Speak for the Unborn leader pleads for life as babies are on the brink of death
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (SBTS) — On this July Saturday, an unusual number of people gather outside 138 West Market Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The reason for the large turnout is unclear — it could be coincidence, it could be the especially warm morning, or it could be the effect of a series of undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress that has drawn national attention. The videos purport to show Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit women’s healthcare provider, profiting from selling aborted baby parts and organs, though the organization has steadfastly denied such conclusions.
Most of the crowd are pro-life protesters, and they congregate more than an hour before the EMW Women’s Surgical Center (which is unaffiliated with Planned Parenthood) opens. Some are pro-life Catholics, some are from various pro-life Protestant groups, and some — a very small group huddling for prayer, dressed in yellow parking vests — are with Speak for the Unborn, an evangelical ministry that bills itself as a ministry of the local church. It intends to “make abortion impossible, both through godly and legal means,” according to its website.
In the center, quietly uttering a prayer asking for the women who visit that morning to “find their hope in the gospel,” is Andrew King, a Ph.D. student at Southern Seminary and director of Speak for the Unborn. For the better part of a decade, King and other volunteers have stood outside EMW, pleading with women to reconsider their decision. “We are quite literally the last line of defense,” King says.
One woman comes around the corner guarded by escorts — pro-choice volunteers who walk women from their cars to the clinic and wear orange vests to identify themselves. King trails close behind, speaking gently to her as he walks. “Please, this is your son, this is your daughter,” he is saying. The woman looks unsettled, her face uneasy and her hands cupped around her ears. The escorts work hard to calm her and drown out King’s plea. Just steps away from the front door of the clinic, the woman abruptly turns, looking panicked and physically ill. Surrounded by protesters, she covers her mouth and sprints back around the corner and toward her car. A group of escorts race after her, urging her to come back to the clinic and have the abortion. “You scared her off!” one of them yells at King. He has seen the escorts respond like this before, but he still shakes his head.
“She changed her mind, and they just ran after her,” King says. “You get to see how pro-choice these people really are.”
King and another volunteer, a member of Sojourn Community Church at his first Saturday with Speak for the Unborn, immediately start praying for the woman. Another from the group says she saw representatives from A Woman’s Choice Resource Center, a crisis pregnancy center next door, speaking with the woman’s boyfriend, who was waiting in the car. It seems, for the moment, the woman has decided not to go through with it.
“People say all the time, ‘Man, you’re radical,’” King said about his ministry in a separate interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “I don’t want to be radical; I want to be faithful. People are comfortable being pro-life on the ballot, but they’re not so pro-life in front of an abortion clinic. They’re not that pro-life because that’s crazy.”
Speak for the Unborn began after Ryan Fullerton, lead pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, challenged his church in a 2009 sermon to get serious about responding to abortion. “We say we’re pro-life,” King, a longtime member at IBC, recalled Fullerton saying. “What are we doing about it?” A couple in the church, Dave and Stacy Hare, responded by organizing groups from Immanuel to stand outside Louisville’s lone abortion clinic on Market Street and minister to women entering EMW. King was among the first volunteers, and when the Hares stepped away a year later, he took leadership of the ministry.
Speak for the Unborn has since added official partnerships with Kenwood Baptist Church and Garfield Avenue Baptist Church, an Immanuel church plant, and five to seven people gather on an average Saturday morning. “That’s not enough,” King maintains, and it’s easy to see why. That’s less than half the number of orange-vested escorts placed strategically along the sidewalk, and it doesn’t approach the number of other pro-life protesters — both the Catholic volunteers and the other, more confrontational protesters who carry large signs that read: “Never Forget That What Hitler Did In Germany Was Legal” or “Please Don’t Kill Your Unborn Child” with attendant gruesome pictures of aborted babies.
The ones who regularly volunteer for Speak for the Unborn don’t mess around. That morning, one volunteer crouches like a baseball catcher in front of a client on her way into the clinic, pleading with her and quickly backpedaling as an escort shouts in his face to back up. The escort repeatedly addresses him by his first name, a subtle reminder of the countless Saturdays these volunteers show up at the clinic, so often the escorts know them by name. A married couple from Immanuel try to speak with another client while an escort tries to talk over them. “These people think they have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body,” the escort is saying.
The escorts are a whole other outreach of Speak for the Unborn, albeit an indirect and contentious one. Escorts are volunteers too, only motivated to defend abortion rather than fight it. Though they are not affiliated with the clinic, they will try to reach the client’s car first and warn them about “crazy protesters” who might attempt to speak with them. King and other volunteers will try to break whatever stereotype a woman might have of a pro-life protester, often asking questions and trying to listen to the woman’s story for as long as time allows. Meanwhile, escorts will try to distract the woman, talking with her about anything from the weather to the “cracks in the sidewalk,” according to King.
