Parishioners from local churches and students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as students from other universities, braved rain, cold, and insults to stand in front of the East Central Illinois Planned Parenthood clinic as part of a Christian prayer and vigil movement called the 40 Days For Life Campaign.
Holding hand-lettered signs reading “Honk if you are pro-life!” and equating abortion with murder, they might seem like any other protesters at first, but there’s no chanting or yelling. In fact, all the participants have signed a statement saying they won’t confront or harass anyone passing by or going into the clinic.
In 2005, there were 820,151 legal abortions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 45,298 abortions in the state of Illinois in 2007, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, and 456 of those abortions occurred in Champaign County.
The 40 Days For Life Campaign began February 25 and will continue through April 5 outside abortion provider buildings in over 130 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia and Ireland. The effort began in College Station, Texas, in 2004.
Nancy Benz, a former sixth-grade teacher, and her husband Dale, members of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Champaign, have been standing outside Planned Parenthood from 12 o’clock to 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday.
“The bottom line is (abortion is) killing a baby,” said Dale Benz, a retired Natural Resources Conservation employee. “God has created every human being that was ever conceived. I don’t believe in murder.”
The Benzes said they hoped that their prayers would influence some women to change their minds about having an abortion.
“These people can’t be any poorer than Joseph and Mary were when they had Jesus, so hopefully people will recognize that and realize that God will take care of them,” Nancy Benz said.
Participants have registered on the campaign Web site and chosen a time slot for a shift outside the clinic. The campaign is meant to be sustained 24 hours per day, seven days a week, but at some points during the past week, the sidewalk in front of the white and red brick building was empty.
“We try to make sure that there’s at least two people per hour,” said Michael DeClerck, co-director of the campaign. “That doesn’t always happen, sometimes there’s one. Sometimes we might have ten people. It really depends on people’s schedules, who wants to come out during the day.”
The pro-life advocates stay off of the Planned Parenthood property and stand on the sidewalk on the west side of the building, while the entrance for patients is on the east side.
DeClerck, a member of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center and a senior majoring in math and computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he has seen quite a bit of angry reaction from the public, including people cursing and throwing rocks.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” DeClerck said. “There’s a lot of people that support what we’re doing, and there’s a lot of people that are, actually they’re angry, despite the fact that we really have done nothing to provoke them.”
Joy Pace, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Champaign, has been going to Planned Parenthood for four and a half years to speak with women from the sidewalk. Previous to that, she went to the clinic simply to pray, but hearing a close friend’s story of becoming infertile after an abortion changed her approach.
“She has no children now because of her abortion history,” Pace said. “That really sparked something for me, even though I was already involved in the pro-life world…she had shared with me, ‘Joy, that if even one person had been standing out there, I wouldn’t have gone through with it.’ And that still brings tears to my eyes, because I think, ‘What could we be doing to help women?’”
Pace said that after praying with her friend, the two women began standing outside the clinic together to try to dissuade women from having an abortion.
“(My friend) stayed out there with me for about six, eight weeks until it became too painful for her to watch woman after woman go in,” Pace said. “She knew the road they were going to have, and they may not have had the specific difficulties that she had, but she knew that this was a long road to go.”
Pace hasn’t looked back since that day, standing outside the clinic every Friday from 8 to 11 a.m. Pace gives out her home phone number, as well as passing out a pamphlet with phone numbers and addresses of local crisis pregnancy centers, charities, and post-abortion counseling services.
“We felt it was a loving approach, a gentle approach, and we offer loving care to every person we meet,” Pace said. “We give out information about where women can get help in the community, where they can get help if they’ve already had abortions, and we pray for everyone going in and out of the clinic, including the workers.”
Pace said 25 to 30 women have decided not to have abortions after speaking with her.
“We’re in contact with some of these women for a long time,” Pace said. “If they’re having their children, we help them with material goods, if they want us involved. Some women just need a positive outlook, that they can do it, that we believe in them, and that’s all they need is to have someone say that they’re cherished and they’re loved and they’re capable and they can have children.”
Pace, a mother of two, said some of the women’s stories have been heartbreaking. “We know three women went on to have (abortions) because we couldn’t get services to them fast enough in that time,” Pace said.“One was a terrible situation of coercion by a doctor and a husband on the same woman. She got betrayed by both men. She called me a month later…and she said, ‘My goodness, I should have listened to you. I can’t believe what has happened.’”
Pace said she is very happy with the outcome of her work over the years. “I don’t like bargaining with God, but I did say, ‘I will know if You’re blpessing our work if we save one woman a year and one baby a year,” Pace said.
Pace has also been able to meet some of the babies who may not have come into the world if she hadn’t talked to their mothers at a crucial moment, sometimes by chance. After cooing over a baby in Wal-Mart, she suddenly realized she had met the mother a year earlier outside Planned Parenthood.
