Three Missouri Faces for Life

Three Missouri Faces for Life

Legalized abortion has been with us for well over two generations. While Roe v Wade did not become the law of the land until 1973, a number of states, led by New York had already legalized it.

On the other side of the aisle, to combat this abject evil, pro-life organizations sprung up in several sections of the country. One of the first life-affirming states was Missouri, whose citizens had recognized the coming wave, even before Roe, that was to inundate virtually all America. This was especially true in the state’s Eastern corridor from Jefferson City to St. Louis.

With great material and spiritual help from the churches, especially the Catholic Church, lay men and women, and a significant number of clergy made serious inroads in what has become a never-ending war on the family. Such strong women as Phyllis Schlafly and Loretta Wagner were, though certainly not the only ones, prominent leaders in this fight. Regrettably both of these elderly women passed away last year.

Out of the shadows or dare I say the penumbrae of Roe v Wade, emerged three special people who God chose to lead the Missouri fight against this deadly killer. Each one is a native son or daughter of Missouri. Despite the apocalyptic nature of the battle, the three did not charge down a steep slope, brandings huge swords and riding big white steeds with fire emerging from their inflamed nostrils.

For their weapons of change, they carried sociological charts, placards and prayer books. Each one found his or her way to the battlefront in a special moment that can only be identified as a moment of grace. Their special moments were not as dramatic as Saul being knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus or that of 16-year old of Jorge Bergoglio in a confessional in the small Basilica San Jose de Flores. For one it was in a college classroom, the other while washing infant son with her radio on and the third, kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament while on retreat. To me these three special friends represent all the thousands of others who labor in God’s special nursery for life. They are the faces for life in Missouri, my adoptive state.

Carl Landwehr

The Vitae Foundation has become a prominent player in the pro-life struggle to change hearts and minds throughout the state and even into several foreign venues. A few months after Roe v Wade, Carl Landwehr joined Missouri’s Catholic Conference in the public policy division, which enabled him to work with several coalitions including Missouri Citizens for Life. In 1978, he and several other Missourians, including future Governor John Ashcroft’s wife, Janet, founded the Vitae Society Foundation with the intent of saving lives any way they could.

Landwehr’s epiphanous moment had already taken place on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. Just an undergrad in 1969, abortion had already become a major topic on campus. Landwehr had to stifle a smile when he confessed that it was, surprisingly in a Recreation class that a professor began to argue in favor of abortion. Landwehr found himself becoming increasingly upset until he finally shouted, What if your mother had thought about aborting you? In what can only be construed as an answer suckled in nihilistic milk, the professor shamelessly retorted: then I would be one less consumer. The irony in Vitae’s conception is too delicious to ignore.

While Vitae came into existence in 1974, only a few years after Landwehr’s epiphany, it took 18 years for it to find its perfect niche within the pro-life movement. Landwehr slowly realized that media education was the perfect place where Vitae could carve a uniquely viable position for itself.

They started with the basic fundamentals. They stood in front of abortion clinics, handed out literature, talked to women and prayed. Their first TV ad appeared in October of 1992 in Kansas City, Missouri. It is the moment that their media strategy took its first breath. The ad was the result of a five-year gestation period. I remember that ad well. A woman in her thirties says that she used to be pro-choice until she had a baby. Then she realized that her child was no different than her. She just wanted to make it in this world. Then came the hook-line. Think about it!

It was unsophisticated but simple and direct and the actress was very convincing. A number of similar ads followed, all encouraging women and their boyfriends or husbands to think about what they were doing. Vitae also produced pro-life billboards using left-brain messages that focused on the logic of why abortion was wrong. In fact the vast amount of its early activities have appealed to reason and logic.

However, Landwehr had doubts that this was the most effective way to effect change. In addition to the Ashcrofts, Landwehr and his wife also had several friends who were business leaders. He asked all of them: If life were your product, how would you sell it? The answer he received was that we had to use mass media, deliver the message and do research on our clients.

The voice for a more effective way appeared in Landwehr’s meeting Peter Herschend in 1993. Herschend was a highly successful businessman who founded the Dollywood theme park with singer Dolly Parton. He did not like Landwehr’s ads at all. He said we had to take the message to the right side of the brain. That’s where the consumer makes decisions.

