How the Supreme Court freed this woman to share her message of mercy and hope
The young married couple slide quickly out of their car and onto the busy sidewalk, eyes fixed on the dark glass doors of the huge Planned Parenthood abortion center. Half a block long and three stories high, its imposing facade looms over the busy stream of students milling up and down the mile-long stretch of Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University.
Suddenly, a small figure nudges into the couple’s tunneled vision, moving to engage them.
“Good morning,” she says, arms wide and inviting, in the cheerful tones of someone who actually believes that it is. “I’m Eleanor. How can I help you this morning?’
They quickly brush past her and into the building. Minutes later, the husband comes back out to put money in the meter. The small woman is still there, still beaming. “Can I help you?”
“You can’t help me,” he says, pulling change from his pocket. To her fine-tuned ear, he sounds as though he’s trying to convince himself, more than her.
“Well, okay. But I just want to ask you—do you know when the baby’s heart starts beating?”
He sighs, but he answers. “Three months.”
“No … not three months. Twenty-one days. Do you know when the brain waves begin to form?”
Fishing for another quarter, he flashes her an expression that mingles surprise, annoyance, and curiosity in about equal measure. “Six months,” he guesses.
“Ten weeks,” she tells him. Their eyes meet.
He turns back toward the building—then, almost in spite of himself, asks her a question … something about the baby’s DNA. In a moment, they’re deep in conversation. Too deep, to the woman’s mind. She is counting precious minutes, even as her genuine smile and tone warm and envelop the stranger. She fixes him with a clear, sober expression.
“You have to go in there and get her.”
He looks at her for a moment. “All right,” he says at last. “I will.” He runs for the door. Ten minutes later, he’s back, tears in his eyes.
“She’s already in the back. I can’t get to her. They won’t let me speak to her.” He’s visibly upset. “I can’t believe I brought her here.”
A thought seizes her: “Do you have a cell phone? Call her. Tell her there’s help out here and to stop this.”
Incredibly, Planned Parenthood staff members have brought the woman into the procedure room with her cell phone. She answers his call. “You have to come out!” he cries, pleading.
“And she did,” Eleanor says, with a smile that could light up the whole Boston skyline. “I have their little boy’s picture. It’s on my refrigerator.”
There are a lot of pictures on Eleanor McCullen’s refrigerator. All of them children who owe their lives, in large measure, to this 78-year-old woman’s willingness to stand on a Boston curbside five hours a day, two days a week—rain, shine, snow, or sleet—for the last 14 years.
Between them, the little group that joins Eleanor on that sidewalk is able to persuade dozens of mothers a year not to abort their babies. “Eleanor is 90 percent of those,” says Mary O’Donnell, 82, who’s been working alongside her for more than 10 years. “The rest of us do our part, but nothing to compare to her. She’s just like Mother Teresa. When she goes like this ...” and Mary spreads her arms wide, and smiles. “Eleanor makes a difference.”
I'm consumed with admiration for the work that she does. So many children would not be here without her involvement.
“She’s the model,” says Bill Cotter, of Operation Rescue, who’s directed her efforts since the first day she stepped onto this sidewalk. “The mother factor comes into play. Eleanor’s very engaging, disarming … she exudes real caring for the woman—and the man, as well. They intuit that, and respond to it. She’s the ideal sidewalk counselor.”
At least one man takes it a step further than that. “She’s a saint,” says Joe McCullen, who’s been married to her for more than 56 years, and so might be expected to be harder to impress. A successful businessman, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and senior advisor to several U.S. presidents, he’s the one who hears the phone ringing all day and into the night as the expectant mothers call with their questions. He’s the one who comes home to a rowdy living room filled with the children of many of the women who changed their minds after meeting Eleanor.
“I’m consumed with admiration for the work that she does,” he says. “So many children would not be here without her involvement. To see these little kids, jumping around … I get tears in my eyes.” He finds himself at a lot of baptisms, he says, of both the children and their parents. Some of the children are named after her, or him. “It makes me very, very happy.”
“Eleanor has a real gift,” says Mary Gerard, who, as director of Pregnancy Help, a pro-life resource center sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston, is the woman Eleanor keeps bringing so many other women to meet. “Many, many women,” Mary says. “She is just this sort of oasis in their crazy lives … offering them another way. Not just, you know, ‘Don’t get the abortion,’ but she always talks about the Lord in a very practical, sort of nonthreatening way. She’s also very humble. A lot of these women come from really poor backgrounds, [but] there’s nothing in Eleanor that makes them feel like she feels better than them.”
The young woman, like countless others, dodges Eleanor’s smile and warm greeting and pushes on into the Planned Parenthood building. There is no surgeon on hand this particular day, so the staff just give her a pill, which she looks at for a moment, then swallows. They give her another to take later, and she walks out, clutching it in a brown bag. She walks hesitantly over to Eleanor.
