Protesters at NFP workshop trigger outreach discussion


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — A half-dozen pro-choice activists lined the street outside St. Wen­ceslaus Church Oct. 23, protesting a pro-life work­shop taking place there.

One conference atten­dee, Michael Keefer, peacefully approached the group and struck up a conversation — he was told they were there to promote a woman’s right to choose. They considered it “payback” for the constant pro-life presence outside Emma Goldman Center in Iowa City, which performs abortions. Keefer expres­s­ed to the pro-choice group that he was simply attending the pro-life conference as a newlywed hoping to learn more about Natural Family Planning.

Lindsay Steele Sheryl Schwager, right, director of Johnson County Right to Life, introduces Project Rachel founder and biochemical researcher Vicki Thorn during a daylong seminar, “Going Natural-A Healthy Choice” at St. Wenceslaus Church in Iowa City.
Lindsay Steele
Sheryl Schwager, right, director of Johnson County Right to Life, introduces Project Rachel founder and biochemical researcher Vicki Thorn during a daylong seminar, “Going Natural-A Healthy Choice” at St. Wenceslaus Church in Iowa City.

Another workshop attendee offered pro-life educational DVDs and invited the protesters to come in and learn more, though the protesters chose to stay outside in the rain.


Observing the scene, speaker Jamie Rathjen said to 50-plus people in the church gathering space, “They probably think they know what we’re talking about, but they have no idea. If they knew, they’d probably think twice about what they’re trying to promote.” She believes a basic difference in understanding of when life begins is the main source of disagreement between pro-choice and pro-life groups.

The daylong workshop featured presentations from Theology of the Body experts, Natural Family Planning practitioners and doctors, each focusing on the scientific analysis of the chemistry of sex, fertility and relationships.

Speakers discussed what they believe to be the risks of hormonal birth control, which include potential health risks in some individuals as well as a potential to change how women process men’s pheromones. Speakers cited statistics showing that the prevalence of birth control pills does not seem to be reducing the abortion rate as commonly thought; 50 percent of women seeking abortions reported that they were on birth control when they got pregnant. The speakers said they believe that hormonal birth control, especially IUDs, have the potential to act as abortifacients.

Workshop participant Shirley Heefner, a staff nurse at pro-life Informed Choices in Iowa City, said she was happy to learn more about the downsides of hormonal contraceptives, as it is a topic that often comes up in her practice. “I didn’t just want to tell pa­tients that birth control (can be harmful). I wanted to be able to tell them why.”

Later, attendees learned about different forms of Natural Family Planning, how it has advanced from the early days of the somewhat unreliable Rhythm/Calendar Method, and its effectiveness in spacing pregnancies and determining menstrual cycle abnormalities.

The unexpected presence of the protesters sparked a discussion inside the walls of the church about how to lovingly promote pro-life values with people of a different mindset.

“If we want people to respect life, we have to engage them in a respectful way and meet them where they are at,” said Sheryl Schwager, director of Johnson Country Right to Life and one of the event’s organizers.

Panelist Father Ray Atwood, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, said asking questions is a great way to engage in an intellectual dialogue. “Ask questions like, ‘How do we know when life begins?’” he suggested. “If you do it with curiosity and respect, asking for advice gives people pride and makes them want to talk.”

Rathjen, a Creighton Model practitioner, said she often gets placed next to organizations like Planned Parenthood at women’s fairs and health fairs, and doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to share what she knows. “I approach it from a health perspective first, that there are people that can’t be on the pill (for health reasons), etc.” She said most of the people she talks to are unaware of how birth control pills affect the body and the natural methods of identifying fertility and infertility. She said people usually appreciate her for sharing the information.

Speaker Vicki Thorn, founder of the Project Rachel post-abortion ministry, said most pro-choice activists have an abortion connection from which they may not have fully healed. “They feel like they have to defend (their choice or that of a loved one). It’s not a moral or philosophical debate. It’s a heart debate. Ask them why they feel so strongly; that will allow room for God’s grace and discussion.”

Speaker Dr. Monica Minjeur said, “You never know when you are planting a seed, when you’re making more of an impact than you thought.”

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