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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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One step away
June 8, 2024

Pavement prayers

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As I drive down semi-dark, empty streets toward an inconspicuous building on 29th Street in Bryan, there are already a few people lined up, just off the sidewalk, careful not to obstruct the walkway. Their heads somberly bowed. They face a tall fence of metal bars and a screen that inhibits those outside from looking in and those inside from looking out. I seek out Katie Higdon, director of communication for Brazos Valley Coalition for Life and class of 2010.
“There’s already one girl inside,” she says.
It is 7:03 a.m. and the sidewalk counselors are already praying in front of Planned Parenthood. This is a medical abortion Saturday at this location.
One organization stands out to Aggies: the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life. According to ABC News, this organization has entered the national awareness by making the Bryan location one of the most protested Planned Parenthood offices in the nation. Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood, labeled Bryan-College Station a bastion of anti-choice sentiment.
Regardless of one’s stance on the issue of abortion, this organization’s rise from a single Aggie concerned with an issue to a large, effective grassroots organization that sponsors the internationally observed 40 Days for Life campaign is remarkable. All this began in Bryan in 1998. Thirteen years later, I stand on the sidewalk with counselors in the middle of the campaign.
Neither of us knew what to expect on arrival. Higdon informed me Planned Parenthood had a volunteer who escorted women from their cars to the front door. According to Higdon, this was to keep the women from interacting with the sidewalk counselors.
Carl Paustian is a first-year biotechnology graduate student at Texas A&M. Paustian stands in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan with his head bowed in prayer for the first woman who arrived promptly at 7 a.m. that morning for her appointment. Over the next few hours, I witness Paustian leave his prayerful stance and spring into action the moment a new patient arrived at the clinic. He never shouts, only raises his voice enough to be audible over the sporadic traffic and the fence. Most of the morning, Paustian’s pleas, suggestions and statements of “we love you and are praying for you” go unacknowledged or unanswered.
“Coalition for Life is not there to judge the men and women going to Planned Parenthood. I, and so many of the other volunteers, are there on the sidewalk because we care about the health and safety of women in our community,” Paustian said. “We are out there to offer a loving hand to women who might want help and [don’t] know of the many options that exist here in Bryan-College Station.”
Occasionally, a patient or supporter will lash out at him. One woman bellows obscene language and makes crude hand gestures.
“I’ve been cursed out before, threats of physical action, but it’s expected,” Paustian said. “I know it’s a controversial place to be and I know the people lashing out like this are doing it because they’re hiding from the truth. Somewhere in the back of their mind, they know something they’re doing is wrong. By my presence there, I’m calling you out and saying this is wrong, and you’re getting mad because I am doing it.”
Paustian points out his actions are not protesting but reaching out, to women and men alike. Reaching out to men is equally as hard.
“Reaching out is emotionally difficult. The thing that is most difficult for me is seeing these other men bring a [woman] there for an abortion,” Paustian said. “The most difficult part for me is seeing how we as men are failing and the general disdain men going in there have. This is the quick fix; this is what’s best for them. That’s the tragedy, in my opinion.”
Paustian notes he has never had a conversation with a man, but he continues to try to reach out and engage them.
Several women counselors hang back and wait for Paustian to make a connection, or to relieve him when he needs a break. One, a veteran counselor, is professionally dressed and wears a necklace with a silver fetus on it. Erin Burow, a Bryan native, has been active in the coalition since the beginning. For 12 years, she has been on the sidewalk nearly every Saturday, except for a short sabbatical she said she took to recharge emotionally. Burow said she became involved with the pro-life movement at a young age with influence from her parents. She is able to impart innumerable facts, stories and pro-life names to anyone interested in the issue. She is confident and willing to share the highs and lows of this experience.
She shared a story about a woman who the coalition counseled and who ended up giving birth to twins. Burow said success stories such as that are highs, but there are also lows.
