Mary Wagner’s war

  • September 20, 2017

Women in jail tell Mary Wagner about their abortions.

The pro-life activist is free today, but over the years Wagner has spent more than four years in jail because she walks into abortion clinics and calmly tries to persuade patients to leave, plying them with roses and pamphlets. Whenever she does this she is in breach of court orders. For Wagner, each foray into a clinic — and from there into police custody, and from there into prisons and courtrooms — is a direct, personal effort to save lives.

Judges who have ruled on Wagner’s many cases and appeals don’t doubt her sincerity, don’t discount her religious convictions and don’t dispute the urgency she feels.

“I think it inescapable that to Ms. Wagner ‘the merits’ were not the usual guilt or innocence in this case, but rather the legal status of what she construes to be the innocents whose existence is terminated by abortion,” wrote Justice Fergus O’Donnell in 2015. “Ms. Wagner, however, is not the average criminal defendant.”

Wagner, 43, walked out of jail on Sept. 12 when Justice Rick Libman, acknowledging Wagner’s moral convictions, sentenced her to 30 months probation and community service rather than give her 18 months in jail as requested by the Crown. She had already spent six months in jail after refusing bail conditions that demanded she stay away from abortion sites. After telling Wagner he would accept character references before sentencing, the judge received more than 850 reference letters, 34,000 emails and 67,000 petition signatures in support of Wagner.

Wagner says the women who speak to her in jail tell her they have not been healed or helped by their abortions. They carry with them regrets, confusion and anger. Wagner hopes her words to them about mercy and the love of God are a balm for their wounds.

But she can’t forget the unborn, either.

“We tend, when it comes down to it, to forget that we’re talking about human beings who are living and who are dying through choice and through indifference,” Wagner said. “What have we done and what have we failed to do in our neighbourhoods every single day? Is it breaking the law to try to protect somebody from being killed?”

She now hopes to visit a convent in Princeville, Ill., where she likes to spend at least a month each year. The convent is run by the Apostolic Sisters of St. John, part of a trio of controversial orders (priests, apostolic women and contemplative women) founded by Dominican philosophy professor Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe.

Though not a member of the order, the 43-year-old Wagner is profoundly influenced by Philippe, whom she met shortly before his death in 2006. Wagner herself lives a simple, celibate life under personal vows.

“What God has called me to is that awareness that love is personal,” she told The Catholic Register. “We are personally loved by God and personally called to love Him and meet Him and to see Him in each person in our presence, even if we don’t actually see (the unborn child). That takes it (abortion) out of the whole question of trying to win over people through debate, through rational argument.”

In jail, she tells her fellow prisoners about God’s mercy, that God can be trusted and that miracles happen every day. Through Lent she led a small group of prisoners through daily prayer and reflection.

“I hope my life is not repetitive,” said Wagner. “There are obviously repetitions of being arrested and getting out and going to trial. I hope it goes deeper than just this repetition.”

Wagner was born in Vancouver, grew up Catholic and was “raised in a family that took the Eucharist pretty seriously and took respect for life pretty seriously, with the graces that come from that.” She went through elementary and high school in the suburban Vancouver community of Tsawwassen. She took a BA in English literature with a minor of French language and literature from the University of Victoria. She has four sisters and eight brothers, “including one in Heaven.” Five were adopted.

She started getting arrested for anti-abortion activities in 1999 in Vancouver. She moved to Toronto in 2010 with one contact and $500 in her pocket. Thanks to donors, she leads a semi-contemplative life. Her days start with the Divine Office, lectio divina and a holy hour before or after morning Mass.

“It’s an unusual life,” she concedes. “This period of suddenly not being in jail and having to discover — OK, God, how do you want me to live now in this interim? Having court dates here, there and everywhere, it’s not conducive to having a so-called normal life. I try to be open to what He asks of me on a daily basis.”

Despite four criminal convictions then on her record, Wagner was awarded the Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012, along with her friend and mentor Linda Gibbons. Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott said he recommended the two criminally convicted protesters for the medal because they were “heroines of humanity… who try to save babies from such savagery.”

Asked about the best advice she ever received, Wagner goes back to the time she spent in France with Philippe’s community.

“He said, ‘We see many injustices in the world, but the first injustice — the primary injustice — is that God is no longer adored. God is no longer first,’ ” she said. “That remark, rather than counsel, was counsel for me because there is a tendency to see a certain injustice and to let that take priority. To realize that God is first, is called to be first in our lives, that is what this means. It’s that we’re called to enter into more and more a life of adoration. That sort of centres everything. That puts everything into perspective for me.”

In a political sense, Wagner knows she’s losing the argument over Canada’s non-existent abortion law. But her goal goes beyond legislation.

“We as people, how we live, will change the law too. It will shape the law. If we are just content to allow politicians and Parliament to decide for us, if we put our trust in princes and strive only along the side of having the law changed, what about the rest of our Christian calling to love our neighbour who is in distress, who is abandoned? It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I agree, we have to change the law, absolutely.”

Wagner knows that women, in particular the unwed, often believe that having a baby will be the end of their education, the end of their dreams. She knows they think they will end up poor the rest of their lives and their child will grow up in poverty. She has heard that women suffer at the hands of violent men, that such a pregnancy can cost them their families and their futures. But Wagner thinks the women don’t really know their future.

“We can never definitively say we know how things are going to turn out for somebody. So we always go with hope. We should always have hope,” she said. “You can’t get into someone’s heart and make them love and make them hope. But we can love them. And we can act on the hope that we’ve been given. We can say, ‘We will not abandon you and your child. Walk out of this clinic and we will walk with you every step of the way.’ ”

Wagner says a few of the women she has approached in abortion clinics have changed their minds. If all her arrests and the courtroom arguments launched on her behalf never make a dent in Canada’s abortion rate, Wagner remains at peace. She pushes back against questions about what she might be accomplishing.

“It’s not great things that God is impressed by. It’s little things. It could be seemingly very insignificant things — maybe completely insignificant — but the love we put into it,” she said. “So, God will judge me on that.”

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