The Lenten 40 Days For Life (DFL) campaign has just ended. If you don’t know what 40 Days For Life is, it is a prayer vigil campaign which takes place outside abortion clinics all over the world. The concept is very simple: you turn up with some sort of sign which says why you are there (ours said, ’40 Days For Life. Come and pray to end abortion’) and you pray for the babies who are almost certainly going to die in the clinic, for the mothers and fathers who are going into the clinic, for the people who work in the clinic and for the abortionist and nurses who carry out the abortions. We are also able to offer practical help to those parents who decide to keep their children, through our connections with excellent organisations such as the Good Counsel Network and the Cardinal Winning Pro-life Initiative.
These vigils take place all over the world but mainly in the US, where it began. This Lent, 40 Days For Life took place in hundreds of cities and 554 babies are known to have been saved through the vigils. There may be many other babies who were saved, but the prayer volunteers were never told. We should thank God for all those babies who will be born that we do not know of.
To cut a long story short, we began the vigil on the 13th of February. The vigil was to take place outside the abortion clinic on St. Mary’s street (yes, that’s right, St. Mary’s street! Our Lady is everywhere!) which is above a ‘Prezzo’ restaurant (yep…) on a busy street with many shops, cafés and nightclubs. The clinic had previously only been doing referrals, but as of 2004, it started doing abortions. On the website it says they give out the abortion pill for babies under 9 weeks but that they also do surgical abortions. I’m not sure how late they do surgical abortions there but I have heard enough stories about the abortion pill to last me a lifetime…
Our spot was a bit awkward because the only place we could stand opposite the clinic, and on the opposite side of the road, was sort of blocked by a bus stop style shelter for the taxis. Next to this shelter was a bin. Well, we had no choice but to stand right next to the bin when we first started and that’s what we did everyday for 40 days. I can tell you that standing next to a bin everyday is very humbling and that is exactly what we needed. The protestors liked to chant that we were praying around our bin and using it as a false idol. If that’s the best they can come up with, they are betraying how weak their argument is!
We fully expected opposition from them. I had seen the protestors at Bedford Square and so I had an idea of what was coming. Sure enough, the prayer volunteers were approached during that first week by some people from the Socialist Workers Union (or rent-a-mob, as we affectionately called them – they turn up to any old thing!) who told them that they would make sure that we didn’t last the 40 days (ha!). They organised protests every week. Some were worse than others but none were enjoyable. Their protests were the same old thing you’ve heard a million times:
– Not the Church, not the state, women must decide their fate
– Keep your rosaries off our ovaries (sometimes chanted with amazing passion by men, haha!)
– General chants about praying by the bin and “There are more of us than you and we’re never going away”. Well, you did go away, didn’t you. I didn’t see you there for 12 hours a day for 40 days.
– Boo! Hiss! (Yes, this was actually shouted at us. I found that quite funny)
– One girl shouted out over the megaphone, “Pro-choice not pro-abortion! Pro-choice not pro-abortion!”. I’m confused…I thought that abortion was good and right? If it is, why are you so ashamed to be called pro-abortion?
They held various signs, but since I almost always had my back to them, I didn’t really see many of them. One that I did see read ‘Prayer is useless’. If prayer is useless, why are you here, love?
They also used megaphones, guitars, loud music, amps, whistles, stink bombs (yes, really). They were just mental. During the last protest (which was a bit of a flop on their part, I must say) one of the more enthusiastic of their bunch who turned up to every protest (an older, but well built, lady who was one the who would smash stink bombs near us) came over and was pushing herself around, claiming that we were attacking her! She started kicking us and nearly pushed one of the old men over! I don’t know if she was drunk or what. She was just out of control.
