BRIDGEPORT—When Dr. Lenore Opalak looks back on the ten years she has been praying outside of abortion clinics, she sees the hand of God at work—in the conversion of hearts, in the prayerful commitment to life, and in babies who were born instead of having their lives ended.
Co-leader of the 40 Days for Life campaign in Bridgeport, Dr. Opalak has seen hundreds of miracles that would not have been possible without the prayerful witness of those holding placards and rosary beads at the entrance to abortion clinics. And while it’s never possible to know just who has been touched, very often people come back to tell their story.
The fall campaign, which began September 23 and will end November 1, can attract from three to 15 people a day at 4697 Main Street, the public entrance to Commerce Park, where there is a Planned Parenthood clinic.
At a recent vigil, a young woman stopped to tell her story to the volunteers.
Last February, she drove past the group as she went for an abortion. During the pre-abortion exam, the doctor asked if it would change her mind to know she was pregnant with twins. At that moment, she recalled the people who were praying and immediately got up and left.
Several weeks ago, she gave birth to twin girls. She showed a picture of them to the volunteers and said she’s convinced many other women have also changed their minds about an abortion after seeing the prayer vigil.
When they heard her story, the volunteers offered her the assistance of St. Theresa’s pro-life group and Hopeline Pregnancy Resource Center, as well as the assurance of their continued prayers.
“We will never know how many other babies have been saved because of our prayerful witness,” Dr. Opalak said. “What an amazing blessing she and her babies are, and what a blessing there were volunteers present at the prayer vigil to hear her story, and to inspire hope in other women.”
Where there is prayer, God is always at work, she says. Since the 40 Days for Life campaign began in September, almost 300 lives are known to have been saved as a result of 588 vigils in 36 countries. And since the first coordinated campaign in 2007, more than 17,230 babies have escaped abortion.
The slogan of 40 Days for Life is “Ending abortion where we live,” and the grassroots campaign is possible because of people of different faiths, including Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and Evangelicals.
“It is really a local action,” Dr. Opalak said. “We are not about defunding Planned Parenthood. We are praying to end abortion. It is a public outreach campaign of prayer. Volunteers do not approach people individually. Our signs are positive, and we are there to get the message across about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Our purpose is not to try to guilt-trip anybody.”
The mission of 40 Days for Life is to bring together Christians of all denominations in a campaign of prayer, fasting and peaceful witness for the purpose of repentance. They seek God’s favor in turning hearts and minds from a culture of death to a culture of life and to bring an end to abortion in America, she said.
“We believe the ultimate solution to the abortion crisis is not politics but faith,” she said.“As long as the attitude out there is that God is not involved in this, it will always be a problem. Regardless of any political solution we may get in this country, it is really about a conversion of hearts. There can be no end to abortion until people truly understand what they are saying when they pray ‘Our Father, thy will be done.’”
“We are praying for an end to abortion … and a lot more,” she says. “We want people to accept God’s gifts in their lives and realize that God has another plan for them in a pregnancy, and to accept that plan because it is for their own good. We are praying they have an increase in faith and trust in God because that is what it takes to accept an unexpected pregnancy.”
Since the vigil takes place on Main Street, women considering abortion often drive by, Dr. Opalak says.
“The sight of people praying seems to inspire them. Some will give a thumbs up, others say thank you and yell encouragement,” she said. “One woman stopped at a red light and prayed the Rosary with us.”
Others, however, respond with anger, profanities and insults, which causes Dr. Opalak to wonder how they could become so outraged at the sight of people praying and holding signs that say “Life is beautiful” and “Pray to end abortion.”
Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion, she believes many other social and spiritual problems have resulted in America.
“If we think there is systemic racism, then abortion fits that definition because abortion targets women of color,” she said. “If we don’t address what’s happening with abortion, we are not addressing the crisis in America and in the Church because we are not looking at the cause. As Catholics if we think it is OK to do away with babies and that it is OK to refuse God’s gift, then it is OK to refuse God’s gifts in other parts of our lives. I hope all Catholics will see how important this is because addressing abortion is necessary to address the crisis of our faith. We have to ask whether our faith should be compartmentalized or totally infuse our lives.”
The 40 Days for Life campaign began two decades ago in Texas when four Evangelical Christians decided to take action after an abortion clinic opened in their town. In response, they vowed to stand outside and pray until it closed.
“They just started praying. More people noticed and showed up, and it turned into a huge vigil,” she said. “The clinic closed. Babies were saved and abortion workers were converted. They decided they couldn’t stop there and gradually built their effort into an international organization.”
Each year, there are 40 Days for Life campaigns during Lent and September, along with monthly prayer gatherings. The campaign this fall is the largest ever. The organization claims 1 million volunteers in 36 countries, including many in the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, in England and a much-needed campaign in Ireland.
In Connecticut, vigils have been held in Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford and Danbury. The Bridgeport group has 100 volunteers from 20 parishes throughout the diocese and several Protestant churches. Dr. Opalak said she is grateful to priests who are committed to the cause, including Fr. Brian Gannon, Fr. Peter Cipriani, Fr. Peter Adamski, Fr. Donald Kloster, Fr. Terrence Walsh, Fr. Greg Markey and Canon Andrew Todd.
A native of San Francisco, Dr. Opalak has lived in Fairfield since 1986. She is board certified internist who has practiced medicine in the area for 30 years. As co-leader of 40 Days for Life, she has visited parishes, called rectories and knocked on doors to spread the group’s message, along with her colleague Joe Sullivan of St. James Church in Stratford and Maureen Ciardiello, coordinator of the Respect Life Ministry of the diocese.
