ON THE MORNING OF APRIL 25, COLD, raw rain drenches the city of Buffalo, but outside the GYN Womenservices clinic, foul weather is nothing compared with the gathering emotional storm. “Abortion is murder,” shouts a father on one side of a police barrier. The sign he brandishes, written with crayons in a child’s hand, demands, AREN’T YOU GLAD YOUR MOM WAS PRO-LIFE? Down the road an Ithaca College senior with a button reading FIGHT FOR WORKING WOMEN’S RIGHTS pinned brashly to the zipper of his jeans barks out, “To force any woman to bear a child against her will is slavery.”
In Buffalo, where some 1,000 protesters sporadically turned Main Street into a battlefield two weeks ago, it is apparent that in the passionately contested war over the so-called women’s issue of abortion, men—not just high-profile religious leaders but angry lathers, brothers and boyfriends—are among the most zealous warriors on both sides.
“There should be more men [in the pro-choice movement],” grumbles Art Scherff, a volunteer escort working at Womenservices, who scans the crowd from behind the clinic’s iron gate. “Pro-life is full of men.” And, of course, the conception of a child involves both a woman and a man. Still, it is a surprise to some that a man like Scherff, a bespectacled 64-year-old grandfather of 15, is a committed pro-choice activist. Today, as for the past three years, the retired gas-company worker is using his burly body as a buffer between the women who come to the clinic to get abortions and the antiabortionists who heckle them on the sidewalk. “I run interference,” explains Scherff, a Buffalo native. “These young women are shaken, especially with the pro-lifers running after them with their fetus dolls, telling them they’re committing murder. I tell them, ‘Don’t worry. Just go about your business.’ ”
Until the abortion issue began making headlines in the mid-’80s, Scherff had left politics to the politicians. A moderately religious Lutheran—and with five daughters, ranging in age from 31 to 40, a devoted family man—he spent most of his free time with his wife, Arlene, and their kids and grandkids, accompanying a daughter to shop for a dress or nursing a granddaughter sick with the flu. But as state and federal courts began chipping away at privacy rights established under Roe v. Wade, Scherff became increasingly disturbed—and involved. When in 1989 he saw a newspaper advertisement asking for volunteers for the Pro-Choice Network, he and Arlene, 62, a retired high school teacher, were quick to respond. “Reagan and now Bush, they want to take away people’s rights. They want to dictate to us,” he says. “Well, I don’t like it. Abortion is a woman’s right. People should leave them alone.”
A block away, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups as they huddle in the driving rain, stand a handful of men who have no intention of leaving anyone alone. Their position is scrawled in bold print on a sign one clutches in his hand: EVERYONE DESERVES A BIRTHDAY. For Philip Smith especially, the words are more than a slogan. A New York State Department of Corrections guard, Smith, 28, will not rest, he says, until abortion becomes legally what he has always considered it morally: murder.
“People want to decide while the baby is in the womb whether life is worth living,” he says, shaking his head in anger. One of 16 children, Smith took up the antiabortion banner two years ago when his sister Maria, who suffered from cerebral palsy, died at age 25. For Smith, Maria’s death brought the value of her life—and the potential lives of others like her—into painful but poignant focus. “All her life, we had to care for her, feed her, change her diapers,” says Smith. “For all practical purposes, she was a vegetable. But she was my sister. She was a human being.” He shudders at the thought that as the law stands today, a life like Maria’s, detected al the fetal stage through prenatal testing, might end in abortion before it begins. “Birth defect or no,” says Smith, “it’s a life, and we cannot say that life is not worthwhile.”
Nor, he has learned, is making what he calls the “right” decision always easy. He and his wife, Josie, 28, both members of the New Covenant Tabernacle in Tonawanda, five miles from their home in Buffalo, have a 9-month-old baby girl, Alessandra, and are joyfully expecting another in December. But last year his unwed brother, Greg, 33, found himself facing an unwanted pregnancy. “It was controversial because his girlfriend was black,” says Smith. At first a few family members raised objections. “Some of them felt the baby wouldn’t have any cultural roots,” he says. In the end the Smiths urged the couple to keep the baby and even helped them buy a home. “We pulled together to support them,” says Smith, “and praise God, they made the right decision. If people who value family traditions don’t make a stand, then the laws of society will be established by political groups, be they homosexuals or save-the-whalers or feminists.”
By afternoon, wet and weary, the throng of protesters has thinned. Only the most stalwart remain. Smith is still on the picket line, praying quietly and carrying a sign that says ABORTION IS MURDER. Gripping his collar against the cold, another father chimes in. “I don’t hate the women. I really don’t,” he says. “It’s a matter of civil rights—for people who aren’t born yet.
Behind the clinic gate, Scherff blows on his fingers to keep them warm. As he is the first to admit, he would rather be at home with his family. But as he sees it, he has to protect the rights of those who have already been born. “We don’t want to go back to back-alley abortions,” he says. Minutes later he offers a tense-looking woman, making her way into the clinic, his cold but reassuring hand. “I don’t even want to think about it,” says Scherff. “If ever they need help and I’m not around, I hope someone else will do like I’m doing here.”
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
HEIDI J. LAFLECHE in Buffalo