Mary Wagner—winsome, slender, soft-spoken, former postulant to the Sisters of St. John, serial offender—makes an unlikely jailbird. Last month the 40-year-old pro-life crusader was released from a Toronto-area maximum security after 22 months awaiting trial, conviction, and sentencing, all for entering an Ontario abortion clinic for a few minutes two years ago.
After her release, she immediately flew west to visit her large and supportive family on Vancouver Island—but everyone knows it is only a matter of time before she offends again. And next time the sentence almost certainly will be stiffer.
Reached on the Canada Day holiday weekend, she told Catholic World Report that she could not join in the patriotic celebrations. “I’m not proud of my country. It does not protect its weakest and most vulnerable,” she says.
Mary faces the prospect of ever-lengthening sentences for her crimes with philosophical aplomb. “I’m not trying to get thrown in jail,” she says. “But if it were a 10-year sentence, then that would at least serve to highlight even more what is at stake—that each unborn baby is unique. What mother or father wouldn’t give their lives to save their own child’s life? Or go to jail? And just as each poor person was Jesus to Mother Teresa, each unborn baby is Jesus to me.”
But to the law of Canada, each unborn baby is valued less than, for example, a Norway rat, which requires a wildlife permit for disposal. There is no legal regulation of abortion. It was illegal in all cases since 1869, but legalized in 1970 when performed at a hospital, after if a tribunal of doctors decided that the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life or health.
The regulation was applied unevenly, with pro-life supporters taking over many boards and packing the tribunals with doctors who stuck to the law and ruled out most abortions. After an effective feminist lobbying campaign supported by scary stories in the news media, and Quebec abortionist Henry Morgantaler openly defying the law, the Supreme Court of Canada threw out the 1970 in 1988 on the grounds it was denying some women their constitutionally guaranteed “security of the person.”
Nonetheless, the court recognized the state had an interest in the unborn child which increased with its maturity, and recommended Parliament pass a sounder law. A subsequent government’s attempt at this failed by a single vote in the Senate, however, and no government has since dared to consider it, not even the current Conservative regime of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though a majority of his caucus is pro-life.
Canada’s national health insurance plan, Medicare, is provincially run, and some smaller provinces bar abortions from their hospitals entirely. But most Canadian abortions are paid for fully by taxpayers. Recently it was revealed that Mary Wagner’s home province of British Columbia was shipping the fetal remains of its nearly 15,000 abortions yearly to a waste-to-energy plant in Oregon. The province’s health minister declared that the abortion issue was “settled”: only technical questions of sanitary disposal remain, he said.
Thus, it is far harder to oppose abortions than to get them done. British Columbia, like Ontario, has a “bubble zone” around clinics or abortionist’s offices and homes. Within these zones, visible prayer is banned along with carrying pro-life or religious signs and images, hymn singing, and even looking fixedly at the clinics’ clientele as they walk in.
While others have broken these laws by demonstrating within the zone (two British Columbians were convicted of passing out pamphlets that simply alerted passersby they were in a bubble zone), Mary Wagner has always gone right into the clinics, not she says, to protest, but to minister and witness.
Her usual modus operandi is to give whomever she finds in the waiting room a flower and to talk to whoever will listen. If no one does, she talks softly to the room at large. At Christmas, before police came, she gave the patients little, brightly-wrapped gifts. If they asked what was inside, she replied, “You have to wait, just like to have to wait for what’s inside your womb.” The women she finds there are not usually very receptive, she admits. But occasionally, there is a positive reaction. “Once, when I talked about how 17 dead fetuses were found in a Lansing, Michigan dumpster, discarded by an abortion clinic, and how the bishop held a mass funeral for them, a woman who had been ignoring me looked up, held my gaze in shock, gathered her things, and left. I think she finally got it.”
But the police come quickly, though sometimes they drive her far from the clinic and let her go with a warning she ignores. The second time they lock her up. Similarly judges at first let her go free to await trial, with a similar warning to stay away from abortion clinics in the meantime, but because she ignored these warnings too, she began sitting in jail for her pre-trial periods.
After her previous conviction in 2012, the Crown prosecutor agreed to a sentence of time already served, but the judge added another three months after taking offence at her remarks under oath. Upset that she had claimed to follow “a higher law” than Canada’s, and apparently ignorant of the long tradition in the British legal system of civil disobedience as a reform tactic, Judge S. Ford Clements angrily shouted, “You’re wrong and your God’s wrong.” He also faulted her for ignoring the “pain and suffering” she was causing the clinic’s clients, though the prosecutor had produced no evidence to that effect. The Crown had also called for three years’ probation and the judge wanted that made conditional upon Mary promising to stay away from all clinics. When he asked her if she would promise, she replied firmly, “I will not.” Clements’ extra sentence was thrown out on appeal—after she had served every day of it.
Canada has one other pro-life incarceree: Linda Gibbons, a grandmother who has spent more than a decade behind bars. Though Mary knew little about Linda’s struggles with the system before going inside, their paths inevitably crossed behind bars and now they are good friends and a mutual inspiration to each other. Also outside these days, the older woman may now stay out of jail to care for an elderly relative but she found time in recent months to go on a tour to raise funds for Mary’s defense.
