“What is urgently called for,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II in the great pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life.” (EV, ¶95)
The vast and multifarious pro-life movement, with its ever-expanding networks of crisis pregnancy centers, mobile ultrasound units, political activists and lawyers, pro-life student clubs, news organizations, marches, peaceful protesters and medical centers, is the remarkable and, in many respects, unlikely embodiment of this great movement. Against all the odds, and often with little time, money, and experience, pro-life individuals and organizations have risen up and pushed back against the well-funded, celebrity-backed juggernaut of the Culture of Death, saving countless lives in the process.
Twice a year, however, an event happens across the globe that is perhaps the single-most astonishing and visible evidence that this great campaign for life is growing in energy, youthfulness, strategic savvy, spiritual depth, and resolve. I am speaking about the 40 Days for Life campaign.
The Power of Prayer and Fasting
Just a few days ago, 40 Days for Life launched its annual Lenten campaign. All around the world, in a remarkable 377 cities, armies of peaceful pro-life prayer warriors are gathering outside abortion clinics, where they strive to maintain a 24/7 peaceful prayer vigil.
The life-saving power of simply having a pro-life presence outside abortion clinics was proven in the first hour of the campaign in Birmingham, England. According to Isabel, one of the participants there, a baby was saved from abortion almost immediately after the campaign commenced. “A lady was given a leaflet on her way in,” said Isabel. “She carried on inside but came out 15 minutes later and said she’d changed her mind and was keeping her baby. Praise God!”
Imagine for a moment what would have happened if those pro-lifers hadn’t been outside that abortion clinic to hand that woman that leaflet. Another dead baby. Another wounded mother, suffering a lifetime of regret. If that’s not enough to convince you to look up your local 40 Days for Life campaign, and to go spend an hour in front of an abortion clinic praying, what is?
From its humble beginnings 15 years ago, as a peaceful protest movement outside a single Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, 40 Days for Life has grown to a global movement uniting hundreds of thousands of peaceful pro-life protesters. The mission is simple: to save lives and to end abortion. As Christ made clear, there are some demons that can only be cast out with prayer and fasting. Recognizing that abortion is one of those demons, the founders of 40 Days wisely put the emphasis squarely on these two most powerful spiritual weapons.
The incredible power of the 40 Days for Life concept was validated in a remarkable fashion not only by the fact that the Bryan, Texas clinic subsequently shut down in 2013, but also by the fact that one of its former directors quit her job and became pro-life. That director’s name? Abby Johnson.
Abby has since gone on to become one of the country’s most-eloquent pro-life advocates, having founded a pro-life organization committed to helping other abortion workers like herself quit their jobs. In just two weeks, her incredible true story is coming to the big screen in the film Unplanned, created by the same people who brought us the God is Not Dead movies. Fittingly, 40 Days for Life has also since acquired the building out of which the Bryan Planned Parenthood clinic operated and has made it their national headquarters!
Abbey Johnson on “Unplanned”
According to 40 Days for Life, since their first national campaign in 2007, over 800,000 people have participated in their prayer vigils. In that time over 15,000 babies have been saved, 186 abortion workers have quit, and 99 of the clinics where 40 Days campaigns took place have shut down. In reality, of course, the number of lives saved is probably much higher than 40 Days’ official number, which only includes the number of babies saved that 40 Days volunteers heard about. Who knows how many women chose life, or never showed up for their abortion appointments, simply because pro-life activists were faithfully putting their pro-life beliefs into action? Or who knows how many babies have been saved thanks to all those abortion clinics being shut down?
The Urgency of this Lenten Campaign
As 40 Days’ campaign director Shaw Carney emphasized in announcing the launch of this year’s campaign, this Lenten campaign is more urgent than ever. In the United States, in particular, we have recently witnessed astonishingly bold and inhuman attempts – sadly, partially successful – to push the envelope of legal abortion. New York recently passed a bill that allows abortion up to the moment of birth, and extremist Democrat politicians in other states are attempting to follow suit. We have even heard prominent politicians expressing a callous disdain for the fate of babies after birth.
However, exhorts Carney, “Do not throw your hands in the air or curse at your television” in response to this inhumanity. Instead, “Let this barbaric mentality motivate you to offer hope, healing, and medical alternatives to women where you live. That is what is ending abortion at the local level.”
In Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II said that in order to create a Culture of Life, it is necessary that everyone have the “courage to adopt a new lifestyle.” This new lifestyle would consist “in making practical choices – at the personal, family, social and international level – on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things.”
“This renewed life-style,” said the sainted pope, “involves a passing from indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance of them. Other people are not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and sisters to be supported. They are to be loved for their own sakes, and they enrich us by their very presence.” (EV, ¶98)
In other words, it is not enough simply to believe the right things about the value of life: those beliefs must be put into action, actions that demand sacrifice, and that permeate our whole lives – a lifestyle. These words of the Holy Father continue to motivate and inspire our work at HLI to mobilize consciences and unite efforts of people of all faiths to achieve cultural transformation. Recognizing the value of 40 Days for Life’s model, HLI has enthusiastically supported their efforts to expand globally, and encouraged our own activists and supporters to get involved.
The purpose of the Gospel is “to transform humanity from within and to make it new. Like the yeast which leavens the whole measure of dough (cf. Mt 13:33), the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and about human life.” (EV, ¶95)
If you are pro-life, but find that you are not doing anything, directly, to bring about the end of abortion in our culture, or if you find yourself feeling the call to do more than you are already doing, then I urge you to look into joining your local 40 Days for Life campaign. Spending an hour silently praying outside an abortion clinic may not sound like much – but by making visible your interior pro-life convictions, you are also making visible your own and God’s love and concern for the confused, broken, and desperate women who are considering taking the horrific step of having their own children killed. Your presence and prayers may well be the sign of love and compassion necessary to convince a woman to choose life.
40 Days for Life, in its public witness, strives to “prick the conscience” of society and make it see the humanity of the children, whose right to life is being ignored and violated. Often enduring hardships, persecution, and vulgarities, 40 Days for Life’s sentinels stand in silent witness, not for themselves but for someone else. Countless lives are changed and saved because of their unselfish act of love.
Pope St. John Paul II’s “great campaign” venerates the dignity, beauty, and inestimable value of every human person from the first movement of life to natural death. Without exception, each and every member of society, especially disciples of the Lord Jesus, is called to participate. That includes you.