It was a broken heart that first ignited my passion to find my cause. When I was around nine years old, during afternoon nap time for my younger siblings, my mom flipped on the TV — a rare occurrence in our home and a special treat. A commercial was playing about children in an African nation suffering through a famine. Their bloated bellies, twig-thin legs, and wide, pain-filled eyes called out to me through the screen. The narrator explained that if we acted now, if we called the number on the screen and donated just twenty-five dollars a month, we could help save five children from starvation.
Later that week, on a routine trip to the grocery store with my mom, I thought of that commercial. The store was next door to a McDonald’s, and it was the time of the Beanie Baby craze of the late 1990s. If you bought a Happy Meal, you got a Teenie Beanie Baby. I noticed that the trash can by the McDonald’s was stuffed with Happy Meal boxes, some of which contained still-wrapped hamburgers and cartons full of fries. Customers had bought the Happy Meals for the plush toys and then thrown away the food. I thought of the children I had seen on TV and wondered, How many children could those Happy Meals have fed?
This wasn’t yet full heartbreak, but it was an awakening. I was hit with the sober reality that every moment, somewhere in the world, a child was starving to death. I sensed that the problem of evil and suffering was inescapable. I was too young to understand it all: human beings torturing each other, children being exploited, brutal regimes exacting cruelty on millions. But I knew enough to see the contrast between my life and the lives of those children. While others endured unimaginable suffering, here I was — privileged, safe and protected.
It was a lot to contemplate as a child, and I was certainly a contemplative and intense nine-year-old. Whether it happens when we’re nine or thirty-nine or older, many of us have moments such as these when we are suddenly faced with evil, injustice, and the suffering of the world outside our own. However they happen, these experiences are important. We need to pay attention to them, absorb them, remember them. Such moments of conscience and concern ultimately can become the fuel we need for the long, hard fight that lies ahead. They are also preparation for the heartbreak that can compel us to action.
My sensitivity to the vulnerability of children had a lot to do with my upbringing. My parents loved children and lived with a generosity that extended beyond our family to friends and strangers alike.
Growing up, I was sandwiched between five brothers — two older, three younger. I loved having what seemed like a steady flow of new babies in our home. But as much as I enjoyed my brothers, and all the wrestling and tree climbing that came with them, I desperately wanted a sister. Every night before bed, I knelt by my bed and asked God to give me one.
I was a hopeful little girl, and I felt optimistic about my chances. After all, we had room for another Rose. When I was six, we moved into a bigger house in San Jose. The couple who owned the home were touched by my parents’ idealism and passion for family and sold them the home at an under- market price. The empty lot next to the house helped set it apart from the surrounding homes, all the better to protect our neighbors from the bedlam my brothers and I could produce. Although few of my parents’ friends could understand why they had so many kids, I continued to hope for one more.
When I was eight, my parents sat down with my five brothers and me to tell us they were expecting another baby. As they did with all the children, Mom and Dad decided to wait until the birth to find out the sex. While we counted down the days until the birth, I eagerly looked again and again at the ten-week ultrasound picture of the baby posted on the refrigerator. I marveled at the fact that a tiny human was growing inside my mother and tried to imagine what my new little sibling would look like.
When labor started for my mom, my parents headed to the hospital and my grandma came over to watch us kids. I waited nervously with my brothers, wondering whether we would be gaining a brother or a sister. I was thrilled when I heard the news. My prayers were answered when Caterina Joy was born.
I immediately fell in love with my baby sister. She was tiny and chubby with wide blue eyes and soft skin. I cuddled her for hours, amazed that a whole person was contained in her little body. Two years later, my parents had their eighth and last child, Nina, another beautiful little girl.
It was in the midst of all this love and chaos that I experienced my first life-changing heartbreak. Given my parents’ passion for classical education, our house was always full of books. Ignoring house rules, I would turn up the thermostat, grab a blanket, and head to the floor vent behind the couch where I could cocoon in my heat bubble. Secluding myself out of my mom’s line of sight lessened the odds I’d be recruited for chores. Hidden behind the sofa, I’d read for hours: Nancy Drew, the Chronicles of Narnia, Little Women, the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more.
One afternoon, I pulled from a lower shelf a small paperback creased from wear and tear and gray with age. On the front cover was an image of a sober-looking woman under the title, A Handbook on Abortion. The book was written by Dr. and Mrs. J. C. Willke, founders of National Right to Life. Inside were pictures.
I was not prepared for the images I saw in that book. Shocked and horrified, I quickly shut the book and sat back. What did I just see? Feeling I was on the brink of an important discovery, I opened up the book again. I was staring at the photo of a tiny baby with tiny arms and legs severed from a tiny body. I was looking at a little human being during the first trimester torn into pieces by a powerful suction abortion. Heartbroken, I remembered my baby sister’s ultrasound photo. Is this real? How could anyone do this to a baby?