“I don’t want to take it,” she says.
“Well, come on,” says Eleanor, and hurries her into her car and speeds down the road to Pregnancy Help. But it’s too late. The baby is dead, and the woman sobs and stammers her guilt.
“You changed your mind,” Eleanor reminds her. “The Lord knows that.”
“I never condemn,” she says quietly, remembering the young woman’s face. “Who am I?”
“It’s almost like a conversion experience,” says Mary Gerard, describing what happens to the women Eleanor brings to her clinic. “It’s like everything that was awful in their lives, that was leading them to terminate this pregnancy, is like this funnel that they go through, and they come to this moment where they decide, ‘No, I’m not doing this.’ And then they come to the other side. They can start to see their whole life changing … it’s a real transformation.”
Eleanor knows about transformation. One summer evening 14 years ago, she sat alone in Mass, waiting impatiently for the priest to finish his sermon so she could get home to watch Regis Philbin. The sermon ran on. She finally opted to just leave … and found she couldn’t move.
“I think I was knocked off my horse,” she laughs. Up until then, life had seemed rich and full enough, but “I was getting a little restless. Everything was fine, but when I look back, I wasn’t really fine. If you don’t know Jesus as your Savior, everything isn’t quite fine. St. Augustine said, ‘I’m restless until I rest in Thee.’” Suddenly, that evening, “I was so convicted … like arrows of love were being shot at me. The Lord just pinned me to the wall. He got me!”
“She is just this sort of oasis in their crazy lives … offering them another way."
Mary Gerard, Pregnancy Help
Her heart overflowing, Eleanor soon approached her priest for an idea of something she could do for Jesus. He suggested that she go downtown, stand in front of Planned Parenthood, and pray for the women she found there. It wasn’t what Eleanor had in mind. “I’m too old,” she told him.
“He said, ‘Are you 103?’ she recalls, laughing. “‘No,’ I said. ‘Then you’re not too old,’ he said.”
She had no intention of doing anything but praying. But one day, a counselor called in sick, and Cotter asked Eleanor to step in. “It was a snowy day,” she remembers, “and I was scared to death.” She tentatively approached a man standing outside the building, smoking a cigarette. “Can I help you?” she asked, and within minutes — to her amazement — he had gone into the building and returned with his wife. “I had no idea what to do with them!” Motherly instinct kicked in.
“Come with me,” she said. “I have some chocolate chip cookies.” She took them home, served the cookies, and began thumbing through the phone book. She found something that sounded like a pregnancy counseling service, and called the number. A pastor answered.
“I’ve got a couple here in my living room,” she said. The pastor urged her to bring them in right away. Half an hour later, she had the couple talking with counselors. “It was like I’d been doing it all my life.” She’s been out on the sidewalk ever since.
And now she knows what to do with those she meets there. For Eleanor, “counseling” means a lot more than handing women a card or brochure, or even driving them to a clinic. She invites them into her home. She still passes out cookies. She throws them baby showers, providing baby clothes and bassinettes, food baskets and toys. If need be, she helps them find an apartment and money to cover the rent. She invites their disapproving parents over to the house to talk things through. She has the young families over for a spaghetti dinner now and then, and hosts Christmas parties for their children. She even helps pay for some of the children’s schooling.
She enlists reliable, dedicated friends who knit the baby caps and blankets, fill the food baskets. When supplies run low, she goes on the radio, urging people to help—and they do, flooding her spare rooms with diapers, formula, baby clothes, toys. “I represent all the people that you never will see,” she says. “I give it out, but they’re giving it to me.”
Over the last six years, Eleanor and her friends’ ability to do what they do has been encumbered, though not compromised, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2008, the legislature created a fixed “buffer zone” around abortion centers, designed to keep pro-life counselors at least 35 feet away from building entrances, exits, or driveways. The ruling left Eleanor literally out in the street.
“I used to always think she was going to get killed,” says Mary O’Donnell. “Those trucks came so close. You could not convince her a Mack Truck was going to knock her over.”
“Keeping somebody at least 35 feet away requires sidewalk counselors to shout to try to get the attention of the patient, which is absolutely contrary to what the sidewalk counselor’s trying to do,” says Alliance Defending Freedom Allied Attorney Michael DePrimo. “They don’t want to shout. They want to speak to them in a normal conversational voice. A smile is important. Eye contact is important. A normal conversational voice is critical in order to establish trust.”
“For years, pro-lifers were portrayed as mean-spirited, ugly people who just wanted to yell at women. Eleanor’s the opposite of that.”
