and as soon as he came up to join us and start talking to the guy, the guy punched him in the stomach. Now, Tim didn’t get hurt, but it was just interesting how he wouldn’t hit me. I mean, I’ve had my glasses knocked off, I’ve had the literature knocked out of my hand, I’ve been spat at, but that doesn’t happen very often. And it’s the same thing about the women’s conscience — even when that stuff happens, I don’t want to stop talking to them, but I do know when I’m in danger. I know when I’m not getting anywhere with my words and it’s probably time to stop. We have called the police when people have tried to harm us, but that’s not typical.
Sure. What about on the other end of things? Any particularly positive reactions?
DB: Well definitely when a baby is saved. And sometimes women will come back, like, years later and thank us for being out there. Just recently one of our volunteer sidewalk counseling couples were out, and that was last spring. And they didn’t expect it to be that cold. It was raining, and I don’t think anyone had even really responded to them. They got in their car and got ready to leave and were saying, “Why did we come out here?” Well then they saw an older woman drive into the Planned Parenthood lot and they offered her literature when she drove in. And when she drove in she sat in the lot for a while, reading it. And then she turned around and came out and held up the literature and said to them, “Thank you so much for being out here. Three years ago my daughter came here for an abortion and she was given this literature and she changed her mind and now I have a 30 month old grandson, and I am so grateful.” And she was in tears.
DB: So things like that do happen.
In your experience, what’s the most common reason women give for wanting an abortion?
DB: Actually, they kind of fall into two categories: those who are poor and feel like they can’t afford the child and those who maybe are in college or just starting their career, so it would require a lifestyle change. And it could be the boyfriend. It might be the boyfriend who doesn’t want to take responsibility for the child, so he’s pushing for her to abort. And I would say that’s very often the case.
Is there a reason that you’re most sympathetic towards, even if you don’t agree with it?
DB: Well I would say the hard cases, which only accounts to about one to three percent of abortions, those are women who were raped, or might be a case of incest, and then also those who might be having medical difficulties with their pregnancy. Many years ago we had a situation where I met a woman outside a clinic who didn’t speak English but her relatives were there who did, and they explained to me that she was married and her husband was in Mexico. And they had an eleven year old daughter I think, but she was here illegally, and when she was crossing the border she was raped by several men. And she got pregnant, and she was afraid that if her husband knew she was pregnant, he wouldn’t believe that she had been raped, and he would not let her see her child ever again. And so she was at Planned Parenthood for an abortion even though she was Catholic and she knew it was wrong. Well we got her away from there for that day and got her to come to our office and talk to one of our counselors who spoke Spanish. And we offered her a place to stay where her husband wouldn’t have to know, she could just stay here in the country and place the baby for adoption if she wanted, and her husband wouldn’t ever have to know she was pregnant. But the pressure just overcame her I think and she ended up at the abortion clinic the next week. When she came out, she was crying already, and she said she knew what she had done was terrible and felt terrible about herself. Even in a situation like that, a very difficult situation, she felt terrible about having an abortion. Not only did it kill the baby, but it harmed her.
Oh wow. So how does a situation like that affect you? Does that rattle you?
DB: When you try and save a baby’s life and you fail, there’s always grief because that child was real. Sidewalk counselors have to deal with that grief that we experience basically every time we go out there. We’re not able to save all those children. We only save one to two percent of them. So we just have to be strong and rely on God and do the best we can. We have to not take it personally and realize that people have free will and will do what they want. Once I was talking to a lady for, like, thirty minutes and she was agreeing with everything I was saying about abortion being wrong, and there being help available, and she didn’t have to do it. But she finally just said, “Well it’s legal; I’m going to do it.”
So are there any compromises you’re ok with? It doesn’t sound like…
DB: No, no, no. I don’t believe in abortion in any case, even in the case of a medical situation. Dr. Nathanson, who was one who founded the abortion movement and helped get it legalized in this country, until he had a change of heart — and he did many abortions, like, thousands — he eventually became pro-life. He realized the humanity of the unborn child, and he became a very strong pro-life spokesperson. But anyway, he had said that with the state of medical technology, there’s really no reason why a woman would have to get an abortion.
Sure. This one is kind of hard to phrase, but are you also not ok with contraception? Or a better way — where do you draw the line and why?
DB: With contraception, well, in every country that has accepted contraception abortion has followed. It changes the nature of sexuality, and women who use contraception are trying to avoid conception, obviously, and so if they do get pregnant, their mindset is, “I was using contraception because I didn’t want to get pregnant, and now that I’m pregnant, I don’t want the baby.” They’re not open to life. Plus, with hormonal contraceptives like the pill, the IUD, the patch, the way the hormones work is that they’re supposed to suppress ovulation, which they do in most cases, but sometimes a child is conceived. So they thin the lining of the uterus so that the newly conceived child cannot implant in the uterus and it causes a very early abortion. They act as abortions. A woman could be having an abortion every year without even knowing it.
So that’s morally wrong in your eyes.
DB: Right, right. Now, I do promote natural family planning, which is basically determining when the woman is fertile and when she’s not. And if the couple wants to conceive, they have intercourse when the woman is fertile and don’t when she’s not. There’s no harm to the woman, there’s no abortion happening, the couple is open to life, they respect each other, they respect how God has made them, and it’s just as effective as the pill. It’s, like, 98 percent effective.
Ok. I’m sure you’re familiar with the whole analogy of comparing abortion to the Holocaust?
Do you think that that’s a just comparison?
