||In the pre-dawn hours of January 17, a group of the faithful led by Fr. Rick Heilman pray the Stations of the Cross around the Planned Parenthood property on Madison’s east side. The stations were part of a nine-day novena leading up to the January 22 anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision.. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
MADISON -- As the snow falls around her, a young woman walks from her car to the abortion clinic. No one came with her, and no doubt she will leave the same way. But she’s not alone.
On the sidewalk several yards away, there are people praying for her, for the doctor who will perform the abortion, and for the unborn child.
For a period of two hours every weekday, as the Planned Parenthood on Madison’s east side offers its abortion services, there will be a guaranteed presence this year to remind everyone who comes that there is a choice to choose life.
This prayerful witness is the work that can change hearts.
In her recently published book unPlanned, former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson wrote about her conversion to the pro-life cause and how the presence of pro-life people on the other side of the fence at her clinic, praying peacefully, affected her attitude towards abortion. She now stands with the pro-lifers, praying as they did to end abortion.
“We are there to stand and pray,” Johnson wrote. “We are there to bear witness to what we know, to what we’ve already experienced ourselves. We are there to love and befriend and pray for the clients who enter abortion clinics and the workers who staff them. Just as I was prayed for, loved, and befriended.”
“That’s precisely the type of thing we’re doing here in Madison,” said Laura Karlen, co-director of Vigil for Life. “It’s effective and there’s a call for it.”
Providing a presence
Vigil for Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin Dane County are spearheading an initiative called 365 for Life this year to provide a consistent presence of prayer at the clinic during the periods for abortion services. The initiative seeks to build on the momentum generated by the five successful 40 Days for Life campaigns and the recent derailment of late-term abortion plans at the Madison Surgery Center.
“Because of 40 Days for Life, we had a large part of the Catholic community that has been to the sidewalk, has been part of the initiative, and wanted it to continue,” said Karlen.
Focusing on Madison’s only abortion clinic, the Planned Parenthood Clinic on Orin Rd., the initiative will ensure that every woman who comes to Madison for an abortion has a chance of being offered hope by prayer warriors and sidewalk counselors on the sidewalk outside.
Volunteers have already filled the hours for three weeks since the initiative began. Each volunteer is asked to sign up for a two-hour time slot (or one hour each if you have a friend who can fill the other hour) during the weekday. At least two volunteers will be present at the time. Many, including groups that have a rotating list of volunteers, have committed to fill monthly or even weekly slots.
During the cold days of winter, the rainy days of spring and fall, and the hot days of summer, the time will be one of obvious sacrifice. But prayer and sacrifice for the recognition of the sanctity of human life is a part of the Catholic tradition.
“I think the difficult part is actually being there, seeing it,” said Joy Exner of Barneveld, who with her husband Bill have committed to a two-hour slot every month. “But someone said to us when we started that they know we’re there. They know we’re out there praying.”
The couple, who is actively involved in the Church through marriage preparation, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Knights of Divine Mercy, and assistance at Mass, participated in their first 40 Days for Life vigil this fall. The experience led them to commit further.
“We’re great believers in the sanctity of life, that life begins at the moment of conception, that any act of abortion is not only a grave sin, . . . but it’s really akin to murder,” said Bill Exner. “We go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in order to pray for them to stop doing it and for the women who go in there, that they’ll stop and think.”
Praying at the clinic, particularly after overcoming any initial hesitation, isn’t difficult, though it is a sacrifice of time and effort.
But as Church leaders including Fr. John Corapi, the Exners’ pastor, Fr. Rick Heilman, and Bishop Robert C. Morlino have said many times, Bill said, “we have to sacrifice to get into heaven.”
“If we are Catholic, we have to listen to that and not just think, ‘those are nice words’ — we have to act on it,” he said.
The prayerful presence at the Planned Parenthood is not limited to the times when abortion is offered. Some pro-lifers are dedicated to coming at other times of the day, as well, and vigils are held periodically through the year.
In the lead-up to the January 22 anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped legalize abortion, Fr. Rick Heilman and the Knights of Divine Mercy have held a nine-day Stations of the Cross novena at the clinic before the doors were opened each day.
As well, Vigil for Life is hosting a prayer event on Saturday, Jan. 22, at 1 p.m., at Planned Parenthood to memorialize the lives lost to abortion since 1973.
These prayers are added to prayers worldwide and even those locally who cannot get to the abortion clinic to provide a physical witness to the need to end abortion. Millions of unborn children are killed in the United States every year — more than 8,500 abortions were performed in Wisconsin in 2009 according to recent statistics.
Those who pray ensure that those children do not die unloved.