It started with prayer. And frustration. 

It was fall 2004, and Texas pro-life activists David Bereit, Shawn Carney, Marilisa Carney and Emily Smith were nearing the end of their rope. The abortion business at the nearby Bryan, Texas, Planned Parenthood clinic was booming, but few people seemed to care. The group, Coalition for Life, didn’t know what to do. So, sitting in their College Station headquarters, they prayed. 

And God answered. 

Grass-roots outreach

In that hour of prayer, the idea for 40 Days for Life was born. The four felt God ask them to set aside a period of 40 days to pray and fast for the unborn and their mothers. During that time period, they were to conduct round-the-clock prayer vigils outside the clinic and conduct grass-roots outreach at Texas A&M University.  

Somehow, three weeks from that hour, Coalition for Life launched the first 40 Days for Life campaign. And by the end of that biblical period of transformation, the pro-life movement had been transformed. More than 1,000 people had participated, and abortions in the area fell by 28 percent. 

“That was supposed to be the end of it,” said Bereit. 

But results like that don’t go unnoticed. Other communities began contacting the group, looking for help planning their own campaigns. At the same time, interest in pro-life work in their area had been revitalized.  

Over the next three years, Coalition for Life helped six communities launch 40 Days for Life campaigns and hosted more campaigns of their own. By 2007, they decided it was time to push for a nationally coordinated 40 Days for Life.  

That fall, more than 80 cities in 30 states participated. Since then, 845 campaigns, involving more than 350,000 people, have been conducted in 307 cities. The movement has also gone international, with campaigns in Belize, Canada, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, England and Denmark. Spain will join that list this fall. 

Transforming hearts 

Those numbers are impressive. Equally impressive are the number of children spared from abortion (2,800 according to confirmed reports); the number of abortionists and clinic workers who’ve left their jobs as a result of the campaign (33); and the number of clinics that have closed their doors entirely (five). Likewise, some clinics never even got off the ground. 

In early 2009, Steve Karlen and the 40 Days for Life team in Madison, Wis., learned that a late-term abortion facility was set to open at a clinic affiliated with the University of Wisconsin Hospital. They mobilized the network formed after the fall 2008 campaign and organized a protest that shut down the streets near the facility. 

“The clinic was postponed repeatedly throughout 2009,” he said. “Then, this year, we added a spring campaign, thinking we could finish it off. Two weeks ago, we got word that the plans have finally been scratched.” 

40 Days for Life also played a major role in one of the most publicized pro-life victories of 2009 — the conversion of Planned Parenthood’s (now former) Bryan clinic director, Abby Johnson. She made headlines last fall when, after viewing an ultrasound guided abortion, she walked out of her clinic to join the protesters.  

The coverage focused largely on the impact viewing the abortion had on Johnson. But she says the work of the 40 Days for Life team gets equal credit. 

“At the time, I was so deep into [the abortion movement] that there was a real possibility I could have somehow justified it in my mind and stayed,” Johnson recalled. “If it hadn’t been for the people outside, seeing them and knowing that’s where I was being called to go, I’m not sure I could have left.” 

Prayerful presence 

Those people were part of 40 Days for Life, and they had been there for a very long time: The Bryan clinic is where the campaign was launched in 2004.  

Over time, Johnson had come to know the protesters. She admitted, “They were a nuisance.” But, she also said that she came to admire their “peacefulness, prayerfulness and openness to the women and clinic workers.” That attitude contrasted sharply with that of the protesters who’d been outside the clinic before the 40 Days for Life began. 

“Their behavior was so bizarre, so aggressive, it was easy for us to dismiss them. When the 40 Days for Life people came along, their tactic was very different. It took the wind out of our sails,” Johnson said. 

That, of course, is by design. 

“We want everyone who does a 40 Days for Life campaign to be peaceful, prayerful and committed to being Christ-like,” Bereit said. “Everyone has to abide by the law. We’re not a civil disobedience movement.” 

To ensure that, communities receive detailed instructions for executing the event. That carefully cultivated attitude and training are, he believes, one reason for its success. 

It also helps, added Karlen, that the movement has given ordinary people a way to make a difference on the ground over a short period of time and do it as part of a community. 

Centered on God 

The biggest reason for its success, however, most likely comes back to where it began. 

“The movement is successful because God is at its center,” said Bereit. “This starts and ends with prayer and humble reliance on God. That prayer doesn’t just change the hearts of women and clinic workers. It changes the hearts of all those involved. And it rekindles hope that one day abortion will end.” 

Karlen believes that “when the history books are written, the 40 Days for Life movement will be looked at as the beginning of the end, the catalyst for ending abortion in America.” 

Johnson said the participants in 40 Days for Life also serve a more immediate end. 

“We’re the face of Christ outside those clinics, the last glimmer of hope before they enter,” she said. “Trust me, they won’t see any hope inside that abortion clinic’s walls.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

How It Works (Sidebar)

Each 40 Days for Life campaign has three components: 1) prayer and fasting; 2) prayer vigils outside abortion clinics 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and 3) outreach to the local community, said David Bereit, national campaign director. 

Two campaigns are held each year, one during Lent and one in the fall, although Bereit doesn’t encourage every community to do both. 

Before launching their first campaign, communities need to apply to participate. Once accepted, they receive 12 video training modules, as well as timelines and supplemental reading materials, that walk organizers through the campaign from start to finish. Bereit and his team also provide support. 

Training modules include presentations on topics such as: assembling a team, promotion and advertisement, how to minister to the women and workers, and what do after the campaign is over. 

The next 40 Days for Life Campaign is scheduled to begin Sept. 22 and go until Oct. 31. For more information visit www.40daysforlife.com.