By Anne Marie Amacher
BETTENDORF — For the past 15 years, pro-lifers have prayed outside of Planned Parenthood as members of Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. The group encourages a peaceful, prayerful presence outside of abortion clinics, said Jeanne Wonio who leads the local group.
But Catholics and others in the pro-life movement have had a presence outside of Planned Parenthood since 1995, when Planned Parenthood moved to Bettendorf on 18th Street.
People began praying outside that site when the organization opened its doors. When Planned Parenthood decided to build a clinic where abortions would be performed, on Tech Drive in Bettendorf, Wonio decided the pro-life movement needed more help.
She contacted Msgr. Philip Reilly who founded Helpers of God’s Precious Infants in Brooklyn, N.Y. Msgr. Reilly visited the Quad-City area in 1998 and in 2008. The Helpers’ mission is to pray and to offer sidewalk counseling to those considering an abortion. People unable to be in attendance outside a clinic can be a spiritual helper and pray from home, according to the Helpers’ website.
“By being present we offer the peace of Christ,” Wonio said. “Everything is legal and done in prayer. We also are sidewalk counselors.”
Charlie Burke of DeWitt has been praying outside of Planned Parenthood from the start. Every Tuesday, which is generally when abortions are performed, he and his wife, Joan, along with Wonio and a number of others spend most of the day praying outside the clinic. The Burkes also pray outside a clinic in Iowa City each Wednesday. Weather — good or bad — does not stop the Helpers.
Helper Pat Hardy said dealing with adverse weather conditions was tougher before Women’s Choice Center, a pro-life facility across the street from Planned Parenthood, was built. Before then, there was no place to warm up in the winter or to use a restroom.
“It made all the difference in the world when the center was built. When we offer women an alternative to Planned Parenthood, it’s so much easier to point across the street at the Women’s Choice Center and tell them they can go there.”
Helpers offer pamphlets with information on birth control, fetal development, natural family planning, post-abortion help and more. Some Planned Parenthood clients stop and talk to the helpers on their way in the driveway or when they leave.
The Helpers call out to those who don’t stop by, letting the Planned Parenthood clients know that they are praying for them. Some Helpers tell the women and men they see that there are alternatives to abortion. They say that free ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, diapers and other things are available across the street. They offer the clients information.
“We do not yell. We do not use graphic posters,” Wonio said.
According to Burke’s guesstimate, up to 9,000 unborn children have been aborted at the Bettendorf clinic since 2000. That includes surgical and chemically induced abortions. “That’s quite a few classrooms of kids,” Burke said.
More recently, a number of deacons and priests from the Illinois Quad-City area have begun to pray outside Planned Parenthood. On July 9 Deacon Pat Murphy of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline, Ill., and Diocese of Peoria seminarian Deacon Chase Hilgenbrinck spent time praying the rosary on the sidewalk. They were joined by families. The deacons blessed the Helpers and others praying there.
Father William Kneemiller, pastor of parishes in Grand Mound, Lost Nation, Oxford Junction and Toronto, said he tries to come each Tuesday depending on the needs of his parishes. “I am impressed with the peaceful, prayerful presence,” he noted.
He tries to put in one hour of prayer. “It gives me time to reflect on the miracle of birth. Did you know the heartbeat can be detected as early as 17 days of the embryo’s life? It’s only the size of a dot. Nothing in creation is as complex and amazing as that — a heartbeat.”
Fr. Kneemiller said he has used information on the development of the embryo and fetus at baptisms.
Various Helpers share stories of people who took information and either went directly to the Women’s Choice Center or went over later.
Wonio said one young woman accepted information the Helpers handed out, went inside Planned Parenthood, looked outside to see the Helpers praying, and then came back out to tell them that they loved her baby more than she did. “She went right across the street.”
Throughout Tuesday pray-ers come and go. Some who work during the day pray on their lunch break. Moms and children come at various times as do retired and non-working men and women.