“When I first felt compelled to pray publicly for an end to abortion, I was terrified every time I went out,” she recalled. “I did it because I owed it to God but was scared of what my medical colleagues driving on Main Street to St. Vincent’s would think if they recognized me. It has taken a long time to get over that. Some have recognized me. I got one bewildered comment from a colleague who supports abortion, but for the most part they have been positive.”
As a physician, she believes science is on the side of pro-life and says, “The more we learn through the field of genetics and medical imaging, the more evidence we have that life truly begins at conception.”
She also believes that public pro-life prayer is a form of evangelization that involves outreach and spreading the Truth proclaimed by Christ to convert hearts to him. She has seen the evidence firsthand.
On a recent Saturday, a man named Anthony, who was parked near the prayer vigil, stopped to talk to the volunteers and share his personal experience. Thirteen years ago, he began to pressure his wife to have an abortion when he learned she was pregnant with their fourth child. They were struggling to pay their bills and couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. Two Christian relatives urged him to stop what he was doing, and then, in what he considers a sign from God, he found a pro-life booklet at work.
“He realized God wanted them to have this child,” Dr. Opalak said.
Despite his financial difficulties, he stopped pressuring his wife.
“As soon as he made the decision to accept God’s gift of a new life, the tide of troubles receded,” Dr. Opalak said. “Accepting God’s gift, which at first looked like a hardship, has brought continued blessings into his own life.”
Almost immediately, his situation changed. He got a new job and, more importantly, he experienced what he described as “expanding in his heart.” He became a more responsible and loving husband and father. His marriage became stronger, and his three sons witnessed a powerful example when their father allowed their sister to be born.
“Today he is closer to God in his faith,” Dr. Opalak said, “and he trusts in God’s goodness and mercy.”
(For more information, about the 40 Days for Life campaign or to volunteer, visit www.40daysforlife.com)
On Wednesday, October 28 at 3 pm, Steve Karlen, National Campaign Director of 40 Days for Life, will speak at the Bridgeport prayer vigil, along with the spiritual director of Malta House for women in crisis pregnancies, and Fr. Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Parish in Trumbull, who will lead the group in prayer. The rally will take place, rain or shine, at 4697 Main Street, Bridgeport (the entrance to Commerce Park).
Nurse-midwife: abortion not as an issue of “choice”
STAMFORD—Life experiences shape who we are and who we are to become. Early in my midwifery career I believed abortion was a woman’s “choice.” I knew I could never have an abortion, but felt I had no right to tell someone they had to have a baby.
As a nurse-midwife I occasionally counseled women who sought an abortion. I saw their fear, anguish and hopelessness and my heart broke for them. Some were women I knew for years and I knew how difficult a choice it was for them.
I knew they were good, loving women, who were terrified. They believed it was either their life or the baby’s life. I held their hand during the procedure. I knew exactly what was happening when the suction machine was turned on. A part of me died each time as I witnessed the end of an innocent human life and saw the anguish and regret on the mother’s face.
Over the years several experiences caused me to rethink my belief in “a woman’s choice.” The experience I remember most vividly was when I was examining a teenager who was five months pregnant and the baby kicked my hand. I asked, “Did you feel that? That’s the baby moving.” She and her boyfriend looked at me and she told me, “They said I could still get RID OF IT!” My heart broke and I thought, “What have we taught our children?”
I thought a great deal about that question. I had two small children at the time and thought about what I wanted to teach them and what the world taught them. I came to realize that abortion teaches our children that their very existence depends on someone thinking they are valuable and wanted. They have no intrinsic value, unless someone more powerful gives them value. For that is what abortion does; it gives the power of life or death to another person, not God. That is not the lesson I wanted to teach my children.
That was the last time I facilitated an abortion. It was also the beginning of my conversion to the Catholic faith.
The Church teaching has and always will condemn abortion as intrinsically evil. Good can never come from evil. The ends, no matter how much you want to believe they are good, can never justify evil means. Cooperation with evil taints our soul and separates us from God. I have to live with my choice but no longer will I remain silent.
As a convert to the Catholic faith I learned that “God is love.” Jesus Christ came to save us not only by dying for our sins, but by showing us how to love; to show us what sacrificial love really means.
So I ask, where is love in abortion? Where is love in the taking of innocent life? Where is love in a mother willing the death of her child? Sounds so harsh and ugly, but sometimes the truth is harsh and we must face the ugliness of our actions.
Abortion breeds confusion, despair and death, not only for the innocent babies. It lies to women, saying, “It’s like you were never pregnant.” But she knows the truth. Abortion robs the woman the opportunity to love. To understand that true love and sacrifice go hand in hand. It robs the child of the opportunity to grow and become the person God created them to be. Abortion robs family and friends the opportunity to love the woman and child and to grow in compassion. Abortion robs us of our humanity and distorts us so we are no longer the image of God.
We need to remember that our hope is with our children. It is not with you or me, but with the children, who are here now and those yet to be born. This lesson of hope and love is found at MiraVia on the campus of Belmont Abby College; a residence for single women attending college, who choose to have their babies—to be counter cultural—to choose life. It is a joy and privilege to spend time with these brave, strong young women who choose love and hope instead of despair and fear. They are fully aware of the challenges they face and they do it with grace and dignity every day. Hope is here. Love is here. But not fear.
Hope and love are in the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Catholic teachings on the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death are beautiful. Each of us has dignity and worth because we are created by God in his image and loved by Him. Our dignity does not come from another person, but from God alone. When we lose sight of this truth, we lose what makes us truly human; our ability to love and hope.
As Catholics, as Christians, as human beings we need to believe in the dignity and worth of every person or we will not only cease to be Catholic, but cease to be fully human.
Susan Piening, a long-time parishioner at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, holds a Masters of Science in Nursing from Columbia University, a Masters in Theology from Holy Apostles Seminary and College and is certified by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. She recently retired to South Carolina.