For more than 20 years, Eleanor McCullen has taken time every week to stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic and offer help to women in crisis pregnancies.
At the age of 85, McCullen says she has been a part of saving the lives of about 300 babies from abortion. She adds that it’s not about numbers, but rather about helping women and their babies.
The first question she asks women outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, McCullen says, is: “What can I do to help you?”
And she doesn’t stop there. McCullen has journeyed with many women through their pregnancies and beyond, offering financial, spiritual, and emotional support to families.
Her passion for unborn babies and their mothers has taken McCullen to the Supreme Court and prompted her to testify before Congress. She testified March 24 against Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.
McCullen joins this episode of the “Problematic Women” podcast to explain why she decided to become an advocate for life.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my honor to be joined today by pro-life sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen. Eleanor, thank you so much for being here.
Eleanor McCullen: Well, it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to speak with you, Virginia.
Allen: Well, Eleanor, I want to give just a tiny bit of background for those who might not be familiar with your story.
Allen: You’re 85 years old, and you have been doing sidewalk counseling outside of Planned Parenthood clinics specifically in Boston for 20 years. Right? It’s been over 20 years now. Correct?
McCullen: Yeah. It’s coming up to 22.
Allen: Coming up to 22, wow!
Allen: And in that time, you have saved the lives of literally hundreds of babies. And I want to give full disclosure that you’re actually friends with my family, with my parents specifically.
Allen: And so I kind of grew up hearing stories about this woman named Eleanor, who was saving all of these babies in Boston.
McCullen: Oh, my.
Allen: And speaking with women, and really looking for opportunities for how you could serve women in crisis pregnancy situations. So, I want to start by just asking you why. Why did you first decide that you wanted to go stand outside of Planned Parenthood and talk to women going in to have abortions?
McCullen: Well, that’s a good question. I was always pro-life, but I never did anything. I just maybe sent a check to, maybe, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and that was about it. I thought, “Well, that’s my contribution.” I actually said, “Well, they must be doing something about this.”
And it turned out that I found out, I’m “they.” But that’s how I felt, they, somebody must be doing something about abortion. But then one day, I had this dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit, actually. And I was convicted that not only can I just support people that are helping the young mothers going in to an abortion facility, I can’t just say, “Oh, good for you,” I have to actually get into the action.
So, the Holy Spirit convicted me to do that, and once I fell in love with Jesus, there was no debate. I had to do it. So I started actually back, as you say, in 2000. And I was praying. I didn’t speak to anybody. I just prayed. Well, when I say just pray, prayer is extremely powerful, as you know.
So I prayed for months and months in front of Planned Parenthood, so that’s how I began. And the Holy Spirit just said, “Listen, we need action, prayer and action,” so I decided to do something rather than just talk about it.
Allen: Yeah. I love that. That’s such a challenge to me personally, I think to so many people, because we do hear about these issues, and it’s very easy to think, “Well, someone else is going to take care of it.”
Allen: So, Eleanor, it’s just amazing that you decided, OK, wait, I’m that someone that needs to take action here. So, when you went to those Planned Parenthoods, and you started praying, when did you then decide I would like to engage in conversation with the women going in? And what did that look like?
McCullen: Right. Well, no, I never actually thought I could do it. I just thought the prayer part’s my cup of tea. So, but one morning in January of … I remember it was snowing, and one of the men that would speak to someone, he was not feeling well. And he said, “Could [you] step in?” so I was actually, like, “Oh, no.”
But then I decided the Holy Spirit just taught me how to take a step in faith. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll try it,” and that’s how it all began. And it so happened that morning that I spoke to a young couple, and I can tell you that story if you like. But the bottom line was that they ended up keeping their baby.
And so everyone said, “Well, maybe Eleanor should speak. She can pray at home. Maybe she should speak,” because yeah, that morning, it was a gift of my first baby.
And his name is Abraham, and he’s actually … I guess he’s 22 now, 23. I usually hear from them at Christmastime. So that’s how it all began, but my heart was pounding. I really didn’t know what to say. But taking that step in faith, so many times we’re afraid, but the Lord said, “Do not be afraid. Just take that step in faith and do it. Whatever it is, just do it. And I’ll hold your hand, I’ll go with you. You’ll be fine. But you have to take that first step in faith.”
Allen: Do you remember what you said to Abraham’s parents as they were walking up that sidewalk to go in the doors of Planned Parenthood?
