There’s power in knowledge. So when it comes to understanding abortion, young people in the pro-life movement know that their work is more than just stopping a woman from killing her child.
These young faces in the St. Louis pro-life movement have different roles — yet all of them are united in their work to address the underlying causes of abortion. They shared that to make abortion unthinkable, you must be pro-life, whole life. Here are their stories:
Saving as many lives
Many children dream about becoming doctor, or a teacher or a firefighter when they grow up. Those professions weren’t on Mary Elizabeth Coleman’s list of considerations. Instead, she wanted to go to law school so she could become a pro-life lobbyist.
She ended up with a law degree, and a law practice of her own. But starting this month, she is now poised to make laws rather than persuade lawmakers to craft them. Coleman, 37, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Imperial, was elected last fall to the Missouri House of Representatives for the 97th district in Jefferson County. Last month, she filed her first bill, HB 397, which would strengthen protections for minors who are victims of sex trafficking.
As she joins the legislature in January, Coleman said her primary motivation is what’s going to save the most lives. She’s well aware of how she will need to navigate the legislature to be effective in getting bills passed. “There’s three things we’re always looking at,” she said. “What’s going to save the most lives, what’s going to be upheld or create conflict in the courts and create challenges to the precedent. And third, what we can get through the Senate.”
Those who are pro-life are often accused of only being pro-birth. As a mother of six children, two of whom are adopted, that argument doesn’t hold well for Coleman. “It’s really a silly argument when you look at it anyway,” she said. “Think about all of the work Catholic Charities does, or Our Lady’s Inn, or Birthright.” She said she plans to support legislation that looks beyond the scope of abortion regulations and that treats the root issues why women choose abortion. She applauded a recent measure that extends Medicaid coverage for pregnant women with addictions from six weeks to a year, for example.
“Those are the things that help women keep their babies and keep their babies healthy,” Coleman said. “You can’t take care of the symptoms of abortion if you don’t take care of the underlying problems. The baby is never the crisis. There is some other terrible crisis that’s taking place in a woman’s life that she feels unable to continue her pregnancy. By making sure that we’re helping to alleviate and offer support for those other crises, we help not just the child, but the mom. Anything that helps strengthen families saves lives.”
Coleman spoke about a reversion of faith that led her to this new chapter in her life. A retreat about four years ago at the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., gave her the time and space to listen to God speak to the depths of her heart. “I was numb for a long time,” she said of her Catholic faith. She went through the motions of going to Mass, but “I prayed to have some feeling.”
At the retreat, “I was really quiet for the first time in a long time,” she said. “This calling to public service is a direct tie to that time. I discovered the answer to learning how to be joyful in your life is by knowing and doing God’s will in your life. The only way you can do that is if you shut up long enough to listen.”
On the front lines
The first time Ronni Russell saw someone doing sidewalk counseling was on a video at a pro-life conference. Inspired by the conference speakers, she continued on her quest learn more about the local pro-life movement.
A few years ago, she met Brad Baumgarten at a Coalition for Life banquet. Baumgarten (now a seminarian for the Archdiocese of St. Louis) was coordinator of the organization’s Life Choice internship program at the time. Seeing him with the interns and staff somehow solidified her desire to be on the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood.
“When I saw Brad and all of them together, that was the moment I knew I wanted to do what they were doing,” said the 18-year-old member of St. Ferdinand Parish in Florissant.
She realized later she was motivated by an underlying desire to help people. Now as a Life Choice intern, Russell hands out information on alternatives to abortion three days a week outside the entrance to the abortion clinic.
Russell so far has helped three women with other resources — something that she describes a “turnaround.” She said she’s keenly aware that being present on the sidewalk is more than just stopping an abortion from taking place. “Being pro-life is about both the mom and the baby,” she said. “It’s really the whole family. I care about what the mom is feeling and going through.”
Russell learned about abortion when she was around 10 years old. “My mom told me about it,” she said. “I’m a very passionate person, and have very strong feelings about certain things. And I knew I didn’t like what I learned about (abortion).”
As she became more involved with Coalition for Life, she was pleasantly surprised to see other young people as passionate as she is about the issue. “When I was younger, I thought, ‘Am I the only one thinking about this? I want to do something about this.’”