Two years later Herschend funded specific research for Vitae on the psychological dynamics that influenced a woman’s abortion choice. Vitae also experience an epiphany. Vitae’s new research arm discovered that modern American women of childbearing age do not view the abortion issue within the same moral framework as pro-life activists.

Over the course of the last 25 years their success has rested on their willingness to spend a significant amount of money in research and development to produce much more effective ads. In business parlance this is what is called an investment in product development. A high proportion of their research dollars went in into emotional brand research because abortion is a big business that relies on consumer decisions. And the right side, or the emotive side of the brain makes most, if not all, of these decisions.

Landwehr’s consumer oriented approach is a complete departure from the traditional moral and religious arguments. That by itself is a sad commentary on just how deeply American culture has descended into the abyss of death, that the left has excavated.

They also discovered that women with unexpected pregnancies were filled with fear and a loss of self-identity. Women saw the acceptance of motherhood by carrying the baby to term as a symbolic death of all their dreams and aspirations. Adoption, unfortunately, is seen as the most menacing of the three options because it is perceived as a kind of double death. Unplanned motherhood was actually perceived as a death of self. In a country with serious mental health issues, nihilism, drugs and alcohol, this is a miscalculation that has seriously handicapped the cause. At first glance, most pro-life advocates will not agree with the conclusions, based on Vitae’s data, but the gravity of the mission demands that all others groups listen to Landwehr’s scientific approach.

Note that the primary concerns in any of the three options revolve around the woman, and not the unborn child. This helps to explain the appeal of the rhetoric of choice. It offers the sense that women in crisis still have some control over their future, and it allows those who may dislike abortion themselves to still seem compassionate towards other women in crisis.

But this is the stark reality of America in the 21st century. Vitae recognizes the harsh facts that in this country after 50 years of secularizing the culture, millions of American women have babies, based on economics and material values. The solid truth is that 58 million dead unborn babies will do a lot to harden a populace.

So Vitae got to work at making smarter ads. The billboards ads Vitae uses now are much more sophisticated and tailor-made for their clients. They convey the sense that women could regain control of their lives and identity. They also wisely advertise free abortion alternatives. The message is not obviously pro-life, but it conveys hope that women can regain control.

In a society that is extremely materialistic, one cannot effectively appeal to religion, the Bible, or spiritual and intellectual logic. Pro-life activists must meet people where they reside and feel most comfortable and that is shopping. While this may sound crass and even sexist, that is where this country has devolved since the turn of the 19th century and the advent of Marxist-derived Progressivism. It is the very depths of consumerism.

One salient influence on both Vitae and Carl Landwehr was his encounter with the late Governor Robert Casey, literally one of the last dying voices for life in the Democratic Party. It occurred at a Vitae function many years ago. Landwehr felt that Governor Casey had spoken directly to him when he gave this salient advice. They call this the information age…if this battle is going to be won, it will be won on the field of communications. Landwehr realized what the governor had not said—legislation, education, and political action.

Unfortunately Planned Parenthood is a well-known brand name, which promises to assist typically young unmarried women and their boyfriends end an unwanted pregnancy so they can freely continue with their dangerous and irresponsible lifestyle. This is regrettably an easy product to sell, especially into today’s near godless culture with a perfectly compliant mainstream media that has run interference for Planned Parenthood since the early 1960s.

The Vitae Foundation exists to first reduce abortions and by doing so change the culture. To answer the left’s blatant propaganda, Landwehr wisely aligned itself with the Pregnancy Resource Centers all over America. As their media campaigns started to show the fruits of their labors, a sanctuary was needed where women in these crisis pregnancies could go to find people with the resources where they could not just bring their babies to term, but restore their troubled lives to a semblance of order and stability.

Landwehr rejects any cynical opinion that holds that given man’s deep flawed nature, his vision of a world free of abortion is utopian. To the contrary, Landwehr believes that the culture has nearly eliminated smoking because of a big change in mass media education. Perhaps this analogy is just a hyperbolic result of Landwehr’s undying enthusiasm where saving lives is paramount.