“Mary is inspiring because she is young,” says Alissa Golob, a full-time pro-life activist, “and so intellectual. She has a degree. She could be doing anything. So people think: This must be something worth fighting for. Linda is inspiring because of her bravery. Here she is a grandmother. She is so thin and she is weakening. All she does is hold a sign outside an abortuary but she knows she is going to be arrested.”
It is the crowning irony of Mary’s ministry that she believes her time in jail—always the Madame Vanier Institute for Women in Mississauga, just west of Toronto—is well spent and may well be more effective than her witness in clinics. (There is a smaller irony, because this jail is named after an ardent pro-lifer, Pauline Vanier, whose son Jean founded L’Arche, the international fellowship for the mentally challenged.)
The bigger irony, says Mary, is that, “the women in jail are way more receptive. Maybe because they have fallen so low, so much has been stripped away. Maybe God makes his love known to them out of his love for the poor,” she says. “Many have told me they have seen his hand in their lives at crucial moments.”
Mary does not actively proselytize, but women do talk about why they are inside, and most of her fellow inmates who do talk admit to having had abortions. “Unlike women in the clinics, these women know they took a life,” she says. But they plead the circumstances, like their unworthiness to be a mother, or coercion by boyfriends or family. Mary gives them a book, No One Told Me I Could Cry: A Teen’s Guide to Hope and Healing After Abortion (2001), written by Connie Nykiel, with positive results. “One woman told me [that] after reading the book she finally realized why she did not get along with her mother: her mother had insisted on her getting an abortion. Now she was working on healing the rupture.” Like Mary, many women at Vanier are in and out and in again. One turned her life around but still came back—to the visiting room, where she displayed to Mary through the bullet-proof glass the child Mary had persuaded her to bear. “She didn’t think it was right for her to have the baby out of marriage,” Mary remembers. “Now I could see she was flourishing as a mother. Her baby was flourishing too.”
Mary believes that it is no coincidence so many of the women she meets in jail have had abortions. “They have taken a life and believe they deserve to be in prison for it,” she says. “They destroyed a life and they then live self-destructive lives, with drugs, alcoholism, or workaholism. It’s not surprising.”
Mary also believes many of the women—in jail or not—who get abortions are coerced. She describes following a couple going into a clinic, the woman evidently distraught. Mary began talking to her, saying, “You don’t have to do this. I will help you.” The man reached over Mary’s shoulder, grabbed the woman, and dragged her into the clinic.
Inside jail the women are protected from that kind of coercion. Mary tells them instead about the love of God, how Jesus has saved them from their sins and offers the opportunity to change their lives. She also draws some into her own prayer life, the morning and evening prayer from the Divine Office, the Rosary, and Lectio Divina.
Mary came by her convictions naturally, says her father Frank. “We live, eat, breathe pro-life in this family. We went to rallies and vigils and she came along with our other children.” He and his wife Jane have seven of their own, adopted five more, and have since fostered many more than that. These days they foster babies and are currently caring for four, aged from two months to seven years old. Some are crying in the background as Frank tells his telephone interviewer about the family’s pro-life conviction: “I guess it’s contagious. Mary just picked it up.”
Though Mary’s comments on abortion reflects deep thought, she demonstrated a visceral response early on, recalls her mother Jane. When Mary, at age four, saw the face of Henry Morgantaler on the television screen, “she just screamed and screamed. She knew something was wrong.”
A tomboy who helped her brothers fix their cars, she was also, as the eldest daughter, “a little mother to the rest of them. Mary has always been about children.” Jane recalls a recent telephone call from her daughter shortly after her release, in which she shared her joy at holding a four-month-old baby. Now visiting her siblings’ families on Vancouver Island, “she is getting her baby fix,” says her mother, a trifle sadly. Forty and single, Mary may view her greatest sacrifice if she continues to witness inside abortion clinics as the loss of her own opportunity to be a mother.
Conviction came early: while working her way through college she served in a bar until her boss refused to back her refusal to serve alcohol to a pregnant customer.
Later she joined the Sisters of St. John for three years as a postulant because she believed they shared her vocation to witness for life. It turned out their approach was too contemplative for her. Mary wanted to witness in person, face-to-face, and in the clinic. At her latest sentencing, the judge asked rhetorically whether she couldn’t find a more effective way to witness. She didn’t answer then. But to CWR she said: “I’m not strategizing. I don’t look at the problem of abortion. I’m not trying to reduce the total number of abortions. God has put it in my heart to get close to the mother. Mother Teresa is my inspiration, especially her remarks, ‘I don’t see crowds. I see one person at a time.’”
Though they know Mary is likely to spend much of her life behind bars, her parents are accepting. “I’ve never had a problem with what she does,” says Frank. “Mary is called to do what she does. Who could ask for anything different from their children?”
As for how he feels about her daughter’s constant incarceration: “I don’t know how to answer that. Now it’s getting to be a matter of routine. I wish she weren’t in jail so much, but she does good work while she’s there.” He tells of an inmate with AIDS who hadn’t received the sacraments for years. Mary arranged for her to go to confession. The next day she died. “That woman will be eternally grateful,” says her father, using the commonplace hyperbole for once without exaggeration.
Mary herself has told her parents: “Think of me as someone standing with a sign beside the tracks leading to a Nazi death camp. My sign says, ‘Your life is precious to me.’” Says her mother, “As the women go to the abortion clinic, at least one person is there to recognize the dignity of the life being taken away. She is the last chance for the moms to see someone who wants their child to live.”
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