Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

This article was first published in Chicago Tribune on January 22, 2023. Rev. Denise Cawley, featured in this article, is a 2020 graduate of Meadville Lombard. 


The minister decorated the church with signs declaring “abortion is a human right” and “be faithfully pro-choice” in preparation for this Sunday’s worship service, which will honor what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The Rev. Denise Cawley, who once served as an abortion clinic chaplain, said she approaches the day with deep sadness, lamenting the recent loss of reproductive rights across large swaths of the country. Themes of reproductive justice and bodily autonomy will be woven into Sunday’s service and hymns and her sermon.

“I believe that everyone has inherent worth,” said Cawley, interim minister at Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist in northwest suburban Palatine. “And if I believe that everyone has inherent worth, then I believe that all the people walking around living on this planet deserve health care, so they are best able to make health care decisions for themselves. My faith teaches me this.”

About 25 miles away, another pastor plans to highlight the anniversary by praying for an end to abortion. Worshippers at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Elgin intend to celebrate National Sanctity of Human Life Day, which has been recognized by abortion opponents on the third Sunday in January since 1984, when it was designated by President Ronald Reagan.

Yet this Sunday marks the first observance of its kind since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, ending federal abortion protections and leaving the matter up to individual states.

“Now it’s a whole new reality, that Roe v. Wade is not the law of the land,” said Steve Maske, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor who serves at Good Shepherd. “So that’s a good thing to celebrate. But unfortunately, the state of Illinois in essence is a pro-abortion state. So there’s still work for Christians to do to support life.”

Across the Chicago area and the nation, people of faith will be commemorating the Jan. 22 anniversary in disparate ways, often in accordance with their religious and moral beliefs on abortion.

Catholic bishops and priests from around the Archdiocese of Chicago held an overnight Vigil for Life beginning Thursday evening and culminating early Friday at St. John Paul II Newman Center Chapel at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The 12 hours of prayer followed by early morning Mass were part of the National Prayer Vigil for Life, an annual event to “pray for an end to abortion and a greater respect for all human life.”
Teens from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the National March for Life on Friday. They plan to meet for their regular youth group on Sunday, to pray the rosary for the end of abortion and reflect on their experiences at the march.

“Even with the wonderful blessing of Roe v. Wade being overturned, which allows more freedom at the state level to enact pro-life laws, the necessary work to build a culture of life in the United States of America is not finished,” the March for Life website stated.

Yet some contend that abortion restrictions are inherently contrary to their religious beliefs and values.

In Missouri, 13 clergy members from six faith traditions filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging the state’s bans on abortion and other various restrictions as unconstitutional, arguing they impose one religious doctrine and violate the separation of church and state.

“Missouri’s abortion bans contradict, devalue and disrespect my religious beliefs that the life and health of a pregnant person take precedence over a fetus,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, in a statement. “Jewish law mandates the termination of a pregnancy if the life of the person carrying the fetus is in jeopardy. The claim that life begins at conception is a statement of theological belief, and that belief is explicitly not a Jewish one.”

As for Cawley, the 49-year-old minister who lives in Milwaukee said there are many religions that support reproductive choice; for her, legal and accessible abortion is rooted in the core beliefs and principles of Unitarian Universalism.

“Abortion is way more complex than any of us know,” she said. “If we offer people a lot more grace and a lot more love — and also trust people to make health care decisions that they need to make — we’d be a lot better off.”

Blessings at an abortion clinic

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

For her sermon Sunday, Cawley had asked worshippers to share their thoughts and stories about abortion, offering to keep them anonymous based on individual comfort.

Cawley also planned to draw on her experience as a chaplain from late 2017 to 2019 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin, where she provided emotional and spiritual support to patients.

There were times when patients had needs unrelated to terminating a pregnancy.

Once Cawley met a 13-year-old pregnant patient who was scared because clinicians had just diagnosed her with a uterine infection; she had to go to the hospital immediately for treatment, but the girl said she was terrified because she hadn’t been to church recently, and she believed that if she died at the hospital she would go to hell.

“We can take care of that right now,” Cawley recalled telling the girl. “God will forgive you right now for not going to church. You and I can pray right here and everything will be fine and you will be able to go to the hospital and get care.”

So Cawley, the pregnant girl, and her foster mother prayed for forgiveness for her absence at church and that her infection would be healed, just before the patient was rushed to the hospital.

“She was so much more at peace,” the minister said. “So that was a blessing, that’s what she needed.”

Cawley doesn’t know if that girl ever had an abortion.

On another occasion, Cawley said she ministered to a Hindu couple who desperately wanted a baby, but the mother suffered from preeclampsia, which threatened her health and life. After the abortion, she asked to see the remains and requested that Cawley bless them. So the chaplain found prayers from the couple’s faith and offered a blessing during their time of grief.

“It’s too bad we can’t put this in someone else who wants a baby, because we can’t use it right now,” she recalled the husband saying, as he looked upon the remains of the pregnancy.

