It was in Dallas County, Texas, where the lawsuit generated that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States.  

Twenty years later, Bishop Charles Grahmann commissioned the Catholic Pro-Life Committee, the Respect Life Ministry of the Diocese of Dallas. According to its website, it has been called “the largest and most effective diocesan pro-life organization in the world.” 

Since then, it has developed nine ministries, including pregnancy assistance, sidewalk counseling, abortion healing, education and civic action. The work is carried on by staff and volunteers of all ages, many veterans who remember when abortion was illegal and younger pro-lifers who are coming to the front lines. 

Executive director Karen Garnett was 10 years old when Roe v. Wade was passed, and Rachel’s Vineyard coordinator Lacy de la Garza was born 15 years later. Both of their generations bring passion to the fight to protect the unborn.

Karen Garnett

Karen Garnett remembers when Roe v. Wade made abortions legal. 

Karen Garnett Courtesy photo

“I remember the pastor was totally red in the face and he was pounding his fist on the pulpit,” she said. “He was outraged that killing unborn babies was now legal. It was shocking and devastating. How could it even be possible to kill an unborn baby? I felt hollow and devastated. Even as a 10-year-old, I remember feeling that if you live in a civilized society, how can this be?” 

That Supreme Court decision prompted pro-life protests and, she added, many people couldn’t imagine that the law would stand. But it did. At the 20-year mark, when Bishop Grahmann commissioned the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas, Garnett came on as a volunteer. She was hired as it grew and became the director, with Bishop Kevin J. Farrell now at the helm. 

Several things changed in the 40 years of pro-life witnessing. For one thing, Catholics started sidewalk counseling based on methods developed by Msgr. Philip J. Reilly of the Precious Blood Monastery in Brooklyn, N.Y., founder of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. 

“It calls for no confrontation, no large graphic signs and no yelling,” Garnett told Our Sunday Visitor. “We meet the mother where she is and offer her the love of Christ and let her know we are there for her. Since we have adopted those methods (in Dallas), we have helped more than 6,000 moms to turn away. Just in the past year, it’s over 800.” 

Other changes added more ministries for pregnant women, abortion healing and outreaches to the Hispanic community. Thanks to many components of the pro-life advocacy, the number of abortion centers in Dallas fell from 13 to five since 1990. 

“There have been 92 pieces of pro-life legislation passed across the country in the last two years, and that includes a sonogram law in Texas that’s the strongest in the country,” she said. “Because of that law, abortion procedure hours here have dropped 20 percent. The abortion rate in the state dropped 4.3 percent between 2008 and 2010, and 7.1 percent in Dallas. And across the country, we are definitely seeing signs of hope in rising numbers of people — now just over 50 percent— who identify themselves as pro-life.” 

Garnett is encouraged by how many young people are involved in the movement, and how dynamic leaders are rising from their ranks. 

“It’s very uplifting for those of us who have been at it for 20 years, some for 40 years, to see the re-enforcements coming,” she said. “So many young people are embracing the mission, and hearing the call and answering it. More and more young people are realizing that many of their generation have been denied this inalienable right to life, and they themselves could have been aborted. That makes them want to fight harder against this injustice, and they are recognizing that this is the civil rights issue of their time.”

Lacy de la Garza

Lacy de la Garza hears many heartbreaking stories in her work as coordinator of Rachel’s Vineyard in the Rachel Ministries of the Diocese of Dallas. 

“Women who have had abortions have told me, ‘There was no one outside the abortion clinic to love me. They were there to condemn me,’” she said. “It’s very powerful to hear them acknowledge that they would have changed their minds if someone would have been there to say, ‘I’m here to help you.’” 

Lacy de la Garza has been part of the cause since she was 9, when she began attending pro-life prayer vigils. Courtesy photo

Offering compassion and God’s love and mercy is one of the biggest changes that de la Garza has heard veteran pro-lifers talk about. Some sidewalk vigils had turned ugly and confrontational in the early years, and the mothers going into the clinics often were openly and loudly berated for what they were doing. 

“We now have information that most abortions are not wanted and that they are coerced by a boyfriend or parents,” de la Garza told OSV. “So, there’s a different approach to how we minister to women, and that’s one concept that I’m proud to be part of. It saddens me to think of what happened previously. We have a better understanding that it is truly love that will change people’s hearts.” 

De la Garza, 25, was born 15 years after Roe v. Wade and has been part of the pro-life cause since she was 9. That’s when her mother Lucy began taking her children to prayer vigils in front of abortion facilities. 

“Even that young, I understood that these women were going in with a child and leaving without one, and that was enough understanding for me,” she said. “Then as I got older, I began to understand what was going on and I felt compelled to do something about it. I was influenced by my mother, who definitely had her convictions. Not only would she go out and pray, but she was involved in pro-life ministries in our parish. So we began to see what it means to be pro-life by seeing the actions of our mother.” 

De la Garza wrote her college thesis on the effects of abortion on women. Her “jaw dropped,” she said, when she learned that one in three women in the United States has had an abortion by age 45. 

“How many women — how many fathers — are grieving over children who are not born?” she said. “I don’t know how anybody can know that and not do something about it. It was time for me to step forward. There was no excuse for resisting the call. ” 

In January 2012, she was hired to coordinate the ministry that helps women and men to heal from abortions that happened years and even decades ago. 

“We are there to meet the needs of those who are broken, to help them find the services that are available for them — the friendship, compassion and understanding, which many of them never had before,” she said. 

De la Garza counts the “culture of moral relativism” and a lack of an “accepted absolute” among the assaults against life. But she’s confident that her generation of pro-lifers, like those who took up the banner 40 years ago, will continue to fight for protection of the unborn. 

“Young people have such an important part in the pro-life movement because we have energy,” de la Garza told OSV. “Once a young person is compelled, there’s really no stopping them.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.