DB: Well there’s certainly a difference between the Holocaust and abortion. I know that some Jewish people are offended when people compare abortion to the holocaust. It’s because they consider it something unique that happened to them. But it is a form of — not genocide because it’s not the race of the child — but it’s discrimination against people just because they’re unborn. And it’s on a massive scale. Since 1973, 53 million children have been aborted just in this country alone. And worldwide there are 50 million abortions a year, so the numbers far outweigh any other killing in the world. Not to take away from the massacres that occurred in other places at other times, but definitely, by the numbers, it’s the greatest killing worldwide.
What do you think is the main reason pro-choice people stand where they do? Is it something you could maybe even put in one word?
DB: Um, [laughs] do you want to chime in, Joan?
Joan: [long pause] Number one, I think that they go in with the idea that they’re helping women.
DB: I should explain something — Joan used to be an abortion nurse. And so she used to be on the other side until we became friends and she eventually came out of the business. But she could probably answer that question better than I could.
Joan: I think you’ll find that a lot of the workers are indeed feminists. And, um, during the feminist movement, even back in 1973, what we wanted to do was to have a right that men couldn’t take away from us, and abortion seemed like the most logical. That’s why we marched. And the workers today, most of them are feminists. And there’s definitely a huge number that are homosexuals. The women, I mean. It seems to attract homosexuals.
DB: And I think part of that is just, ultimately, “We’re not going to let anybody tell us what to do. Particularly with our own bodies. Many of them acknowledge that, yes, it’s a human being, but that doesn’t override my rights to do what I want with my body with my life.
Why is it that way? What causes a woman to feel that way?
Joan: You know, it’s a mixed bag. For me, it was my upbringing. I had a very abusive father — extremely abusive. And so I kind of grew up kind of… I never embraced homosexuality, but I, um… I used men for sex. But that’s not true in all cases. In some cases it’s just the environment they’re in that shapes them and molds them, especially in your extremely liberal colleges. Anyone coming out of, oh what’s one of those…
Joan: Yeah. They’re all — every woman coming out of there is an angry woman [laughs].
DB: Here, this is Joan’s autobiography and she explains in there a little more…
Joan: That’s good bathroom reading [laughs].
Yeah, no, that’s very brave of you to share. Do you think a Christian can be pro-choice?
Joan: No. And I have to say — none of us went to church. None of us knew God. I was agnostic.
DB: And you know Jesus said, “For whoever hurts one of these little children it would be better that a millstone be put around his neck and thrown into the sea.” Psalm 139 talks about the child being formed in the womb, and the commandment thou shalt not kill, so…
Mhmm. My next question was going to be for biblical support, so yeah. Have you had any direct interactions with Meadowbrook?
DB: With the workers there?
DB: Yeah. You know it’s hard there because we don’t know who the employees are there, because people from the hospitals and offices park there too. There I can’t say, but at other places we do have interactions with the workers. I was a sidewalk counselor at the clinic that Joan worked at. So we started talking to each other and eventually developed a friendship. So when we get out there we do try to and evangelize the workers. We have to be firm with them and tell them that they’ve got to stop working there, that this is harming them as well as harming the women and the babies. We basically try to get them out of the business.
I mean, how do you even start a conversation like that?
DB: Sometimes we just say, “Why do you work here?” or “Why would you want to work at a place that kills children? Certainly your skills going into the medical profession were to save lives, wouldn’t you rather work in a place that saves lives instead of killing them?”
It seems like they wouldn’t react well to that.
DB: It really varies. Some of them will admit to us, especially the medical technicians, like, “You know, I really don’t want to be working here but I can’t find another job. What am I supposed to do? I have three kids to raise. But if you can help me find a way out, I’d be happy to get out of here.” So we do run across that. Especially with the lower level.
Is that most of them?
DB: No, I wouldn’t say most. But some of them. And again, their reactions vary as much as the women’s do. Some of them are open to talking with us, like Joan was with me, and others won’t give us the time of day.
How did that happen?
Joan: Well, she used to use a megaphone [laughs]. We nicknamed her Megaphone Meggy because we didn’t know her name. I don’t know, I mean, over the years just because she was always there…
So, last question: where do you think the whole issue is going overall?
DB: Actually, I have hope for the future because the young people are becoming more pro-life.
Joan: Yes, exactly.
DB: Every poll shows this in the last few years. I think the reason for that is because of ultrasound. They can see that the baby is a human being in the ultrasound, and the ultrasounds are getting better and better. And the other reason is, in the early years we had such a problem getting our side of the story out. The television programs wouldn’t show pictures of abortions on TV, rarely in a newspaper would they show — I mean, just recently The New York Times showed a picture of an aborted baby found in a dumpster in, I think, Michigan. So we just had such a hard time getting our story out. But the internet has changed all that. We can have our own website and show whatever we want on there. The truth is getting out and the truth will win out. The young people see that. Plus, they know. They’ve lived with abortion for thirty years. They probably know women who’ve had abortions and have suffered from it, they’re own mothers might have. The truth is just getting out there.
How long do you still plan on doing this?
DB: Oh, [laughs] the rest of my life.
Joan: Deb will never retire.
DB: Even if I don’t work here, if I actually retire, I’ll still be volunteering some way or another.
Joan: I am retired.
Haha, alright. Well, I think that’s everything I wanted to ask. If there are other readers who still want to ask questions would it be alright if I just forwarded them to you?
DB: Sure. Absolutely.
Thanks for your time, you both.