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Annette Owens was smiling at the baby in the stroller as the woman softly spoke.
“I had an abortion when I was 15.”
The woman confided that she didn’t tell her parents or her then-boyfriend that she was pregnant. Only her friends, who went with her to the abortion clinic.
“I still think about that baby all the time,” said the woman, who later married the young man she had become pregnant with.
They had several more children.
When one of these sons came to her in his early 20s, he said, “Mom, my girlfriend is pregnant. We can’t afford to have a baby. We don’t have time. Our jobs won’t allow us to do it.”
The woman recounted her own abortion experience to her son.
“Don’t do it,” she told him. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
The son and the baby’s mother listened.
Their baby, the woman’s grandchild, seated in the stroller, smiled back at Mrs. Owens at the Missouri Right to Life (MRL) booth at this year’s State Fair.
Mrs. Owens, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia, was moved to tears.
“If there was no other reason for me to be there that day, for that timing to work out, for God to put me there in that moment, that woman was the reason why,” she said.
It turned out to be just one of several encounters Mrs. Owens experienced in her four hours in the pro-life booth, located in the Varied Industries Building at the Fair.
Volunteers from Sedalia’s MRL chapter have been staffing the booth for the past 48 State Fairs.
“We want to help restore the respect for human life,” stated Bonnie Diefendorf, also a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.
“The Fair is a great way to meet people from all across our state and help them realize that a baby in the womb is alive and fully human from the moment of his or her conception,” she said.
“We do this in a way that’s loving, non-argumentative and non-confrontational, because our goal is to change people’s hearts,” she said.
Mrs. Diefendorf spent the opening and closing shifts of the 10-day fair in the booth.
This was her 47th year helping to staff the booth, having missed only the year when her daughter was born in August.
The group didn’t think about skipping this year’s Fair, held weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 and 1992 decisions that had legalized abortion-on-demand throughout the United States.
The “trigger ban” on abortion passed by Missouri lawmakers in 2019 made this the first State Fair held since nearly all elective abortions here became illegal.
“I think it’s still very important for us to maintain a presence there,” Mrs. Diefendorf stated. “Even though we can say abortion is banned in Missouri, that doesn’t mean we can say Missouri women aren’t seeking abortions.”
Besides, she stated: “Our ultimate goal is not the illegality of abortion, but to have a culture in our country where all human life is precious and abortion is unthinkable.”
Committed to life
A week before the Fair opened, several dozen people of all ages gathered in the Knights of Columbus Council 831’s hall in Sedalia to fill 3,000 plastic bags with pro-life materials and sort out the other featured giveaways.
Looking around the room, Mrs. Diefendorf defied the claim that pro-lifers are only pro-life until a baby is born.
“These are a lot of the same people you see volunteering at Birthright and Open Door and numerous other places, helping people in need, year-in, year-out,” she said.
“These are wonderful people,” added Sister Mary Ruth Wand of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, pastoral minister for St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “They give their all, and they’re a wonderful example to the younger folks.”
Many of the volunteers bring their children along to help, Sr. Mary Ruth noted, and those children grow up and do the same.
Mrs. Diefendorf shared several heartwarming stories of encounter from past years’ Fairs.
“It’s always amazing to me to see how interested the young people are, especially the pre-adolescents and early adolescents, are,” she said.
She noted that the materials given away at the booth point to the humanity of the baby in the womb, rather than the brutality of abortion.
“Our focus is on life, rather than death,” she said.
She pointed out that Missouri has 87 pregnancy resource centers and 18 maternity homes for women and families in need.
“Their mission is to support not just a woman and an unborn child, but also the mother and the child after the child is born,” she said.
Conversion of heart
People representing many faith traditions and backgrounds from in and near Sedalia spend four-hour shifts in the Right to Life both throughout the Fair.
Each year, people pick up freebees such as pens, lapel buttons, refrigerator clips and bumper stickers at the pro-life booth.
The favorite for most children and teens is the “Precious One” — a tiny molded image accurately depicting what a pre-born baby looks like after 12 weeks in the womb.
“It’s something a lot of people seek out when they come to the Fair,” said St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Liz Suter-Van Leer, Development Director for Sacred Heart School and the Sacred Heart School Foundation in Sedalia.
“I’m convinced that it makes an impression on them,” she said.
