About five minutes outside Hudson, NY, amongst the garish strip malls of Fairview Avenue, two women and a man stand facing the wailing traffic in a tight row. It is 45 degrees out, but the trio has dressed for the cold. They have been standing here every Wednesday morning for years, arriving in separate cars with the signs they now present to the cars streaking by. The signs read, in tall white ink, “Abortion Kills Children.”
Their Wednesday mornings coincide with the hours of the Greenport Planned Parenthood, a fenced-in building that spread behind us as I greeted them.
Noelle Ryan, Carol Miller, and the man, who declined my invitation for an interview, took out their rosaries to pray as I stood awkwardly to the side. The prayer was synchronized in a way that made it apparent they had chanted it many a time before. Each line was followed by the three-throated response: “have mercy on the world.”
Noelle originally hails from Ireland, the third youngest in a family of 11. She now lives with her husband of 36 years in the incredibly Irish town of East Durham, but still retains an Irish lilt, stretching her vowels and dropping her H’s, so that “through” is pronounced “t’roo.”
The three are there to “stand witness” — to make sure those passing realize the gravity of what’s going on, Noelle said, and for love of the unborn children and their parents, and the possibility someone coming to Planned Parenthood might reconsider.
“It’s the people that are making these terrible mistakes here…it will eat away at them, at their soul, it will make them bitter, cynical and go towards hatred,” she said. “Others, there’ll be the tragedy of guilt through their lives…so when I’m here, I’m praying that they don’t do this torturous thing to the babies.”
The aborted babies will ultimately be alright, Noelle said — as innocents, they will go to heaven. Much of her focus is on the people entering the facility.
“I really care about the people that are coming in and making those mistakes…people think when they see us here, that we’re full of hatred, that we’re judgmental, that we’re saying, ‘oh, you’re bad people’ — we’re not (doing that),” she said. “I don’t want people to make mistakes.”
Noelle said she has been standing witness at the Greenport Planned Parenthood for ten years, and before then was part of a similar “Respect Life” group in Yonkers, where she worked as a teacher.
“In my early twenties to mid-life, I was an atheist,” Noelle said.
Though she was personally against abortion, as a moral relativist, she felt everyone had a right to choose whether to have an abortion or not.
“I thought, ‘listen, if I have to decide what’s right and wrong, then everybody else has a right to do the same thing,’” she said. “I wouldn’t choose abortion, but I don’t have the right to tell someone else, ‘this is all life is.’”
In her middle years, Noelle had what she called a “dramatic conversion,” and suddenly believed in a loving God bigger than all of humanity.
“One of the first things that came to my mind was: if God is love, then you can’t kill a human being, because it’s already in the world…it’s been created and has a soul and it’s meant for eternity,” she said. So abortion — the killing of the child — is a denial of life to the child.”
During the ten minutes we were outside before moving to warmer environs, I saw the trio get three responses from passing motorists — a triplet of supportive beeps, one long, angry beep, and a cascade of honks followed by The Finger.
Noelle said she doesn’t become angry with those that flip her off, since she also once opposed what she now does.
“For the people who are giving the finger, they’re angry, probably…they might’ve had an abortion, or knew somebody that had an abortion, and are protective of them, and they see [the signs] as an accusation, and because they think of it as a judgement they think — it’s like, ‘mind your own business’— it’s basically what they tell us…I understand them,” she said. “That’s why I don’t get angry with them.”
Only a handful of people each year entering or exiting Planned Parenthood talk to the trio, Noelle and Carol said, but they told me of some of the interactions.
“One was a man [who] drove by in a minivan and he stopped and he leaned out the window and he said, ‘Your sign really hurts me,’ and I went up to him, I said, ‘Why,’ — and he was a young man, in his early twenties — he said, ‘Because my wife was on drugs, and she got pregnant, and we had an abortion, and every time I see your sign, it really hurts me because I grieve so much over what I did wrong. I know it was wrong,’” Noelle said. “I said, ‘Well, God forgives everything’ — because he said he was Catholic, and he said he was pro-life — ‘But God forgives you completely, you have to forgive yourself. If you come to know the mercy of God, then the abortion will make you grow in appreciation of God, because of how much he loves you.’”
Noelle told the man one of the reasons the trio stood witness was to “stop other people from making the same mistake,” and that women with children had come up to them and told them the pro-life movement had made them decide against aborting.
“He said, ‘well, if it saves one person from doing it, then I won’t say another word,’” Noelle said. “And he went away.”
In another interaction, a young couple entered the Planned Parenthood and the man exited a few minutes later — usually an indication the women was getting dropped off for an abortion, Noelle said.
The man rolled down his window as he passed the trio.
