40 Days for Life: Spiritual sentinels outside abortion clinic 'do what we can'
FARGO -- They come by the dozens to stand outside the white brick building in downtown Fargo.
They clutch rosary beads and signs, and they sing and pray together. Each of them holds two thoughts: a deep certainty that they're on the right side of a "spiritual battle," and an enduring hope that their signs and prayers may help one woman reconsider getting an abortion.
They come from across the region by bus, by car and on foot to take their place in front of the Red River Women's Clinic, foot soldiers on the front lines of a spiritual battle.
And some feel like they're losing ground.
"Mother Teresa said that we are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful," said Lila Harmsen, a retired Valley City resident who has made the one-hour drive to stand outside the clinic and pray every single Wednesday for the past several years.
Protesters are a common sight outside the facility, which is the only clinic in North Dakota that performs abortions. But quiet groups of activists -- or an outpost of just one or two of them at times during the wee hours -- will stand there around the clock as part of 40 Days for Life, an annual vigil outside abortion clinics nationwide.
From Sept. 25 through Nov. 3, hundreds of protesters will come and go outside the Fargo clinic, protesting for hours because they feel they must.
"We do what we can," Harmsen said.
It's midnight, and four protesters have been in front of the clinic an hour.
"Somebody's got to be here," Glen Krogman says.
Starting early Wednesday, then continuing throughout the day and into the night, a reporter periodically stopped at the clinic to observe and interview protesters.
Krogman is part of the local Knights of Columbus council, which signed up with 40 Days for Life to take the shift from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. They rotate throughout the morning in one- or two-hour shifts. Like many of the hundreds who will eventually stand on this stretch of sidewalk over the 40 days, Krogman says he's here because of his Catholic faith.
That's true for Robert Roberts, another member of the Knights of Columbus who takes over for Krogman and the three others shortly after midnight. Roberts, a Moorhead, Minn., resident, signed up to take four hours a week at the clinic -- two on Wednesday mornings and another two on Saturday mornings.
He was a senior in high school in 1973, the year of the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion. Roe v. Wade established that an abortion is legal until the unborn reaches viability outside the womb -- at about 22 weeks.
Roberts felt numb when that decision came down. He says he thinks the rest of the nation did, too. When the feeling came back, Roberts says he was sure something would change. Some new laws restricting abortion would be passed and upheld by the court.
"I thought it would have been gone by now," he says of the impact of the court's decision. "I thought it was just a bad dream."
But 40 years later, Roberts says he feels little has changed.
He laments that governments provide funding to Planned Parenthood, the national chain of reproductive health service clinics that provide screening for sexually transmitted diseases and contraception in addition to performing abortions.
Sometimes it feels like a losing battle, he says. He calls it "disheartening."
"But maybe," Roberts says before a long pause. "But maybe you can convince people."
A clinic on the ropes
Support for legalized abortion has dropped since the mid-'90s, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, but a majority of Americans -- 54 percent -- still believe it should be legal in all or most cases. In polls conducted in July in Midwestern states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, the debate was evenly split at 47 percent.
The Red River Women's Clinic is feeling the pressure, too. Signs are taped up on their façade, behind Roberts, that say "This clinic stays open" and "Pray to end sidewalk bullying." The protests often get more intense Wednesday, the day abortions are usually performed there, though they were moved to Tuesday last week.
The North Dakota Legislature passed several new abortion restriction laws last session, including two that Red River Women's Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker previously said would force the facility to close if they went into effect. Those two laws -- one that would ban abortions at the first detection of a fetal heartbeat, generally at six weeks, and another that would require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital -- are on hold as legal challenges unfold in the courts.
As Roberts' first hour outside the clinic draws to a close, he starts to get some feedback. First, a man stumbles out of JL Beers and into the middle of First Avenue before he spins around to tell Roberts he's not alone.
