In 1994, a young woman went to get an abortion, but when she looked out the window of the facility, she saw a priest. She decided to go outside to talk to the praying man.
“And she changed her mind. I ended up helping her baptize her baby, and now, all these years later she’s still in touch with me, and that baby that we saved that day ended up having a baby of her own,” said Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
People in the pro-life movement tend to have stories like this—but they know most of the lives they’ve saved they’ll never meet.
When Pavone first heard about the March for Life in Washington, D.C., he was still in high school. He attended the third annual event in 1976, before he knew anyone who had an abortion or what abortion was all about. But as he got involved over the years, and after he became a priest, he felt a “call within a call,” and got permission from the Church to dedicate himself to pro-life advocacy.
After all, the founder of the abortion industry, Bernard Nathanson, who later became pro-life himself, had said that if all the clergy across the nation had stood up against abortion, the effort to normalize abortion never would have taken hold. Instead, the pro-life movement was framed as negative or shaming, or a little weird, and that image took hold in the mainstream.
But over the years, people have come to see it for what it really is, Pavone said.
“We are looking to help the people who are pregnant and afraid; they are in so much desolation and despair they want to go have their children aborted … it’s a terrible thing that they just feel they have no choice,” Pavone said.
Oftentimes, people tell women, with very good intentions, that the baby is “her choice.” Everyone around her repeats the message “It’s your choice.”
“But when you think about it from the point of view of the woman who’s going through this, what she’s hearing is that she’s all alone in this to decide. What if what they’re looking for instead is, ‘Isn’t somebody going to tell me that they’re with me, and that they’re going to help both me and this baby get through this?'” Pavone said, and the pro-life movement is really a response to that.
“We are finding it easier and easier to talk to people about this topic because more people are seeing the pro-life side of this of this issue, more people are thinking it through, they’re wrestling with their own feelings,” he said.
Americans Support Life
Culturally, Americans tend not to support abortion on demand with no restrictions. Regardless of whether they consider themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” polls show that responses tend to be nuanced, and the later the pregnancy term, the lower the percentage of abortion supporters.
From the political arena to churches to other places where pro-life advocates talk about the movement, Pavone says they’re all seeing more people “increasingly concerned that we’ve gone too far.”
“Because America is just one of four countries that allows abortion throughout pregnancy,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know that abortion was happening in the sixth month of pregnancy.’ When they find this out, they say, ‘How can that be?'”
“Culturally, the trend has been growing more and more in a pro-life direction; that’s from a number of dynamics that nobody can change,” Pavone said.
The first factor is science: We now know more about the unborn than we have ever known; ultrasound imaging has improved and people put their photos of weeks-old unborn babies in their photo albums; expecting parents know when hands and feet are formed, how early the heart starts beating, and so on.
“Secondly, the experience of those that have an abortion is something that that is becoming more clear,” he said. “Those are powerful testimonies, and those are getting out.”
There are many reasons for this. On the one hand, people are seeing that abortion is not a quick fix and doesn’t bring the solutions it promises, and on the other hand, women who suffered abortion-related trauma silently for years, sometimes decades, see that perhaps they too can have a chance to heal.
Thirdly, many young people in recent years have started to join the pro-life movement.
“There’s an awareness of being a survivor,” Pavone said. “These same people that march and speak up for the unborn, they’re also speaking up for themselves because they realized at a certain point in life, they were not protected when they were living and growing in their mother’s womb.
“And that has a deep personal impact. ‘Gee, my life wasn’t protected, what does that mean?’ And this is motivating a lot of younger people,” Pavone said. “So these dynamics are not things that a change in government policy can stop. These are things that will continue to move our nation towards a point of realizing that abortion is not a good idea.”
Silent No More
In 2003, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, after the March for Life in Washington, D.C., took place, there was, as usual, a pro-abortion rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Georgette Forney, president of Anglicans for Life, stood beside their rally with a sign that read “I regret choosing to abort my baby.”
It didn’t garner the response she expected, or really any response at all. One person told her they were sorry she felt that way, but she was otherwise ignored. Where was the support for women after abortion?
Upset, she told Pavone about it, and the two of them and Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, decided they needed to do something to put a spotlight on this. Women had always shared experiences of having an abortion, or what it was like even years later, but they wanted to see if they couldn’t put it in the framework of a worldwide campaign, so more people could understand, and see a chance of healing. The campaign was titled “Silent No More.”
