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How the Missouri Pro-Life Movement is Using
Pope John Paul II’s “United Ethical Effort” to
Build a Culture of Life
Mary Lovee Varni | 20 February 2020
In his 1995 encyclical “Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II said, “what is urgently called for is…a united ethical effort to…build a new culture of life…to solve today’s unprecedented problems affecting human life.”[i] The pope’s vision calls all people of faith and goodwill to unite around the pro-life movement's foundational principle: that each human life is sacred from conception through natural death.
Role of Unity in Righting Human Injustice
This call for unity among diverse individuals, leaders, and groups is a key component of the most prolific social movements in righting the injustices of their day. Abolition, suffrage, civil rights in America, and solidarity in Poland[ii] are only four examples, which addressed slavery, voting discrimination, racial segregation, and Communist oppression, respectively.
The photo of Sr. Antona Ebo, the black Catholic religious from St. Louis who stood side-by-side with her fellow white religious at the 1965 Selma, Alabama March, is iconic. The image perfectly represents the “united ethical effort” envisioned in the “Gospel of Life” – written almost 30 years later to the day -- to stop another dehumanizing injustice, abortion.[iii]
The pro-life movement is the “heir apparent” to the successful social movements of the past, and uniting together is more important than ever as the issue gains prominence. Protection of human life was recently hailed as a “preeminent” issue by Archbishop Joseph Naumann, USCCB Pro-Life Committee Chairman,[iv] and Pope Francis during the archbishop’s Vatican ad limina visit in January, which also included the Missouri bishops.[v] Beyond the Church, the pro-life issue also garnered increased attention last month when Donald Trump became the first U.S. president ever to personally attend the March for Life.[vi]
Answering the Call to Unity in Missouri
The Missouri pro-life movement is answering Pope John Paul II’s call for a “united ethical effort” like never before. Through legislation, peaceful public witness, pregnancy resources, sidewalk prayer and advocacy, and abortion recovery, the state is laying the groundwork for a post-Roe Culture of Life in Missouri and extending those efforts into Illinois.
In 2019, Missouri passed the most expansive pro-life law in its history, Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act. Pro-life leaders, lobbyists, and legislators – instead of just focusing on their own bills (pain-capable, heartbeat, etc.) – worked together to combine them into a single comprehensive piece of legislation.
This “omnibus bill,” signed into law on May 24 by Governor Mike Parson, was supported by the united movement including Missouri Catholic Conference, Campaign Life Missouri, Missouri Baptist Convention, Missouri Right to Life (MRL), Lutherans for Life of Missouri, Coalition for Life St. Louis, Knights of Columbus, Thrive St. Louis, and Students for Life.
Described by MRL as, “groundbreaking legislation that will save lives and set the standard for pro-life legislation nationwide,” Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act includes gestational age bans at 8, 14, and 18 weeks, and at the "pain-capable" stage of development; bans on race, gender, or Down Syndrome; abortion “trigger ban” when Roe v. Wade is overturned; second custodial parent notification; Missouri informed consent requirements for out-of-state referrals; and increased malpractice insurance and pregnancy resource center tax credits.[vii]
Unsurprisingly, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit, and as of September, a judge has temporarily blocked the gestational age, race, gender, and Down Syndrome abortion bans, pending its outcome.[viii] However, the other provisions went into effect on August 28, and the law remains a powerful example of what can be accomplished by a united movement.
Peaceful Public Witness
Since 1973, Missouri advocates have joined together in peaceful, public witness to proclaim the Gospel of Life, including at the national March for Life, which typically gathers 100,000-plus pilgrims in Washington D.C. each year.[ix] In 2020, about 3,500 Missourians attended, including 2,400 teens and chaperones from the St. Louis Archdiocese. All state pilgrims are invited to walk together under the archdiocesan and Missouri Life Caravan banner, the two largest contingents.[x]
The Show Me Life Action Day is another long-standing tradition uniting the movement.[xi] Organized by Missouri Right to Life each March in Jefferson City, participants have a unique chance to lobby their legislators on behalf of life and be inspired at the noon rally by state and national pro-life speakers.
The Midwest March for Life (Jefferson City) and March on the Arch (St. Louis) are newer efforts promoted nationally by MarchforLife.org. Since the first Midwest March started ten years ago, it has grown to 2,000 attendees and 34 state and national sponsors.[xii] The March on the Arch has also gained momentum since 2018, with over 1,000 pilgrims coming as far as Chicago.[xiii]
During St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson’s ad limina visit with Pope Francis in January, they “talked about the importance of supporting pregnant women and making sure they have the resources they need to support life." Since arriving in St. Louis in 2009, the archbishop has strongly supported the pro-life efforts of the Respect Life Apostolate, Catholic Charities and other agencies, and their decades-long commitment to walking with those facing unexpected pregnancies.