With Vitae and other groups he is optimistic that we can create a culture where abortion is unthinkable. Abortion was prevalent in America around the time of the Civil War. With the dedicated aid of the early feminists, virtually all of whom regarded abortion as male oppression, by 1910 the country had reduced the abortion rate to its historical lowest level.

Vitae’s growth has been phenomenal to the extent that its influence has encompassed the United States and selected foreign countries, using traditional venues like radio and TV as well as the Internet and social media platforms. We realized that we had to trust this woman as a consumer…to tell her what she needs to hear, understanding her emotions, how she looks at this issue. Prior to this, the pro-life movement had done billboards with beautiful pictures of babies or fetal development — telling women what they thought she needed to know.

The success of Vitae’s ads speaks volumes. In 2008, Vitae began a New York City subway ad campaign, which saved more than 1,300 babies in 2009. Vitae’s ad in a Spanish-language newspaper doubled the number of abortion-minded women who came into the Los Angeles Pregnancy Center. And Vitae’s 2009 Atlanta billboard campaign generated 2,000 calls to local pregnancy centers.

Carl Landwehr, who holds a Masters in Social Science/Sociology, is president emeritus now. Though in his early seventies he still works over 40 hours a week in several advisory and even a few active roles. Landwehr is personally a quiet almost reticent man. When I first encountered him in the mid-nineties, he was enthusiastic about his cause, but not the most dynamic speaker at a podium. But as with Father Joe Naumann, just the repetition of doing something he loved, the change in his public persona has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Pam Fichter

Pam Fichter currently serves as the Chairman of the Eastern Region of Missouri Right to Life. MRL is the state’s oldest and largest grassroots pro-life organization. It was organized in 1974 in response to the legalization of abortion in the U.S.

Fichter’s epiphanous moment happened when she was bathing her first child the day after Roe was announced. Danny was 8 months old, so my first pregnancy was fresh on my mind. I knew how surprised I was at how much he moved around in the womb, visibly kicking and rolling over. She was listening to the news on KMOX radio at the top of the hour announcing the Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion. Her first reaction was to call her pastor at Queen of Peace Catholic church in Belleville, Illinois, where she and her family were living at the time. She asked Msgr. Driscoll about the decision and what could be done about it. He assured her not to worry because as soon as everyone found out what an abortion was, they would reverse the decision.  

Monsignor could not have been more painfully wrong. Fichter immediately began as an outspoken opponent of abortion, but with her family responsibilities increasing, the only thing she could do at the time was to write an occasional passionate letter to the local newspaper. When her family moved back to Missouri, she joined the Archdiocesan Pro-Life Committee and became the chairman of her pro-life committee. Later she chaired the annual APLC Convention and was one of the first teachers of The Right START program, which teaches about chastity and abortion to 8th graders throughout the Archdiocese.

After several years, she received a call from an MRL board member, who asked her to join their Eastern Region board. Her extraordinary leadership skills stood out and she was asked to become a representative to the state board. Years later, Fichter, then in her mid fifties, accepted the position to be the president of the Missouri Right to Life. At the state level, she became deeply involved with the legislative process, as well as funding and administering the statewide organization.

After 11 years, she retired as state president and from the state board. After a year off from MRL, she accepted the position as Chairman of the Eastern Region, where her goal is to rebuild the regional board, increase MRL’s community and educational activities, and raise money for the region and the state organization.

MRL prides itself on being non-partisan but given the Democratic Party’s exclusive marriage to abortion, there rarely was any substantive alternate choice. MRL promotes the sanctity of human life in many of the same fields as Karen Nolkemper’s Archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate. This is probably necessary because of its non-denominational status. Like its counterpart in the Archdiocese, MRL works for education, stands as witness to abortion and lobbies lawmakers in the state to protect human life in all stages.

Of the major pro-life organizations in Missouri, Fichter’s has the wider mission because of its high profile within the legislative process and its Political Action Committee, which allows them to endorse political candidates. MRL also has a grassroots network of chapters throughout the state that help in their mission to influence legislation and political elections.