I wanted to learn more. I knew my parents were subscribers to the National Right to Life newsletter. Digging around the house, I found a recent copy. The newsletter included diagrams that showed the four stages of a D&X abortion, short for “dilation and extraction,” sometimes called a “partial birth abortion.” The procedure was being hotly debated: Twice, a Republican-controlled Congress sent a bill to President Bill Clinton to authorize a ban. Twice, Clinton vetoed the legislation.1
I looked at the diagrams in horror. They showed a fully formed infant delivered feet first, up to his neck. With the baby’s legs dangling and kicking and his head still in the birth canal, the doctor pierced his neck with scissors and then placed a suction tube inside his skull. With his brain sucked out, his skull collapsed, and he was pulled out of the birth canal dead.
Even the pro-abortion groups admitted this procedure was committed at least five hundred times a year. I was still a child myself, but I was old enough to wonder how we could possibly allow an atrocity like this to take place just about every day — not in some place oceans away, but right here in America, in California, in clinics just miles from where I lived.
I continued reading. There were more than a million abortions in the United States every year. One million. Many of those children were smaller, less developed than the baby I was looking at in the diagram, but each one was a human being. With a mother. With a father. Maybe with a big sister or brother. It broke my heart to keep reading but keep reading I did.
It was hard for me to believe that abortion was legal.
Even harder to believe was that everyday people, who might be my neighbors or members of my community, agreed that it should be legal, as did almost all the major media outlets. The Los Angeles Times said abortion supporters actually “cheered” the decision to keep partial birth abortion legal.2 I didn’t know what to do with this information or even what it meant, but I knew there was evil in the world. I sensed my life would never be the same.
It is heart-wrenching to even think about such things. It hurts to open our hearts. It’s easier to look away from the suffering and injustice in the world and pretend they do not exist, or, if they do exist, to pretend we have no role in addressing them. But heartbreak in the face of suffering and injustice is necessary. It is the natural response to seeing harm done, especially to the innocent. It reminds us we have the ability to love, a precious but painful gift that God has given us.
Heartbreak comes easily to children. Children respond to love with wholehearted love and to evil and wrongdoing with sorrow and fear. We are more innocent as children and have had less time to do evil ourselves. Being less jaded and more open, our souls naturally respond with concern when we see someone hurt or mistreated.
It is no wonder Jesus said that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Looking back, I realize what a gift it was to experience heartbreak over the evil of abortion as a child. It gave me the drive to start my organization, Live Action, at a young age. It deepened my empathy and inspired me to direct my energy away from myself and my own interests and toward the most vulnerable. Without heartbreak, it would have been easy to do some good work and live a normal life, leaving the fight to others. It would have been easier still to shut down and ignore injustice and tragedy altogether. But by avoiding the risk of hurting, I would have limited my own ability to serve. Allowing our hearts to remain broken for people in danger, especially the most vulnerable, is a necessary pain.
Meaningful social action almost inevitably begins with heartbreak. Social action requires vulnerability, the willingness to let down our guard and allow ourselves to be wounded and even scarred by evil so we can find the passion we need to confront it.
As adults we may need to recognize and dismantle the self-protective mechanisms we use to ward off heartbreak. We may need to let go of judgments or cynicism that allow us to justify the suffering of others. We may need to enter into another person’s need or suffering rather than numbing our sorrow or anger over tragedy. We may need to look beyond the routine distractions of daily life, including the pursuit of our own comfort or interests, so that our hearts can be broken by the pain of those in need.
Deep grief is often the starting point for righting an injustice. And that’s a good thing. Don’t run away from that emotion. Sit with it, let it break you open, let it move you. Don’t suppress it. The world has enough hearts of stone. It needs hearts willing to ache and burn. Grief, as well as the healthy anger that often accompanies it, can fuel your passion to fight a seemingly impossible fight.
The good news is that we aren’t alone in allowing our hearts to be broken in this way. As a Christian, I believe that God became a man in the person of Jesus, and that by doing so and taking on our human nature, He allowed His own heart to break over the wounds and sin of all humanity.
Whatever grief you and I might feel, we are in good company because Jesus has experienced it all.
In the Gospels, He set the ultimate example of perfect compassion. Jesus wept, He mourned, and He endured great agony as He prepared to give up His life for the redemption of all humanity. Part of His agony was knowing He would be rejected by many of those whom He came to love and save. Jesus Christ, tortured and wounded, dying on a Cross with nails in His hands and feet, took on all the heartbreak in the world. And He invites us to unite our love to His, to draw on His strength, and to allow our hearts to break with His.
- Alison Mitchell, “Clinton, in Emotional Terms, Explains His Abortion Veto,” New York Times, December 14, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/14/us/clinton-in-emotional-terms-explains-his-abortion-veto.html.
- Melissa Healy, “Clinton Vetoes Ban on Procedure in Late Abortions,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1996, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1996-04-11-mn-57381-story.html.
Excerpted with permission from Fighting for Life by Lila Rose, copyright Lila Rose.
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Let your heart break. You’re in good company. For those in our community who’ve been through the terrible loss of a past abortion, know that God loves you and we love you. Jesus knows your grief and He’s with you to heal you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full