The New Face of the Pro-Life Movement
Forty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, a case that began in Dallas. Now the city is serving as a proving ground for the newest weapon in the battle over abortion.
David Pomerantz sees every pregnant woman as "a safe loaded with gold that thieves are trying to steal." That's why he has parked an ultrasound-equipped van outside an abortion clinicphotography by Elizabeth Lavin
As David Pomerantz tells the story, his grandfather was 6 years old at the beginning of World War II, when Pomerantz’s great-grandparents were killed by Nazis. The young boy was put on a train bound for a concentration camp. He was riding in the last car—it was packed so tightly with people that he could barely breathe—when a pin fell out of a coupler, dropping his car from the rest of the train. The boy walked to a nearby town, only to find that its residents were being herded into the square to be cut down with machine guns. When the shooting started, the boy fell to the ground and pretended to be dead. There, the story goes, Pomerantz’s grandfather hid for three days under the bloody corpses of strangers. When the coast was clear, the boy got up and walked for miles, until he came across a refugee camp in the woods. He lived there for eight years, in squalor and pain and anguish, before he could immigrate to America, where he eventually married and had two children, Pomerantz’s mother and his aunt.
This is what Pomerantz thinks about when he is on the street, parked in front of an abortion clinic five days a week. As he tries to convince a woman to keep her child, he thinks of all those different lineages, the bloodlines that were saved when the train car detached.
“I picture myself as that pin,” he says. “I don’t just see a baby. I see a line of humanity we’re saving that could exist for eternity.”
It’s late October, and, after a long, sweltering summer, the air is beginning to cool. Pomerantz is standing in front of an abortion clinic not far from Parkland, handing out glossy cards he tells people are “good for one free sonogram.” A few feet away sits a large, white van emblazoned with the letters “SOS,” which stands for Sonograms On Site. He’s 23 years old and has a Justin Bieber haircut, sparkling blue eyes, and an engaging smile. For several hours a day, nearly every day, he tries to direct women away from the clinic and onto his van.
The clinic is on a quiet road, between a wine distributor and a construction site. The front door opens, and a man walks out. He backs up a late-model Chrysler to the door, and a nurse appears, pushing a woman in a wheelchair. A security guard sitting outside helps the nurse get the wheelchair to the side of the car. The woman is wearing a University of Iowa sweatshirt. She’s slumped over, in a daze. The security guard opens the car door and the nurse helps her into the passenger seat. In an instant, the car is out of the lot and gone. Then it happens again. The next woman looks glassy-eyed, exhausted. Pomerantz is close enough to see a spot of blood on the woman’s sweatpants.
Within minutes, three young women approach the clinic, apparently walking from a nearby neighborhood. They look barely old enough to vote, but two of them have tattoos crawling up their necks. Pomerantz offers them the glossy card, but they don’t even make eye contact as they pass him and walk into the clinic.
Before long, though, two of them return. One is wearing a blue tank top and the other a red sweater. They look inquisitively at the van.
“Come on over,” Pomerantz says, his voice as peaceful as he can make it.
The young women oblige. They say that Hangover II is playing in the waiting room inside. It’s “too weird” in there, one says. Their friend, the one inside, is here for an abortion. They’re told about the van, the free sonograms. After a brief conversation, the woman in blue explains that she’s actually pretty sure she’s pregnant. The woman in red says she thinks she might be pregnant, too.
“We can do sonograms right here,” Pomerantz says. “We can do pregnancy tests, too.”
The women are timid. They’re torn.
“Come on,” one of Pomerantz’s friends tells the women. “It’s cold out here and the bus is warm.”
With that, both women climb on board and the door closes behind them.
David Pomerantz is, in many ways, the new face of the pro-life movement. He doesn’t call women baby killers or hold a giant picture of an aborted fetus. He doesn’t scream or throw holy water. His goal is to stop abortion, to save babies, by helping mothers. Once he gets them on the van, they’re offered a free pregnancy test and an ultrasound. A trained counselor and a sonographer are there to assuage any fears the mothers might have. They want to change minds with kindness, and the idea is spreading. In the eight months Pomerantz has been doing this in Dallas, he has been contacted by multiple groups from all over the country hoping to start mobile ultrasound units of their own.
Pomerantz believes that every abortion is motivated by fear of some sort. And for every fear, the kind people at Sonograms On Site have an answer. Maybe the woman is worried she can’t take care of the baby financially. “We have resources, connections,” he explains. “We can help you fill out the paperwork to get government money. We have diapers, food, baby clothes, strollers, everything you’ll need.”
