NEWS- Picket payday: Planned Parenthood one-ups protesters

"Save the baby," call the protesters in front of Planned Parenthood to a woman arriving in the center's Hydraulic Road parking lot. "We're praying for you!" they shout, and several make the sign of the cross. 

It's 10am, warm and sunny, on Thursday, February 22, and a group of nearly two dozen men, women, and children have gathered on the sidewalk to make a statement. These members of various area Catholic churches don't carry the graphic posters that accompany some anti-abortion demonstrations. In fact, they say they're not here to protest abortion, but are instead holding a prayer vigil for the "sanctity of life."

Holding a nearly six-foot-tall painting of the Virgin Mary, they're hoping for a "conversion from the culture of death to the culture of life." Unwittingly, however, they're also helping raise money for the cause they oppose.

As two women emerge from the clinic carrying a large wooden sign, the vigil suddenly breaks up. Protesters quickly fold the Virgin Mary painting, and at least 15 of the 21 disperse, heading down the sidewalk away from the clinic as Planned Parenthood employee Becky Reid begins her speech.

"Good morning," Reid begins loudly. "I'd like to tell you about our program called Pledge-A-Picket."

The program is in its seventh year, Reid explains. Supporters of Planned Parenthood have pledged to donate a dollar for every picketer who shows up on any given day. Many Planned Parenthoods across the country are now using this tactic, and since it began locally in 2001, Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge has raised more than $100,000 as a direct result of protesters, Reid says.

All over America, abortion clinics are confronted with demonstrations outside their front doors. While many  protests are peaceful and are protected speech under the First Amendment, there have been numerous cases in which abortion clinics and doctors have been targets of violence. Here in Charlottesville, a local man was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital in late December after he left a message threatening to unleash his AK-47 on this same Planned Parenthood clinic.

Reid says Planned Parenthood respects the right of free speech but says she wants the clinic to be a "welcoming environment." Pledge-A-Picket seems to be working. Most of this day's protesters prepare to leave before Reid finishes her speech.

"So thank you," Reid concludes to the now smaller crowd, "for helping raise money for women who are in need of any of the healthcare services offered at Planned Parenthood."

 "Does it help the women who die?" calls out Mary Ann Heerschap, here with four of her six children. "Planned Parenthood makes so much money," Heerschap adds quietly. "I'm not sure they need the extra money except to fight lawsuits for botched abortions."

Also remaining is Mike Smith of Greene County. He admits his fellow protesters left because "We didn't want them to get a lot of pledge dollars." (In fact, Reid says, she counts protesters before she brings the sign out.) 

Reid says the presence of the protesters is "upsetting" to the clinic's patients, who must drive past them to get into the parking lot. Pledge-A-Picket is an effective tactic, she says. "It deters them from coming back week after week."

John Whitehead, founder of the free speech/religious freedom nonprofit the Rutherford Institute, says Pledge-A-Picket is a "psychological game," but he hopes protesters won't stop picketing just because they're helping to raise money. "If the picketers are leaving," Whitehead says, "I'd say shame on them." Planned Parenthood is already well-funded, he says, and the right to exercise free speech on any issue is worth "millions."

"What's more important," Whitehead asks, "the right to be out there or $20?" 

Despite the partial exodus, Smith insists the Pledge-a-Picket plan won't keep abortion foes from their mission. "We will continue to bear loving witness," says Smith, adding that the group is praying for the patients as well as the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who staff the clinic.

When Reid asks the group why, if they are opposed to abortion, they don't support any of the reproductive healthcare services Planned Parenthood provides to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, Smith has a ready comment.

"The whole problem boils down to birth control," he says, which led to "so-called free sex" since it became readily available in the 1950s. "There's nothing free about it," Smith adds. Until families return to natural birth control, also known as the "rhythm method"– which Heerschap says allowed her to space her six children as she wished– the "culture of death" will remain, he says.

Heerschap says there's never an excuse for abortion, and points out one of her fellow protesters who's accompanied by her six adopted children. "We give these children homes," Heerschap says. "These babies will grow up to be great."

Reid stresses that Planned Parenthood is always willing to help a woman through an unwanted pregnancy, and the organization supports the idea of adoption– but it shouldn't be a woman's only choice.

"Outlawing abortions does not stop it," she says. "It just subverts it to an underground market where it's neither safe nor accessible to poor women."

Mary Ann Heerschap with four of her six children, from left, Maria, Jozef, Seth, and Peter.

The group of protesters holds a massive painting of the Virgin Mary for a "prayer vigil" outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Hydraulic Road. "She's the patron saint of the Americas," says Mary Ann Heerschap.

Planned Parenthood's Becky Reid adds to the Pledge-A-Picket thermometer. Since 2001, the organization has raised more than $100,000 through the creative fund-raiser, she says.