Dick Retta stands outside a Planned Parenthood center in downtown Washington three days a week, trying to persuade pregnant women to choose life for their unborn children. The 80-year-old grandfather has been coming to the center for eight years and said he's personally persuaded more than 400 women to leave this center and others.
Retta said his approach is friendly, gentle, and loving. Government lawyers portray him differently, claiming in court documents that Retta physically blocked a woman from entering the clinic last year, shouting at her not to kill her baby.
As a result, government lawyers sued Retta, using a 1994 law that makes it a crime to intimidate or interfere with someone obtaining "reproductive health services."
"They'd like to get rid of me," said Retta, who acknowledges he's persistent and assertive with his message but denies ever blocking access to the center.
The Rockville, Md., resident attends Mass daily at a Roman Catholic church and first began going to abortion centers in 1998. When he retired, Retta saw a note in a church paper inviting people to pray. At first, he just prayed, but a few years later he took a class on what he calls "sidewalk counseling," approaching women entering centers. He found he was good at it, he said, and soon he was a regular outside area abortion centers.
These days Retta spends Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings outside Planned Parenthood's center three blocks north of the White House. He still prays, with a rosary of blue and pink beads and tiny white hearts, but he's also watching for women who look as though they may be coming for an abortion. The telltale signs, he said, are arriving with a man or wearing loose-fitting clothing.
Retta said his standard practice is to approach with the greeting, "Morning, ma'am, can I give you some information?"
Then, walking with them, he might say, "If you're pregnant, we have help for you," or, "Abortions are dangerous; women can die." He may offer one of several pro-life fliers. Retta said he has 15 or 20 seconds to get his message out before the women get inside the center. But if they take a flier, sometimes they'll read it inside and come out, he said. Other times they stop to talk.
"It's very rewarding," Retta said of the times when a pregnant woman decides to leave. In those cases he gives her a gift: a pair of baby booties.
Fairly often, though, people get angry. Sometimes women tell Retta to back off or go away. He's been spit on and had fliers knocked out of his hands. Once, a woman blasted him with pepper spray.
But lawyers for the government argue Retta was the aggressor in January of last year when he blocked a patient from entering the center, weaving in front of her as she tried to walk around him.
He was sued under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The U.S. Department of Justice, which brought the case against Retta in federal court in Washington, declined to comment on the case.
Retta's lawyer, Jim Henderson, denies in court documents that Retta blocked the woman from entering the center. She had approached Retta for help, he wrote, and volunteers were leading her into the center against her wishes. He said Retta didn't shout or yell but said to the woman, "Don't let them force you to have an abortion," a statement protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Henderson said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama seems to have an increased interest in litigating similar cases, with four others filed in 2011 but none between 1999 and 2006, according to government statistics.
"These are all political cases as far as I can tell," Henderson said.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said it makes decisions about pursuing cases "based on the facts presented during our investigations and the applicable federal laws."
"We uphold the First Amendment right to protest while also upholding the law prohibiting intentional interference with reproductive health services," the statement said.
For his part, Retta said he'll continue standing outside the center whatever the outcome.
"I can't imagine not coming here," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.