McCullen: Yeah, I do exactly. It’s almost as if it happened yesterday. Actually, they both went in. They were a married couple, and they both went in. And the gentleman came out to have a cigarette. So, I saw him, and I thought … I felt like I should say something, but as I say, I was nervous. But I did go up, I said, “I hate to bother you, but I just wanted to … .”
I began to educate. I think that was my first step in learning this is important, to educate. So, I said, “Do you mind if I ask you when the heart is beating in the baby in the womb?” And he seemed annoyed, and he said, “Six months.” I said, “No, no. It’s 21 days.” And then I walked away. Then I went back again. I said, “Well, do you mind if I ask just one more question?” And I asked him about DNA. “Do you know what that is?”
And no, he didn’t. I said, “Well, DNA is formed at the moment of conception. And every newborn baby has a different DNA. It’s the sex of the child and the facial structure of the child.” And he still was not interested. But my third question kind of captured his heart. I talked about brainwaves.
Now, I usually don’t begin now educating people, but that day, I did. And when I mentioned brainwaves started functioning about 10 weeks, he turned around and he said, “Really?” And I said, “Yes.” I was surprised he was fascinated by that. I said, “Sure.” And he said, “I didn’t think … I thought it was just like little tissue.”
I said, “No, no. This is the beginning.” I did say, “A beginning of a little boy, a very, very, very beginning of a baby boy.” So I said, “You should go in and get her out.” And he did.
So, that’s how, so, I guess my first was educating the men. That’s how I started, and they came out. I took them over for the ultrasound. The miracle of that story was that the ultrasound person, nurse, happened to be in that day.
It was a snowy day, and ordinarily she probably wouldn’t come in. But she was there and did the ultrasound, and they heard the baby’s heart beating. And it was just a miracle morning. And as I said earlier, they ended up having the baby, very thankful they had their baby boy.
“How did you know it was a boy?” he said. I think he also liked when I said that, boy. And of course, I didn’t know, but maybe I did. And so we keep in touch over Christmas, and especially when he was in softball, they would send me pictures in the softball uniform. But he’s all grown up now. So, that’s how I began.
Allen: I mean, how precious to still be in touch with that family to this day.
McCullen: Yeah, it is.
Allen: That’s incredible. And is it 300 babies? Am I getting that number right? That you have saved in your lifetime.
McCullen: Well, I know everybody is interested in number, but I don’t really have a number. I really don’t. And I don’t keep a record. I know for the Supreme Court hearing in 2015, they also wanted a number, and they estimated 20 per year and however that comes out. But the numbers aren’t important to me.
I have no idea, because I talk to people, but then there’s other things that happen along the line. When you see counselors standing outside of Planned Parenthood, you might see a car drive up, and we’re holding a sign, “Life is precious.” And all of a sudden, they drive off.
So, you never know, and it’s not important, one or 1,001. Every one is just as precious as any number. But to give you a conservative number, that’s what they did for the Supreme Court hearing.
Allen: Yeah. Well, I know like Abraham’s family, you have kept in touch with a lot of those families that you’ve spoken with outside of Planned Parenthoods. And more than just on that one day when they visit the Planned Parenthood, you really make it your mission to journey with a lot of these moms, with these parents, through the whole pregnancy process and even beyond. Why is that important to you?
McCullen: Well, that’s the secret of this whole evil that’s going on with abortion. The secret is you must keep in touch with the mother and the father until they’re on their feet because it’s one thing to say, “Oh, good. I’m glad you’re keeping your baby. Goodbye. And I’ll pray for you.”
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you need practical help. You need to stay with them because now as they choose to keep their child, they’ve lost a lot of friends. They may have even lost the father of the baby and some family members. People don’t … So, they have to get a whole new set of friends. And they kind of feel isolated. What? You didn’t have the abortion? You’re kidding me. Oh, my goodness. So, they lose … .
So, you have to be a friend and be holding their hand, not just with practical help, moneywise, but just support them because once they leave and they say, “Yes, I heard the heartbeat. Yes, I’ll keep the baby,” then they go back into this culture. And everybody goes, “You’re kidding me. How can you do that?” And then they’re fragile.
So, by keeping in touch, you’re supporting. And I introduce them to other mothers, excuse me, that are expecting, so they have a whole new group, a new support system, which is very, very important.
Now, most people that I’ve talked to over the years, once they get over that first initial, “Oh, I have to go to Planned Parenthood. This is my only answer. I have to do this.”
Once they get over that, then I find 95%, they get their job. The boyfriend decides, “OK, we’ll keep the baby. We got the apartment.” Life, the Lord blesses those who choose birth, and I’ve seen it time and time again. Things that were obstacles somehow melt away.