Efforts include the LifeLine Coalition, an annual collection that helps fund area pregnancy assistance centers, and the Options brochure, used in local sidewalk counseling efforts, which lists the life-affirming pregnancy and family resources available in the bi-state area.[xiv] The archbishop also established an adoption fund and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Fund to help mothers and families further.
More recently, the archbishop commissioned the “Telling our Story” initiative, which is a year-long campaign highlighting the "wealth of resources" available from the archdiocese to accompany those with children, preborn through age 5.[xv] In 2020-2021, this campaign will mirror locally what Archbishop Naumann has proposed nationally through the USCCB “Walking with Moms in Need” program.[xvi]
Similar pregnancy support resources and initiatives exist in the state’s other Catholic dioceses, Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, and Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Beyond the Church, Missouri pro-life organizations, lobbyists, and legislators worked together to establish the Pregnancy Resource Center Tax Credit Program. Currently, taxpayers who financially support the 74 qualifying centers[xvii] may be eligible for a tax credit up to 70% of their gift. Expanded under the 2019 pro-life law, this program was one of the few provisions not challenged by the federal Planned Parenthood lawsuit.
Additionally, Alliance for Life in Missouri recently measured the annual impact of the qualifying centers and other life-affirming ministries. Per their 2017 Impact Report Card, collectively, these centers served 29,120 clients (women, men, children, and babies), including 3,854 parenting class clients, 603 fatherhood clients, and 6,333 who received material resources.[xviii]
Sidewalk Prayer and Advocacy
Twice each year, Missouri pro-life advocates unite across denominational lines to join in the international 40 Days for Life prayer and sidewalk advocacy campaign. Columbia, St. Louis, and Kansas City participants have seen wonderful results from these ecumenical initiatives including preborn lives saved, parents spared the pain of abortion, women helped before, during and after birth, abortion workers leaving the industry, and even the end of abortion at the Columbia Planned Parenthood.
The St. Louis campaign began in 2009 and soon grew into its own non-profit. Coalition for Life St. Louis, under the direction of Brian Westbrook, is now a network of 140 churches and organizations and thousands of volunteers in the bi-state region.
In addition to 40 Days for Life, the coalition keeps a constant sidewalk advocate presence outside the St. Louis Planned Parenthood through its Life Choice Internship and assists mothers and babies with practical assistance through Women’s Care Connect. Since mid-2019, Coalition for Life St. Louis reports that it has helped 2,400 women choose life over abortion.[xix]
The coalition is supported in prayer and hospitality by the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s pro-life convent, Our Lady of Guadalupe, which the archbishop opened in 2017 directly across right across from Planned Parenthood. Sr. Sue Ann Hall and Sr. Delores Vogt, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, are a welcoming and prayerful presence to all sidewalk advocates and anyone who “comes to witness to life at the abortion clinic.”[xx]
Coalition for Life St. Louis is also partnering with the Diocese of Belleville to expand its 40 Days for Life and sidewalk advocacy efforts into southeastern Illinois.[xxi] The partnership began in late October after Planned Parenthood secretly built its new “mega clinic” in Fairview Heights, located in the Belleville diocese.[xxii] Unfortunately, Missourians are referred to Illinois abortion facilities[xxiii] because of that state’s liberal abortion laws.
Abortion Recovery and Healing
Although Missouri pro-life advocates are passionate about saving unborn life and protecting their parents from abortion before it happens, they’re equally as passionate about helping them if that devastating choice is made. Through Project Rachel, Project Joseph, Rachel’s Vineyard, Silent No More, and If Not For Grace, Missourians can find help and healing after abortion.
Project Rachel, both a specific women-only ministry and the umbrella term for any diocesan-approved abortion healing program, is one of the first efforts ever established to address the wounds of abortion. Founded by Vicky Thorn, Project Rachel helplines and resources are available in the St. Louis, Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Springfield-Cape Girardeau dioceses.[xxiv] Plans are also underway to start Project Rachel in the Jefferson City and Belleville, IL dioceses.
Project Joseph is similar to the Project Rachel model except for that it ministers to men only and is available from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.[xxv]
Rachel’s Vineyard, the world’s largest abortion recovery program, is an ecumenical three-day healing retreat for both men and women and has helped over 300,000 individuals since 1993, regardless of faith background.[xxvi] Currently, Rachel’s Vineyard is available in the Kansas City/St. Joseph Diocese and is beginning in the St. Louis Archdiocese this fall.
Silent No More in an international ecumenical campaign started in 2002, which “makes the public aware of the devastation abortion brings to women and men…and heal the secrecy and silence.” Members can find healing programs in their local area (including Missouri), seek support and fellowship, and, when ready, share their testimonies.[xxvii]
Other abortion recovery programs in Missouri include If Not For Grace, available at several pregnancy resource centers in the state; professional counseling services via Catholic Charities affiliates; Unfailing Mercy one-day retreats via the Kansas City/St. Joseph diocese; and spiritual direction and healing prayer from the St. Louis Catholic Renewal Center.
