Terri Palmquist: Still Sidewalk Counseling

Anne Starr

In spite of legal threats and an FBI investigation, a California mother who spends two days a week as a pro-life sidewalk counselor continues to work with relative peace of mind, thanks to support from Life Legal Defense Foundation.

Terri Palmquist and her husband Tim provide encouragement and practical support to women in crisis pregnancies in the Bakersfield area.Terri,who does the public work of sidewalk counseling, has faced several layers of legal trouble—from arrest to injunction to FBI investigation—during the couple’s nearly 17 years in pro-life work. They have received help from Life Legal Defense Foundation in recent years, thanks to the efforts of volunteer attorney Brian Chavez-Ochoa and the support of LLDF donors.

Throughout their ministry, Tim and Terri have focused on maintaining a constant presence of sidewalk counselors outside Bakersfield’s abortion chamber on abortion days, hoping to encourage mothers to choose life for their unborn children.

Their Christian faith inspired them to start a pro-life organization, LifeSavers, and a shelter for expectant mothers, LifeHouse.

They offer a woman in crisis a place to stay, maternity clothes, baby clothes and supplies, and emotional support at a difficult time. The couple’s work is done “in Christ’s service for those who cannot speak for themselves.” The Palmquists are leaders in their pro-life Christian community. In 1991, Tim and Terri organized Bakersfield’s “Turn the Hearts” crusade, with about 20 churches encouraging members to pray outside the abortion chamber. They also have been instrumental in bringing several national pro-life leaders to Bakersfield, including Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade. (McCorvey’s book, Won By Love about her change to a pro-life stance, mentions Tim.)

Every Monday and Tuesday, Terri drives an hour from her home and stands across the street from the abortion chamber in Bakersfield. She calls out to women on their way in to appointments, offering free help and another choice. She figures that about 75 abortions are done each week at the Bakersfield abortuary. Each week, one or two women who intended to procure an abortion change their minds when they hear the LifeSavers message. One saved child is enough to keep Terri on the sidewalk while Tim cares for the couple’s children. Tim says that Terri’s gift for sidewalk counseling and his love of fatherhood make for good pro-life teamwork.

Terri can speak to expectant women from her heart because she is a mother, too. Counseling while pregnant makes her more sensitive to other expectant women. She can say, “I know what you’re going through,” and mean it. The mother of nine with a tenth child on the way, she figures “maybe part of the reason the Lord has given us so many children is that it makes me relate to the mothers more.” She knows what it is to be pregnant when money is tight. She knows what it is to be pregnant at an inconvenient time, such as when she was under arrest during her Operation Rescue days. She has had enough experience to “keep me humble. I never want to be so over-confident as to say that I wouldn’t ever want an abortion.” She feels that “Satan would love” to prey upon such proud thinking.

Confidence, however, is different from pride. “The Lord gives me the confidence to know that with God and Life Legal, I can face just about anything,” she said in a cell phone interview conducted while she walked back and forth on the sidewalk. Occasionally she interrupted the interview to call out to a woman, and when one young mother came to speak with her, the interview was suspended. Five days later, Tim reported that the woman had skipped her abortion appointment and was still weighing her choices. When a woman does choose life, Terri has often befriended her through pregnancy and beyond, making hospital visits—sometimes as a labor coach—and even testifying in court to help a woman in legal trouble.

Terri and Tim turned to Life Legal Defense Foundation for help with their own legal troubles after being accused of threatening the local abortionist. Terri had quoted an Old Testament verse to the doctor, who has been in the abortion business for decades. The verse from the Book of Ezekiel is one that “tells the wicked man to turn from his wicked ways or he will surely die,” she said. The “surely die” phrase was interpreted as a threat and used to seek an injunction to limit Terri’s work. Since the LifeSavers ministry and the abortion clinic have co-existed for years, the Palmquists and the abortionist are familiar with each other, Terri said. In her opinion, the doctor did not truly fear that she would kill him, but realized the biblical wording offered a chance to stop or at least discourage the Palmquists. Terri said that she and the abortionist have spoken briefly on occasion. She remembers saying, “God loves you,” one day to the doctor and hearing him quip, “Well, God must be a woman because this world is in such a mess.” She found it an interesting comment from a man whose industry claims to exist for the benefit of women.

