Charleston parking lot turns into symbolic abortion battlefield on Saturdays
As the sun and moon battled for dominance in Charleston’s sky Saturday morning, two groups of people stood on opposite sides of a yellow line.
Bills sponsored by S.C. Sens. Bright and Bryant:S 83: “Personhood Act of South Carolina” would give fetuses equal rights under the state’s constitution.S 87: “Life beginning at conception act” would also give fetuses equal rights under the state’s constitution.S 204: Would require additional certifications in obstetrics and gynecology among physicians performing abortions.
One group stood ready to meet the women who drove into the parking lot of Charleston Women’s Center, where abortions are performed. The group called to the women as they parked in the lot, with pleas such as “Adoption, not abortion.”
By the numbers
South Carolinians who received abortions:2011: 10,1172010: 11,4412009: 11,6562008: 10,917Source: DHEC
Across the lot, Ron Kaz, a 59-year-old volunteer for the center, went about a much different mission. Wearing a red volunteer vest, he opened the front door as each woman entered. Most of the women’s gazes remained on that door, shutting out or ignoring the pleas heard from across the lot.
The pavement in front of the clinic building has been a symbolic battlefield for the protectors of life and choice, a debate that at times has become violent and threatening at the small strip of space along Ashley River Road.
In 2010, a doctor was accused of flashing a gun at protesters, and last month, a former volunteer of the clinic was accused of bumping a protester with his car. Over the years, protesters have been accused of blocking the clinic’s driveway, and police have responded to the clinic nearly two dozen times since 2009.
It’s all part of a national tug-of-war that has raged since Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in America 40 years ago. It’s a battle that’s been fought in courtrooms, in parking lots like this and in the halls of government. Right now in Columbia, some lawmakers and pro-abortion rights advocates are currently tangling over proposed legislation that could limit women’s access to abortions in South Carolina.
The protesters began gathering at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. It started with a small group of four people carrying similar signs. By 8:30 a.m., those protesters were joined by at least a dozen others.
They were people like Kenneth Collins, of Brunson who left his home in rural South Carolina at 4:45 a.m. to arrive at the clinic before it opened at 7 a.m. His voice carried a soft tone as he said to a woman walking into the clinic: “Jesus has a better way than killing your baby.”
She didn’t look his way as Kaz grabbed the door knob and ushered her inside.
When women weren’t entering the clinic, Kaz would, at times, lean against his car, parked next to the entrance of the parking lot. He’d stare out toward the small crowd gathered almost at arms length away. Many of these men and women spend almost every Saturday morning outside the clinic.
William Edward Gasque, 81, of Charleston, is one of those faithful. He has spent the past 10 years of his Saturday mornings outside the women’s center, most of the time wearing a sign around his neck that reads “God loves you and your baby.”
Baby rattles are attached to the poster. He’s worn it so long that the edges have beveled over time. Every now and then, Gasque said, he hollers to the women who walk into the clinic “promoting the sanctity of life.”
Gasque was the protester that was struck by a car on a recent morning.
Yet that didn’t keep him from coming out this Saturday. At times, he would walk up to the cars as they entered or exited the lot and extended his hand filled with anti-abortion literature.
Gasque said he’s sympathetic to the women who are there to receive abortions. “I try not to be harsh or ugly,” he said.
Gasque said he is determined to reach the women on a spiritual level. Sometimes, he will yell out “Don’t kill your baby” in a hopeful attempt to get the women to change their minds, he said. “That is harsh, but that is essential,” Gasque said. “That’s what this business (abortion) is all about.”
Kaz, the volunteer, is as passionate in his mission as Gasque, but from the opposing point of view. He has been volunteering to escort women to and from the clinic for the past 20 years, and he believes it’s his duty to shield women from people like Gasque.
“It’s incredibly unbelievable that people are harassing women trying to get medical care,” Kaz said. “Not all the women entering the clinic are having abortions performed,” said Kaz, who noted that the clinic offers a variety of women’s health care.
Representatives with the Charleston Women’s Center said they could not comment on anything. But Kaz said on Saturdays, many of the women entering the clinic are there for abortion procedures. Charleston Women’s Center is one of three in the state that performs them.
“The women coming in are typically incredibly stressed to start with having made a hard decision and coming in for a medical procedure,” said Kaz, who isn’t happy about some of the protesters’ actions. Kaz said not all of the protesters yell or are obtrusive, though. Most of the participants in the “40 days for Life” vigil group hand out literature and pray in front of the clinic, he said.
“The one thing you don’t want them to do is think you’re judging them. You just want to help them,” said Donna Barber, the group’s prayer vigil coordinator. They’ll begin their 40-day prayer vigil in front of the clinic starting again on Feb. 17.
