World · July 4, 2022

Column: What memorials for aborted fetuses tell us

Deep in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights, a longer than usual headstone lies near a chain link fence.

“In memory of the 16,500 precious unborn buried here, October 2019. 6, 1985”, we read in bleached letters. The strands of fibrous lawn begin to overcome it.

Little about this scene suggests the grave’s pivotal role in the history of anti-abortion memorials, a neglected but crucial battlefield in one of the most controversial issues of our time.

National Remembrance Day for Aborted Babies holds a list of over a thousand similar indicators in the United States. Despite its liberal reputation, California is home to 54, second only to Illinois and just ahead of New York. They are in Brentwood and Victorville, Tehachapi and San Clemente. They take the form of statues, tombstones, cenotaphs and benches in churches, cemeteries and more.

The erection of these memorials over the past three decades has helped anti-abortion activists honor their strategy of transforming the personal into the performative into the political. That strategy eventually led to the once unthinkable: overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

A couple of days after the US Supreme Court shot down Roe vs. Wade, I’ve visited three of the memorials. That’s how I ended up in Boyle Heights, where the movement probably started, on a hot weekday morning.

On that October day 36 years ago, some 250 people gathered for the burial of those thousands of fetuses, some barely larger than a spot, others fully formed. They were found in 1982 in formaldehyde buckets in a Woodland Hills container, many with dates and a woman’s name. Some were miscarriages. Most were aborted.

The struggle over what to do with the remains – anti-abortion activists wanted officials to bury them, feminist groups wanted them to be incinerated – has reached the US Supreme Court and has become a rallying cry for the right.

President Reagan spoke in favor of a burial. Singer Pat Boone released a menacing ballad called “16,000 Faces” that blew up women who chose to have abortions and the Supreme Court that granted them that freedom. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to find a final resting place for the fetuses.

“It was a dark occasion,” supervisor Mike Antonovich, who led the vote, told me later. “But it was appropriate. We needed to bury these children. “

A Marine Corps color guard stood at attention when the nondenominational ceremony, one of the first of its kind, finally took place. Activists showed a huge photo of one of the aborted fetuses as the coffin bearers carried six caskets to the grave. Antonovich read a eulogy written by Reagan who compared Roe vs. Wade at Dred Scott’s decision which led to the civil war.

“Once again,” Reagan wrote, “an entire category of human beings has been ruled outside the protection of the law by a court ruling that clashed with our deepest moral convictions.”

I was expecting to see fresh flowers, balloons and other mementos when I stopped.

Instead, I found fragments of pink plastic scattered around, tinfoil that once covered a plate of tacos, a tattered fake flower in a jar. Beside it, a solitary red rose blossomed from an otherwise barren bush.

The surrounding tombs were better preserved. They presented new bouquets. remember love

My next stop: Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights. The young morgue assistant didn’t even know the Catholic shrine had an anti-abortion memorial until I asked him.

A graveyard with a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a child

The Knights of Columbus erected this “Shrine for the Unborn” at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights as part of a national campaign to protest against abortion.

(Los Angeles Times)

A six-foot tall marble statue of the Virgin Mary cradles a child as it looms over the small valley that makes up the cemetery. It stands on a black granite base that reads “Sanctuary of the Unborn” and bears the logo of the Knights of Columbus, a male Catholic fraternal group.

The 1985 Boyle Heights burial galvanized anti-abortion activists nationwide, leading to more memorials. But the movement didn’t really explode until the Knights were involved.

In 1992, New York Archdiocese Cardinal John O’Connor urged the Knights at their national convention to erect at least one memorial in each of the 1888 Catholic dioceses. They embarked on a multi-million dollar campaign that resulted in more than 500 shrines for fetuses aborted in just a couple of years. In Los Angeles County, they erected the same statue of Our Lady that I saw in Rowland Heights in the Catholic cemeteries of Simi Valley, Culver City and Mission Hills.

The campaign transformed the Knights from a mutual aid society that has long fought discrimination against Catholics and immigrants into soldiers for right-wing culture wars. They doubled down on the fight against the right to abortion and spent $ 1 million to help pass Proposition 8, which temporarily banned same-sex marriages, in California in 2008. Two years ago, they invited the then President Trump at the Saint John Paul II National run by the Knights Shrine in Washington for what was essentially a re-election photo shoot.

I thought about the power of the group as I watched Mother Mary. She held a blissful smile as she looked at the baby, whose face was covered in a dry scarlet rose. Someone had taken off his foot.

I ended the day at the Pierce Brothers Crestlawn Memorial Park in Riverside. There, three anti-abortion memorials stood in a shady patch of lawn right in front of a false stream. The oldest is a vertical bench tombstone commemorating 54 fetuses buried here in 1998. Discovered in a Chino Hills field inside cardboard boxes, the fetuses were traced to an abortion clinic. Another memorial is a small plaque to seven fetuses buried there a few years later.

A list of baby names on a fetus memorial plaque.

A gravestone at Pierce Brothers Crestlawn Memorial Park in Riverside is dedicated to 54 fetuses buried there in 1998 after they were found in a field in Chino Hills.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The most recent is a three-part granite slab erected by Lisa Musil in 2010 as a way for aborted women, like her, to process their grief.

Musil initially agreed to talk to me, then refused. In a voice message, he said the memorial was “a place of privacy, a place of sacred remembrance, and I don’t want to exploit it for mothers and fathers.”

But that’s exactly what the anti-abortion movement has done. At about one and a half meters high, Musil’s memorial towers over almost all the other tombs that surround it.

Memories of the unborn in Boyle Heights and Rowland Heights merged with their environments; this in Riverside is meant to be seen.

It bears the names that women who have gone through Musil’s anti-abortion ministry have chosen for their aborted fetuses, as well as a passage in the Apocalypse in which Jesus vows to “not erase” the names of the faithful “from the Book of Life.”

What an interesting choice of Scripture, I thought as I walked away. I have no doubt of the sadness that people like Musil and the Knights of Columbus feel about abortion.

But their monuments and shrines look less about the aborted and more about them. In these points, abortion is inherently wrong and there is no room for any nuance, any exception, any other opinion.

It’s about their testimony, their belief. Their will will be done.