Why We Need Male Sidewalk Counselors

Jacob Nels is the Operations Coordinator at Equal Rights Institute. One of the most important things Jacob brings to the table at ERI is his expertise in gracious dialogue, particularly with people who are post-abortive and abortion-minded. In addition to putting those skills to good use at college campus outreaches, Jacob has a regular presence outside an abortion clinic as a sidewalk counselor and has had the joy of helping many women, men, and children leave the clinic alive and whole.

Jacob Nels sidewalk counselor men

Jacob Nels sidewalk counseling in Georgia

A few years ago I watched a black sedan pull into the parking lot of an abortion clinic. A man and a woman got out and walked up to the clinic, ignoring my attempts to engage them. After the man walked her into the clinic, he came back to his car for something. Raising my voice to carry across the parking lot separating us, I tried again to start a conversation with him. I said,

Jacob: Hey, man! I know this is a hard day. No one really wants to be here. I’m here if you want to talk.

Ross: I’m not for this. I don’t like it.

Jacob: What do you mean? Would you tell me your story?

To show my respect and friendship, I did something that almost always works with other men. There is a white line painted on the sidewalk that I cannot legally cross. Pressing my toes to the line, I extended my hand to the man and said,

Jacob: My name’s Jacob.

He was about forty feet away. My extended hand told him, “I respect you.” He decided to close the distance between us by crossing the parking lot. He shook my hand and introduced himself as “Ross” and told me his friend’s name was “Jackie.”

Jacob: How far along is the pregnancy?

Ross: Twenty-three weeks. She’s pretty far along. She’s been in denial that she is even pregnant until very recently.

I pulled out a brochure and showed Ross a page with pictures of fetal development. I directed his attention to a picture of an 18-week fetus. This helped Ross. For most people, gestation is just a number until they see an image.

Jacob: How do you know Jackie?

Ross: She’s a friend I’m trying to help out.

Jacob: What are Jackie’s aspirations in life?

Ross: She’s a model. She thinks the pregnancy is going to mess up her career.

Jacob: A pregnancy would definitely pose problems for a modeling career. I can see why she would feel that way. How does she feel about the abortion?

Ross: She just wants out of this. Like this [gesturing toward the clinic] is the better of two evils.

These questions may seem trivial or too personal to ask, but they’re not. I’m attempting to understand their situation. I don’t want to just assume that everyone seeking an abortion has the same story.

Also, I’m attempting to extend friendship to Ross, so it’s worthwhile to talk to him as one ought to talk to a valuable person. His motivations, his fears, his background, all of these things matter. How much time I’ll spend getting to know a person outside of a clinic really depends on the conversation. As we say at ERI, every conversation is a series of difficult judgment calls, amidst prayer without ceasing.

Jacob: Is this something you feel you have to do or something you want to do?

The answer to this question is always the same.

Ross: I have to, man.

Many men feel like helping a woman get an abortion is something they have to do, especially if they’re responsible for the child’s existence. Since it is typically a guy pacing in front of the clinic or driving the woman as an escort, I can level with him man to man.

I empathized with his feelings of confusion, pain, and frustration. This pregnancy seemed like the end of a dream for Jackie. She was a model and pregnancy would undeniably affect her plans. Ross cared about his friend and he didn’t want her to be alone through the abortion. But he still hurt. Ross believed abortion was wrong, and he had tried to change Jackie’s mind.

Jacob: I am here to give you information and offer you a way out. I’m not throwing this in your face. I believe you can handle the truth. Why do you believe you have to help Jackie get an abortion?

I gave him space and time to explain. It’s really important to give people the opportunity to openly process how they feel about the abortion. Oftentimes they are already uncomfortable with it, so they largely talk themselves out of the abortion. It seemed like it was the first time Ross had been able to talk openly about it.

This is the kind of question that can be asked in very different ways. It can be asked aggressively, and that is not the right way to ask this question. I don’t ask it in a condemning or rhetorically-charged way, but gently, out of concern. It is not an easy question to answer.

Ross: I don’t want her to have the abortion, but I feel like I am just trying to be a good friend. I don’t see another way out.

Warning people that I’m about to say something difficult can make people feel safe and respected, so I said to Ross,

Jacob: It’s clear to me you’re trying to do the best you can. You aren’t just talking about being a good friend, you’re taking action, and that’s admirable. The first thing you told me is that you don’t want to be here. That makes sense. Nobody really wants to come here. This isn’t a place on anyone’s bucket list. You’re in a bad situation. In order to help you, I think the best thing I can do is give you all the information I can, but some of this information is pretty tough to hear. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I want to be direct about where we are, what is going to happen and what you can do. I’m not here to judge you. I’m telling you this because I respect you. I believe people should have all the information before going through with an abortion. These things aren’t going to be easy to hear. Do you still want me to continue?

Ross: Yes, go ahead.

Ross granted me this permission without hesitation. He was extremely interested in what I had to say next. He wanted me to tell him the truth because I was treating him with respect. I was subtly, respectfully challenging Ross, man to man, to step up and do the right thing. This conversation would have gone very differently if I had demanded Ross listen to me and called him a murderer. People are far more interested in hearing from people that they respect, and they are far more likely to respect someone that shows respect to them, especially if he’s a man.