The protest was quite distracting, as you might imagine, but the amazing thing about the rosary is that it gives you so much to think about that it’s easy to block other things out. The tricky thing is keeping in time with other people, which is mainly done by lip-reading because you can’t hear the person next to you, the protest is that loud. One good thing about the protestors being there, apart from the fact that we knew we must be doing something right to get such a violent reaction, is that people passing by (though many of them were sympathetic to their cause) were horrified at the exhibition they were making of themselves. They were dancing, screaming, shouting, blowing their horns and their whistles…anything to get a reaction out of us. Of course they didn’t and this frustrated them. We didn’t really need to say a word to the people passing by (not that we tried to, unless they approached us) because it was quite clear that we were not guilty of harassing anybody and that we were perfectly peaceful and orderly (the clinic director had told the protestors that we handed out graphic pictures, harassed the women going into the clinic, danced on the clinic steps and all sorts of other things, all untrue of course. I offered £100 to anyone who could find footage from the CCTV of us doing these things). The contrast between the two groups, us praying and them making as much noise and disorder as possible, was amazing. A few people even came up to us to tell us that it was clear to anyone passing that they had lost the argument.
As for the actual praying, 99% of us were Catholics so we prayed Catholic prayers: the rosary, the angelus, the divine mercy chaplet and prayers from the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants prayer book (which was a huge help and thank you to the Good Counsel Network for getting us one on very short notice!). We also sang some hymns (I don’t have a great voice but we had some wonderful singers in our ‘core team’!). Sometimes, it passed quickly, other times (usually when it was around 0 or -1 degrees!) the time would go more slowly. Towards the end of a ‘shift’, it would be more difficult to concentrate, but mostly it wasn’t that difficult because if you were not seeing women and their boyfriends/husbands/family go in and out, something else would happen that would disturb you and remind you why you were there.
There were many people who engaged us in debate, for which I was grateful. I have been debating about abortion since I was old enough to speak, I think (OK, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration…)! I have argued the case of the unborn over and over, with friends, with family, with my teachers and with total strangers. Sometimes, people were reasonable and you could get them to see why abortion was, at least, morally dubious. Others were not there to debate but just to shout at you and tell you how disgusting you are. You have to let them get it out of their system and then turn back, once they’re finished with you, to pray for them. With other people, you’d disprove their argument and they’d move onto the next one. Then, when you had disproved that one and the next and the next, and then they’d call you an idiot and flounce off. I can’t remember the exact quote, but C.S. Lewis wrote about how the person who argues most vociferously with you may well be the person who, years later, reveals that you convinced them that their opinions were wrong. Monsignor Reilly, who established the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants also said that it’s the ones who fight with you who are the ones who have a moral battle going on in their head between good and evil. They’re the ones who may be swayed.
Fr Agnellus and Br Leonard of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate travelled all the way from Stoke to pray with us. We pray that many priests and religious from our own diocese may follow their example.
Many people stopped to thank us, to support us. Some seemed a bit afraid to be seen with us for too long (I suppose I don’t blame them, considering how those who have Christian views are treated in the UK), but they would stop briefly to thank us for being there, even if they would not want to do it themselves. One night, I remember an old man gave one of the prayer volunteers a big hug and some money to contribute towards the cost of the vigil. She jumped a mile because she wasn’t expecting it and hadn’t spotted him, but it was so sweet. As he walked away from us, he seemed so sad. During the vigil, I was constantly reminded of the effect of abortion on men, the forgotten victims in all of this. Yes, they are often the people who put pressure on women to abort but they are also often the people who only found out after their child has been killed that the mother was even pregnant. They may have been part of the decision and may later regret it. They should be remembered in our prayers.
One man who came up to us while his girlfriend was in the clinic lamented that they didn’t want the abortion, that they were being pressured to do it by social services but that they didn’t believe in abortion. We spoke to him and gave him numbers to contact, assuring him that he could get money and accommodation if he only contacted them. We offered to contact them for him right there and then but he said he would do it because he needed to speak to somebody about it (he was not allowed inside the clinic to discuss it with his girlfriend and the staff, he said). We never heard from him again but we prayed that they would make the right decision. Another man spoke to us at length about how his wife had been forced, his words not ours, to abort her last baby because she had suffered from post-natal depression with a previous child. Again and again we see how ‘choice’ doesn’t come into abortion. Everyone turns to it because they feel they have NO choice.
