Pro-life sidewalk counselor testifies at Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings

Eleanor McCullen testifies during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, March 24, 2022. Eleanor McCullen testifies during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, March 24, 2022. | Screenshot taken from PBS NewsHour YouTube channel

A pro-life sidewalk counselor expressed concern before members of the U.S. Senate Thursday that Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson has misrepresented people like her.

“When I see a woman approaching…I always say, ‘Good morning! I’m Eleanor. How can I help you?’” said Eleanor McCullen, an 85-year-old Catholic grandmother located near Boston, describing how she greets women outside abortion clinics.

“It’s a powerful moment when a woman looks at me and our eyes connect, and she stops to talk,” McCullen stressed during her March 24 testimony. “It’s in that moment I promise her she will never walk her journey alone.”

McCullen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Jackson’s confirmation hearings. She told CNA that she has dedicated 22 years to empowering women. Located in Newton, she engages with pregnant women considering abortion outside a Planned Parenthood in Boston.

“So many women I’ve met believe that their only choice is to end the life of their baby,” McCullen told senators. “It is in that moment of isolation and fear, that I have the privilege of offering a different choice—one that empowers and encourages the woman to know she is fully capable of becoming a mom and pursuing a job and going to school and having a successful and happy life.”

McCullen introduced herself as the lead plaintiff in a 2014 Supreme Court case regarding free speech. In that case, McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that imposed a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics, which prevented sidewalk counselors from speaking with women entering those clinics. Faith-based legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom helped with the case.

The court’s opinion in the case mentions another case, McGuire v. Reilly, which involved Jackson. In 2001, Jackson co-authored an amicus brief in McGuire v. Reilly, in support of a Massachusetts “buffer zone” law, pro-life groups, such as Susan B. Anthony List, have cautioned.

In the amicus brief Jackson wrote on behalf of abortion groups, pro-life leaders previously told Senate leaders, she “portrayed pro-life sidewalk counselors as a ‘hostile, noisy crowd of 'in-your-face protesters.’”

McCullen appeared to respond to accusations like this in her testimony.

“I was deeply saddened to find out that Judge Jackson, while in private practice, advocated in favor of Massachusetts’ previous ‘buffer zone’ law in her amicus brief on behalf of abortion clinics,” McCullen said. “She and her colleagues maligned pro-life sidewalk counselors, characterizing us in ugly and false ways.”

McCullen added, “Her misrepresentations certainly don’t describe me or any of the sidewalk counselors that I have worked with over the years.”

McCullen told CNA that she wanted to testify for two main reasons: She wanted to talk about helping pregnant women as a sidewalk counselor, and she wanted to support the confirmation of judges committed to preserving what she called “one of Americans’ most cherished freedoms,” the freedom of speech. 

Once she began speaking, she said, she was not nervous.

“I had a message, the message was truth and when you're speaking truth, you do feel comfortable,” she said.

Her Catholic faith, she told CNA, informs her work as a sidewalk counselor.

“I believe that everything is the glory of God,” she said, stressing her desire to speak with women — to introduce peace into their hearts and tell them they are not alone — when they are troubled.

More in US

Faith, McCullen said, “tells me peace is important.”

“I take a step in faith every morning,” she said. “I take a step in faith and I, in this case, I walk with the women — and then when the babies are born, I walk with the mothers and the babies.”

McCullen appears to do just that: she continues to care for women and their families after their babies are born. She shared one story with CNA, that she said she might have shared with senators if she had had the time.

“I talked to a mother and father, they were considering abortion, and I offered help and we went to see the ultrasound, and they said, yes, they would keep the babies,” she remembered. “They had twins!”

She and her husband also sent the father back to school. While he previously worked as a nurse in Nigeria, she said, his credentials did not transfer when he moved to the United States. 

Today, the father is a registered nurse in the U.S. and the twins are juniors in high school. 

“Even today, they call for different reasons, because high school has a few expenses, and I'm happy to help them,” Eleanor McCullen told CNA. “I just love the girls.”

(Story continues below)

One, she said, is named Oprah. The other, Eleanor.

During her testimony, she shared another story about a call this week from a mother she had helped.

“I was just looking through my baby book of my 3-month-old little girl,” the woman told her over the telephone. Underneath that photo, the woman said, she found McCullen’s card.

“I have to tell you,” she said of her little girl, “Rose is now 18. She’s graduating from high school, she’s on her way to college, and I want to thank you for being there that day in January.”

“Rose,” she told McCullen, “is the joy of our life.”

McCullen told senators that she hands out cards with her contact information to women outside of the abortion clinic. She held one up for them to see, bearing the image of the cross. 

“Women often share with me their fears and their concerns about their pregnancy,” she said during her testimony. “I honor their thoughts and concerns and I say, ‘I understand; that is a challenge. But I also know you can do it with support, and I will support you with all my kinds of support! I will stand with you throughout the nine months and beyond. I will hold your hand.”

She does this by providing support, including medically, financially, and materially. Among other things, she has helped women pursue their education, and, she added, has hosted “many, many baby showers.”

McCullen concluded her interview the same way she did her testimony: “I'm here to help women and anything that I can do for women, I'm happy to do,” she said, adding that she is passionate about supporting pregnant women and free speech because of love.

“And love,” she said, “you can't argue with that.”