Maybe the woman is in an abusive relationship. “We can get you relationship counseling or a safe place and resources to help you start over, whether you have the baby or not.” Maybe she’s just afraid this baby will ruin her life and waylay all her plans. “Having a kid will be the thing that saves your life,” he tells them. “You’ll be happier than you ever thought. You’ll have something new to live for!” And for the mothers on the fence, Pomerantz gives out little hand-knit baby booties.
The margins of the internet, where the most passionate die-hards debate abortion every day, have already taken notice. One very popular anti-abortion website called Pomerantz’s van “an abortion clinic’s worst nightmare.” The liberal blog Feministing.com posted a photo of the van under the words “guerilla anti-choice tactics.” The writer called what Pomerantz is doing “repulsive.” A caption reads: “If you see this bus driving around, please run and call a friend. It’s full of people that want to force their scary beliefs on to you.”
Pomerantz insists he’s there first and foremost to help women, not to preach. “We’re the ones offering true choice,” he says. “Women are reminded all the time that they can have an abortion, that it’s their right. What you don’t hear is people telling her it’s okay to have the baby, that she can work through her fear. We want to make it easier for you to choose the choice you really want.”
He signifies not only a change in the approach of the pro-life movement, but also a change in the tone of the conversation. For years, he has heard people say that pro-lifers care only about a woman until she doesn’t have an abortion. He has seen women shamed, ostracized, threatened.
The clinic where he parks his van—Pomerantz would prefer the name of the clinic not be published, fearing it might draw either future clients or troublemakers—has been the site of shrill protests over the years. The police have been called several times, and a freshly painted red line marks where the public property stops and the trespassing charges begin. A few feet from the front door sits the clinic’s security guard. He is paid by the doctors to keep the peace at the clinic. A smile comes over the man’s face as he gets up and walks toward Pomerantz.
“How’re you doing today, Buddy,” Pomerantz says. “You remember to take your Centrum Silver?”
Buddy laughs. He’s several decades older than Pomerantz, with a gold tooth and a Dallas Cowboys cap on. “Oh, you think you’re funny, don’t you?” Buddy says. They exchange an elaborate handshake.
“This is my boy right here,” Buddy says, pointing at Pomerantz. “Anything happens to him, something’s already happened to me.”
On most days, Pomerantz is here around 9 am. He’s calm, perpetually smiling. He offers an earnest “Have a nice day!” to everyone, even the people who look like they want to punch him in the face. He wants to distance his project from the protestors of yesteryear. “I’d rather be an advocate than an activist,” he says.
He tries to approach every woman he sees. When he can’t get to someone, one of the regular Catholic protestors generally will. For years, the pregnancy center across the street has had protestors standing in front of this clinic from open to close. Some of them have been protesting abortion since before Roe v. Wade, when they suspected illegal abortions were being performed in college dorms. During the lulls at the clinic, they tell Pomerantz their old abortion-fighting tales, and he tells them about his newer, softer approach.
The idea came when Pomerantz was on a mission trip to New York City two and a half years ago. He was there to learn about street evangelism, how to engage people on the sidewalk. A friend of a friend he met there was pioneering something Pomerantz had never seen before. He had a van—a ratty old clunker—with a mobile ultrasound machine in the back. There were no signs, no shouting, nothing confrontational at all.
“It was just a resource,” he says. “If you needed help, we had something for you.”
As he gets excited, he sounds part pastor, part prudent businessman. His voice is smooth, a young man destined for a life full of microphones and cameras.
The reaction to the van from the women approaching the clinic in New York was stunning, he says. Instead of running past or looking down to avoid eye contact, the women seemed to be interested in the earnest offer of help. One week he remembers the New York van gave 25 women ultrasounds. Of those, he says, about two thirds decided not to have abortions.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” Pomerantz says. “It was everything I wanted from the pro-life movement since high school but had never seen.”
Pomerantz wondered why there wasn’t one of these vans in every city in America. He stayed in New York to study the van. He wanted to know which approaches worked best, which words sent mothers running. One afternoon, traffic at the New York clinic was slow, and Pomerantz was left by himself for a few minutes. He remembers it clearly: a woman came up to the clinic. As she opened the door, she looked right at him. He was new to this and didn’t know what to say. Her hand was shaking as she held the door.
“We have resources,” he remembers telling her in his most compassionate, pleading voice. “We can help with a place to live, food, money, whatever you need. Just let go of the door.”
She said she couldn’t. She already had two kids.