Jim Dey | Local protests aim to put an end to abortion

Jim Dey | Local protests aim to put an end to abortion

Several days a week — more on good weeks and fewer on bad ones — the sentries show up to march and pray on a public sidewalk in front of the Women's Health Practice on South Neil Street in Champaign.

They're seen by hundreds of motorists each week. Some honk their horns in support while others make obscene gestures. Occasionally, drivers will stop, get out of their cars and engage these protesters in earnest debate on one of the most divisive public issues of our time — abortion.

These sentries speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and to anyone who will listen. Their efforts, they feel, are the least they can do to change hearts and minds.

"Our primary focus is prayer for help and healing for all who are affected by abortion," said 53-year-old Renee Mullen of Champaign. "The hope is that hearts and minds will be open to the truth and the facts."

Of course, different people view the truth and the facts in different ways.

Abortion opponents have their viewpoints, and abortion proponents have theirs, leaving little middle ground in the political and legal debate on the subject.

But abortion opponents assert that because the science is clear, the morality is compelling. That is why there is considerable room for discussion on the options available to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

Mullen and other volunteers from "40 Days for Life" try to fill that vacuum.

The organization describes itself as "an international, focused, round-the-clock prayer vigil on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics."

That is purely aspirational. Local volunteers can't meet the 24-hour-a-day goal. The 500 recipients of their emails, not all of whom picket, do the best they can.

If one is looking for a pure local expression of free-speech advocacy permitted under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, this is it. Mullen is the first to admit those who do not share her views have just as much right to a public sidewalk as she does.

"We're law-abiding. We're respectful," Mullen said.

But the message she delivers is jarring. That's why Mullen said the signs she and others carry "are important."

"Pray to end abortion," states one.

Images on the signs matter, too, although Mullen said her group makes it a point not to use "graphic images" of aborted unborn babies that can be so unsettling.

"We focus on an image of a baby that any parent would see when they get an ultrasound," she said, referring to the picture of a fetus eight weeks into the nine-month gestation period.

Mullen comes to her opposition to abortion through her religious faith.

Raised Catholic, "I've always been pro-life."

But she hasn't always been as active as she is now.

Married to a University of Illinois professor, Mullen and her husband are rearing two adopted daughters — one 8 and the other 15.

Mullen has both bachelor's and master's degrees, and she's worked at both Purdue and Illinois. It wasn't until after Mullen stopped working outside the home that she was able to "devote a significant amount of time and energy" to the cause. She describes herself as "passionate" in her opposition to abortion but "very focused on civil and rational conversation."

The conversation Mullen wants pregnant girls and women to hear concerns the options they have — not a single choice they must face. She said two local counseling groups — Birthright and Living Alternatives Pregnancy Resource Center — offer a variety of options and services.

"Their focus is on choosing life," Mullen said.

Most persuasive in achieving that goal, Mullen said, is presenting a mother to be with a picture of her child in the womb.

"If they see an ultrasound, they are much more likely" to have the child, she said.

But if this was a battle, Mullen's side would be losing. She acknowledged that roughly 1 million abortions are performed every year, a figure she compares to the Holocaust of World War II.

In contrast, she estimated the number of abortions she and her colleagues in "40 Days for Life" have prevented is in the relatively low thousands. Mullen said that's "nowhere near high enough" but still a significant numbers of babies whose "lives are saved."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazett.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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