“It’s a spiritual battle. It’s constant. There’s not a day that I relish coming out here,” Burow said.
Burow is a midwife. She assists pregnant women before, during and after the birth of their child. Standing on the sidewalk, praying and counseling are very personal to her.
Burow said she has had things thrown at her in the past by motorists. However, she is not concerned for her safety outside Planned Parenthood. She said she would come even if she had concerns.
“Knowing I did something,” Burow said. “If I’m not involved, I don’t think I could live with myself knowing what I know. If I’m silent, I’m guilty. It’s purely a conscience issue.”
Choreographing this occasion, greeting newcomers, praying and introducing me to volunteers is Higdon.
“Our mission is to peacefully and prayerfully end abortion in the Brazos Valley,” Higdon said.
“We’re nearing 1,000 clients in the past 18 months. We are not a licensed medical clinic. We don’t pretend to be. We try to make them feel like they are not alone, because they are not. We try to get them the resources they need. We’re a support and a guide for them to take the next step.”
Higdon notes that every person and every story is different.
“There is no stereotype of a pregnant girl. Every situation is different. Every single girl has a concern. It could be her parents, her living situation; it could be her finances,” Higdon said. “That’s why we’re fortunate in this community. We have so many resources. We can help her find the solutions to her problems. That doesn’t include abortion.”
In the two hours I have been there, the group has grown from seven to 17. There is a Spanish-speaking church group on the south end of the Planned Parenthood parking lot praying aloud in their native language. In between the two groups stands Bobby Reynoso. He is an associate director and member of the coalition, but he arrived on the sidewalk differently than many of the others who came from evangelical Christian backgrounds.
Reynoso says he became active in the coalition four or five years ago because he needed a lifestyle change. He acknowledges that men can never know what it is like for women in this situation. He says he is there to show compassion for the women in crisis. A compassion he says Planned Parenthood and abortion does not provide.
“They provide some good services; I’m not going to take that away from them,” Reynoso said. “It’s that one service. That’s not compassion.”
Planned Parenthood did not respond for comment.
Students at A&M comprise a small amount of the coalition’s clientele, according to Higdon, but students have strong feelings about the issues surrounding the coalition and Planned Parenthood.
Kathleen Sullivan, senior kinesiology major, said personal experiences have influenced her decisions and opinions. She acknowledged that her faith also plays a role in her pro-life stance.
“I’m definitely pro-life. I know there are those really aggressive groups that stand outside of clinics. That’s not how I am,” Sullivan said. “For them to be passive but passionate, I think is really important to gain awareness and to give them options. I think it is awesome in general.”
Not all students at A&M agree with the sidewalk counselors’ methods or the coalition’s mission to shut down Planned Parenthood. Some are concerned about options available to women and the atmosphere the sidewalk counselors create outside of Planned Parenthood.
“Pro-choice is the choice to make that decision. Pro-choice is more about choices, not abortion,” said Arlette Acosta, a junior international studies major. “Not just having the baby.”
Acosta said she has never witnessed sidewalk counseling, but she thinks it is possible Coalition for Life’s presence instills fear in women headed into the clinic. She believes the name “Planned Parenthood” might have a stigma attached, so she is glad there are other choices available.
“It’s a good thing to have,” Acosta said. “But it’s not the only option. The harder we make it for women to choose that decision makes it worse.”
Abortion and Planned Parenthood continue to be divisive issues in the realms of politics and personal opinion. People have many different and strong opinions about services such as Planned Parenthood and the funding they receive. Others have strong feelings about groups like the coalition. Higdon said people should not make assumptions about the organization.
“I think people outside of the Coalition for Life might sometimes assume that we stand out on the sidewalk to judge women or to condemn them for their decisions,” Higdon said.
“We wouldn’t be very good Christians if we were standing out there and judging women, so we want everyone involved with our organization to understand our approach. I know some people might write us off as ‘radicals’ or ‘crazy zealots’, but if we can just reach out to one woman, if we can help just one child come into this world because of our presence on the sidewalk, then we feel like we are doing our job.”

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