Why are civil authorities so scared of prayer vigils?

40 Days for Life Prayer Vigil (40 Days for Life/CNA)

Perhaps they are too effective for the abortion business

It is sad to learn that Richmond Borough Council has recently followed Ealing Council in approving an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic. Last year Ealing Council used a Public Space Protection Order to prevent pro-life supporters from approaching people or praying within 200 metres of a Marie Stopes Clinic. In neither case has there been any evidence of harassment. The testimony of mothers who were helped to keep their babies rather than abort them was also disregarded.

Why are these Councils so frightened of these peaceful pro-life prayer vigils? One answer might be that the witness offered by those committed to the pro-life cause makes those running the clinics profoundly uneasy at what they are doing. Despite the legality of abortion it continues to raise high emotion on both sides of the argument because so much is at stake – indeed, the choice between life and death. The dissensions over Brexit pale into insignificance by comparison.

Another answer might be that prayer vigils outside abortion clinics are effective; some women are indeed persuaded that abortion is not their only option – and this means less revenue for the businesses operating the clinics. These thoughts are prompted by a re-reading of Unplanned by Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, who, after eight years believing that her work at the clinic was about “compassion”, watched in horror on ultrasound at an actual abortion taking place and walked away from her job for good.

She first published Unplanned in 2010, having left her clinic in 2009. This new expanded edition, issued by Ignatius Press, is designed to coincide with the release of a film of the same title this month. Fr Frank Pavone of Priests for Life has written the foreword, making the crucial point, sometimes missed by pro-life zealots, that abortionists “are not our enemies. Rather, they are captive to the enemy. Our mission is not to condemn them, but to liberate them. We condemn what they do, but we embrace them as our brothers and sisters.”

Indeed, it was the loving greetings and genuine warmth towards her from pro-life prayer groups the other side of the clinic fence that helped change Abby Johnson’s mind. The catalyst may have been the trauma of watching what actually happened during a “procedure”, but the ground had been long prepared by the Christian love of those she had been trained to see as the enemy.

David Bereit, now the national director of 40 Days for Life, who in 2004 was part of the Coalition for Life team in Texas, launched the first ever 40 Days for Life campaign in September 2004. It meant that every hour, day and night for forty days, the Coalition posted volunteers at the fence outside Johnson’s clinic. Their presence and their dedication were unnerving to clinic staff within. “They were killing us with kindness” Johnson writes in her book. One volunteer once gave her a bunch of lilies and a card quoting Psalm 126:3 with the message, “I’m praying for you, Abby!”

Johnson was deeply moved to realise that her new pro-life friends had “loved and accepted me even when I was doing something that found morally objectionable”. Year after year they had prayed, seemingly without results, before God rewarded their fidelity. Unplanned is a book of great hope for the pro-life cause, both here and in the US. It also demonstrates that prayer vigils outside clinics are effective – which is why Ealing and Richmond have taken drastic steps to stop them.