“A special place and purpose”: My parents’ pro-life witness

In one of his last official acts, President George W. Bush proclaimed January 18th, 2009 as “National Sanctity of Human Life Day.” The official proclamation observed that “the sanctity of life is written in the hearts of all men and women,” and asserted that our “caring nation” must continue to “aspire to build a society in which every child is welcome in life and protected in law.” “Each person,” the proclamation declared, “has a special place and purpose in this world.” For me, the most powerful witnesses to this reality have been my own parents.

As is our custom, Elaine, Miriam and I traveled to Indiana for this past Christmas and New Year’s celebration. We visited family on both sides, including my dad, Frank. We stayed overnight with him at the farm house where I grew up, and after the supper that he fixed for us, he asked us to read some reflections that he had written recently about my mother, Phyllis.

The reflections were really about both of my parents. Dad recounted how he and Mother met in high school. She was a junior, and he a senior. The first time he laid eyes on her, she was sitting in a convertible outside of his cousin’s house, waiting with the cousin and friends to go to a party.

Dad lived in the country and she in the city. It was an “ecumenical” relationship between two members of the Catholic Spanish and the Catholic Irish.

These and other circumstances, such as geographic distance, a “party line” that made private phone calls an impossibility, graduation, and Dad going into the army, tested the friendship. Yet it proved strong, resulting in their wedding at Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church on the south side of Fort Wayne in August of 1948.

Dad described the college years and early moves to Texas and back to Indiana, the births, and other events associated with raising a family of ten children. Mother had become a nurse and Dad a chemist. With humility, Dad praised Mother for her religious devotion, for being “smarter and more observant,” and for her ability to “quietly” handle family matters, “probably in the knowledge that had she told me I would have ‘blown up’ without the projection of charity to the children.”

Eventually his reflections reached the heart of the story that Dad wanted to tell “[t]o the descendants of Frank C. and Phyllis Conroy Avila,” concerning the circumstances leading to Mother’s death.

After the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, a nurse friend, whose first name also was Phyllis, approached Mother with the idea of giving a presentation on abortion to the students at their nursing school. This collaboration of the “Phylli,” as the two women jokingly were called, grew into the joint efforts of many people to start a pro-life pregnancy counseling service called “Nurses Concerned for Life.” They opened an office in downtown Fort Wayne.

Dad said that he was initially hesitant to get active in the pro-life movement, but at the urging of Mother he “reluctantly” put down the newspaper he was reading after supper one night and “went to be changed” by a presentation on abortion by the pro-life leader Dr. Jack Willke. Dad began to accompany Mother as she traveled around northern Indiana giving presentations or attending public hearings.

In 1978, an abortion facility opened not far from Mother’s office. The abortion staff soon noticed a problem. Women were not showing up for their abortion appointments. Instead, they were going to the Nurses Concerned for Life as a result of an effective pro-life presence outside the facility. Many decided to choose life as a result of the nurses’ ability to provide whatever help the women needed.

A year later, the nurses’ group and several individuals, including Mother, were sued in federal court based on allegations that they were wrongfully hurting the abortion facility’s “business relations.” There were several court hearings, and Dad detailed how sometimes he would have to take Mother home because the stress was causing her blood pressure to spike. He wrote that Mother was aware of the health risks but she was determined to pursue the case to its conclusion because the same legal tactics were used in other cities to intimidate pro-lifers into abandoning similar counseling efforts.

The defendants’ resolve caused the plaintiffs to blink, and they withdrew their case, thus avoiding having to prove their charges at trial. At that point, the defendants countersued for wrongful litigation.

But, as Dad related in his reflections, the case’s burden took its toll on Mother. Her high blood pressure caused an aneurism to expand near her heart and her doctors recommended surgical repair. Although all of her other health indications were positive, and the surgeons were very hopeful, Mother died on Dec. 6, 1983, a day after surgery, at the age of 57.

Yes, every person, born and unborn, has a special place and purpose in this world. Dad and Mother found their place and their purpose in a movement dedicated to giving every unborn child the chance to live and every mother the resources to nurture life.

President Bush finished his proclamation by writing: “History tells us that with a cause rooted in our deepest principles and appealing to the best instincts of our citizens, we will prevail.” The history that was written so close to me, in my own home, and that is still being written in hearts and homes across this country, verifies the truth just expressed. Defenders of human life, no doubt about it, we will prevail. Let my parents be my witnesses.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.