A tale of two clinics, and those protesting one

Everyone working at the Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center at 625 Fulton St. in Greensboro last week was white. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro student who suggested an article about the center (but was not the woman who ended up accompanying me there for a consultation) claimed this surprised her when she went there for free STD testing last year.

“I knew they were Christian,” she said, “but I expected some black ladies. When I went to that kind of clinic in Seattle, there were black church ladies working there, and Greensboro is a lot blacker than Seattle. Seems all the Pro-Life folks here are white.”

The apparent racial disparity between local advocates for abortion rights and those who oppose them was not meant to be the theme of this article. But after visiting both the Pregnancy Care Center in College Hill that counsels against abortion, and the A Woman’s Choice clinic two miles away that the Fulton Street center’s staff spends so much time protesting, it became impossible to ignore. This article won’t attempt to answer the question of why the local anti-abortion movement seems largely white but will provide observations that appear to support such a claim.

The Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center is what is commonly referred to, by both supporters and opponents of abortion rights, as a crisis pregnancy center, a type of nonprofit created in the 1970s by anti-abortion activist Robert Pearson in the wake of Roe v. Wade. The Fulton street CPC is a short walk from both UNCG and Greensboro College. UNCG English department professor Christopher Hodgkins has been a keynote speaker at the center’s “God and Sex Review” forums hosted by it. Award-winning reproductive rights reporter Jennifer Gerson has been critical of the growing relationship between CPCs and colleges. Gerson’s 2019 Cosmopolitan article “Fake Health Clinics Are Tricking College Students” ” described CPCs as “anti-abortion clinics” and criticized many for being “staffed mostly by volunteers (versus doctors and nurses). This is not entirely true at the Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center, where the staff listed on the center’s website includes four Registered Nurses with degrees from Western Carolina, UNC-Wilmington, and Messiah College, but many of the rest are volunteers, and there is no physician.

Staff bios devote as much space to church and family as training and experience. All 16 staff members belong to local Baptist congregations, mostly Lawndale Baptist and Mercy Hill. Fifteen are married, 14 have children and 12 have three or more children each. Online photos on the center’s social media indicate only one staff member, a receptionist, is black. When I accompanied Sarah, a 31-year-old Greensboro resident who asked that her surname not be published, to a consultation at the Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center last week, the receptionist was white.

Sarah told the receptionist that she’d recently learned she was pregnant from her OB-GYN, and that she simply wanted to talk about options. She was surprised when the receptionist immediately photocopied her ID.

“Planned Parenthood doesn’t do that until you schedule a medical procedure,” Sarah told me.

Sarah was even more surprised when we were introduced to a visibly pregnant young woman, whom, we were told, would be Sarah’s “advocate.” We were then ushered into a waiting room, where Sarah was given much paperwork to fill out. The young advocate and an older woman who identified herself as a nurse then stepped out of the room.

“They sure want to know a lot about my religion and sexual history,” said Sarah as she answered multiple-choice questions like Who will be helping you make a decision about this pregnancy? and Who will help you after you’ve made your decision? Checkbox options were “Father of the Baby,” “Your Parents” and “Other.”

The form asked whether Sarah’s relationship status was “Single, Married, Engaged, Divorced, Remarried, Separated or Widowhood,” and whether her faith was “Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Muslim, WICCA, Other, or None.” The nurse and advocate returned and escorted Sarah to another room. There, Sarah later said, the nurse insisted on a pregnancy test before any counseling could be given. Sarah described the nurse as denouncing Planned Parenthood.

“She called Planned Parenthood a for-profit business that makes all its money on abortions.”

After the test was conducted, the nurse left Sarah alone with the advocate.

“This very pregnant young woman was clearly there to exemplify this idea of being pregnant and how special it is,” Sarah said. “She was very young, no makeup, wide-eyed, big bright wedding ring, holding her belly the whole time.”

At this point, Sarah had enough, and we left. The next day, I called Terry Salas Merritt, a strategic communications manager for A Women’s Choice, Greensboro’s only remaining abortion clinic, and told her what I’d seen (and what Sarah had described) at the nonprofit organization whose staff members regularly protest outside hers.

