On April 30, I attended the public meeting of the Westchester Board of Legislators, to present the statement of the Archdiocese in opposition of the “clinic access” bill that would unfairly restrict the free speech rights of pro-life witnesses outside of abortion clinics.
That statement reads as follows:
A bill is now pending before the Westchester Board of Legislators, which will violate the Constitutional rights of those who give pro-life witness outside abortion clinics.
We urgently call upon all members of the Board to oppose this unjust bill.
This bill is premised upon the false assumption that there is a significant problem with disorder outside of abortion clinics. Actually, law-abiding citizens give peaceful and prayerful pro-life witness on a regular basis, offering valuable information to women approaching the clinics without violating any of the currently-existing federal and state laws regarding access to abortion clinics. Despite such a clear record of respect for the law, this legislation is designed to prevent pro-life advocates from speaking freely merely because their speech is considered unwelcome by some powerful interest groups that favor and profit from abortion.
This legislation is fundamentally unfair to ordinary citizens who wish to express their Constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. It is vague and ambiguous so that ordinary people could not possibly know what kinds of behavior or speech are prohibited. Ultimately, it is unfair to women who have a right to information before they make their decision
as to whether or not to have an abortion.
This legislation does a disservice to these women, to their unborn children, and to society as a whole, and should therefore be rejected.
I have been present at many legislative hearings, and I generally have low expectations. We have to bear in mind that most legislative hearings are not like court proceedings — it’s not like arguing to a neutral jury or a judge who’s open to hearing both sides. The legislators have largely made up their minds already. But in some cases, hearings are a good place for the public airing of reasons for and against legislation, and some legislators may actually listen to what is being said. Some of them are looking for a reason to take a position on a bill, and the hearing may give them that hook to hang their hat on. I have been to several hearings where there was good interaction between legislators and witnesses. Not many, but a few.
In a way, it’s not so much what is said by the witnesses, but their presence and witness — so that the hearing becomes an indicator to the legislators of the depth of feeling about bills and a gauge of the political mood of the populace.
In that light, the hearing was fairly typical of what I’ve experienced. The public witness of so many pro-lifers was a good sign — it sent a message to our allies on the Board that they have a lot of support, and hopefully gave some of the wavering members some reason to lean our way. Having so many “regular people” on our side — as opposed to the largely institutional witnesses on the other side (e.g., employees and activists from Planned Parenthood) — was a very good thing. I think that the legislators are more impressed when lots of people testify who don’t make a living out of the issue at hand. Five voters count for a lot more than one “spokesman”.
The most powerful testimony was given by a young African-American woman, who spoke of her own abortions, and how she has come to regret them. She has now dedicated herself to going to abortion clinics, and giving sidewalk counseling to other women contemplating abortion, to make sure that they understand that they have a choice.
But there were so many others, who stood outside on long lines in the cold, awaiting an opportunity to come into the legislative chamber. The hearing went on until after midnight, and many stayed until the wee hours to present their own testimony.
The struggle against this bill is not over. A final vote will be taken on May 7. We are hoping that the County Executive will veto the bill, and that there will be enough votes on the Board to sustain the veto. Residents of Westchester should contact their legislators — even if they’ve done so already, they should do it again, and again, and again. To find the name of your legislator, go here. Email and other contact information can be found here. The most effective advocacy comes from sustained contact between constituents and their legislators over a long period of time — visits, calls, emails, etc.
So often, we feel powerless in the face of the large, powerful and rich forces that are arrayed against us.
But the power of the truth, and the witness of those who are willing to testify to it with love, can never be underestimated.