COLUMBIA — As the debate over funding for Planned Parenthood reaches a fevered pitch on Capitol Hill, opposing sides of the issue faced off Saturday outside of the organization's Columbia clinic during parallel demonstrations.
For more than two hours, protesters lined both sides of Providence Road holding signs, singing songs and praying.
The demonstration in support of Planned Parenthood drew roughly 150 activists, including Missouri Reps. Mary Still and Steven Webber, both D-Columbia.
It took place 10 days into an ongoing vigil organized by 40 Days for Life, an international anti-abortion campaign that will continue its around-the-clock presence outside of the clinic for another 30 days. Saturday's gathering drew about 40 of its supporters.
The simultaneous events took place moments after a giant pink bus, part of the organization's national "Planned Parenthood Truth Tour," rolled into town. After a brief rally, the bus, honking its horn and drawing excited cheers from supporters, got back on I-70, headed for St. Louis.
The events occurred less than one week after the Missouri House approved a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Timothy Jones, R-Wildwood, would exempt pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother or are considered "unviable" by two physicians.
Many of the participants on either side of the debate bumped elbows and stood side by side, their placards, at times, partially blocking one another's from passing cars. There was little conversation between them.
"While philosophically, I may have a lot in common with those people, I think we disagree about the best way to ensure that abortions aren't needed," said Planned Parenthood supporter Joy Rushing, 65, of Columbia.
"I grew up in a period when abortion wasn't legal and I still don't favor abortion, but I think that taking money away from Planned Parenthood will increase unplanned pregnancies and increase abortions. I also support all the health planning and all the health screening that Planned Parenthood provides," she said.
Michelle Trupiano, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Columbia, said 97 percent of the organization's work is preventive. Its Missouri affiliates served more than 80,000 women, men and teens last year, providing them pap smears, cervical and breast cancer screenings and tests for sexually transmitted infections, as well as its more controversial services.
While many Planned Parenthood supporters said they want to keep abortions legal and accessible, that wasn't the only reason they came to the event.
"It is an issue of what is right and what's wrong, and standing up for women who can't afford to raise children or can't afford birth control is something that I think everyone needs to be out here for," Jacob Masters of Columbia said.
However, to several of the anti-abortion activists who came out Saturday, the main issue was abortion.
"We're not against women's health. They can get that help somewhere else," said Pat Dudenhoeffer of Jefferson City. Dudenhoeffer wore a golden pin replicating two tiny feet, supposedly the size of a fetus at 10 weeks gestation.
"We come out here because we believe that every life has value, every unborn child deserves a chance at life, and Planned Parenthood prevents that from happening in large quantities, every day, every year," said Chelsea Zimmerman of Holt's Summit.
She also took issue with its family planning services.
“The contraceptive mentality is anti-conception, basically, and so when conception happens, when contraceptives fail and conception happens, they need a back up plan and that’s what Planned Parenthood provides for them,” Zimmerman said.
Webber addressed those concerns in a speech to the pro-Planned Parenthood crowd. “The truth is that, while abstinence may work for some, it is not the path that everybody is going to take,” he said.
The ongoing debate over federal funding was also a major point of contention.
A bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives would stop any federal funding from reaching Planned Parenthood.
Another bill, which passed in the House last month, would eliminate funding for Title X. Title X is a federal program that funds family planning and preventive health care services to low-income and uninsured women and men through several state and local health departments and nonprofit health centers. Planned Parenthood is the single largest recipient of the funding and serves more than a quarter of all the program's beneficiaries throughout the country.
The agency is monitored to ensure none of that money is used for abortion.
"Whether they are directly funding abortion or not, they are funding the abortion mentality and the things that contribute to it," Zimmerman said.
According to Trupiano, every dollar spent on services at Planned Parenthood saves more than $6 in Medicaid and other social services for low-income families in Missouri.