Of its three entities, its parent organization, Missouri Right to Life is a C-4 and as such is not eligible for tax-deductible donations. Its involvement in legislation is the determining factor in this. Missouri Right to Life Education Fund is a C-3 and eligible for tax-deductible donations. About 30% of its operation are through the MRL Education Fund. There is also the Missouri Right to Life Political Action Committee, which can endorse candidates. Donations to the PAC are not tax-deductible. Both Vitae and the ARLA are legally prohibited from endorsing political candidates.

Many good people have become convinced of the injustice of the law’s failure to protect the unborn and the elderly but they also see many other injustices in our country. They ask why organizations such as Missouri Right to Life focus only on abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, rather than addressing a broader spectrum of issues relating to human life, such as the death penalty, welfare reform, and certain aspects of foreign policy where they believe a strong pro-life voice is needed.

MRL defends their limited focus by arguing that the core issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia impact what happens with all other life issues around the world. Consequently that is where their emphasis and resources must be allocated.

Abortion law in the United States is largely the creation of the federal courts legislating their ideas of correct behavior–that is, to restrain society from interfering with the killing of the unborn–under the guise of interpreting the Constitution. The direct responsibility for changing the status quo falls by necessity to Missouri’s elected officials in state and national government.

Too often, on issues such as abortion, legislators prefer to hide behind court decisions. This is a cowardly abdication of their legislative duty. The existing model for shirking one’s legislative duties is the late Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. In 1986 during his commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, he provided the argument that has provided the perfect dodge for pro-abortion politicians, especially Catholics, who profess to be privately opposed but duty bound to uphold Roe v. Wade, thus separating their alleged private convictions from their public actions.

That’s where MRL’s PAC comes in. Its function is to educate the voters and urge them to support legislation and representatives who will support the life ethic in their respective government offices and not ones who blatantly shirk their responsibilities. MRL’s PAC can also elect executives who are willing to select judges who recognize a more limited role for the courts.

Fichter is proud of MRL’s role in passing pro-life legislation. She believes that MRL has been instrumental in every piece of pro-life legislation passed in Missouri. Like Landwehr and Vitae, MRL measures its success by the declining numbers of abortions in Missouri and the disappearance of many abortion clinics.

The momentum seems to be on their side. A majority of Americans are opposed to most abortions now. This has been a gradual evolution that really accelerated during the debate on partial-birth abortion several years ago. The pro-life movement has strengthened through the years with the help of science and ultrasounds, and the creation of thousands of crisis pregnancy centers. But Planned Parenthood is relentless and will fight tooth and nail to maintain their established position in American culture. Only a similar fight from the pro-life opposition will be able to defeat them.

Karen Nolkemper

One of the leading pro-life organizations in Missouri has been the St. Louis Archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate that first opened its doors in March of 1973 (then the Archdiocesan Pro-Life Committee) fewer than two months after Roe.  There have been just seven men and women who have led this vital organization to date. Its first Director was Bishop Edward O’Donnell who served until 1978.

His second successor was Father Joseph Naumann, or Father Joe as we called him. Exceptionally tall, Father Joe, at first seemed reticent and almost shy. But over the years it was amazing for me to witness him develop into a confident leader, with a glib wit and a very dry sense of humor that has served him well over the years. Still passionately pro-life, he is currently serving as the Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas.

Since his first promotion to Bishop in 1995, four women have sat where Father Joe once did. The current occupant of Father Joe’s Seat is Karen Nolkemper, a vivacious and upbeat woman in her early 50s who has been steadfast at the helm since April of 2012. Fresh out of graduate school, Nolkemper served in a number of different positions during her business career in organizational development, human resources and employee assistance counseling at the Federal Reserve Bank, St. Louis University, and Magellan Behavioral Health.

Notwithstanding her business credentials, it is not surprising to anyone who has encountered her personally that she had a higher calling with respect to human life. She was hired at St. Joseph’s in Manchester, as their first Youth Minister. Nolkemper founded youth ministry programs for both high school and middle school students. In her spare time, she made chastity education presentations to teenagers, facilitated St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (Gift Series) programs for teenagers, counseled women in crisis pregnancies, as well as post-abortive women and even men.