So, if they say, “I’m fine. Everything is good,” but there are always some that still, even to this day, need to have support or help. And I’m always there for them, by the grace of God. It all goes back to the glory of God. And He gives me the wherewithal to do it. But it’s so important. That’s the secret, aftercare and help practically, financially, and then just being their friend.
Allen: Yeah. That’s so critical. Well, I think so many people listening, obviously, we’re looking at potentially a post-Roe world coming up quite soon. We’ve talked a lot on this show about the fact that there’s a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the Supreme Court will [decide] this summer; they’re going to announce their decision on.
And that’s a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade and send abortion law, really, back to the states for the states to decide. But this narrative that we often hear from those who are pro-abortion is: “Well, what are you going to do with all of those unwanted babies if Roe v. Wade is no more?”
And Eleanor, what is your response to that? What is your kind of advice, practically, to the pro-life movement? And are we ready as a pro-life movement, are we ready to receive all of these babies and care for them, and love these moms well?
McCullen: Well, absolutely. There’s no debate. We will. And we say, “Adoption, not abortion.” That way the mother knows that the baby has received life, and she’s unable to carry, take care of the baby, for any number of reasons. So, adoption is very important. But even just as important, I guess I would say, is, America, we’re generous people.
We, if there’s a hurricane, or a tornado, and with anything going on, we don’t even know the people in the state where the fire is going on, or the hurricane, but we rush to help them. We rush to make sure they get their houses built up. We rush. We do everything. Americans are generous.
But when it comes to the child in the womb, it’s hard to understand how we don’t pay attention as the children are being taken from the womb and killed. So, I’m just going to know that we will rise to the occasion, if in fact this is the case, and adoption doesn’t work, then yes, we will rise to the occasion and take care of our children.
And we are a generous society, and I think that’s what’s going to happen. It will be fine. You have to take that step in faith. And then the Lord will bless the people, bless the babies, and it will all work good.
Allen: I like that, rise to the occasion. Yeah, that’s certainly … I agree. I think that’s exactly what we will see.
McCullen: Yeah, absolutely. We will.
Allen: Absolutely. Well, and I know kind of speaking of court cases and Supreme Court cases, you’re no stranger to that. You have faced your fair share of challenges and opposition to the work that you have done.
In the state of Massachusetts, back in the early 2000s, Massachusetts, where you live, they passed a law that sidewalk counselors could not be within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. And you kind of stood up and said, “Wait a second. No, that’s not right. And that’s a violation of my First Amendment rights,” and you actually filed a lawsuit with Alliance Defending Freedom to fight that.
And ultimately, in 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down that law. It was an eight-year-long legal battle. Why did you decide it was worth that fight to say, “No, I’m going to go to court for years so that I can stand right there on the sidewalk in front of a Planned Parenthood, and don’t have to be 35 feet away”?
McCullen: Yeah. Well, there again, when they first contacted me, they said, “This is not right, Eleanor.” And I said, “Oh, we’ll get used to it. And don’t worry about it.” And that was on a Monday, and about Tuesday night in the middle of the night, I woke up, and it definitely was the Holy Spirit, because in other words, the message I received was, “No, what do you mean you’ll get used to it?”
In other words, this is what happens. We all compromise, whether it’s something like this, or something else that you say, “Oh, I guess that’s all right. Or I guess that’s OK.” All of a sudden, you wonder, “Well, how did it all happen?” We let all these little things that we compromised on go by. And so, all of a sudden, at 2 in the morning, I said, “No, we have to stand for this. This is definitely wrong. We should have the right to peacefully speak to people anywhere on the sidewalk.”
So, I called back and said, “Sure, I’ll get involved,” so, that’s how it was. Anything. The Holy Spirit just convicted me again. And so fortunately, I listened to the voice, and I went forward. And it did take seven years, and anything worthwhile takes time. Anything that’s really worthwhile isn’t done overnight, so you have to be in for the long haul.
You have to persevere. You can’t get discouraged. You just keep going. And that’s what we did for seven years. And then the Supreme Court, and then we went to Washington, and we heard the arguments. And of course, then you have to wait from January to June, and then the Supreme Court came out, as you said, unanimously nine to nothing, which is in itself rare, that yes, the sidewalk counselors can speak peacefully, lovingly, prayerfully to any mother and father that would like to speak to them right before they go into the abortion facility to end the life of their baby.
And we’re the last voice like, “Just wait. Can we talk to you one minute?” And many, many, many people, as you know, Virginia, say, “Thank you for being there.”