Before LLDF attorney Chavez-Ochoa got involved, the abortionist did succeed in obtaining a temporary restraining order against Terri on an ex parte basis, meaning without notice to her. The restraining order was in effect two or three weeks. According to LLDF attorneys, it was illegal, since it interfered with free speech rights. When the formal hearing was set, Terri was notified, and she sought help from Life Legal. Tim Palmquist remembered how their LLDF attorney focused on details to defend Terri’s constitutional right to free speech, and recounted the following series of events:

On cross-examination of the abortionist, attorney Chavez-Ochoa pointed out that the alleged July 9, 2002, threat attributed to Terri did not state that she would do anything to him, but that God would hold him responsible for his actions. “Are you afraid that fire will come out of heaven?” Chavez-Ochoa asked. The doctor replied that he was not afraid of God.

While the abortionist was on the witness stand, attorney Chavez-Ochoa observed that he was reading from notes. Chavez-Ochoa asked to see the notes and discovered that some alleged additional threats that the doctor testified had occurred on July 10 were dated July 30 in his notes.Under repeated questioning, the abortionist insisted that July 10 was in fact correct and that his notes were incorrect. The attorney then launched into a long series of seemingly trivial questions about dates. In response, the doctor testified that he traveled to Bakersfield only on Mondays and Tuesdays and had not been in Bakersfield on a Wednesday for many months. Chavez-Ochoa asked if he were confident that his testimony was correct, and the abortionist said yes. At that, Chavez-Ochoa asked the judge to note that July 10 was a Wednesday, and because it was a Wednesday, the testimony about threats happening on July 10 was false. Chavez- Ochoa said the abortionist must have remembered the date wrongly, and asked him “Could you also be wrong about other parts of your testimony?”

To help the judge gauge how seriously the abortionist took the alleged threat from Terri, Chavez-Ochoa asked about security measures. The court learned that several years ago the doctor had been provided escorts from the federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when he felt threatened—allegedly by Terri Palmquist—but had dismissed the escorts after several months and had never called them back, as he is allowed to if he feels endangered. He had let his permit to carry a concealed weapon expire two years previously and had not renewed it. And when asked why he had never sought a restraining order against Terri Palmquist if he had felt threatened previously, he said the idea had not occurred to him. In conclusion, Chavez-Ochoa asked for dismissal, pointing out that reading the Bible on a public sidewalk is protected by the Constitution.And he explained that Ezekiel 33 is about a watchman appointed by God to warn people to turn away from sin. “Terri Palmquist sees herself as a watchman, and the sin she is warning people to turn from is shedding the blood of innocent children,” he said.

The judge explained that the legal burden of proof in a case such as this is “clear and convincing evidence”—more than the “preponderance of evidence” required in civil cases but less than the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt required in criminal cases. After the abortionist said he understood the proof needed, the judge dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence.

But interest in stopping Terri apparently did not end when the case did. From friends, she has learned that the FBI, the grand jury (Fresno) and a prosecuting attorney from Washington, D.C. have been asking questions about her. “They may be trying to get me on FACE (the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act),” she guessed. No formal action had been taken as of press time, and Terri said that her trust that “Life Legal is there to help us” lets her face an uncertain future. She can stand across the street from the clinic knowing that she is not alone. That knowledge allows her to focus on mothers willing to listen to her voice, look at a LifeSavers brochure, and perhaps take time to view a video on abortion. The video is a powerful tool, she said, because 95 percent of mothers who watch it choose life.

Meanwhile, she and LifeSaver sidewalk volunteers will continue to stand for life in the face of the abortion business and “on an individual basis, do what we can.”With the help of God and LLDF, said Terri, “no matter what they throw at us, there’s somebody on our side.”