Wherever she is, Nolkemper exudes an authentic optimism. Her enthusiasm emanates from her confidence and faith in a loving God who believes Patience obtains all things. Her dedicated staff feels that she is a friend to all. This is an enviable trait in any executive.

Nolkemper’s epiphany came in 1996 while on retreat in Georgia. She begged for discernment as to where she could do the most good for the Church. Like a clear voice disrupting the silence, one word sharply pieced her heart as she prayed…ABORTION. Nolkemper heard the clarion call to save babies and help women in crisis. In 2012 she described these feeling in different terms. I can’t completely explain it, but I have a strong passion for educating others and speaking the truth regarding the immense value of every human life.

During the early months of 2017, Karen Nolkemper was tireless in her support of the Archdiocese’s attempt to prevent the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from establishing amnesty zones for abortion rights within the city limits. Since Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, legal language regarding abortion has become (purposely) vague and political. The law that was eventually passed in St. Louis reflects this ambiguity. The worst-case scenario is that if the courts sustain these laws, pro-life organizations could be forced from their ministries in urban areas. If it survives in St. Louis, the table is set for it to spread to additional cities across the country.

The Future

As the amnesty battle demonstrates, unless the fundamental right to life on all human levels is protected from harm, no other rights are secure. Without life, there are no other rights to enjoy. But there has to be a master plan if this is to be successful. Like Landwehr, Nolkemper is a visionary with a viable plan that she thinks will work. Over breakfast one March morning she shared the raw outlines of her plan with me.

Since most pro-life efforts in Missouri are independent of one another, Nolkemper believes a broad collaborative effort needs to be established to make the pro-life side one of solidarity. Sports analogies, especially football, go a long way when envisioning her plans for victory. No matter what the athletic endeavor, coaches, players and fans need to get in the game in order to achieve victory.

Nolkemper showed me a graphic that can best be described as a master game plan. Her strategy for ending abortion more than echoes Landwehr’s contention that this battle, not only can be won but must be won. But that can happen only if everyone gets off the bench and into the game. Each yard, first down and pass completion can be seen as a step that offers viable assistance to pregnant women. Team players actively provide assistance, geared to help women choose life for themselves and their unborn babies.

Extending this metaphor further, under the plan’s free substitution rule, players need to be added or replaced at any time when and where their God-given talents will do the most good in defending life.

One may think of sidewalk counseling as the opening play in this game. Media assistance like Vitae, public policy and legislative action promoted by MRL advance the ball. Pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes offer first and goal opportunities until someday the ultimate goal line is crossed…saving lives and healing wounded hearts.

Of course to be successful, any game plan must have effective coaches. In their respective spheres Landwehr, Fichter and Nolkemper, under the guiding leadership of Archbishop Robert Carlson, have already proven that they are worthy of a new challenge. To assure victory, all the coaches and players must take a knee and pray for the inspiration necessary to defeat those threatening human life. For those who cannot physically get in the game, they can still prayfully cheer their pro-life team to victory. The stakes are high in this perpetual contest between good and evil. While the rewards of victory will be great, the loss of life since 1973 has been staggering and with severe social consequences.

The grim statistics say that 25% of women have had an abortion by age 40. There is only one degree of separation within American communities: everyone knows someone who has been wounded by abortion. Many are family members or friends. The 58 million abortive dead are enough to fill to capacity 830 football stadia.

And how long will this veritable game for life last? Granted, there will be no two-minute warnings in this game! Again Nolkemper put it best when she said to her RLA parish co-coordinators, those who are pro-life…are in it for life!

Thanks to these three dedicated leaders, Missourians will be in uniform for life. After a march and prayer demonstration to one of Planned Parenthood clinics on a nippy February Saturday morning, I overheard one of Nolkemper’s staff say, we are going to be in this battle for a long time. But in the final rendering of things, all Missouri Lifers know one thing for certain. As Cardinal Justin Rigali liked to remind us, Life will be Victorious!

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Written by
William Borst
1 comment
  • Enjoyed your blog, but must remind you that Birthright was here seeing to the needs of the pregnant woman two years before Roe v. Wade, lending credibility to the entire pro-life movement!

    Tsk, tsk, Bill!