So that’s what we do, and there again, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit speaks to all of us. But He has a gentle voice, and sometimes He’s telling me to do stuff I think, “Oh, that’s too hard.” But then when you listen and He says, “I will be with you, I will never leave you. I will give you words. I will do it. But I’m asking you to do the stepping out,” so that’s what I’ve learned over the years. Just listen to that sweet voice and step out.
Allen: It takes such courage. I love that. It’s a good reminder, I think, for all of us to take those bold steps.
McCullen: I think we all have to be reminded. Right? Every day.
Allen: Absolutely. Absolutely.
McCullen: That’s true, Virginia. Sure.
Allen: And I love when you … I’ve heard you tell this story, and one thing that sticks out to me is that you say, “One of the reasons why I decided to fight this is I didn’t want to be shouting from 35 feet away to these women. I wanted to have intimate conversations with them. I wanted to have loving conversations with them.”
McCullen: Right, because when you’re standing back, you’re saying, “Good morning. We could talk a minute,” so you are actually yelling, and but it’s not anything bad, but it still comes across that way. And then the other part, if I were walking down the street, Virginia, and then I got to the yellow line, maybe the person, the mother I’m talking to, she might say to me, “Well, how can you help me?”
And then we get to that yellow line, and she would keep walking, and I would stop. And she’d look for me to keep coming, and I said, “Oh, I can’t cross the yellow line.” So, I lost momentum, and meanwhile, she looked at her watch and said, “Oh, I have an appointment. I have to go.”
This is all happening within minutes, seconds. It’s life-and-death conversation. And so within a few minutes, you have to make your point. And then if you lose it, just because of the line, that was always frustrating for me.
Allen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and you were recently just back in Washington, D.C. You testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing. And you spoke about the work that you have done for years and years, and gave testimony on the importance of free speech. Why were you asked to be a part of that confirmation hearing and give testimony?
McCullen: Yeah. That’s a good question. Well, I think they wanted to hear from … Well, actually, Judge Jackson, she was for the buffer zone back in those days, 2014 and 2015. She wanted the buffer zone, which showed … Questioned anyway, questioned her feeling about free speech. And then also, she was very harsh about the sidewalk counselors that are there to help. And she was very harsh.
So, I think I was invited back by the same lawyer that helped me in 2015 to show that free speech is so important, and we cannot afford to lose that with any Supreme Court justice. We have to make sure that they will keep going with our free speech. And then also to point out that our counselors are good people, that we’re not mean. And so I think I was the representative of that hundreds and hundreds across the country.
During, going back to … Justice [Antonin] Scalia during the Supreme Court hearing, the state of Massachusetts called us protesters, and three times Justice Scalia banged on the table and said, “Please call them counselors. They are there to help in the last moment for a woman and a man that have this crucial decision. They’re there to offer help and options. So, please do not call them protesters.”
So, that was, of course, excellent, and that’s exactly what we do. So, I think they wanted to show that’s what we do. And we are good people.
Another thing, a lot of times passersby, they’re going to work. They’ll start yelling. They’re not even in our group. And if anyone does anything like that, we just tell them to leave. This is no place for anger, no place to be judgmental.
This is a time of being a listener. You listen, and you try to help, and you try to have compassion. And you understand what the woman is going through. This is huge, a huge decision. Yeah, that was good. We are there to help, and so, I think that was my message, First Amendment rights, and also counselors are good people.
Allen: You have a question that you’ll often ask right away when you’re talking with a woman or a father outside a Planned Parenthood. Could you share a little bit about how you’ll often kick off that conversation just with questions?
McCullen: Sure. I usually, well, all the time I guess, I just say, “Good morning. Good morning, hi. I’m Eleanor. And is there something I can do to help you this morning?” Or I might say, “I’m sure I can help you.” And of course, I have my card, Virginia, my little card. It says, “Hope, help, and love.” And it has my telephone number on it, and it has my name, Eleanor.
So, right away, I’m sharing a little bit about me. I’m not just a stranger. Within a minute or so, showing that it’s OK. You can talk to me. Here’s my number. And I’m just here to answer any questions or see what I can do to help you [through] the situation.
And of course, people just are on their way and in a hurry. But then there are always those beautiful words, “How can you help me?” Or, “Sure, I’ll talk with you.” And just being friendly and just that smile that we do, and just saying, “We’re here. And if we can help you in any way, just let us know. We’re here for you right at this moment in your life.”