Tim Lucchesi was raised in the pro-life movement. He watched his grandmother Audrey Mehan, who was involved in the early days of pro-life activities in St. Louis, as she stood in front of the abortion clinic with other picketers — that’s what they called themselves back then. She made bus trips — these were no-frills, overnight cross-country pilgrimages — to the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
His mom, Mollie Lucchesi, took up the family mantle as coordinator of the pro-life committee at Annunciation Parish in Webster Groves. She has spent time outside Planned Parenthood in prayer as part of 40 Days for Life.
Witnessing their actions, Lucchesi most of all noticed their commitment to family. “It was never, ‘I am an activist,’” Lucchesi said of his impression of two important women in his life. “This was important to them because family is important. I saw their consistent commitment to be good parents and raising people in the faith.”
Now Lucchesi, 33, is a family man himself. His wife is a high-risk OB nurse, while he stays at home with their two children. Last year, the former youth minister started a website, chastelove.org, to promote a speaking ministry focused on chastity and other related topics. He groans when the cliches about chastity are thrown around — including the misconception that chastity is only about refraining from sex before marriage. Not so — it’s a definition that involves purity of body, heart, mind and soul, whether you’re married, single, a priest or religious, he said.
It’s a societal lack of understanding of chastity that has led the culture to woundedness and a breakdown of the family — direct factors that lead to abortion. Speaking about chastity is like providing preventative medicine, Lucchesi said. “What it comes down to is the dignity of the individual, while giving people the tools and information to heal from wounded relationships and develop healthy relationships,“ he said. “I say that waiting to make a commitment to chastity is like waiting for a test to begin to start studying.”
Lucchesi saw his share of woundedness through his experience as a youth minister. “I’ve seen kids wounded because of their parents’ choices, or a choice that they made that they didn’t understand,” he said. In talking to teens about chastity, he has seen a wisdom beyond their years. They understand that chastity builds greater trust between parents and teens. He said chastity could contribute to a decline in sexual assaults, and therefore fewer people in prison, as well as the potential for the poverty rate to go down, and there could be little to no abortion.
These are complex issues, he said, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about understanding the God-given dignity of every human person.
“When we understand our own value, then we understand the value of our actions and how that impacts our relationships,” he said. “One of the reasons abortion still exists is people undervalue themselves. People have been lied to and told they are less. You see your actions as not having as much impact. Then abortion is not that big of a deal, because it says I am not worth enough.”
Save the woman,
save the child
Riley Bess remembers learning about abortion in the eighth grade.
For some, that might seem like such a young age. But Bess and her classmates at Assumption School in Mattese were participating in the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate’s Right START program — the START stands for Students Tacking Abortion Realities Today.
Of course, the material was presented in an age-appropriate manner. But it left a lasting impression on Bess, who now as a senior at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., is president of the university’s Students for Life chapter.
“I remember hearing about these abortion procedures and crying because I can’t believe someone would do this to their child,” said the 22-year-old. In high school she went with Assumption’s youth group on the Generation Life pilgrimage, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry. The speakers left such a lasting impression upon her, she became involved in pro-life activities first at St. Louis Community College, where she attended for two years; and now at Truman.
On the Kirksville campus, Students for Life promotes the local pregnancy resource center, as well as help for pregnant and parenting students. The group also made a video about adoption, which was the winning entry in the 2018 Respect Life Video Challenge contest, sponsored by the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate. Bess interned with the RLA last summer, too.
With the adoption video, Bess said they wanted to share how adoption is a valid option, and a loving gift. “I have heard stories of young people who say, ‘I could never do that, put my child up for adoption.’ When really, that’s a very loving thing to do. And if you’re a young person, it gives you a chance to have your goals but also see to it that your child grows up.”
Bess said she sees the pro-life movement as taking a woman-centered turn. “It’s always been so focused on the child, but I think people don’t realize that if you save the woman, you save the child,” she said. “Women really don’t want to have an abortion. A lot of times its financial reasons, or you’re very young, or you want to finish school. Part of being a woman is having a reproductive system. True feminism embraces that, and doesn’t tell you to not have children.”