Abortion protests draw parents' anger

Demonstrations near Arundel school too graphic, they say

March 19, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

On most Thursday afternoons, she positions herself in the median on Ritchie Highway. Wearing the black robe and hood of the Grim Reaper, the woman uses kitchen tongs to hold a baby doll smeared with fake blood. She's joined by others displaying 5-foot-tall color posters of dead fetuses.

On one side of the highway is a women's medical clinic. On the other side is a school -- with children as young as 3 years old.

The scene has unfolded almost every week for the past five months in Severna Park, setting up an emotional conflict between protesters determined to shut down the clinic they call "an abortion mill" and parents who complain that the graphic images are enough to give their youngsters nightmares. It is a debate that's been waged in letters to the local newspaper and, with increasing tension, along the busy highway, where parents say they cannot avoid the demonstrations.

"I realize that children lose a lot of innocence, but no child should be subjected to this," said Deborah Winkler, who has come to dread picking up her 7-year-old son from St. John the Evangelist School on Thursday afternoons. She does whatever she can to divert her son's attention from the demonstration outside the Gynecare Center.

"I'll drop something on the floor -- `Oh, can you find it?' I've done a lot of that," she says. "When he's questioned me about it, I've made up some story about what's going on."

She said parents talk of children having nightmares about the posters, and about the second-grader who became "sick" on a Thursday because he wanted to leave school early.

While many in the St. John's community are sympathetic to the protesters' anti-abortion stance, they say the graphic nature of the demonstration angers and offends them. Even the church's anti-abortion prayer group takes pains to distance itself from the demonstration.

"We're a Catholic school and certainly not for abortion, but they're just approaching this in the wrong manner," Winkler said.

The Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, the pastor at St. John the Evangelist, said that although the posters might be acceptable in a different setting, they have no place outside an elementary and middle school.

"Perhaps those pictures would be appropriate for a college-age and above audience who would be gathering for a talk on pro-life or abortion," Rozanski said. "But to protest outside of a Catholic elementary school whose whole message is pro-life merely upsets and angers parents, and upsets children."

`A scare tactic'

Nancy C. Lineman, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League, said that the use of large, graphic pictures is a common strategy in anti-abortion protests.

"It's a scare tactic designed to get their anti-choice point across," she said.

But organizers of the protest stand by their tactics.

David P. Whitney, pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena for two years, said that the posters -- purchased from a mail-order company -- are the most effective way to convey the group's message.

"People don't realize that abortion is sanitized and this is what abortion is really about," said Whitney, a veteran of similar protests in Colorado and Florida.

"It's an actual human being that's killed," he said, while protesting outside the Gynecare Center in Severna Park. "The pictures we're showing are what takes place in this building."

Officials from the Gynecare Center did not respond to several phone calls seeking comment.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, about a dozen protesters gathered on a stretch of Ritchie Highway just south of Severna Park's busy commercial strip. A few were in the median, but most were on the shoulder, separated by a hedge from the clinic. They ignored the horn blasts, shouts of profanities and obscene gestures from passing motorists.

Emily McCann, 13, propped up a poster of what appeared to be a dismembered fetus, with the wording "21 week preborn."

"I want to stop abortion because it's murder and it's bad and it needs to end," Emily said. "These people just need to wake up and see what's happening right under their noses."

Two sisters, one 10 and the other 12 years old, were about the same size as the protest signs. Standing nearby, their mother, Jayne Bray, said the girls began attending the protest with another group, from Reformation Lutheran Church in Bowie.

"They wanted to come here because they said they're killing babies there, and we should do something about it," Bray said.

In the median, Cheryl Battles, wearing her Grim Reaper costume, and another protester occasionally approached cars stopped at the light to discuss the Gynecare Center. One driver, a woman who had just picked up her daughter from St. John's, reacted angrily.

"She deserves not to see that," the driver told the protester. "She doesn't need to be woken up to abortion."

Some pupils from St. John's, who were crossing Ritchie Highway on their way home, criticized the demonstration.

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