Wilbur Lane, the blind minister who tapped his white cane along city sidewalks as he walked a picket line against abortion, was remembered Monday as a quiet voice in one of Spokane’s more raucous movements.
Both sides in the abortion debate called him a man of vision for the cause he supported.
Lane, 86, died last week after a series of health problems. He had been a resident of long-term medical care facilities for several years.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Lane was a familiar sight in front of medical facilities where abortions were performed in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.
He was featured on news programs for several religious broadcasting networks. A local Christian music group, Legacy, wrote a song about him.
“He was a determined, dedicated Christian,” said the Rev. William Siewert, who gave the eulogy at Lane’s service.
“He was clearly committed,” said attorney Pat Stiley, who represented a medical building that secured a court order against pickets. “He was one of the calmer protesters and exhibited more self-control than most.”
Lane’s wife died some 13 years ago and the couple had no children, said Marlyn Derby, a longtime friend.
He was close to Derby and several other women whom he joined on the picket line and eventually considered them “daughters,” she said.
Blind from birth and partially deaf in recent years, the retired minister would strap a sign on his back and take a Spokane Transit Authority bus to Deaconess Medical Center or the Sixth Avenue Medical Building.
“Before you have your unborn baby killed, please talk to us,” the sign said.
At the time, Deaconess was the only hospital where elective abortions were routinely performed. Sixth Avenue contained the offices of several doctors who would perform abortions.
If Derby or other protesters were there, Lane would sometimes link arms with them and picket on the sidewalks to the buildings’ entrances. When alone, he would tap off the route with his white cane.
In 1985, Superior Court Judge Willard Zellmer issued an injunction against picketing on the sidewalk in front of the Sixth Avenue building. Protesters were ordered to remain on sidewalks across the street or on the side of the building to keep access clear for patients entering and leaving the building.
Many abortion foes flouted Zellmer’s injunction, but Lane posed a special problem. Judges and prosecutors were leery of creating a martyr by jailing the soft-spoken, grandfatherly former minister.
At one point during the protests, Lane moved from the sidewalk into the building’s lobby with his sign. It was his first of several arrests for trespassing.
Acting as his own attorney in a Spokane County District Court trial, Lane called witnesses to explain what happened during an abortion. The jury, he said, should know “not only what I did, but also why I did it.”
But prosecutors successfully argued that abortion wasn’t the issue, and Lane’s First Amendment rights didn’t include the right to enter private property. A six-person jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before convicting Lane.
District Judge Raymond Tanksley said he was reluctant to jail Lane because Spokane’s jails were not equipped to handle his physical problems. The judge ordered Lane to perform 100 hours of community service, and extracted a promise from the former minister to stay out of the building and obey the injunction.
Lane was later arrested in Coeur d’Alene for trespassing at the Women’s Clinic. He was eventually jailed when he was convicted and failed to return to court for sentencing. First District Court Magistrate Eugene Marano ordered him to spend 30 days in Kootenai County Jail in a special cell for handicapped inmates.
Despite his health problems, Lane had a quick wit. Derby recalled that last year, he broke his arm and was taken to Deaconess, the facility he had long picketed. When the doctor realized who he was, he asked Lane if he would like to be treated at another facility.
That’s OK, Lane told the doctor. He wasn’t there for an abortion.
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