Stephen McEntegart carried a pink rosary as he paced outside a women's clinic in Tampa. He was praying for babies.
"Prayer is the most powerful thing we have," said McEntegart, who has been active in the antiabortion movement since college. He and his wife have two children and had two miscarriages, which brought home a truth, he said: "You know that it is a child."
McEntegart, who lives in St. Petersburg, was part of a rotation of volunteers from multiple churches who have held signs and prayed outside Tampa Woman's Health Center at 2010 E Fletcher Ave. from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily for the past month.
Passing drivers honk, or curse. Or look away.
The praying pickets are part of an international 40-day campaign to reduce the number of abortions. They have targeted three clinics in the Tampa Bay area.
The protesters aim to be approachable, but some see their presence as harassment.
"We view these protests as designed to intimidate our patients," said Kellie Dupree, the Sarasota-based spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood's southwest and Central Florida affiliate. "We strongly believe our patients should be able to get health care without attempts to coerce, judge or shame them."
A few times, local 40 Days for Life campaigns have drawn abortion rights advocates to the same site. Recently on Fletcher, members of both sides talked peacefully and shared information packets. Volunteers escorted women to the Fletcher Avenue center's back door with umbrellas to shield them from abortion protesters, who stay on public sidewalks, organizers said.
The 40 Days volunteers say the women and men who enter clinics are often looking for a sign, and that abortion rights proponents get in the way of their ministry. So the pickets try to be approachable. They sign a statement of peace, agreeing to show compassion to everyone.
"We want to be the face of Christ out here," said Sabrina Burton Schultz, the director of life ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.
The diocese started the campaign at All Women's Health Center in St. Petersburg in 2008 and added the Tampa location in 2010.
Barbara Cowne, of Safety Harbor, signed up to volunteer every Sunday afternoon in October this year at the third vigil site, Women's Ob/Gyn Center of Countryside, in Clearwater.
"Have you ever had an abortion?" Cowne asks women who approach the health center. "Because I have."
Cowne was 33 with two children and a boyfriend who had just left town after they broke up. She hadn't told anyone she was pregnant the day she called a clinic and asked if there were any protesters outside. There weren't. At the clinic, she told a counselor she didn't believe in abortion and remembers the response. "Nobody does, but you know you have to do it," Cowne recalls being told.
"I admit it was what I wanted to hear," she said, but she walked out the door thinking she had done something terribly wrong. "If someone had been there to offer me assistance ..."
Now she is that someone.
"You might think abortion will be the end, but there's life in your womb," she tells women as they enter the centers. "When you end that, it's very traumatic physically, emotionally and spirituality."
She tells them she's a nurse. She offers a free ultrasound in a clinic bus she drives to the site on Fletcher Avenue once a month. She tells women that at five weeks, a fetus' heart starts beating. She tells them there are options.
"We're not just telling you: 'Don't abort your baby.' We are telling you we will be there to help you in whatever capacity you need," says Cowne, who works for Foundations of Life Pregnancy Centers, a ministry of Catholic Charities. She routes them to services, from free diapers to housing assistance for the baby's first year.
The 40 Days for Life campaign will end Nov. 3. Participants came from Catholic and Protestant churches and signed up for a day or two on 40daysforlife.com.
Schultz said the local campaign claims to have changed about 20 women's minds, although they can't know for sure.
"It's the biggest human rights issue of our time," Schultz said.
Ten clinics perform abortions in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, she said.
The volunteers' ultimate goal is to close them.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.