Last Friday ten pro-life activists were arrested inside abortion centers in Michigan and Virginia where they had entered, peaceably, to speak with the mothers and fathers in the waiting room. The ten were a subset of a larger coordinated group—around 30 or 40 in all—including two women in New Mexico who also entered a clinic, but were not arrested.
The incidents, dubbed a Red Rose Rescue, was inspired by the work of Mary Wagner, a Canadian pro-life activist. Two decades ago, 24-year-old Mary Wagner met a pregnant teenage friend outside of an abortion center and began pleading with her not to go in. Her friend refused to listen, but allowed Mary to accompany her into the waiting room. When a clinic worker inside called the name of another pregnant woman, Mary looked up and repeated it. The woman glanced at her, and in that split second Wagner said simply: “You don’t have to do this.”
It was an instinctive act, no doubt, springing from a sudden emotional recognition of what was about to happen to the child in that woman’s womb and to each of the children waiting so innocently to be dismembered so painfully in the back rooms. Suddenly, Wagner felt she could not morally justify leaving that clinic while it was in her power to stay.
The Canadian police did not agree. They arrested Wagner and clapped her in jail. But in an odd sort of way, a movement was born. It was an obscure one-woman movement for a decade and a half—Wagner spent about a quarter of her time in jail—but gradually she began to gain notoriety. Her trials became small spectacles, with abortionists scolding her for “surreptitiously entering” clinics “armed with red roses and business cards” while mothers wrote in letters to say that Wagner’s illegal action had “encouraged” them and given them “hope,” saving them from killing their “innocent unborn… child.”
Inspiring Other Acts of Courage
Joan Andrews Bell, an elderly pro-life veteran and mother of six adopted children, was one of those arrested during the “Red Rose Rescue” in Virginia last weekend. “You always know where and when the killing takes place,” she said late Friday night. “It’s advertised. You know when it happens. And not to be there, I think it’s a terrible—more than a shame, it’s wrong.”
Of course, “being there” does not necessarily always mean risking arrest. But to some, it sometimes does. Abby McIntyre, a 20-year-old college student police dragged out of Northland Family Planning on her knees, believes it is sometimes necessary to use radical activism to awake parents to what they are about to do to their child.
“We are not fighting ignorance when we are fighting abortion; we are fighting apathy,” she said, echoing Red Rose organizer Monica Miller. Abby argued that she could fight this “shroud of apathy” by showing mothers and fathers that “I feel so passionately about this that I am willing to risk arrest” for one last chance to save their children.
Of course, there was also the simple matter of time to talk to those seeking an abortion. Abby, like most of those who were arrested, had done sidewalk counseling outside abortion centers before and noted that having substantive interactions on the sidewalk is often difficult. The minimum of 10-15 minutes spent inside clinics had much more potential effect than the 10- to 15- second window typical of sidewalk interactions.
Abortions Inside an Apartment Building
This reasoning was particularly relevant in Virginia, where pro-lifers entered Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic, an abortion center positioned on the second floor of a ten-story apartment building. Virginia organizer Larry Cirignano pointed out that pro-lifers intent on dissuading mothers and fathers from abortion had no way of knowing who was entering 101 S. Whiting Street to end their children’s lives and who simply happened to live there. Almost the only feasible way to talk to couples was to directly enter the waiting room.
Bonnie Borel-Donough, a 59-year-old mother of three, was one of six pro-lifers—two priests and four women—who chose to do so last Friday. “I was afraid of getting arrested, like everybody,” Bonnie said. But, in hindsight, she does not regret what she did. Stepping into the waiting room, she immediately connected with a couple she had seen in a different part of the building a few minutes before.
“I wondered if I would see you here,” she said, and gave them a red rose with a little card attached to it. The card said: “A new life, however tiny, brings the promise of unrepeatable joy.” It also listed information for a local pregnancy resource center. The couple told Bonnie they were about five weeks pregnant, and Bonnie pled with them to keep their child. Melanie, the mother, “had a very sweet face” and “wasn’t angry.” She kept agreeing with Bonnie that what they were doing was wrong, but the couple was getting a divorce. “It’s just too late, just too late,” she kept saying. “We have to go through with it.”
A few minutes later, the police arrived. While they focused their attention on the kneeling priests, Bonnie spoke to another woman named Amy. Amy “started to tear up; her heart was touched and moved.” Bonnie offered her contact information, and Amy lent Bonnie her pen so she could do so. “My hands were shaking,” Bonnie said, but she managed to write down her name and number on a strip of stock paper she had with a long list of local pregnancy help centers on it.
All in all, the “Red Rose Rescuers” spent about 30 minutes inside of Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic. This was partially because the Alexandria police were far from eager to forcibly drag half a dozen senior citizens out into the parking lot. But eventually they strapped the four women down to wheelchairs and carried the two priests out.
As Bonnie lay on the floor waiting her turn, she looked towards the exit and saw Amy quietly slipping out of the clinic. A life saved? Bonnie did not venture to say for sure. But she was confident, in any event, that Amy did not get an abortion that Friday morning.
Today I Might Save A Life
I asked the “Red Rose Rescuers” questions to understand why they had chosen to follow Wagner’s footsteps. Why enter the abortion center? Why refuse to leave? Why turn down the offer when a full 10 or 15 minutes after the cops arrived they were still willing to let them get away without arrest?
Every question seemed to have more than one answer. They entered the abortion center in Alexandria, in part, because there really was no other effective way to reach the women there. But it was also because they wanted to show the couples inside that they truly cared. That they weren’t just pro-lifers who got a kick out of holding signs for an hour or two and yelling a little so they could feel better than other people.
They stayed when the police came, in part, because they wanted more time to talk to those around them. Borel-Donough only got to speak with Amy, after all, because she and her team refused to leave. Those extra 10 to 15 minutes may have saved a life.
But even if it didn’t—and this, perhaps, was the core of their thinking—even if it didn’t, why shouldn’t they be willing to risk arrest on the off-chance that it might?
Bell may have summed up the motivation behind her participation in the Red Rose Rescue better than anyone else: “I can’t tolerate pain very well…. every little thing hurts. And I imagine—I just can imagine, those little babies, they have no protection, they have nothing that can help them take away the pain when they’re being dismembered alive… and because these are real human beings, I think—though we do all these other good things, trying to change the law which might take years and it might not—it’s been 44 years, almost 45 years that this is all going on. That [because they are human beings] you still have to respond to the individual children dying in the community in which you live… If there are Christians—because I’m a Christian I’m speaking to Christians—they should have to get rid of the Christians before they can kill little children.”
Bell has a gentle voice, raspy with age, and enunciates her words with a soft, almost child-like clarity, not unusual among older mothers of large families. A veteran of both the civil rights and the pro-life movements, she has more arrests in her past than she can count. Maybe she is right. Maybe if all Christians acted the way she did, “they” wouldn’t be able to kill little children.
Bell said she hoped others might hear of the Red Rose Rescue “and say: this is the right thing to do—total non-violence and total gentleness and then love… approach these moms… and offer them help.” But whether the Red Rose catches on or not, like several others of her team she hopes to rescue again.
This Thursday she, along with the five other Virginia “Red Rose Rescuers,” were arraigned in court.