Cawley said she doesn’t think of “the products of conception” as unborn babies; to her they are “a grouping of cells that were in various stages of growth and they were not meant to come to be.”

“For centuries and centuries, people have had pregnancies that were not meant to complete, and that don’t complete, through various means,” she said.

The day the Supreme Court struck down Roe, the minister said she felt as if she had gone back in time. All providers in her home state ceased abortion services, due to an 1849 Wisconsin law that barred terminating a pregnancy except in life endangerment cases.

As of mid-January, a dozen states were enforcing near total-abortion bans with few exemptions; four states had gestational limits that would have been barred under Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports reproductive rights. In two other states, abortion was inaccessible because there were no providers offering the service.

More than 17 million women of reproductive age live in a state without any abortion providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

On Tuesday, authorities responded to a fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Peoria, which is being investigated as arson.

Police responded to a report of an unknown person throwing a Molotov cocktail into the clinic, but no suspects have been identified. No patients or staff were inside at the time, but the building suffered significant damage.

“This act of vandalism will have a devastating impact on the community’s ability to access the reproductive health care they need and deserve,” Planned Parenthood Illinois Action said in a statement.

Cawley said that when she heard the news of the fire, she was “horrified and sad.”

The blaze occurred days after Illinois passed reproductive rights legislation to protect doctors and out-of-state patients, as well as to expand the pool of healthcare providers who can perform procedures. Since the end of Roe, Illinois abortion clinics have reported historically high numbers of patients crossing state lines to terminate a pregnancy here.

“The idea that people now need more money and more time and they have to travel … I’m just profoundly sad,” Cawley said.

Conception to final heartbeat

The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. Isaiah 49:1

Pastor Maske said Good Shepherd has been taking special collections to raise money for a local pregnancy resource center and a maternity home, as part of the Sanctity of Human Life observance, which often extends throughout the month of January.

Members have also made donations to an interfaith food pantry and recently passed out to the homeless community “blessing bags,” which were filled with toiletries, food, and other necessities.

The pastor said this is part of the mission of supporting “life at any age, from conception to when the heart stops beating.”

“And in our prayers this weekend, we’ll lift up those who struggle with this sin of abortion, so that brokenness can be relieved by the mercy of Jesus Christ,” he said.

The 61-year-old pastor was a child when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, establishing the right to an abortion nationwide. He doesn’t have an acute memory of abortion being illegal one day and then legal the next.

But even as a child, he said he knew abortion was morally wrong.

“I grew up knowing that abortion was something that was legal but was not right,” he said.

Around the time of the anniversary of Roe two years ago, Maske posted a video of a 4D ultrasound on his Facebook page, a clear image of a fetus kicking, waving its fingers, and moving its lips in utero.

“Life is a miracle!” the caption read. “Life is a gift from God!”

When the Supreme Court struck down Roe in June, many abortion foes across the country rejoiced. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod believes abortion is against God’s word and “is not a moral option, except as a tragically unavoidable byproduct of medical procedures necessary to prevent the death of another human being … the mother,” according to a church statement.

While Maske was encouraged by the ruling, he noted that abortion is still legal in Illinois, even as many nearby states have moved to ban or heavily restrict terminating a pregnancy.

Abortion providers have predicted that after the fall of Roe, some 20,000 to 30,000 additional patients would be traveling each year to Illinois, where the right to an abortion has been protected by state law.

“Locally, in the state of Illinois, it’s not different … than when Roe v. Wade was the national paradigm,” he said.

Maske said he and some of his members have on occasion gathered in front of an Elgin abortion clinic to pray, in silent protest.

“It has, unfortunately, not been a regular thing.”

He’s attended March for Life Chicago in the past, where he was gratified to see a predominantly younger crowd “marching to support life.”
“It was great to see the joy of those pro-life marchers,” he said.

This was in contrast to a pro-abortion rights demonstration at the event, a group of protesters whom he described as angry and yelling at the marchers.

Maske also recalled counseling those who suffered from guilt and sorrow following an abortion.

“The pain of abortion is unique,” he said. “You’re taking a human life. And that’s a pain that lingers in a person’s life.”

Yet he added that everyone is sinful and falls short of the glory of God; as a pastor, he’s there to “share the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ that covers every sin.”

“We still have work to do to protect life, to support life and to protect moms and families that are struggling with this decision,” he said. “And to show mercy and forgiveness to those who have struggled with the decision for the last 50 years.”

Associated Press contributed.

Rev. Denise Cawley

MDiv '20

Rev. Denise Cawley serves as Interim Minister at Countryside Church UU in Palatine, IL. She has served congregations in Oregon, Illinois, and Wisconsin and provided spiritual and emotional support chaplaincy at Planned Parenthood. She worked in non-profit management for more than 20 years and has been pivotal player in diversity, inclusion, marriage equality, and voting rights for over two decades. She is also a visual artist and brings drawing, painting and fiber arts into her ministry. She says, “Ministry lets me combine my greatest loves: advocacy, social justice, art, study, and writing into my life’s calling, which is to inspire people to love with vulnerability and passion."