Stepping out in faith – without a buffer zone


Leslie Palma-Simoncek



Eleanor McCullen is a pro-life activist and abortion clinic sidewalk counselor in Massachusetts whose Supreme Court case, McCullen v. Coakley, was a decisive victory for life. On June 26, all nine justices ruled that a 35-foot buffer zone outside clinic entrances was a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Mrs. McCullen will be Janet Morana’s guest at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 15, on Radio Maria’s “Gospel of Life.” Tune in online at


Eleanor McCullen has always been pro-life, but she only put herself on the front lines of the abortion divide in 2000, when she began praying the rosary outside a Boston Planned Parenthood. Fourteen years later, and with a conservative estimate of 260 children alive today because of her, the surname Mrs. McCullen has shared with her husband Joseph for 56 years has been immortalized in a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision, McCullen v.  Coakley.

Last month, all nine justices on the nation’s often-divided highest court ruled that the state of Massachusetts had violated the First Amendment when, in 2007, it enforced a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinic entrances. Mrs. McCullen respected the boundary – a thick, painted yellow line – even though she knew it shouldn’t be there.

“I would never step over the yellow line,” she said, “but it didn’t seem like this was America.”

Mrs. McCullen and her family were in the courtroom on Jan. 15 when her case was argued, and she remembers feeling sorry for Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Miller, representing the state.

“The justices came back at her for calling us protesters,” she recalled. “Justice Scalia said that we were out there trying to help women.”

Mrs. McCullen said the court agreeing to hear the case was “the first miracle,” but the “big miracle” came on June 26 with the unanimous decision in her favor.

“It restored my faith in America,” the 77-year-old Mrs. McCullen, a mother of three and grandmother of six, said of the decision. “It’s a big deal, I guess.”

Since the ruling was handed down, other municipalities --- Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont, and Madison, Wis. among them – have abandoned plans to enact or enforce buffer zones, but in Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley – who aspires to be governor – is looking for other ways to keep people like Mrs. McCullen away from the vulnerable young women who often feel they have no other choice but to abort their unborn children.

As much as the mainstream media likes to portray sidewalk counselors as religious fanatics determined to shame, threaten and intimidate women, no one who has ever seen Mrs. McCullen in action could level such a charge.

Her approach is low key and gentle. She recognizes that most women headed for an abortion clinic feel that no one cares about them. For that reason, she said, “I don’t talk about the baby. I say, ‘I care about you. How can I help you this morning?’ I honor the fact that she’s facing a challenge.” If the woman will stop to talk, Mrs. McCullen will give her a foldout that depicts the stages of the child in the womb. And she’ll press into her hand a card with a web address – and Mrs. McCullen’s cell phone number.

The approach works, and although Mrs. McCullen said she purposefully does not keep track of her saves, her refrigerator is covered with photos of the babies and children who owe their lives to this courageous and committed grandmother.

Mrs. McCullen, a devout Catholic, is a parishioner and lector at St. Ignatius Church at Boston College. Her pro-life activism was inspired, in part, by seeing Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, on the ministry’s “Defending Life” show on EWTN in the late 1990s.

“I saw the passion and vision of Father Frank and I loved what he was doing,” she said. “He stepped out in a leap of faith and the Lord ran with him.”

Many of Mrs. McCullen’s baby saves required a similar leap of faith.

When she began spending her Tuesdays and Wednesdays outside Planned Parenthood, she was there primarily to pray the rosary. That prayerful presence is vital to the effort, she said, but when a sidewalk counselor couldn’t make it one day and someone suggested she try speaking directly to the women and men headed for the door, she stepped out.

She approached a man outside the clinic, assuming his wife or girlfriend had gone inside for an abortion.

“I had no idea what to say to him, so I just said, ‘do you know the heart starts beating at 21 days, and that the child’s DNA is formed at the moment of conception?’ ” The man said he hadn’t realized either of those things and when Mrs. McCullen said, “Go get her out of there,” he did.

She wasn’t sure what to do next, so she drove them to her home in Newton and offered milk and cookies.  Then she brought them to Pregnancy Help, a Catholic, pro-life resource center about a half-mile from Planned Parenthood. A 4D ultrasound, performed on a machine donated by the Knights of Columbus, convinced the couple to choose life.

“The ultrasound is worth a million words,” Mrs. McCullen said.

The little boy she saved that day is now 12; his parents still send pictures.

Among Mrs. McCullen’s saves are six sets of twins – one little girl was named Eleanor in her honor, and there’s a boy named Joseph in honor of her husband.

 Mrs. McCullen recalled meeting another woman the day after she had laminaria inserted to dilate her cervix and had returned to Planned Parenthood for the abortion. The woman was crying, saying it was too late to save her baby.

“I said, ‘I can still help you, get in the car.’ She was crying in the back seat and I had no idea what to do.” Pregnancy Help wasn’t open yet so Mrs. McCullen dialed the number for A Woman’s Concern, another pregnancy center. Dr. Helen Jackson, a pro-life obstetrician, answered the phone and said she would meet Mrs. McCullen and the woman 30 minutes later at St. Elizabeth Hospital. After the laminaria were removed, Mrs. McCullen brought the woman to her house and let her rest. By late afternoon, her cervix was completely closed.

“I could have said, ‘it’s too late’ but you take that step in faith.”

Thanks to Mrs. McCullen, her courage and her now-famous name, that step in faith can take place right outside the doors of Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities across the country, where women need to hear that someone cares about them.