As a priest, Pavone had the experience of counseling women who had abortions. They would often tell him, “I want to share my story so I can help other people avoid this pain.”
Not all of them, but many, he said, are “sad, they’re hurting, they may be angry, and they may be—this is a common characteristic of people who’ve had abortions—just unable and unwilling to even talk about it. Because it’s so painful.”
“They just want to bury that and forget about it. And you can’t do that forever because it’s a pain that’s crying out to be healed, so it expresses itself in other ways, sometimes in self-destructive behaviors and so forth, like a paralysis, they’re not living life to the fullest, because they’re paralyzed and trying to suppress this pain.”
“So Silent No More was not only the sharing of the stories, it is an invitation to healing, letting people know they’re not alone and they don’t need to be suffering like this, that there are people ready to help,” he said.
Ready to Help
Pavone says it’s always interesting to see the reactions of people learning about the state of abortion across the country, because first there’s a sense of understanding, but it doesn’t stop there.
“And then they get the reaction, ‘OK, I want to help, I’ve got to do something about this,'” he said. “And that’s certainly very gratifying to see because that’s what we’re always encouraging people to do—speak up for life, help out pregnant moms, do something about this issue, educate people, and certainly vote pro-life. And it’s gratifying to see more people stepping up and doing that.”
One of the things Pavone advises is finding out where the pregnancy centers are in your area, should you ever need to give a pregnant mother some help and advice. These centers outnumber abortion facilities across the country and are meant to help both the woman and the baby with a variety of services, but they certainly aren’t household names.
“Anytime you hear of somebody who’s pregnant and in need, you can actually help save that life,” Pavone said.
There also tend to be local pro-life organizations one can connect with, or networks online and through social media, and Pavone recommends joining or following some resources to become better informed, because there is constantly new information. It also helps people discover ways they can better use their gifts in the movement, whether it’s through writing or sharing their own stories or something else.
And some of that new information is legislation. “There is always something in the pipeline,” Pavone said, both on the state and federal levels. “It’s an issue that won’t go away, even though with Roe v. Wade, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary in two years.”
“Talking with one’s representatives on both of those levels and inquiring about pro-life legislation that needs to be supported or pro-abortion legislation that needs to be opposed, people can do a lot in that arena.”
There are certainly things a president can do alone, via executive orders, as President Joe Biden has already done with the order that reversed the Mexico City Policy, thereby allowing federal funds to go to foreign nonprofits that promote or perform abortions overseas.
It does harm, but it’s limited, Pavone said. “Bigger policy issues that involve Congress, it’s not like the Democrats have a free hand; it’s a razor-thin majority.”
States all have their own varied restrictions on abortion, so policy at the federal level would be about eliminating certain restrictions wholesale such as by redefining terms, Pavone said. This might be done by introducing a vaguely worded bill to remove “obstacles” to abortion on the federal level, which could render what most consider to be “common sense restrictions” like parental consent clauses for minors null on the state level.
“Given how strongly the American people oppose getting rid of these protections, I’m not so sure they would do this. So there are dangers legislatively, but certainly there’s no guarantee they’re going to go forward,” Pavone said.
There are also pro-life bills being reintroduced on the federal level, such as the Born Alive bill, which gives equal protections to babies who are born alive after surviving an abortion attempt.
On the state level, Pavone said it’s likely that the states where Republicans won elections will pass many pro-life bills in the next two years, because these states have Republican executive, legislative, and judicial branches, increasing the chance that bills will not only get passed but signed into law and then upheld in court, he said.
“I think that what we’re going to see in the next few years is a lot of successful state-level activity. On the federal level, we’ll be playing defense to a certain extent, but also on offense in the sense that when we introduce very reasonable pro-life bills like ‘Let’s protect babies that were born alive,’ the unwillingness of the Democrats to go along with that will turn into a key issue for the elections in the midterms,” Pavone said.
“They’re going to say, ‘Why are you going to reelect someone who doesn’t know how to protect a baby, one that’s born alive?’
“There will be better days politically ahead, but the wider movement is just as strong as ever,” Pavone said. “Proceed with confidence, increase your interactivity as much as possible, and stay united. And we’ll see this through to a victory.”