So, that’s how I begin. And then, as I say, “How can you help me? Sure, I’ll talk to you,” then I usually find out. Why are they there? The emphasis at that point is on the woman. She’s a byproduct of our society. Here she finds herself right in front of Planned Parenthood, maybe because her father said, “Don’t come home if you don’t have that abortion,” or the boyfriend said, “I’m out of here,” or whatever. “I want to go to school.”
And here, she finds herself there. And then she hears me saying, and all of our … “Hello. Hi. What can I do to help you this morning?” So, I find out what brought you here. So, now my emphasis is on this particular woman that I’m talking to. What brought you here? What is the problem? What are you going through? Are you sure you’re pregnant? Are you getting morning sickness?
It’s all about the woman at that point. And whatever she tells me is the challenge. I always say, “Yeah, I agree. That is a challenge. But guess what, we can work through this together.” So, then we just, within three or four minutes, maybe five minutes, and I usually walk a little far away if there’s a little place we could get a cup of coffee. And then at this point, I say, “Well, why don’t we go at least see the ultrasound? Make sure you’re pregnant. See the ultrasound. Do you have time to do that?”
And they do, and they drive with me, or they follow me, and we do the ultrasound. Now, the ultrasound, you can imagine, Virginia, is amazingly powerful because when you hear that heart beating 152 times a minute, I’m still in awe.
All these ultrasounds I’ve seen, it’s like a sunrise. You never say, “Oh, I’ve seen the sunrise before.” You’re always like, “Oh, look at that sunrise.” Well, the same thing when you hear that heart beating, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh.” And then if they see a picture, which after about six or seven, well, maybe eight weeks, you can get a really pretty good idea of the baby forming. And then at 16 weeks, you can find out if it’s a boy or girl. I mean, it’s just a miracle.
The ultrasound is … I’ve never had anybody that’s seen the ultrasound have an abortion. I’m sure it’s happened. But generally, that is so powerful. You don’t have to say anything. It’s worth a million words.
Allen: So, for those listening who are thinking, “Wow, this is amazing. I would love to be a part of sidewalk counseling or doing something,” but they’re also thinking, “Oh, I have a family, and I have a job.” There’s always things that pull on our time. What is your advice to busy people that want to get involved and help?
McCullen: Sure, well, that’s a good question. Well, you can always, if need be, you can always pray at home if you can’t get out, even older people that really can’t get out because they’re just homebound. Prayer at home is powerful.
For young mothers, also Saturdays are good to come out on a Saturday if you’re busy during the week, or if you just come out for an hour, and you don’t have to come out for three or four hours. Just put in the time you can. Also, wherever you are across the United States, you could call your crisis pregnancy center and see if they need any help there that might fit in better with your hours.
And of course, you could contact your church, whatever church you go to, and maybe you could sponsor a baby shower at the church. A lot of churches do that in October and January, where they collect things and then give all the baby items to a crisis pregnancy center to give to a new mother.
So, you could maybe do that, just start something up. And then pray, ask the Lord, “What do you want me to do? Give me some ideas.” And then we have creative people listening, and they’ll think of something because it’s easy to say, “Well, I’m busy. I guess I can’t do anything,” but there is something.
And another thing that’s very important I find anyway with my mothers is, I have a telephone group. And they call the mother and just say, “Hi, I’m a friend of Eleanor. I just called to see how you’re doing.” So, just a telephone call to a woman that’s pregnant, just another person checking on them. And that’s only a telephone call, it takes three minutes, but that means a lot to a woman that’s pregnant, so, there’s a lot.
Allen: Yeah, yeah. Eleanor, there’s so much. And thank you, I think that’s practical just to kind of think outside the box and think creatively about how we can support these moms. For those that would want to learn more about what you’re doing, or support the work you’re doing, is there a way we can do that?
McCullen: Sure. Well, I’ll give you my website. The website is hopehelplove.com. It all goes together.
McCullen: I also, besides giving my card, there’s a little booklet called “Watch Me Grow.” It’s all done in color, and it has pictures of the baby going from one month all the way through the nine months. That’s very effective, so I have different little items. And I can certainly mail them out, so that’s no problem.
Allen: Excellent, yeah. I’m looking at that. I pulled up your website. I’m looking at it right now, the “Watch Me Grow,” and it’s beautiful, all these pictures that show the progression. It’s powerful to be able to just see it. Wow! Even at one month, you can see that there’s a little baby.
Allen: That’s incredible.
McCullen: Real life, it’s life from the moment of conception.
Allen: Absolutely. Eleanor, I just thank you so much for your time today. We just really appreciate it.
McCullen: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, Virginia. I was happy to do it.
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