“I was standing here, (and he) said, ‘Oh what does your sign say,’ so I went over to the car and I showed him and he said, ‘Shoot, I didn’t know that,’ — like he was making light of it, and I just said, ‘Children are a gift from God,’…and I was so upset for him because he was laughing while somebody was going to chop up the baby — his baby — in his girlfriend’s womb and suck it out with a vacuum. And he had no idea, or didn’t care at that moment,” Noelle said. “Maybe he would sometime down the line, but it was a tragedy — a father’s laughing about the fact that his baby’s going be mutilated.”
Noelle wanted the man and those like him to turn towards God’s love, she said.
“When we die I believe there’s two realities,” she said. “There’s love, and that’s being with God forever in heaven, and then there’s people who have hate or are cold-heated and care only about themselves, and they‘ve chosen something else, the absence of God…I want them to be happy in this life through the forgiveness that God gives, and then to be happy forever in heaven with their little children.”
“That’s why I’m out here, in a nutshell,” she added.
Millions of women living in the U.S. have had abortions. Carol Miller, the second woman of the trio, was one of them.
We were grouped around a plastic table in Dunkin Donuts nursing small coffees when Carol told me this. Carol had taken quite the spill earlier in the week, and the left side of her face was bruised blue and yellow. She said it was “a miracle” she hadn’t broken anything, a word containing much gravitas in her perspective of the world.
Carol got pregnant in 1959, 14 years before abortion was legal in the country. She was married at the time. Her husband had just come back from traveling down south, and Carol was so happy to see him she got pregnant that night, she told me.
Carol said she “never wanted to be a mother,” and believed at the time a child doesn’t gain a soul until birth.
“It was illegal, but if you drank at any bars, the bartender always knew somebody who did abortions,” she said.
After making inquiries, Carol found someone, and was blindfolded one night and taken to a woman’s house. The woman inserted something into Carol’s vagina and told her to not take it out. Carol miscarried at the house early the next morning, she said.
“She told me it was a girl,” Carol said. “It really didn’t bother me yet, but many years later God began to talk to me.”
Carol said she was a “new-ager” out in California in the 1960s, and liked a good drink. She believed in God, but it was an abstraction to her, and she felt she was free to do as she pleased. Carol talked her sister into having an abortion, something that didn’t bother her until God’s voice began speaking to her every night, she said.
Little by little, Carol said she began to believe. Her first husband died of a coronary, and she married a Catskill, NY, native who brought the couple back to his hometown to settle down.
Carol started attending different churches, but didn’t find a religious home until she came to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Catskill and was baptized, she said.
“When I became a Catholic, I began to see…how wrong I was about many things,” Carol said. “I didn’t realize I was an angry person, and [God] began to show me, yes you are — why? So I began to look back (at) my childhood, anything that would make me feel like that. Little by little things would float up to the surface…I began to realize of all the things I had done in my life — adultery and the abortion and other things…where do you go for mercy when you begin to realize that you’ve been wrong?” she asked.
“So then I started coming to the anti-abortion [rallies],” she said. “It was a way to make up for it.”
Noelle and Carol spoke to me about the history of abortion in the U.S., bringing up Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, and Norma McCorvey, the woman whose court case nationally legalized abortion in 1973. Both Nathanson and McCorvey eventually regretted their participation in the Pro-Choice movement and wrote books assailing abortion.
Noelle also said she believed contraception was wrong, because contraceptives can fail and create unwanted pregnancies, which can lead to abortion.
I asked Noelle if there were any situations where abortion was permissible.
Abortion was acceptable if the mother would die giving birth, but in no other situations, Noelle said, including rape and incest.
She related a story to me a sexual education teacher told Noelle’s class in Yonkers.
“[The teacher] says, ‘I know one young girl, she was 15, and she was raped, and she got pregnant and her parents wanted her to have an abortion, and [the girl] said, ‘no, I want the child to live,’ and she had the child and she did a hard thing — she gave it up for adoption,’” Noelle related.
The sexual education teacher then told the class she was the child given up for adoption.
“’I didn’t deserve to die because my father was a criminal,’” Noelle said the teacher told the class. “’I’ve tried to use my life to be as loving and to do as much good as I can, and I’m lucky I had such a wonderful mother — that she was able to block out the pain and the anger that she must’ve felt and not to blame me, and she let me live.’”
“My point is,” Noelle finished, “the child is as much (the) victim as the mother.”
Noelle told me one more story of her interactions in front of Planned Parenthood.
“This young black woman was standing behind us…and when she walked past I was watching, and she looked so sad,” Noelle said.
“I turned, and the three of us just looked at each other and said, ‘she looks like she’s thinking about an abortion,’ and we just stopped everything and said a special prayer for her,” Noelle said.
Ten minutes later, the young woman walked out of Planned Parenthood with an expressionless face, Noelle said.
Noelle approached the young woman and asked her if she was alright.
“And she said, ‘Oh yes, I am, thank you.’ And her face was a little better, and then [the man of the trio] said, ‘we just said a prayer for you,’ and she turned around and said, ‘I’m going have a baby!”
“She looked so happy,” Noelle said. “She looked so happy.”