Soon after, a man and woman make a beeline for Roberts and ask what he's doing standing outside the clinic this time of night. Both are visibly drunk.
"Mostly I just hope that somebody thinks twice" before getting an abortion, Roberts says quietly, his eyes drawn to his feet.
The woman laughs off his response and walks away.
Roberts says he's not sure how he feels about the exceptions for abortions that some abortion opponents have supported over the years, like in the case of incest or rape.
"I don't know. I'm an engineer and a surveyor," Roberts says. "To me, it's just killing, and that seems wrong."
'Just one a year'
Delores Cook says she's "standing up for the unborn" just as the sun begins to creep up, at 7:18 a.m.
Like Roberts, Cook remembers Roe v. Wade well. That's what turned her on to the abortion issue in the first place.
"I'm ashamed to say I wasn't paying attention," she says, with her white rosary beads wrapped around her fingers. "It happened, and a lot of people were sleeping."
She's made it a point to be visible ever since, coming down to the clinic a few times a year during 40 Days for Life and donating money to pro-life organizations. She hopes her presence will plant a seed, but her top goal is to persuade a woman heading into the clinic to forgo an abortion.
"If it can be just one a year, then it's worth it. It's a life saved," she says.
'Pray for us sinners'
Faith is a near-constant element of the demonstrations, but each protester has his or her own story that reinforces the strong belief that abortion is wrong and must be stopped.
Men and women with friends who they say are still haunted by their decision. There's a woman who cries as she talks about her two adopted children -- she couldn't have her own. She says she can't bear to see anyone give away something she was praying for.
At nearly 11 a.m., a group of 20 or so new protesters arrive outside the clinic.
Leah Mahlen and Jessica Umlauf drove here with a group of co-workers from the Women's Pregnancy Center in Grand Forks, a faith-based organization that counsels pregnant women to consider alternatives to abortion.
Nearby, a group of women are holding a 40 Days for Life banner and praying aloud. Each time a passer-by walks past, they start over: "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners ..."
Though two of the laws passed in Bismarck this year are on hold, Mahlen says it's encouraging to her that North Dakota lawmakers tried to further restrict abortion.
"If this is the only abortion clinic in North Dakota, there's a chance that it doesn't have to be here," Umlauf says.
A sliver of doubt
"We're not throwing stones, we're not blowing it up. We're doing it the right way," 74-year-old retiree Al Brandt says just after 1 p.m.
Because the clinic is not running today, passers-by are few and far between. The kind of conflict you might expect on such a heated issue never happens. The most interaction the protesters have is with a man walking a baby piglet on a leash, who fields questions about his pet.
Brandt drove from Wahpeton, to spend a few hours outside the clinic. For a minute, he expresses a sliver of doubt that he's on the right side of a debate that has consumed him for 40 years. How does God allow abortion in the first place, he asks himself.
Free will, he answers.
Brandt says it gives him peace of mind that North Dakota legislators are on the same page with him on abortion. But he says it's unbelievable that federal lawmakers haven't stepped in to try to ban abortion nationwide again.
"I know it seems like an impossible task to change it," Brandt says. "You keep knockin' at that door."
Just another Wednesday
It's nearly 7 p.m., and Harmsen has been in Fargo for 10 hours.
She has been making the hourlong drive from Valley City to the Red River Women's Clinic for longer than she can count. In that time, she says she's persuaded a few women to reconsider getting an abortion.
"It's a wonderful feeling. You know that baby will go home," she says.
Harmsen joins in with a group of more than 30 children who walk off a school bus and crowd onto the sidewalk as their priest leads them in prayer. They say a prayer for women who are considering abortions. They say another for women who have had an abortion.
Harmsen comes here week after week to counsel women on their options, she says. She doesn't want women to do something they may later regret, though she acknowledges some women may not regret that decision.
Harmsen glances at the clinic's "Pray to end sidewalk bullying" poster.
"It isn't like that," she says. "We wouldn't get anywhere doing that."