Fighting against abortion in pro-choice Ithaca
By Emily Stoner
They wake up early on Saturday mornings, long before their classmates who are still passed out from drinking and partying the night before. They spend hours standing on the sidewalk in the Ithaca cold, singing and praying. The feedback they get from passers-by generally consists of middle fingers and dirty looks. And they acknowledge that they will never know whether their protests are effective.
“It’s really a testament of faith to get up early, go out in the cold, for results you’re never going to see probably,” said Shea Hasenauer, a sophomore industrial and labor relations major at Cornell University. “And even if you do succeed, if a child is saved, you’ll probably never meet that child.”
Hasenauer is a member of the Cornell Coalition for Life, a club that, according to its website, is “dedicated to protecting all life, but specifically that of unborn humans, from the threats of abortion and infanticide.” The college club is affiliated with 40 Days for Life, which, according to Casey Martinson, director of public affairs at the Ithaca Planned Parenthood, “is an anti-choice movement that does twice-a-year protests in front of Planned Parenthood health centers across the country.”
Between Sept. 22 and Oct. 31, the pro-life group 40 Days for Life had set weekly prayer vigils from 10 a.m. to noon every Saturday outside Planned Parenthood on West State Street. Protests also occurred at other times throughout the week. Protesters carried signs, sang songs, prayed and gave informational pamphlets to women entering the health clinic. There were generally between four and 20 protesters in attendance each day.
According to Martinson, most of the were students from Cornell, though there were several community members who showed up weekly. At a large and diverse university like Cornell, dissenting views on abortion politics are bound to emerge. In contrast, the smaller and more homogeneously liberal Ithaca College does not have any pro-choice or pro-life groups on campus.
“Especially in a place like Ithaca, before we started doing this there were probably very few if any pro-life activities that were really publicized at all,” said Sam Pell, a sophomore chemistry and classics major at Cornell, member of the Cornell Coalition for Life and Hasenauer’s roommate. “People get these pre-conceived notions about pro-lifers, like they’re out to take women’s rights away. When they see us peacefully standing there, that also makes them think, ‘Oh, okay, they’re not the religious fanatics we thought they were.’”
Because of these pre-conceived notions and the area’s liberal, pro-choice bias, the pro-life message of 40 Days for Life was difficult to get across in Ithaca. Furthermore, Hasenauer said he feels many people are allied with neither the pro-choice nor pro-life side and rarely give abortion much thought. He has dubbed our generation “the generation of indifference” and said he looked forward to any response, positive or negative, from onlookers.
“We like reaction, no matter what kind of reaction it is,” said Maria Magaldi, a sophomore animal science major at Cornell and member of the Cornell Coalition for Life. “It shows you’re making people think about what you’re doing. Even if they’re not immediately agreeing with you, you’re making a difference.”
But beyond middle finger salutes from passing cars secure in their steel and glass bravery, protesters were often disappointed and forced to settle with indifference.
“A lot of the patients we have coming in here just ignore them,” Martinson said. “I’ve seen examples where women are coming into the health center and they get a pamphlet, and they just are exasperated because they’re here to get birth control and prevent an unintended pregnancy; and yet there are these protesters here that are trying to intimidate or scare them away from doing that.”
Some pro-life activists are also against contraception, seeing it as ineffective and trivializing to the true significance and responsibility of sexual intercourse.
“We actually feel that contraceptives would increase the number of abortions because they allow people to see sex as just a matter of pleasure, not as something that every time you do it involves a level of responsibility,” Pell said.
Hasenauer added, “It gives people this false right where they say, ‘I can partake in sex whenever I want. I have a right to sex without responsibility.’ And that’s the problem.”
Pell and Hasenauer believe that reducing contraceptive options and stopping comprehensive sexuality education would bring about a reduction in unwanted pregnancies and thus abortion.
In contrast, according to Martinson, “If the people who are protesting abortion were really concerned about women and families, they would be helping us secure funding for preventative health services, for the family planning and the contraceptive use and things like that, comprehensive sexuality education, which generally they are opposed to. The number one organization helping to prevent unintended pregnancies, and therefore helping to prevent abortion, is Planned Parenthood.”
Although Pell and Hasenauer do not support contraceptive use and comprehensive sexuality education like Planned Parenthood, they also do not believe that the prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling of 40 Days for Life are the most effective ways of ending abortion.
“Your hands are tied behind your back,” Hasenauer said. “40 Days for Life is a defensive measure. You’re standing outside the place, knowing legally that you can do nothing, and just hoping and praying and begging that innocent lives will be spared. So in that respect, there’s no offensive nature with regards to legislation. For the legislation to change, for pre-born rights to be restored, there needs to be a cultural change.”
Until this profound cultural shift happens, Hasenauer is convinced abortion will remain legal. However, that will in no way persuade him to take up the more violent methods that protesters have meted out to Planned Parenthoods nationwide, like bomb threats and assassinations.
“If Martin Luther King had resorted to violence, [the Civil Rights Movement] never would have gotten to its destination,” Hasenauer said. “It would have fallen down. … It’s kind of counterintuitive. It’s life or death, but it has to be through peaceful means, or you’re going to do more harm than good.”
Fellow protester and community member Nate Gilbert agreed. “Me being here, being peaceful, being prayerful, doesn’t inhibit anybody from making a choice they want to make. But, it sends a message to someone that we’re not willing to let injustice occur in our own neighborhood.”
Despite his less-than-optimistic views about the potency of Planned Parenthood protesting, Hasenauer remains committed to his organization’s sidewalk vigils and the pro-life cause. As a devoted Catholic, he is convinced life begins at conception and that “pre-born rights” should rank among other social justice movements like the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“I can’t think of anything more worth my time, even though none of the rewards are tangible,” Hasenauer said. “This is today’s Martin Luther King. This is today’s Civil Rights Movement. This is what I need to do.”
Emily Stoner is a senior journalism major who thinks protesting is a choice, too. E-mail her at email@example.com.