Next Wednesday, tens of thousands of people in nine countries will begin visibly praying outside abortion clinics for 40 days.
The volunteers are all part of “40 Days for Life,” a pioneering international prolife campaign that has been running for the past six years, principally aimed at deterring mothers from having abortions.
Since its humble beginnings in Texas in the early 2000s, thousands of lives have been saved, abortion clinics have been closed, and employees converted to the prolife cause.
“We have confirmed reports of 7,536 babies spared from abortion at the very last moment, those are the ones we know about,” says co-founder and campaign director Shawn Carney. “We have also had 41 abortion facilities close their doors following a 40 Days for Life campaign.”
Carney points out that that includes the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in College Station, the city in Texas where this prolife initiative began.
At a time when, according to the World Health Organisation, 125,000 voiceless victims are killed each day in the womb, such a campaign is seen as truly urgent and vital. So much so, that two campaigns are now held annually, in the spring and in the fall, and involve 40 days of prayer and fasting, peaceful vigils and community outreach.
This year’s fall campaign, which runs from Sept. 25 to Nov. 3, will be held in 306 cities in North America alone.
The most effective aspect of the initiative is that it allows women “to choose life at the last moment,” Carney explains. “Many of the women have said they woke up the morning of the appointment and prayed for God to give them a sign not to have an abortion, and the prayer volunteers were that sign.”
But he tells ZENIT that “one of the biggest blessings” has been the fact that 80 abortion clinic workers “had a conversion and left their jobs.” They include Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director in College Station where the first vigil was held. “She had a change of heart and walked into my office next door,” Carney recalls. “I had the joy of sponsoring her into the Catholic Church at Easter of 2012.”
Carney says the key to the campaign’s rapid expansion is its focus on “prayer and the local emphasis” – that it “simply invites the participant to pray and do something locally to reach the men and women seeking abortions.” It’s his firm belief that “God has used this effort to get new people, especially young people, involved in ending abortion.”
The peaceful campaign has also won the backing of the hierarchy, and Carney says it “would not have gotten off the ground without the support of so many priests and bishops.”
“For the most part lay people lead the local campaigns and go through our training, but priests and bishops have done so much to support these efforts and participate by going to the vigils and speaking at 40 Days for Life events,” he says.
Since 2007, 19 different countries have participated includingthe UK, Uganda, Russia and Australia, although question marks surround this fall’s campaign in Adelaide. The archdiocese was unavailable for comment today and 40 Days for Life is making enquiries.
The effectiveness of 40 Days for Life has had a particular impact on Planned Parenthood, the major abortion provider in the United States. At 40 of the 42 clinics that have closed this year, 40 Days for Life prayer vigils were held. According to Operation Rescue, which monitors closings and health and safety violations by clinics nationwide, this year’s number far surpasses the 25 surgical clinics shutdown last year and the 30 in 2011.
Although not all were closed due to the campaign, prolife activists argue that the figures show a distinct trend, and the 40 Days for Life has had an obvious impact.
“We have been told by the abortion business that the vigils deter customers and increase the ‘no show’ rate for women who skip their appointments,” says Carney. “When a campaign arrives, some clinics will cut their hours or close on certain days due to the lack of customers.” He says even hospital executives have banned abortion services because of the “consistent vigils outside of their workplaces and the unwanted attention it gave the hospital.”
To become involved in a local campaign, volunteers are invited to visit www.40daysforlife.com and find their nearest location. With 306 campaigns around the world, one may well not be far away. Participants are also invited to sign up for emails to receive the prayer devotionals and “receive the exciting reports of babies saved and clinics closing as the campaign goes on,” says Carney.
To lead a local campaign, every prospective leader must undertake some training. The application period for the spring campaign is in December and the autumn one in July. Again, prospective leaders are invited to sign up so they will know the exact dates to apply and lead a campaign in whatever their location.
Interested participants are also urged to consult a book on the campaign, published earlier this year. Called 40 Days for Life, the book has been “an inspiration for so many to get involved and to put our faith in God at the center of the prolife movement,” Carney says. In each chapter, Carney and his co-founder David Bereit recall stories from the campaign, and each ends with a prayer.
In the city of Birmingham in the UK, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce has run four campaigns and says that despite the challenges and doubts, it has had a real effect. “We were really daunted at the outset,” she says in a 40 Days for Life promo. “But the more we got into it, the more we realised that actually it was the Holy Spirit that was running it, not us.”
Moreover, she says that one of the “main fruits” of the campaign has been the effect it’s had on the volunteers. “I’ve had so many phone calls, so many people stopping to tell me that just for the hour that they prayed outside the clinic, it’s made such an impact on their life and on their relationship with God,” she says.
40 Days for Life was strongly encouraged by Benedict XVI and the founders have high hopes Pope Francis will do likewise. Carney recalls that before he became Pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio spoke out strongly to protect the unborn. “He clearly supports getting out of our comfortable lives for the most vulnerable in our society,” he says, noting how the Holy Father’s support of the March for Life in Rome was a leading “by example.”
Robert Colquhoun, 40 Days for Life International Coordinator, notes John Paul II’s words in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, with which he called for urgent prayer “which will rise up throughout the world.”
“Pope Benedict called every diocese to pray for life and we have already seen Pope Francis call the world to prayer over Syria,” he tells ZENIT. He adds that if the Holy Father were to call for prayer vigils for life around the world, it would “see a response beyond imagination.”
“The power of prayer,” he says, “can bring a spiritual transformation from a culture of death to a culture of life.”
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