Results of Pro-Life Missouri’s United Ethical Effort
Two long-term, pro-life trends give further evidence that Missouri’s united ethical effort is working: fewer abortion facilities and declining abortion numbers. Just three years ago, there were four facilities performing abortions in the state, per Guttmacher Institute.[xxviii] Now Missouri is down to one, the St. Louis Planned Parenthood.
Fewer Abortion Facilities
The recent ending of abortions in Columbia was a combined effort of good pro-life legislation, the national abortion doctor shortage, and grassroots advocacy. Since the early 2000s, the Missouri movement has been more successful in passing incremental abortion restrictions.[xxix] Before the 2019 landmark law, more recent wins included abortion facilities having to adhere to the same standards as other ambulatory surgical centers and doctors needing admitting privileges at local hospitals in case of complications and emergencies.
Also, as the national abortion doctor shortage hit the state, the Missouri industry had to rely more and more on out-of-state providers. This led to high turnover at the Columbia and other facilities. Fewer providers wanted to adhere to Missouri’s protective pro-life laws,[xxx] and fewer hospitals wanted to extend admitting privileges to non-local doctors.
40 Days for Life CEO Sean Carney also credits the end of abortion in Columbia to Kathy Forck’s grassroots sidewalk advocacy. In “The Beginning of the End of Abortion,” he writes how her tireless efforts to start the Columbia 40 Days for Life campaign was successful in saving preborn lives and changing the hearts and minds of the abortion-minded parents they encountered outside the facility.
The Status of Missouri’s Last Abortion Facility
The last Missouri abortion facility is still ending preborn life and endangering women, even though the Department of Health and Senior Services denied its license renewal application on May 31, 2019. Citing serious health and safety concerns discovered during the routine annual inspection, the state department was soon sued by the St. Louis Planned Parenthood,[xxxi] which culminated in an administrative hearing last October.
State administrative hearings rarely gain the international exposure that this one did, but as Missouri is only one of six states with one abortion facility,[xxxii] the possible closing of the last one is historic. If the final ruling, expected later in 2020, goes against Planned Parenthood, Missouri could become the first abortion facility-free state since 1973.[xxxiii]
Declining Abortion Numbers
Per Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), abortions performed in Missouri have fallen each year from 2008 to 2017, for a total decline of 47% during that timeframe. Since 1975, the year Missouri began reporting, abortions have fallen by 62%.[xxiii]
The state decline is larger than the overall national abortion rate decline, about 50% since 1980, according to CLI's Dr. Michael New.[xxxiv] One reason for the national decline is that more unintended pregnancies are being carried to term in the U.S., "nice evidence that these pro-life efforts have been effective," which Dr. New hopes will "encourage pro-lifers and inspire them to continue.
[i] Excerpted quote, point 95 of the encyclical, page 99 of the PDF document http://www.catholic-pages.com/documents/evangelium_vitae.pdf
[ii] Note the second paragraph highlighting the unity of diverse groups within Solidarity and that at one time, one-third of Poles claimed membership https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/aug31/solidarity-poland/
[iv] Protecting human life called “preeminent” during 2020 National Vigil for Life opening Mass http://cms.usccb.org/about/pro-life-activities/january-roe-events/archbishop-joseph-naumann-national-prayer-vigil-for-life-homily-2020.cfm
[v] Preeminence affirmed by Pope Francis during USCCB Region 9 bishops “ad limina” visit https://www.archstl.org/ad-limina-visit-a-time-for-dialogue-with-pope-francis-vatican-officials-4909
[viii] See fall 2019 updates https://rewire.news/legislative-tracker/law/missouri-fetal-heartbeat-abortion-ban-hb-126/
[ix] See Students for Life’s time-lapsed video and estimated 225,000-pilgrim metric who attended the 2020 March https://studentsforlife.org/2020/01/25/2020-march-for-life-is-a-wrap/
[xv] Archdiocesan campaign to launch in March 2020, which includes highlighting these and other resources:
[xxiii] Under “Where Patients Obtain Abortions,” https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/state-facts-about-abortion-missouri
[xxix] See paragraph 4 https://www.vox.com/2019/5/30/18644611/missouri-last-abortion-clinic-2019-planned-parenthood
[xxx] Carney, Shawn D. “The Beginning of the End of Abortion.” Day 26, pages 191-199 https://40daysforlifegear.com/products/the-beginning-of-the-end-of-abortion
[xxxi] See https://health.mo.gov/news/newsitem/uuid/bfbb2a45-3bf9-4b1b-9fa1-d53d3ff4e1ba/planned-parenthood-files-unprecedented-lawsuit-against-missouri-department-of-health-and-senior-services-with-licensure-renewal-process-still-ongoing
[xxxii] As of August 14, 2019; see https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2019/08/14/these-are-the-six-us-states-with-one-remaining-abortion-clinic/
Mary Lovee Varni, is the Respect Life Apostolate Program Manager for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, and an Eastern Region Board Member for Missouri Right to Life. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and a Minor in History from Culver-Stockton College, Canton, Missouri.