McCullen v. Coakley not about protest, but a chance to offer real alternatives

On Wednesday Jan. 15, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for the case McCullen v. Coakley. At issue is the tension between the protected First Amendment right to speech on a public sidewalk and access to abortion facilities. Seven petitioners, among whom I am one, assert that the 35 foot buffer zone, as imposed by a 2007 Massachusetts law, prohibits our efforts to offer sincere counsel and real tangible alternatives to the women, and men, in need.

Arguments that day were rapid and wide ranging. Nearly midway through the proceedings, the following startling exchange occurred:

Ms. Miller: (Counsel defending the position of the respondent Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley): "I -- I think, Your Honor, that no one is guaranteed any specific form of communication...So, there is no guarantee, as a doctrinal matter, to close, quiet conversations."

Justice Kennedy: "Do you want me to write an opinion and say there's no free speech right to quietly converse on an issue of public importance?"

We brought this First Amendment suit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts not as a matter of protest, nor as a matter of congestion; rather, we exclaim, as a people of faith, as Americans, as a people of love, that there is real help, real alternatives, available.

About an hour later, speaking to an assemblage of reporters, the lead petitioner Eleanor McCullen responded to reporters:

"Well, this is America, thank God. And we have First Amendment rights, which mean gently speaking to someone, offering hope, help, and love. I should be able to do that. We are not in China or any other country where you are impeded. So, this is America, and I'm proud of it. And I offer my help. Anyone who doesn't want my help, they say no thank you and keep walking, that's fine. But people stop, they say, uhhh, somebody cares...I empower women....everything worth while, fighting for, is worth it. A human life, new birth, that is a challenge worth sacrificing for."

Eleanor McCullen, the other petitioners, and all pro-life counselors, in a personal and extraordinary way, offer hope, help, and love to the women seeking abortions. They encourage and strengthen the men who might accompany them. They speak for the baby, the child in the womb.

It was about 10 years ago that I met Eleanor, and very soon thereafter she persuaded me to join her, in prayer, outside Planned Parenthood in Boston. If you have ever been to or prayed outside an abortion clinic you might understand -- I could not believe what I was seeing. While I prayed a woman with a child would enter; while I prayed that same woman would exit...alone. This happened again and again. How can this be? How is this legal? What can I do? I prayed even more.

I suspect that there are few more challenging and sorrowful places than outside an abortion clinic. Women filled with fear and heartache, men anxious with regret, children in danger of death. Sorrow abounds. I kept returning to this place, not to protest, but to bring hope to a place of such darkness.

You see, there is another constant outside these clinics -- men and women with hearts overflowing with dedication, passion, faith, and love. For 41 years faithful men and women have stood in the cold, in the rain, in the heat, in the snow to proclaim and to promote the beauty and the goodness of life. They have stood and have spoken in order to bring, here and now, the tenderness and love of God to persons in desperate need of that gentle voice -- the voice of Christ. ...Consider joining us.

The night before the arguments about 20 of us gathered for Mass. I offered the Mass for the victims of abortion, for the women contemplating abortion, for the men and women suffering from abortion, for an end to abortion.

Justice Scalia announced during the arguments that we are not protestors, but counselors. He is right. We are not protesting abortion, evil though it is. We are announcing with love, compassion, help, and prayer that every life is precious, that every life has worth.

As Catholics, I and we, can and should proclaim proudly our belief. The value of every person is not a function of youth or age, of health or sickness, of development or maturity, of wealth or poverty, of charm, of intelligence, of appearance...every person has value because every person is loved, by God and by all of us.

We prayed that night for the justices, for the case, for the country, with confidence. God hears our prayers, and yours; God answers our prayers and yours. He is not the God of death; He is the God of life.

Father Eric Cadin is parochial vicar at St. Michael Parish in North Andover and a plaintiff in the case McCullen v. Coakley, recently heard by the Supreme Court.