Many people saw our sign and stopped to pray with us. Some stayed for only a few minutes, others for a couple of hours and others became regulars at our vigil! One man heard about the vigil while he was on holiday from Australia and he came almost every day for hours and hours! He was a blessing and we valued him very very much. In fact, we were blessed with so many people who were committed to the vigil, who felt such pain over abortion that, despite their difficulties (some were quite elderly and many had children), they came anyway. I used to scold myself for complaining about the cold when I am young and strong! Some of the old ladies were in their 70s and 80s and they never said a word! That is commitment! Some people became my favourites because I felt like they boosted me when they came. One lady had a special set of rosary beads that she used only when she was praying for the unborn. I would love listening to her because for every decade of the rosary or of the divine mercy chaplet, she had a special intention regarding the unborn or someone related to them. Of course, many people will do this but hers helped me to keep me going somehow. Another lady said something which might seem quite unremarkable to other people, but it touched me. She said,
“Lord, babies are special; they are a gift from You; they deserve to be protected”
Babies are special. Do we acknowledge that enough? I suppose part of my passion for the pro-life cause comes from the fact that babies are not just human, they’re not just innocent, they’re not just defenceless, they’re not just voiceless and unseen, they’re not just the weakest of the weak. Yes, of course, they are all of these things but that’s not why people go googly eyed over a newborn, is it. There’s more to them than that. There is something truly magical about babies. God made us to love children, to want to hold them, console them and protect them. What has happened to us is depraved. We, as a society, are sick. We have turned the natural order on its head and called wrong right and right wrong.
Babies are special. If 40 Days For Life achieves nothing else in Cardiff (and of course it will achieve a lot that we will probably never know of), I hope it reminds people of that fact.
I think we may be consoled by something: for all the heated and complicated debates that take place either online or face-to-face (between Ann Furedi and whoever), that is not what is going to convince the average Joe. People are swayed by their gut instincts and by their emotions. I think the reason that people accepted abortion was because they saw that, sometimes, being pregnant can cause anguish and shame. Yes, that can happen and let’s not ignore that. At the end of a pregnancy, the mother receives a new human being, flesh of her flesh, but a lot may go on before then. However, our prime aim should be to always remind people that the baby they are cooing over in the pram is the same baby in the womb, you just have to wait a little while for the bun in the oven to be ready! I know it sounds simple and I’m not saying that we don’t need to have these debates, because we do (the beauty of the pro-life argument is that it is backed up both by our gut instincts and by science and logic), but humans aren’t that complicated when it comes down to it (think of the former abortionist, Bernard Nathanson. He wasn’t convinced by any debate, but by the humanity of the child). There is the odd person who will be swayed with deep debate (Richard Dawkins probably isn’t one of those) but there’s no deep debate that takes place when we mourn for a 3 year old child who has been killed as a result of war. Why do you mourn that child’s death? You don’t go through a list and say, because he was self-aware, because he was becoming semi-independent of his mother, because all his organs had developed etc. You mourn his death because he was a child and he didn’t live very long but he was there and he was special. What about baby P? Someone came up to me to debate with me at the vigil and he brought up baby P. He said that the fact that babies like him are abused and killed shows that we need abortion. I asked him what is the difference between what happened to baby P and abortion? The difference is that baby P could look you in the eyes and cry for mercy but a child in the womb cannot. It’s the same abuse, but you feel much better about it when it’s sanitised and hidden away in a clinic. We need to highlight our society’s callous attitude towards those in the womb as opposed to those outside the womb. If we don’t address that and point it out in plain language, how will we end abortion?
I’m going to keep praying for an end to abortion outside that abortion clinic. I know that only God can help us to touch the hearts of the average Joe, but when those hearts are opened to us, the argument needs to be pure and simple and not convoluted. 40 Days For Life allows us that golden opportunity. As Robert Colquhoun said to us when he came to visit our vigil, we are praying to God to save those children, and their mothers and fathers, and to use us as His tools in that battle for souls. We are also a powerful witness on the streets and we are pricking the conscience of everyone who passes, letting them know that they cannot ignore these children any longer.