Mary Wagner used to be the girl next door — with a tomboy streak. Growing up in a home full of boys on Vancouver Island, she became a second mother to the younger ones and also learned to fix a car. At times, it looked like motherhood awaited, and at times, it looked like the convent.
Now it seems like Wagner is headed for a life behind bars.
Wagner, 38, has just been convicted of mischief and sentenced to 40 days in jail for entering a Toronto abortion business and counseling the women there to keep their babies. It’s Wagner’s second conviction since 2000 and her second time in jail in two years. This spring she was actually acquitted of the same offense — but not before she spent four months awaiting trial. She could have been released during the interim before her case was heard, but only if she signed an agreement to stay away from abortion clinics.
This she could not do. “How could I promise to not defend my own brothers and sisters who are defenseless?” she told the Register by phone after her acquittal.
Ironically, Wagner says that there is a lot more willingness to talk honestly about abortion inside jail than there is outside.
“I’ve never been in a social setting where it is easier to talk about abortion,” she said. “The women all know that abortion is about killing babies. Some may say, ‘But what if the mother is on drugs?’ or ‘What about rape?’ but they know it’s a baby. I guess they haven’t been exposed to the language conditioning the rest of society has” experienced.
Given their youthfulness and lifestyle, several of her fellow prisoners usually come into jail pregnant.
When contacted last month at the Vanier Center for Women in Milton, Ontario, she spoke with compassion of her fellow inmates, 80% of whom are behind bars for drug- or alcohol-related crimes. “So many come from very different backgrounds than my own life of privilege. My life would have been very different If I had not had this background.”
Alissa Golob, a staffer with Campaign Life Canada who waited on the street outside the abortion facility last December when Wagner entered and was arrested, says her friend gave the women inside gift-wrapped Christmas tree ornaments.
“If they ask, ‘What’s inside?’ she told them to wait and see — just like they should do with their babies.”
After her subsequent arrest, Wagner was bailed out by a supporter, but she was rearrested in the waiting room of another business in August and imprisoned since then. But her 40-day sentence for the December sit-in won’t begin until after her Oct. 5 trial for the August action. Wagner’s hope is that the judge will sentence her to time served in that case.
After three years as a postulant with the Sisters of St. John in the U.S. and France, she maintains her daily devotions, vespers, matins, the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and in the past, these practices have attracted the participation of other inmates.
Her mother, Sarah Wagner, said, “Mary was always about children” and was like “a second mother” to her younger siblings. Working her way through college as a waitress, she quit when her bosses wouldn’t back her decision to refuse liquor to a pregnant woman. “She’s no fanatic,” said the elder Wagner. “But she’s always been morally serious.”
While going through a discernment period with the cloistered Sisters of St. John in France, after her first jail term in 2000, she was assigned to be the community’s driver. When she took members to the doctor, she couldn’t resist counseling pregnant women in the waiting room to have their babies. At least for now, she discerned that this was God’s calling for her.
‘She’s a Blessing’
“She’s an inspiration,” says Golob. “She could be doing anything.”
But Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said Wagner has an extensive police record and several convictions. “Despite numerous warnings from judges to stop breaking the law, she continues to do so,” Arthur said.
“Judges have little choice but to send people to jail when they do that. Wagner is apparently willing to pay the price, and so she should. Wagner needs to take responsibility for her actions and the harms she inflicts on women.”
What harm is that? Arthur cites at least eight studies that say pro-life picketers
“increase the risk of medical and psychological complications for women about to undergo an abortion.” That’s why Canadian judges and legislators have established bubble zones around businesses, she said.
But Campaign Life spokesperson Leeda Crawford countered, “The distress that patrons of abortion clinics feel is the distress they are supposed to feel when they find out the truth of what they are doing. It’s guilt. Mary’s goal in those clinics is to tell them the truth the staff won’t tell them: that the baby is a person and that having the abortion could harm them too.”
Crawford said she has had abortions herself, and the guilt later pushed her into alcoholism.
In the Vanier Center awaiting trial, Wagner was in the same unit as Linda Gibbons, a great-grandmother who also defies Canadian law to counsel women heading into Toronto abortion businesses. In Gibbons’ case, she has repeatedly defied a 23-year-old injunction that set up “bubble zones” for 150 meters (almost 500 feet) around some of the city’s abortion facilities, in which no explicit pro-life activities may occur.
Wagner said it was “a joy” to be with Gibbons, while Gibbons described Wagner as “a little mother Mary. She’s an evangelical Catholic, whereas I’m an evangelical Protestant. She’s a blessing.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.