Mrs. Suter-Van Leer has been part of Right to Life’s outreach at the Fair for about 15 years.
She recalled the testimony of a visitor this year who works for an inner-city ministry in Kansas City.
“You’re saving lives with what you’re doing,” the woman told her.
The woman went on to explain that three young teens she was helping all found out recently that they were pregnant.
All were planning to have abortions when they saw a “Precious One” model from the Fair, which helped each of them realize that an actual person is growing inside herself.
That friendly, silent witness made a difference.
“None of them aborted their babies,” the woman told Mrs. Suter-Van Leer.
She’s convinced that a culture of life is becoming an ever-more-distinct possibility.
“It’s a conversion of heart that we’re seeking,” Mrs. Suter-Van Leer stated. “Every time we pass out a bag of information, every time we give a smile, every time we show a child or teenager that ‘this is the progression of life within the womb,’ we are taking part in that conversion, and that’s what leads to a change of heart in this society.”
“A great year”
Mrs. Owens attended her first pro-life demonstration before she was born.
“When my mother was pregnant with me, she protested at an abortion clinic in 1983,” she noted. “She felt very strongly about respecting every human life, and she passed that on to me.”
Mrs. Owens later heard the testimony of Melissa Ohden, who tells audiences of her own experience of surviving an attempt to abort her in the womb.
“That left a very strong impression on me,” said Mrs. Owens.
She and her husband Jeff moved to Sedalia a few years ago and enrolled their children at Sacred Heart School.
Both parents became very interested in going to Mass with their children and in learning what the children were learning.
“I had never been to a Catholic Mass,” Mrs. Owens noted. “It really spoke to our hearts. Catholicism just soaked me at a whole new level.”
They decided to seek Sacraments of Initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
They were welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil.
“I think it was the first time I ever cried on Easter,” said Mrs. Owens.
She joined the Sedalia circle of the Daughters of Isabella a few months ago. Mrs. Diefendorf attended a recent meeting and invited members to volunteer for the Right to Life booth at the State Fair.
“It turned out to be perfect timing,” Mrs. Owens stated. “I signed up and wound up working with Liz, who I knew from when we enrolled our children at Sacred Heart. I felt very comfortable around her.”
Having braced for possible confrontation, Mrs. Owens found nothing but affirmation in the Right to Life booth.
“The thing that stands out to me was how very welcoming and receptive everyone was,” she said. “People nodded and smiled. Some came up and said, ‘It’s going to be a great year for babies.’”
One girl picked up pro-life stickers to share with a classmate in her school band.
The classmate had secretly removed the pro-life stickers from the girl’s band case.
“The girl just wanted to help her classmate realize when it comes up in conversation that the little person in the womb has his own DNA and fingerprints and a brain and feelings,” said Mrs. Owens.
“She said, ‘I want her to know that every pregnant woman is carrying another person inside of her.’”
Mrs. Owens believes those are the kinds of everyday encounters that can change the tide toward a universal respect for life.
“Liz reminded me that it starts with the heart, with talking to your neighbor,” said Mrs. Owens. “Maybe it starts with a girl who picks up some really cute pro-life stickers.
“We’re not going to go out and make a huge demonstration,” she said. “But every conversation we have, every word we say, I pray that it will eventually make a difference and help change someone’s heart.”
Mrs. Suter-Van Leer lauded Mrs. Diefendorf and her fellow stalwarts of the pro-life movement.
“They’ve been fighting the good fight for many, many years,” said Mrs. Suter-Van Leer. “The success they’re seeing now gives me hope that we can change hearts and that the culture can change. And that hope keeps me going.”
Mrs. Diefendorf recalled that when she started working on the front lines, her mother didn’t feel suited to stand with her in the Right to Life booth at the Fair.
“Instead, she always watched my kids so I could go and do it!” said Mrs. Diefendorf. “Those are the kinds of things people can do every day to help pro-life.”
The local MRL chapter recently started a Prayer Warrior program “for the people who have been such faithful workers in our movement but are now in a state of life where they’re in an independent- or assisted-living situation and can’t be out and about,” she said.
“We’ve invited them to pray for us when we’re out on the front lines,” she stated. “I know it’s making a difference every day.”
She mentioned two local pro-life pioneers — Shirley White-Schieberl and Trudy Karigan-Knight — who recently died.
“I’m convinced we have a couple of really strong crusaders in heaven,” she said.