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October 25, 2009

Ordinance won’t end sidewalk counseling, groups say Measure creates ‘bubble zone’ around clinics

By Joyce Duriga


Sidewalk counseling can and will continue. That is the message pro-life Catholics are telling the public and their supporters following the Chicago City Council’s passage on Oct. 7 of an amendment to the city’s disorderly conduct ordinance that will create a “bubble zone” around abortion clinics restricting how counselors can approach women entering clinics for education and support.

Local news media reported Mayor Richard M. Daley plans to sign the measure putting the ordinance into effect.

Under the ordinance, counselors face a $500 fine if they approach within 8 feet of someone going in to an abortion clinic without permission. The ordinance imposes the “bubble” within a 50-foot radius of any door to a clinic. It was modeled after similar laws in other states, including a Colorado statute.

Mary-Louise Kurey, director of the archdiocese’s Respect Life Office, said the ordinance is a minor setback but sidewalk counseling can continue.

“We just have to be creative in how we can do that within the confines of the law,” she said.

She said she worries that some people may be misled about the ordinance and think that they can no longer pray at abortion clinics or counsel at all. This new ordinance will not impact that or programs like 40 Days for Life, where people sign up to keep vigil outside a local abortion clinic 24 hours a day for 40 days.

Stopping the effort?

A Chicago-based public interest law firm, the Thomas More Society, intends to sue the City of Chicago to stop the ordinance from going in to effect.

Peter Breen, the society’s executive director, said his organization believes the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional because it restricts the activities of pro-life demonstrators but does not restrict the activities of pro-labor demonstrators, who are protected by the Illinois Labor Dispute Act. The Labor Dispute Act grants labor picketers the right to use public sidewalks and parkways for their activities but is silent about the rights of persons advocating for the sanctity of life or for other causes.

“You can’t allow one group to picket and restrict that right to other groups,” Breen said.

Pro-abortion groups that lobbied City Council to propose the ordinance succeeded in assassinating the character of sidewalk counselors, Kurey said.

“We’re being portrayed as harassing women and being unkind. That is not true,” said Kurey.

She said counselors are volunteers who are “pro-woman” and who try to help women facing unplanned pregnancies to know that help is available to them in the form of health care, financial assistance and education.

“Most women don’t want to have an abortion,” said Kurey. “They feel trapped.”

Sidewalk counselors reach out to the women who have fallen through the cracks of society to let them know there is help available.

“They should not be arrested for providing information for these women to make informed decisions,” she said.

Street experience

Julie Grisolano of Our Lady of the Ridge Parish began volunteering as a sidewalk counselor last Lent. Now in her mid-30s, she has prayed at abortion clinics on and off since her 20s.

She joins a group of young adults every Saturday morning to pray and counsel at a downtown clinic. Several of the young people are also members of the Respect Life Office’s Culture of Life Junior Board.

Many of the group simply stand and pray or sing songs, while others offer literature about abortion alternatives to women entering the clinic.

The group she prays and counsels with is different than what was portrayed in the news during the ordinance vote, she said.

“We’re not vicious,” she said. “People think we’re vicious because we disagree with them. I would challenge anyone to come out on a Saturday in the cold in the rain and pray and joyfully hand out literature.”

Help available

Knowing that the women are considering ending the life of their child, often while feeling trapped or alone, motivates Grisolano to help.

“When you see people going in you really want to actually say something to them and let them know that there is help available,” she said.

She added that she works with pregnant women who she has met at the clinic who decided to keep their babies. Through this work she’s seen firsthand how often women who consider abortion feel they have no other alternative.

Sidewalk counseling is just a small part of a more holistic effort to uphold the sanctity of life, Grisolano said. There must also be a greater societal understanding of an authentic sexual ethic.

“We use it [sex] as this Band-Aid to cover deep, deep wounds,” she said.

Until we can regain a vision like that described in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, we won’t get to the root of the problem. This means also helping the women after they have the babies by helping them with education and jobs, not just material needs like rent payments and baby clothes, she said.

“It’s really about changing people’s hearts and minds,” Grisolano said.