“Some of them come quietly, and I don’t have a problem with that, and others are loud. I don’t deny their right to believe what they believe,” Kaz said. “What I have a problem with is the insistence that everybody else live by their religious standards.”
Womens’ reaction to the prayers or protests varies, according to Kaz. “Some of them are angry and yell back. Some of them are clearly intimidated. Some of them are able to ignore it.”
Gasque, a soft spoken veteran and retired engineer, walked along the driveway entrance of the clinic on Saturday. He was standing on the edge of the adjacent driveway on Jan. 12 when Larry Carter Center, who has escorted women into the clinic in the past as a volunteer, approached him with his vehicle, Gasque said. He didn’t move and Center kept inching forward until he brushed Gasque out of the way with his vehicle.
Gasque said he didn’t move because he wasn’t in error standing there. “He was trying to intimidate me and it didn’t work,” he said. Center was charged with simple assault by Charleston police.
The incident was posted on YouTube, recorded by a “40 days for life” participant, Tim Cox, who said protesters have been harassed by Center for several years.
Center said he is no longer a volunteer for the clinic and said he was there that day dropping off an item for a volunteer. He told The Post and Courier he angled his car in the direction of Gasque because he didn’t want his license plate number videotaped.
It’s not Center’s first time of being accused of a confrontation with protesters. “I’ve been arrested many times,” Center said.
He’s been convicted three times of simple assault from incidents outside the clinic. On May 5, 2009, Center was accused of kicking the sign of a protester. Center is currently appealing that case, according to municipal court records.
On July 30, 2011, Center was accused of bumping the leg of a protester with a lawn mower. Center submitted an Alford plea, which means he acknowledged there was likely enough evidence to convict him if the case had gone to trial. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail but suspended the sentence, according to court records.
On Saturday morning, tensions rose when Center pulled into the parking lot across the street from the clinic around 7:45 a.m.
“Everybody stay clear,” one protester yelled out.
Center had just pleaded guilty on Friday to simple assault in the case involving Gasque. He parked his car and briefly argued with a protester while speaking to a Post and Courier reporter but then left without incident.
While a handful of incidents have included Center, Charleston police officers have responded to the clinic in the past four years involving other problems. Twenty-one incidents have been reported involving the Charleston Women’s Center since 2009. Those include allegations of simple assaults, obscene or harassing phone calls, intimidations and trespassing. They also included several reports of protesters blocking the driveway.
On Oct. 2, 2010, Gary Clayton Boyle, a Blountville, Tenn., physician, was charged with pointing a firearm. Boyle was approached by three protesters as he entered the clinic when he brandished a black handgun, according to police.
On June 29, Boyle pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and was ordered to pay a $100 fine.
More than 100 miles away, a similar battle brews among lawmakers and Planned Parenthood advocates, who have been on opposite sides of a handful of bills each year seeking to limit access to abortions, according to Sloane Whalen, Planned Parenthood and Health Systems director of public affairs for South Carolina.
Currently, there are four pieces of legislation that relate to abortion and women’s access to it. Two bills propose granting state constitutional rights to fetuses. State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, and Sen. Kevin L. Bryant, R-Anderson, are sponsoring the Senate bills, 83 and 87, which Bryant refers to as “personhood bills.”
Bryant said the bills would be very large steps in the direction of his ultimate goal, dissolving women’s access to abortions in South Carolina.
“It’s a very tender, delicate debate because you’ve got a mother who is obviously in a desperate situation. My heart goes out to the mother. But you have another person, you have a child, that has rights,” Bryant said.
Bryant said he wants people to realize a fetus is a separate individual that needs protection. Whalen called the bills “unproductive.”
“Abortion is such a private personal decision that women make and just like any other medical decision, perfect strangers or politicians are not involved in that decision-making process, and they shouldn’t be because it’s a personal decision,” she said.
Instead, Whalen said she’d like lawmakers to focus on providing women better access to reproductive health care in order to help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Both bills are currently being considered by the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
The number of abortions in South Carolina in recent years has topped 10,000 a year.
In 2011, women in South Carolina had 10,117 abortions, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The number of abortions has decreased by 1,539 abortions between 2009 and 2011, records state. Those numbers include residents who leave the state to get abortions.
Outside the Charleston Women’s Center, as long as women are getting abortions, people will continue making pleas outside its doors in hopes of changing minds.
Cheryle Freiberger, of Charleston, who stood outside the clinic on Saturday, said she wished someone would have convinced her not to abort her baby in 1974. “I regret my abortion,” read the words on Freiberger’s sign that she carried on Saturday.
It’s a choice, though, and Kaz said he believes the women he opens the door for every week have a right to make that decision alone and in private.
This Saturday, Kaz plans to be back out there. So do protesters like Gasque. Each of them will likely take their places again on either side of the yellow line in the clinic’s parking lot as protectors of their cause.Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.