“We would never require a pregnancy test or a copy of someone’s driver’s license when they just want to talk to us,” Merritt said.

She also called the CPC nurse’s alleged description of Planned Parenthood, which her clinic is not affiliated with, “ridiculous.”

“Anyone who thinks abortion is profitable is severely mistaken; the costs of providing it gets higher with each new restriction intended to force them to close down, which aren’t imposed on CPCs. Planned Parenthood offers a wide variety of services and always has.”

She said that A Woman’s Choice does, too.

“All our materials talk about all three options, abortion, motherhood or adoption, as acceptable and welcome.”

Merritt suggested I come the following day afternoon and speak to Selina Tate-Wall, manager of A Woman’s Choice in Greensboro. The clinic is located at 2425 Randleman Rd., down a long driveway between Midori Express and Reed Tires. On Saturday mornings, the Midori parking lot turns into a de-facto anti-abortion fair, with awnings, tables, a stage and a mobile ultrasound clinic from Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center. The protesters, who can number as many as 200, eat at Midori after they’ve finished protesting.

On Thursday, there were no protesters in sight. Tate-Wall, a friendly and energetic African-American woman, introduced me to three other black women and two white ones on her staff.

“With A Woman’s Choice,” Tate-Wall said, “we stand by our name, and we offer choices, whether it’s continuing or terminating the pregnancy. We trust that women are going to make that decision for themselves, and we’re here to support them, no matter what that decision is.”

I mentioned not seeing any protesters outside

“Come Saturday, you will. I can take what they dish out, but patients don’t want people talking at them, much less yelling amplified obscenities. I make sure that, when they come through those doors, they’re safe and respected.”

She said that protesters don’t just show up on Saturday mornings.

“Ones from the Fulton street CPC arrive every day before their own center opens. Then on Saturdays, the Love Life people show up from Charlotte.”

Love Life Charlotte is a conglomeration of fundamentalist Christian churches aimed at “ending abortion” in that city. According to the Huffington Post, Love Life founder Justin Reeder believes that “Abortion is a man’s issue.” Recently, Love Life has been targeting abortion providers across North Carolina, and Greensboro’s only one is in its crosshairs.

When I returned at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, about 60 protesters were braving the frigid Midori parking lot. All were white, and about half were women. Lining the clinic’s service road were about 30 pro-choice volunteers, there not to confront the protesters, but to direct patients where to park and to escort them safely inside. The escorts included many African-Americans, but there appeared to be more women than men.

“We need more big scary guys like me,” quipped Michael Usey, Senior Pastor at College Park Baptist Church, who wore a CLINIC ESCORT vest. I knew “Pastor Mike” from playing trivia against him at Geeksboro, where his team name was the “Non-Shitty Christians.”

“The protesters seem much less willing to engage with male escorts than with female ones,” Usey said.

A few male protesters were wearing Love Life T-shirts over their thermals, while a few female ones wore jackets proclaiming their affiliation with Greensboro Pregnancy Care Center. Mary Holloman, the center’s communications coordinator, approached from their mobile ultrasound lab and invited me to come to her with any questions.

As I’d already read her News & Record op-ed, which did not identify her affiliation with the center, I was more interested in talking to someone from Love Life. Where were the hundreds of them that were supposed to show up today?

“They’re gathering on the other side of the bridge,” said Greensboro Police Department’s Sgt. Eric Goodykootnz, referring to the parking lot of Destiny Christian Center at 2401 Randleman Rd. “They’re supposed to be marching down here shortly. They’ve had over a thousand who’ve said they were gonna attend, and that’s what sparked the other side saying they’d have more attending, too, and we’re here to keep the two sides separate and everybody safe.”

Several of what Tate-Wall described as “the regular crew” of local protesters set up a PA system on a grassy rise behind Midori that overlooked the A Women’s Choice Parking Lot. One was a beefy, balding white man who regularly shouted at black men accompanying patients to the clinic.

