New generation of pro-life advocates digs into politics

January marks 45 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that made abortion illegal in any state.

Since that time, a new generation of leaders has been born and come of age. Now they are fighting to create and expand a culture of life in the places where most laws affecting Americans get made: the statehouse.

To that role, they bring their own histories — histories that began after abortion became legal in the United States.

Advocacy in secular Maine

If abortion had been legal in South Korea in the late 1970s, Suzanne Lafreniere might not be in Portland, Maine, raising her two daughters and working as a pro-life advocate. Lafreniere, 37, was adopted from South Korea by an Irish-American Catholic family that already had three adopted daughters.

“I truly feel that if abortion had been an option, I personally would not be here,” said Lafreniere, who is the director of public policy for the Diocese of Portland, a position that includes advocacy work similar to the directors of many state Catholic conferences.

She went to law school, intending to work in the area of adoption, but ended up moving to her husband’s home state of Maine after graduation. There was not enough demand for an attorney to specialize in adoption, so she started a more general private practice, working mostly in small business development. Then, three years after she opened her practice, the great recession hit.

Her husband had taken a job working as business manager for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and some other parishes in the dioceses, and started sharing news of job openings in the diocese with Lafreniere.

She ended up taking a position as assistant to the previous director of public policy.

“It was a very good, humbling experience for me,” Lafreniere said.

It also gave her some flexibility when her first daughter, Lucy, now 7, was born. She assumed the director’s role when her predecessor retired.

The pro-life situation in Maine, she said, “is pretty dire, I would say. Maine is a very secular state.”

The diocese is working against a bill that would allow midwives and nurse practitioners to perform abortions. The state also is facing a legal challenge to its ban on allowing Medicaid funding of abortions; the suit filed by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU of Maine and other plaintiffs failed in Maine Superior Court in November, but that ruling was appealed, Lafreniere said, and the diocese is considering whether to file an amicus brief in support of the existing law.

It also is working on a bill that would provide compensation for the wrongful death of an unborn child in civil cases.

“It really doesn’t have to do with abortion per se, but with the understanding that every life has value,” Lafreniere said. “If you got into an accident and lost an unborn child in any other state in New England, you would be entitled to compensation.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the diocese has opposed physician-assisted suicide each of the eight times it has come up in the state legislature. Each time, a coalition of organizations, including hospice groups, Catholic hospitals and members of other faith communities have defeated it.

Now proponents are seeking signatures to put physician-assisted suicide on the ballot, Lafreniere said, taking their case to voters who might not be as well-informed as the legislators.

“It will be a fight to the death,” she said.

Pro-life upbringing

Michael Acquilano, director of the South Carolina Catholic Conference, said he also has had success in working with other faith communities, especially on abortion issues.

“We are moving toward passing the Dismemberment Abortion Ban Act, while in the last 12 months we have defunded abortion providers and passed a Pain Capable Abortion Act — initiatives unfulfilled nationally,” said Acquilano, 29.

On abortion issues, Acquilano generally can count on the support of Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians, he said.

The conference also is active in other life issues, from working against human trafficking to trying to abolish the death penalty.

“In South Carolina, some of the issues related to abortion are an easier lift than other states,” Acquilano said. “However, other issues, such as the death penalty, human trafficking, etc., can be more difficult depending on the proclivities of the legislators.”

Acquilano, who has two children, said his family history has helped him become a staunch pro-life advocate. His father, who had severe internal abnormalities, was left in a broom closet to die after he was born. It was only because of the determination of his father — Acquilano’s grandfather — to find a surgeon at another hospital who would operate that Acquilano’s father survived infancy. His mother was born in the early 1960s to an unwed mother who might not have opted for life if she could have obtained an abortion.

Perhaps because of their own backgrounds, Acquilano’s parents founded a crisis pregnancy center with a group of other Catholics in the early 1990s.

“I was reared in this setting, with my parents continually pouring themselves into complete strangers facing difficult situations,” Acquilano said. “They lived the mission and taught us by actions. I believe my experience leads me to be compassionate, but also [to be] an even more ferocious advocate because I have personally witnessed the affirming power of saying ‘yes’ to those in need.”

From conception to natural death

Thomas Venzor, on the other hand, said his commitment to pro-life issues increased when he was in college, when he was swayed by rational arguments for them. That commitment only increased when he married and became a father.

Venzor, 32, was named executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference in 2016 after serving for about a year as the conference’s associate director for pro-life and family.

Nebraska tends to be solidly conservative, and in 2010 it was the first state to pass a law banning abortions after 20 weeks because fetuses at that stage of development could feel pain. A year later, it passed a law requiring minors seeking abortions to have the consent of their parents.

Still, he said, in recent years it hasn’t been easy to get pro-life bills through the legislature, especially in the area of abortion. Bills calling for increased restrictions on abortion generally are assigned to the unicameral state legislature’s judiciary committee, which has been “hostile” to abortion limitations.

The last pro-life law to make it through, he said, was the creation of a “Choose Life” license plate in 2017. That law went through the transportation committee.

The conference also met a setback with the death penalty, which was abolished in 2015 over the veto of Gov. Pete Rickets. It was re-established in 2016 following a referendum that passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Now the conference is challenging the state’s plan to use a new cocktail of drugs, including fentanyl, to perform lethal injections.

Venzor said the conference also is working on ways to encourage women to choose life, including backing a bill that would require factual, up-to-date information to be given to expectant parents who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis for their unborn babies.

“While that sort of pregnancy is challenging, there’s no reason for a medical professional to deliver the information in a negative or biased way.”

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At the same time, the Nebraska Catholic Conference is working against allowing physician-assisted suicide, although legislation that would allow it has not made it very far, Venzor said.

“We’re constantly promoting end-of-life care,” he said. “Offering good end-of-life care is good and dignified for the human person.”

Venzor said it’s important for young leaders to get involved in the pro-life movement, because they can reach their peers in ways that they understand.

“For a younger generation, conversation, dialogue, fruitful, charitable debate on abortion is very important,” Venzor said. “These are things we want to talk through. Even if we disagree, we want to work through the issue with one another.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.