Every day that I stand outside a clinic, I know lives are on the line. That knowledge can kind of make you panic. Sometimes you want to just get the truth to people by yelling, “What are you doing, you’re killing your child! Don’t you know that you’re complicit to murder?!” My colleague Tim has said, “it’s foolish and short-sighted to just blast people with the truth, with no thought to how they are going to respond to it.” Don’t panic. We need to communicate the truth in a way that they are likely to hear.

Jacob: Ross, I have a picture of a child killed by abortion at the same gestational age as Jackie’s child. I won’t show you unless you give me permission, but I want you to understand what abortion is. Do you want to see it?

Rarely does anyone turn down seeing the picture, and Ross was no exception. After he looked at the picture, the usual pause happened. It’s an awkward pause, but it’s a good pause. Ross was thinking very hard about what was going on. Finally, he quietly said,

Ross: Wow.

Jacob: I’m worried about how bad you feel now. I fear you will feel worse after this. Jackie has other options. She is not trapped.

Most people at the abortion clinic are just looking for a way out of a difficult situation. My job as a man in front of the clinic is to help other men see that there is another exit, and it’s possible to get there. I can’t fix all the problems in a person’s life which led them to the abortion clinic, but I can point them in the direction of help and guidance.

Jacob: You look like you’re really struggling with this decision and your struggle isn’t going to get easier after the abortion.

I made eye contact to show him respect. No matter what the conversation is outside a clinic, I never talk down to someone, wag my finger in their face, or shame them. This is especially important when talking with men. It is a huge mistake to try to convince a man to stop an abortion by emasculating him. I respectfully, man to man, challenge him to do the hard thing, but I don’t tell him he’s not a man if he doesn’t do it.

Ross was only at the clinic that day because the abortion clinic requires a woman to have an escort to drive her home after the abortion.

Jacob: Being the escort makes you a party to the abortion. Whether you wanted this or not, you are complicit in the abortion process by playing the role of escort. I’ve found that many guys in your shoes feel very small and insignificant, but let me tell you, you are not! You are far more capable than you know. Now let me ask you another question. I am not asking, ‘Do you think you can do this?’ I already know what that answer is. What I want to know is, ‘What are you going to do to stop this abortion from happening?’

Ross thought for a moment, looked me in the eye and said, with confidence,

Ross: Whatever it takes.

Jacob: Good! Here’s what you do: tell the clinic you are leaving. You are the escort, so she cannot have the abortion without you.

Ross walked back into the clinic and did just that. Shortly thereafter he walked out of the clinic with an absolutely furious Jackie. Ross bought time for Jackie’s child that day, but she wasn’t out of the woods yet. Jackie tried twice more to get an abortion, despite Ross’ persistence in encouraging her to choose life for her child. Jackie was too indecisive the second time she tried to get an abortion, and the third time they told her she was too far into her pregnancy.

When she gave up trying to abort her child, our group of sidewalk counselors threw her a baby shower. Eventually I got a text from her announcing her baby girl was born. It was one of the best text messages I have ever received. It was just a picture of her daughter with this message:

“This is the joy of my life. Thank you so much!”

Men have more influence with other men in front of an abortion clinic than women do. This is why I try so hard to get the attention of the male escorts.

Men can say things to other men that are much harder for women to say. Men can issue challenges to other men without either party feeling degraded, whereas if a woman says the same thing the man is more likely to perceive it as an attack.

The converse is also true for women. There are things that one woman can say to another without either woman feeling domineered, intimidated or offended because there is usually a level of inherent trust for people who are like us. Men with men, women with women – we can feel a sense of ease, as if our subconscious is saying, “This person knows what I am going through.”

I’m not saying that men should never speak to women outside an abortion clinic (I do all the time!), or that women should never speak to men. I’m saying that ideally a team of sidewalk counselors outside of a clinic will always have at least one man and one woman who learn to work well together and trust each other.

Ross needed respect and the truth. I listened to him at a time when he felt silenced and powerless. Our culture has been telling men every day: you have no right to say anything about abortion, even if it’s your own child. I noticed his pain and felt it with him. Then, I respected him enough to give him all of the information and to challenge him to act bravely.

If more men understood the difference they could make by simply doing those things on the sidewalks outside of abortion clinics, thousands more lives would be saved.

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The post “Why We Need Male Sidewalk Counselors” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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  • I was glad to learn more about the great work of Jacob Nels.

  • Crystal

    Is it true that sidewalk counsellors in general threaten, intimidate, abuse, and generally just present an unpleasant presence at an abortion facility? I have heard my pro-legal abortion friends claim this a LOT and I want to know the truth; could anyone help me out please?

    • Guest

      I don’t know if you could prove that one way or the other. There are some good sidewalk counselors and some self-righteous jerks, but which ones are more common probably depends on who you ask.

    • Coline Hay

      Yes, it is true.

  • Crystal

    I believe sidewalk counselling should be primarily a woman’s job. Since it is women who are directly impacted by pregnancy it should be other women who are doing the counselling far more than men. It sounds rude and presumptuous for a man to tell me I should be pregnant, and I say this as a staunch prolifer myself.

    • Guest

      I don’t think the author would disagree with you there. Only that male sidewalk counselors still have an important role to play, as they’re more likely to be able to reach other men (which is sometimes necessary, as discussed in the article).

  • Crystal Kupper

    This is really good stuff!

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