If you believe in the Bible, a lot of things can happen in 40 days. It took 40 days of rain to destroy the world, 40 days for Moses to bring home God's law, and 40 days in the desert for Jesus to start preaching.
In 40 days' time, some Christians are hoping for a similar miracle: By praying and fasting round-the-clock in front of Planned Parenthood clinics in 90 cities -- including Seattle, Everett, Tacoma and Olympia -- they're hoping to reduce the number of abortions performed in Washington and across the nation.
The event is called 40 Days for Life, and organizers call it the largest single anti-choice mobilization in history. In Seattle, a vigil started Sept. 26 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the University District, one of the nonprofit's two health centers in Seattle. Prior to the vigil, abortion opponents gathered for a kick-off event at the Catholic Newman Center across the street from the University of Washington. While about 30 pro-lifers prayed inside the center's chapel, an equal number of pro-choice activists held up signs outside and chanted, "Right to life, it's a lie."
But Chris Haag, a co-organizer for Seattle's 40 Days, says the vigils are meant to be peaceful and non-confrontational. Participants sign a pledge form stipulating they will not block a woman's path or call her names. Photos of aborted fetuses are not welcome, only signs reminding women that Christ is watching.
"The desire of [the vigil] is to witness to the gospel of life, to witness to our beliefs," Haag says, "and show that there are those of us who do have a love and desire for the babies and for the women who go out to the clinics who consider abortions."
"It's a very nonjudgmental campaign," he adds. "We don't think of it as a picket or a protest, but more so just as a loving presence, a prayerful presence."
It's a presence, however, that has deterred women: At Texas A&M University, where Haag helped organize the original 40 Days for Life vigil in 2004, he notes that the annual abortion rate dropped by a third in the surrounding city of College Station. According to 40 Days literature, a vigil held in Houston directed 120 pregnant women away from an abortion facility to nearby pregnancy care centers.
"We consider that this is basically harassment," says Sasha Summer Cousineau, a NARAL Pro-Choice Washington staff member who organized the 40 Days counter-rally. "They're trying to catch young people who are new to [the UW] campus and basically make them feel embarrassed or ashamed to proactively protect their bodies, protect their health, and prevent unintended pregnancies."
An accidental pregnancy is one reason that Megan, a recent UW graduate who did not give her last name as she passed last week's rally, says she supports abortion rights. "I can't imagine having a child too young," she says. "I don't think it would be right for the child. I don't think it's right for the parents."
But Janae, a current UW student who did not give her last name, says abortion is wrong. "I do agree for women's choice," she says, "but what about the baby's choice?" Cousineau and Brian Cutler, a community relations officer with Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, say if anti-choicers really wanted to stop abortions, they'd join in efforts to make contraceptives and sex education more readily available. Cutler says no one does more than Planned Parenthood to prevent unintended pregnancies and that abortions make up only 5 percent of the organization's health services and screenings. But the vigils are no siege, he says. Since their start last week, no more protesters than usual have appeared at the organization's U District site. Those who have shown up, he says, haven't stayed long.
Last Saturday, he says, about six protesters were outside the U District clinic when it opened and they left by midday. Aaron Stockton, a 40 Days co-organizer, says the vigil has been continual from the start, at times dropping to one person from an average of four. Cutler calls that having a war and nobody showing up. More protesters may have turned out for the campaign in other states, he says, but here in Seattle, "It's pretty wimpy."