Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis and The Anti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
For those who have seen “Unplanned,” Marilisa Carney (played by Emma Elle Roberts) is portrayed as the gentle, persistent and loving soul who befriends Abby Johnson, despite the enormous fence and the even bigger ideology wall separating them. Few people know, however, the deeper story behind the real Marilisa Carney.
GRESS: You are a stay at home mother of seven children and wife of Shawn Carney, the president/CEO of 40 Days for Life. How did you got involved in the pro-life movement and what was your role in helping to get 40 Days for Life off the ground?
CARNEY: Curiously, my introduction to pro-life work paralleled the way Abby Johnson got involved with Planned Parenthood. It was spring semester 2001, and I was a sophomore at Texas A&M. My church hosted an event featuring different ways to get involved in the parish. I’d never heard of sidewalk counseling, but it really struck a chord with me. I went to the training and then started as a volunteer, first with another volunteer to coach me and then finally on my own. I was at the clinic weekly, but especially on Saturdays when the abortions were performed.
Shawn and I began dating that same year and he started to join me at the clinic. The way he tells it, he was instantly hooked. He had always been pro-life, but growing up in a small town, he had never really seen the reality of abortion. But at the clinic, where you watched the women come out, some vomiting in the parking lot, others covering themselves up — hiding in their hoodies out of pain and shame — there was nothing glamorous about this. One of the things we always did was wait until the last woman who had gone in for an abortion left the lot. We didn’t want them to leave without hope and feeling as though no one cared. During that time, there was not one woman who expressed any joy for having “expressed her right.” It was always incredibly sad to watch them leave. All of this made a deep impression upon Shawn. So from 2001-2004, both of us were primarily volunteers.
Then in 2004, both Shawn and I were working at the Coalition for Life. One afternoon, Shawn, David Bereit, another staff member, and I were lamenting that the abortion numbers kept going up. We prayed together and it struck us that 40 days was an important place to start. Anyone can do something for 40 days, and we knew the biblical connection to it, as we see in Lent and the power of prayer and fasting. We wanted to see big changes and 40 day vigils seemed to be the model to follow.
There were different components to our original model, but we wanted to make sure that there were 40 days of prayer and every hour during that time was completely covered, including overnight. I was the prayer coordinator for the first 40 Days for Life and made sure all those hours were covered.
In the film, it looks like you were always at that fence. Was that the case?
The first 40 Days for Life, I took on eight hours a day every day for the entire 40 days. I made a dramatic personal commitment because I knew it was important that I witness to my conviction about our efforts if I was going to ask other people to join us. It was not easy. I was there from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Saturdays were the abortion days, and Shawn and I were there together alone for most Sundays — which was challenging because those were the days the clinic was closed. But that was our commitment, to be out there for 40 days, nonstop.
And what about the over-the-top protestors that are seen in the film? Were they there too?
Yes, in the early days there was a man that dressed up like the grim reaper, and women would hold up graphic signs. Others would yell, “You’re a sinner! You’re going to hell!”
It took time to whittle this behavior down, and we did our best to help them to see that what they were doing wasn’t the most beneficial way to help these women or their babies. But also, as our numbers grew, their numbers dwindled.
In the film, when you were doing sidewalk counseling, you didn’t seem to approach women with the difficult issue at hand – their abortion – but started somewhere else, like by commenting about their shirt or making small talk. Is that what you did in real life?
Yes. My basic approach was to find common ground, find something I could be sincere about. Almost every woman likes to talk about herself, so that was where I would start. And also, I love handbags and shoes. My impulse reaction if someone asked me about my purse would be to engage with them, no matter who they were. But I would also try to approach women in a peaceful, loving and kind way. Despite the drastic circumstances, I always wanted to start with common ground, because we were both women, in a similar age category, divided only by a fence and this issue of a baby – so these things would break the ice and often lead to deeper conversations. But the compliment had to be sincere, because women can tell when it isn’t. Hair was another big one, because I’ve always loved hair.
“Unplanned” shows the subtle way in which you got to know Abby Johnson and reached out to her, despite the stark line that divided you. Tell us about that.
The first time Abby went in to volunteer, she actually had to walk past us. When she arrived, I thought she was coming to pray on our side, because she did not at all look like women generally did on the other side — she was smiling and happy. I was shocked when she put on the Planned Parenthood volunteer vest. There was truly something different about her, and I had this sense that we would be friends. So when she had to walk back to her car, I walked along the side of her, and said, “There is something different about you. What caused you to come here? You seem so happy?”
It was then that she stopped and sharply told me that she had had two abortions. My visceral reaction, after having spent so many hours watching women leave after abortions was, “I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.” Over time, we got to know each other and had friendly exchanges, but because I was at the clinic so frequently, we were really just in each other’s lives and got to know each other through those daily encounters. It was ironic — as you see in the movie — that I was expecting my second child and she was expecting Grace both due at roughly the same time. It was another one of those parallels in our lives.
Was it difficult for you to step away from the active work you did with 40 Days for Life and move into being a fulltime mother?
At first it was really difficult because I was out there so much and Shawn and I were doing everything together full time. But I knew my life at home with the children was an extension of the work Shawn and I started so many years ago.
At other times, I’ve felt guilty that perhaps I’m not doing enough, but then quickly realize that I still have the same vocation, but the way it looked had changed. My life as a mother is truly an extension of that original work. This is pro-life. Raising kids in a loving home and cultivating a pro-life culture in our homes.
I think motherhood affords a unique window of opportunity for women. Men cannot grow humans, but we can. We have the chance to send them out into the world and impact it. This is the very thing that is under attack — our womanhood, our ability to have children and our capacity to cherish them and raise them well.
On the political level, pro-lifers are working so hard to make abortion illegal, but we also have to change things on a cultural level so that abortion once again becomes unthinkable. That starts at home. Maybe some time I can be back out there again, but in the meantime this where I am meant to be.