By Christine M. Williams, Anchor Correspondent
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — As she does every Thursday, Charlene Harrison left work on June 26 and headed to pray outside the Four Women Health Center in Attleboro. She parked on Hillside Drive and walked toward her usual vigil spot at Angel Park, the narrow strip of grass between divided Highway 118.
But on June 26 there was no need to cross the street and stand at least 35 feet back from the entrance to the abortion clinic’s parking lot. Earlier that day, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Massachusetts’ buffer zone law, ruling that it violated the free speech rights of Pro-Lifers.
Harrison, a Catholic who has prayed outside the clinic for about a dozen years, said she was “thrilled” when a fellow “prayer warrior” gave her the news on site.
“It’s a victory for us. The Lord is with us on this,” she said, adding that ultimately the buffer zone repeal will save the lives of babies and their mothers.
Marian Desrosiers, director of the Diocese of Fall River’s Pro-Life Apostolate, said that offering these women information and compassion is critical.
“The women are extremely fearful. They are not well-informed. They haven’t been given full disclosure about procedures. Some of them are under tremendous pressure,” she said.
She called the overturned law “discriminatory” and said the court rightly recognized that the law targeted a specific group of people.
Dwight Duncan, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts, said that the unanimous decision is a clear signal that the Commonwealth had gone overboard in its disregard for the U.S. Constitution.
“There is a certain tendency among victors of the left to push their agenda on social issues at the expense of First Amendment issues,” he said.
During a July 2 press conference, state officials, including Gov. Deval Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley, pledged to pass new laws to “protect” women entering abortion clinics before the current legislative session ends on July 31. Coakley said their mission is to make sure women have access to health care without harassment.
Harrison said that she and others who pray outside the Attleboro clinic never seek to antagonize anyone. Instead, they want to offer alternatives to abortion. When they can, they refer women to nearby pregnancy resource centers that provide free pregnancy testing and parenting assistance. They want to show the women that they care and hopefully help them see the “truth about abortion.”
“We’re there for them. We’re not against them,” she said. “We’ve always just prayed there. That’s all we’ve done.”
People first began praying outside Four Women when the clinic opened in 1998 and continued until the Buffer Zone Law was enacted in 2007. Currently the only abortion clinic in the Diocese of Fall River, the clinic is located far from the road and has its own parking lot.
Harrison called moving across the street in 2007 “disheartening.”
“It made it more difficult. It seemed like we weren’t able to reach as many because we were farther away,” she said.
A few counselors would try to project their voices, but with only a short interval to engage them, they could not say much. They hope that being closer once again will allow them to engage more women.
Abortions occur at Four Women on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on June 26, the clinic was inexplicably closed.
The following Saturday, June 28, the usual crowd gathered and most stood right outside the parking lot entrance. Harrison predicted that when the crowds get larger, as they often do during the 40 Days for Life campaigns, most vigilers will continue to pray in the park and a few outliers will stand outside the parking lot.
“I’m content to be in the background, just being a prayer warrior, just praying the Rosary, but some people are gifted, and they would do very well for the sidewalk counseling,” she said.
Harrison said that standing vigil outside the clinic is a calling from God. She understands the power of prayer and knows the prayers are being used to convert the hearts of mothers somewhere.
“The Blessed Mother is using our prayers. It’s not for us to know where these prayers are going,” she said. “We put it in her hands.”