“Sir, take your woman away from this place, don’t let her kill your baby,” he yelled. “Don’t be a coward; take responsibility for your baby in her womb. You claim Black Lives Matter, but your black baby is about to be butchered in there by a white doctor, a sexual predator. Get your woman out of here and have her raise that baby that God has gifted you with.”

When I opened my iPad, he said: “I hope you’re live streaming this, because I am.” He then alleged that a clinic volunteer had tried to run him over several years ago. “And that’s why God killed her.”

In my interview with him, which can be viewed on YouTube under the title “Christians don’t kill people, and you can’t name one that ever has” (another claim he made), he asked, “Why should I give you my name?” But his Facebook live stream identified him as Chris Pantalone. Former clinic escort Emma Burn, who said she’d taken “a sabbatical” from volunteering at Randleman after being cyber stalked by one of the protesters, told me that Pantalone was referring to another escort who later died in a car accident.

“I don’t remember specifics on the incident he’s referring to,” she wrote, “but I think it had to do with him blocking the entryway to the clinic, which is a federal offense, while she was trying to get into the parking lot. It’s pretty common that these guys will try to claim they were threatened by clinic workers and volunteers.”

As Pantalone had said, “Catholics aren’t Christian.” I asked Burn if she’d ever seen any Catholic protesters at A Woman’s Choice.

“When I was volunteering in 2016 and 2017, we also had another group of Latino Catholics (men and women, but usually not children) who would come to the clinic and pray quietly with signs in front of the other regulars, without interacting much.” Burn also said that, when she was volunteering at A Woman’s Choice, she never saw a single African-American protester. “The only black people I saw were patients and clinic staff.”

Because Pantalone had alleged that “black babies” were being killed by white clinic staff, I asked him how many black people were in his movement.

“As far as the prayer walk, there’s a lot of them over there,” he said, pointing at gathering at Destiny. “As far as here, none! You want to know why? Because most of the black churches around here have a false gospel.”

His statements about this can be viewed on YouTube under the title “White abortion protester says black churches preach false gospel.” I walked down Randleman to see if there were really “a lot of” black people in the Love Life group. Lee and Shonia Stokes, the pastors of Destiny Christian Center, the nondenominational church housed in a former K-Mart, are black, as is most of their congregation.

In a 2018 YouTube video, “The church next to an abortion clinic,” Lee Stokes says, “We had no idea there was an abortion clinic a stone’s throw away” when they bought the building. It was, he said, “kind of the custom” of his church “to be silent about” abortion. But this changed in 2018 when Love Life founder Justin Reeder “pulled the wool off our eyes.”

When I arrived in the parking lot, there was a crowd of what I estimated at somewhere between 600 and 1,000 people gathered in front of a bandstand (the GPD would later estimate 800). A female speaker was instructing the crowd not to answer any questions from the press, but referring them to the Love Life’s Facebook page. The percentage of black people on the stand was higher than in the much larger group on the pavement. I estimated there were somewhere between 30 and 50 African-Americans present in the entire crowd, and my impression was that a very large majority-white group from Charlotte had joined a much smaller majority-black group from Greensboro. Unlike the protesters already at the clinic, well over half of this much larger crowd was male.

“Much more of the Charlotte group are men,” said Usey after I’d followed the Love Life prayer march back to the parking lot. I asked him if he agreed with my observation that, even with the addition of those from Destiny’s congregation, most of today’s protesters were white.

“Yes,” he readily agreed. “At least 95 %.”

Seeing me talking to Usey, a clinic escort approached and offered a quote, although she asked not to be named. “Bad things can happen when they learn women’s names.”

Despite her American accent, she told me she was a United Kingdom citizen with a green card. “I’d moved to Greensboro, and then a few months ago, I read an article about this clinic by Sayaka Matsuoka, which inspired me to volunteer. I can’t vote here, but I want to do my part for the women in my new community.”

Those interested in becoming a clinic escort can email gsoclinicescorts@gmail.com, or message the Greensboro Clinic Defense Facebook page.

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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