“The escorts, I tremble for them,” King said. “They hear the gospel every week as clearly as we do in our Southern Baptist churches. And they hate it.”
Speak for the Unborn is an unapologetically evangelical ministry of the local church, listing its theological distinctives on its website. It doesn’t partner with non-evangelical pro-life organizations, nor does it open chapters in schools or colleges. King takes great pains to ensure Speak for the Unborn is not associated with a social movement but instead emerges exclusively from a robustly biblical worldview.
“We are explicitly gospel-centered,” he said. “It’s the gospel that motivates us. Though it’s a good and noble thing to stand up for life, I tremble to think that someone would turn away from abortion only to remain under the judgment of God.”
The ministry labors on hard, stubborn soil. Women will change their minds, but obvious fruit of their efforts has been scarce. King is confident their words of grace are the initial planting of a seed the Holy Spirit will water and grow.
“This ministry will cause you to redefine your standard of success,” he said. “My success story is every week, people who would not come near the doors of our church are hearing the gospel more clearly than ever.”
Although some women turn away before reaching the clinic — and King is thankful for anything that keeps a woman from having an abortion — he isn’t always sure it was because of Speak for the Unborn. Some women might decide the stress of walking through about 50 protesters isn’t worth it, while others will show up before the clinic opens and decide they don’t want to wait. Stories of hope, like a woman who got an abortion at EMW but was converted later through the ministry of an Immanuel member, are far less common than stories of sadness, like the Kings’ former neighbor who showed up one day on her way into the clinic and shut out Andrew and his wife despite their repeated attempts to minister to her. Other volunteers have reported seeing co-workers and friends walk into EMW.
“You see people you know, if you hang out long enough,” King said. “It’s a lot closer to our lives than people imagine. It’s not some issue that’s out there; people who visit our local churches are walking into these clinics as well.”
Joining Speak for the Unborn is simple, if not easy. King has received countless emails over the last five years, usually whenever a popular evangelical leader blogs about the pro-life movement or whenever abortion appears in the news, whether in the Planned Parenthood controversy or some other news story. Very few follow through.
“The first step is showing up on that sidewalk,” King said. “It can be an intimidating thing. One of the major obstacles to people joining this ministry is fear.”
It’s both a better and worse experience than most people expect, according to King. It’s not as dangerous as some fear, but abortion becomes a vivid reality when a volunteer watches young girls walk into the clinic. It’s no longer just a political or theoretical issue.
“You see normal people just like you and me walking into that clinic. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. You see a weeping 14-year-old girl, whose grandfather is walking her into the clinic, patting her on the back saying, ‘It will be all right,’” King said. “You don’t unsee that stuff.”
Beyond the sidewalk on Market Street, King hopes to cultivate awareness in churches across the United States, to see other churches speak sensitively but winsomely to the complex issues surrounding abortion, and even to inspire other churches to adopt Speak for the Unborn in their own contexts. He hopes someday for Speak for the Unborn to have its own staff and to send representatives establishing similar ministries in other local congregations nationwide.
A few churches have responded, including Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, which is an official chapter of Speak for the Unborn, but overall the response has been muted.
After King recently spoke at a church on evangelical testimony in the face of abortion, a churchgoer approached him. “We’re excited and we’ll continue to pray for you,” the person said. “That’s it, huh?” he replied. Other churches have seemed interested, but don’t adopt a pro-life outreach because they already have too many programs. King bristles at that, too.
“If your church has too many programs to practice your religion, then you need to repent and re-prioritize,” he tells them, alluding to the “true and undefiled religion” of caring for women and children in James 1:27. “This ministry isn’t for everyone, but this ministry is for someone — someone who is not on that sidewalk right now, someone in the local church who is embracing comfort over taking up their cross and following Jesus to the doorsteps of an abortion clinic.”
On this Saturday, the woman who ran away from the EMW Women’s Surgical Center — mouth over her hand, retching compulsively, escorts sprinting after her, urging her to return — no more than 15 minutes later emerges from a white car hastily pulled up beside the curb, presumably to shorten the gauntlet through the mass of protesters. King would later learn the woman was hesitant, but her boyfriend — who stayed in the car while she walked to the clinic — was pushing her to have the abortion.
King uses the few seconds he has before she reaches the door to give his last pitch. The protesters, holding their graphic signs higher in the air, shout in an indistinctive, cacophonous rattle; the Catholics chant with their prayer beads dangling; the escorts stiff-arm protesters away and try to distract the woman; yet King’s pleas sound more like whispers.
“This is a human being, this is a human being.”
Andrew J.W. Smith is a news writer for Southern Seminary and a Master of Divinity student. For more information on Speak for the Unborn, visit speakfortheunborn.com or email Andrew King at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared first in the fall issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.