Two Sundays before Christmas, my husband Jack and I took our children to pray a rosary at a medical building where doctors perform abortions near our home in San Marcos. I drive past the complex almost every day, on my way to the freeway, on my way to four-year-old Angela’s preschool. On the northwest corner of two wide, busy streets, a sandstone-colored staircase rises from the sidewalk to a semicircular courtyard. Behind the courtyard, the low-rise building stretches half a block toward an empty lot.
I never pictured myself as one of those crazy people kneeling on the concrete fingering beads. At my law school graduation from UCLA in 1989, Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun gave the keynote address. Blackmun wrote the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States. In the weeks before the ceremony, our professors warned us anti-abortion protesters would try to disrupt graduation. I remember feeling mildly annoyed that a bunch of religious zealots would want to ruin a day I had worked so hard to reach.
On graduation day, barricades manned by campus police surrounded the great lawn where the ceremony was held. I don’t remember seeing any anti-abortion protesters. As we prepared to process out of the law school toward the ceremony, I looked down the steps at a sea of blue-and-white “Keep Abortion Legal” placards. A group of women in our class passed out pins that matched the placards. “They’ve done a great job with the counter-protest,” one of the women said with a smile. When she had passed by, I quietly slipped the pin into my pocket.
In the years since law school, I have lost a fiancé to suicide, come back into the Catholic Church, given birth to four children, and suffered a miscarriage. All of those events made me re-examine my ideas about abortion and the sanctity of human life. On Tuesdays when I pass by the clinic on my way to Costco, four or five men and women pray by the driveway. I don’t think of them as zealots. They are people I know, friends. I know that they pray on Tuesdays because that is the day when abortions are performed at the clinic.
Last Sunday, these same friends asked Jack and me to join them. As part of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the unborn, pro-life groups nationwide planned to pray at abortion clinics. Sunday morning after Mass, Jack told seven-year-old Rebecca, Angela, and three-year-old Lucy we would be praying at the clinic after lunch. “Why?” Rebecca asked.
“Because they kill babies there,” Jack answered. “Before they’re born.”
Angela looked horrified as though she didn’t really believe him. “Why would they kill babies?” she asked.
“Because the mothers don’t want the babies,” I told her. “They don’t have enough money to take care of the baby or they’re not married to the baby’s father or they’re very young and don’t know how to take care of the baby at all.”
Angela grew quiet. I fixed the girls lunch while Jack went upstairs to take a nap with 18-month-old Johnny. As I cleared the plates from the table, Rebecca and Lucy ran out into the backyard. Angela wandered over to me and pulled on my shirt. She looked up into my face. “Will there be coffins?”
“Where?” I asked.
“At the place we’re going to pray. Will the babies be in coffins?”
“No, sweetie.” I kneeled down. “There won’t be any coffins. I know it’s hard to understand. But they don’t even bury the babies. They just throw them away.”
After Jack and Johnny woke up, we loaded everybody into the van and made the short drive to the clinic. A Santa Ana wind had blown the air clean, and the hills around San Marcos seemed etched against the December sky. At the foot of the sandstone steps, we kneeled or stood around a framed print of the Virgin’s image. The breeze kept blowing the picture over. A few other families joined us. Before the rosary, we prayed for the babies, for the mothers, for the doctors. I held Johnny in my arms. Rebecca kneeled by Jack. Lucy and Angela joined a few other kids and played in and out of the palm trees set into the sidewalk.
Not far into the rosary, a pickup truck slowed as it rounded the corner in front of the clinic. A young man, college-aged, hollered out his window — “Get a fucking life!” — and gunned his engine. A few minutes later, another car honked, and the driver waved.
Rebecca leaned over to Jack. “Daddy,” she whispered, “everybody can see us.”
For the next 20 minutes, our voices rose and fell, call and response, the familiar rhythm of Hail Marys and Our Fathers mixed in with the laughter of children. Johnny squirmed out of my arms, and I chased him as he chased Angela and her friends around the trees.
As we drove home in the early dusk, the girls admired the icicle lights and Christmas displays in front of the homes we passed. At one house with no lights, plastic figures of Mary and Joseph kneeled on a concrete walkway near the front steps gazing at a plastic baby Jesus. “I see Jesus,” Angela called from the backseat.
“Where?” Rebecca asked.
“Back there,” Angela answered, and she pointed into the darkness near the stairs.