“I drove my cart back into the aisle, ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’ and said, ‘I know you’re going to think I’m nuts, but is your name…,’” Pace said. “I said ‘Is this the baby?’ She said, ‘This is the baby.’ Yeah, and that’s one of those chance things, we say kisses from God. They’re just so beautiful.”
Mary Eppich, a member of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, has been standing with Pace on Fridays to counsel those who come to the clinic for abortions.
“It’s hard to engage people,” Eppich said. “For the most part, people who are coming and going don’t want to talk to us.”
Eppich is familiar with the difficulties of unplanned pregnancy. Her daughter became pregnant while in high school, and now has a 10-year-old daughter.
“My 10-year-old granddaughter was standing out here last week holding signs with me,” Eppich said. “If (my daughter) had had an abortion, I wouldn’t have had that helper.” As she spoke, an 18-wheeler labeled “Double D Express Truck” lumbered past and honked.
Eppich said she has occasionally interacted with Planned Parenthood staff. “We’ve exchanged greetings,” Eppich said.
A receptionist inside the Planned Parenthood clinic, who refused to give her name, said she was aware of those standing outside and wasn’t bothered by their presence. She declined to comment further, and told a reporter, “I’m actually supposed to put you out, but I can’t do that.”
Lara Philipps, communications coordinator for the Planned Parenthood office in Chicago, said the medical center does not grant interviews because “it invades the privacy of our patients.”
In response to an interview request, Philipps wrote in an email Thursday: “Unfortunately due to the high volume of requests we receive on a daily basis, our current staffing capacity does not allow us to answer individual questions or grant requests for interviews.”
A message left for Benita Ulisano, a member of NARAL Pro-Choice America, requesting comment was not returned before deadline.
John-Paul Deddens, executive director of Students for Life of Illinois and a 2008 graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, coordinated the first local 40 Days for Life Campaign in October and November of last year.
“Over the summer I just looked around and said, ‘There are two abortion clinics in Champaign, there are a lot of pro-life people here, so why can’t we do that here?’” Deddens said.
Besides the Planned Parenthood facility, the Women’s Health Practice in Champaign is also an abortion provider, but Deddens said Planned Parenthood was chosen as the site for the vigil because of its proximity to the University of Illinois campus.
Deddens said he has been visiting the Planned Parenthood facility since 2005. “It’s definitely a difficult thing to be out there because it’s a very hopeless place,” Deddens said. “When someone decides that they have to end the life of their child and end the pregnancy and the life that’s growing in them because they have no other options…there isn’t much hope, really, just generally speaking. So just being there is, for me, very draining. But you just have to have hope, and the reason we’re there is to offer hope to the people going in.”
Deddens said he knows some people that have had abortions, but he has an even more personal reason for being pro-life. “When I was in the womb, the doctors ran some tests and thought that I might have Down syndrome…and they recommended to my mom that I be aborted,” Deddens said. “That’s pretty powerful when you think about it.”
DeClerck said that his friendship with Deddenswhile both were students had a big influence on his pro-life stance. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the issue, and really what the arguments were about. I think there’s a lot of arguments and a lot of assumptions that are made in certain arguments about what specifically what is in the womb, is that a human person or not?” DeClerck said. “Under our law, we protect human persons, but if you don’t consider the fetus in the womb a human person, then you might come to some conclusions otherwise.”
Deddens said his organization takes a philosophical, medical and human-rights view, rather than merely religious approach toward when life begins.
“From the moment of conception, fertilization, from there after, there’s no ontological change and the being is there, so it’s got the full genetic code, it’s got metabolism, it’s human, obviously,” Deddens said. “A lot of people for some reason kind of deny that, and it’s always growing. It’s kind of a seamless trajectory from there on. So it’s pretty easy to tell that this is a human life.”
DeClerck said he is hopeful that abortion will become illegal someday. “I really do believe that one day we should see that the child in the womb does deserve the right to life, and one day I hope that our society will say, ‘Oh, we considered abortion back then! That was ridiculous.’” DeClerck said.
Eppich said she also believes that abortion may eventually become illegal in the United States.
“With God all things are possible,” Eppich said.
The Rev. Mark Miller of St. Matthew Catholic Church, standing next to Eppich, tempered his response a bit. “Not in the next four years, certainly. Practically, not for ten or 20.”
Eppich added, “Even if the Roe v. Wade decision was reversed, we know that other laws would be enacted at the state level to try to limit it.”
Several campaign participants said other church members are praying from their homes rather than join them outside.
“There’s an awful lot of people who don’t want to stand out here and have everybody think they’re crazy,” Eppich said, a quiet determination in her eyes. “Personally, I’m okay with that.”