Michael DePrimo, ADF Allied Attorney
The Massachusetts decision intrigued DePrimo, though he practices in nearby Hamden, Connecticut. Having successfully challenged a similar buffer zone ordinance in Florida years before, he began looking around for someone who might make a good plaintiff in a lawsuit against Bay State officials. Someone recommended Eleanor. He knew at once she was perfect.
“For years, pro-lifers were portrayed as mean-spirited, ugly people who just wanted to yell at women seeking an abortion,” he says. “Eleanor’s the opposite of that. Her smile, the brightness of her eyes, the obvious love she has for the people she’s counseling. Eleanor’s not a protestor. She’s a counselor, helping women make a decision with respect to their unborn children.” With her as his primary client, DePrimo believed it more than possible they could win.
“The U.S. Supreme Court had never approved of any type of a law even remotely similar to the Massachusetts statute,” he says, “The court has, for many, many years, said that speech on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open.” Nevertheless, “the courts have been chipping away at the rights of pro-lifers, making it much more difficult for them to express their messages, even on public sidewalks. The more government is able to come in and inhibit people from [expressing] their point of view on the public ways, the more difficult it becomes to actually get our particular view before the people.”
Eleanor herself was at first inclined just to try to work around the exclusion zone, but, on reflection, decided that was the kind of compromise that was making it too easy for those in power to rob her of her constitutional rights. “Our rights are taken away left and right,” she says. “We start compromising our values. All of a sudden, we wonder, ‘Are we in America?’ So, instead of saying, ‘Oh, let it go,’ I said, ‘No, let’s see how far we can go with it.’”
It turned out to be an uphill climb —even with Alliance Defending Freedom’s full support.
“The litigation in this case went on for eight years, against the Massachusetts attorney general’s office,” DePrimo says. “They had an unlimited budget, and an unlimited number of attorneys, investigators, and paralegal staff at their disposal. And there’s no way somebody like myself, who’s a sole practitioner, could have spent the 1,645 hours that I spent on this case without having some financial support.
“ADF gave me several grants to be able to keep the case alive,” he says. “And they stayed with the case, even though we lost four times before actually getting review at the Supreme Court. Without the help of ADF, without the support of the ministry partners, there’s simply no way that we could have effectively put together the case that we did.”
DePrimo worked with two other ADF allied attorneys, Mark Rienzi and Philip Moran, to hone Eleanor’s case and prepare their appeal to the Supreme Court. In early 2014, the court heard the case. Eleanor, reeling from a severe inner ear infection, was told by her doctor not to make the trip—or, if she did, to take a wheelchair.
“I will not,” Eleanor told him. “I don’t want the people of the Supreme Court to think only old, crippled people care about the unborn.” She used a cane, leaned on Joe, and faced the cameras.
“Eleanor is Eleanor,” DePrimo says. “She handled herself marvelously. She was her very happy, exuberant self.” A New York Times reporter called her “the new face of the pro-life movement.”
A few months later, nine justices who rarely agree on anything ruled unanimously in her favor.
“Even the most liberal Supreme Court justices ruled that the Massachusetts buffer statute violated the First Amendment,” DePrimo says. Groups like Planned Parenthood were “shocked,” he says, at the defeat of a law designed “to protect the safety of women.” In fact, “this had nothing to do with the safety of women. This was all about suppressing pro-life speech.”
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, other cities across the country began repealing their own buffer zones. “A great decision,” says Cotter. “A small step in the cause of justice.”
“My joy,” says Mary O’Donnell, “is No. 1, I don’t worry about Eleanor in the street anymore. And No. 2, I can walk on the sidewalk, and they know I’m not a terrorist.”
“It’s all glory to God,” Eleanor says, “and thank you to our lawyers for persevering. ADF is an amazing organization. What they do to help people carry out their dreams is amazing.”
The seasons fade in and out. Blistering summer days become bone-chilling winter mornings. Eleanor, Mary, Bill, and several others are dependable as mailmen, striding the sidewalks in front of the Planned Parenthood building, praying, smiling at passersby, handing out brochures, watching for the young women headed toward those dark glass doors.
So many—hundreds, thousands—´go through with the killing. They push past Eleanor, ignoring her, mocking her, screaming obscenities in her face. Discouragement can find a toehold.
And yet, “She never seems to get off track,” says Mary Gerard. “She’s really focused on the mission and on the women, and there’s this joy. ‘Mary,’ she says, ‘there’s always the next one.’”
“I’m compelled to go,” Eleanor says, “every Tuesday and Wednesday. It sounds strange, but it’s a Holy Spirit drawing, like I have to go. And to be a witness. That’s what we’re all supposed to do. Preach the Gospel the best way we can, try to help, and just … let it go. And not get discouraged.
“It’s called love. And love …” She smiles, and her arms spread wide. “You cannot argue with that.”