ROCKFORD, Ill. — Some refer to the old Turner School as a “house of horrors.” It’s a fortress-like Victorian structure in the heart of town.
The school was closed in 1978 and sold to a man who has a mask of Satan leering from within one of the windows. He transformed the school into an abortion facility, the Northern Illinois Women’s Center (NIWC).
For the first year since 1988, however, no more pregnant women will enter the purple-painted door of the former “girl’s entrance” and then exit without their unwanted children.
The Northern Illinois Women’s Center, the only abortion business within 70 miles, announced Jan. 13 that it would not re-open after a three-month license suspension for committing an array of Illinois health-facility violations, including unsanitary conditions, blood-stained surgical instruments, failure to employ a registered nurse and failure to perform pre-surgery physicals or maintain proper records.
Nor did the owner, Dennis Christensen, or his colleague, Stewart Kernes — Wisconsin-certified physicians who live in that state — have the admitting privileges at a hospital required of doctors operating private practices.
“The staff is very saddened by the closing,” noted the NIWC announcement, emailed to The Rockford Register Star. “We are not done grieving this loss and still are struggling with surrendering to the idea that we will not be able to do this work tomorrow or the day after.”
But pro-life activists are overjoyed at a victory they attribute to prayer, patience and political action, having finally pressured the state to perform last June the abortion business’ first health inspection in 11 years. (In 1989 NIWC’s founder, Dr. Richard Ragsdale — once arrested on child-pornography charges for photos he and his wife took of their 3-year-old foster child dressed in a black thong with exposed genitalia — won a court settlement in which the state of Illinois agreed to create a new class of lightly regulated abortion “clinics” that are not held to normal surgical-center standards, including regular inspections. Ragsdale died in 2004.)
“Why it took so long boggles the mind,” said Rockford resident Patricia Bainbridge, chairwoman of the board of Human Life International and former director of the Diocese of Rockford’s Respect Life Office. “Why the state seems to protect these abortion mills and the media give them a pass is shocking. But I’m so thankful for all the people who were at that place, day after day, for years, praying and offering practical help for those women.”
The conditions under which those people bore witness, offering help such as counseling and a mobile ultrasound unit, included enduring the antics of the building’s owner, Wayne Webster. Besides residing in the building in which his son once went to school, he also served as the security guard and media spokesman.
Webster taunted protesters while wearing a devil costume, blared rock music over loudspeakers on days when the facility was open for business, spewed obscenities and created window displays featuring a blasphemous “shrine” (a rubber chicken on a crucifix, for example) and marker-drawn posters that over the years bore epithets such as Free coat hangers to picketer’s wives and mothers. To celebrate the facility’s 50,000th abortion, the sign read: “NIWC 50,000 JC 50,” claiming Jesus had saved only 50 babies (a number pro-lifers dispute).
“But whenever the news crews would show up, the windows would be cleared, and whenever he served as clinic spokesman, the [Gannett-owned] Register Star took him seriously,” said Frank Munda, a founder of Stephenson County Right to Life and editor of ProLifeCorner.com. (“We regret the loss of another abortion provider,” stated the paper’s in-house editorial after the business closed.)
The Power of Prayer
But slowly the tide turned against NIWC. According to a statement by the Thomas More Center, which offered pro-lifers legal assistance in their dealings with the state, last June’s inspection was finally performed after “repeated requests for public records and medically informed objections [that] were communicated to the Illinois Department of Public Health by a courageous pro-life registered nurse [who wishes to remain anonymous].”
The situation on the scene had radically improved by that time, however, said Kevin Rilott. A member of the Rockford Pro-Life Initiative, the Catholic grade-school teacher and father of two adult sons regularly kept a sidewalk vigil for the past 15 years. He attributes the closing to prayer in general — “Prayer is the foundation of our work.” But it was prayer of a special kind that “turned the tide,” he said.
In 2009, Rockford Bishop Thomas Doran gave priests permission to stand outside the facility and recite the prayer of infestation, a form of exorcism not directed toward any individual, but to dismantle the evil that might exist within a place.
“Within two to three weeks of priests saying these prayers, the number of abortions began to drop,” Rilott said. “Over a few months, the number of abortions was cut in half and the numbers of women seeking our help probably doubled. The clinic, which had been performing 25-75 abortions a week for years, also reduced its days of business from three to two.”
Father Kevin Butler, a parochial vicar in the diocese, recited that prayer of infestation. Sometimes he was joined by three other priests, each at one corner of the building, “so that prayer would come at that place from every direction.”
“The killing of a baby in the womb is evil, and the devil has to do with it; so we have to fight the spiritual battle against abortion, too,” he said. “The first time we did it, it was amazing. Wayne Webster yelled such obscenities.” On another occasion, he spoke with Webster, “an evil man, always toying with us, doing things to get a reaction: very competitive and very vulgar.” Up in a window went a new poster: “(Expletive deleted) your perverted priests.”
Before then, Father Butler said he had been “losing faith” in the Rockford police department and local government, because “it seemed like they were protecting the abortion mill and giving pro-lifers a hard time.”
“But it was like a veil lifting,” he said. “I’m humbled to think about the power of God at work in this whole situation, and I believe reciting those prayers played a special part.”
And so, two years after Bishop Doran’s action, NIWC closed after almost 40 years in operation. Why did it close rather than remain open upon condition of paying a $9,750 fine?
According to the Register Star’s summary of the NIWC closing statement, of which they appear to be the only recipient, “Clinic officials state their decision is based on lack of support from the community, the political climate surrounding the abortion issue and the challenge the clinic would face in rebuilding staff.”
Several people interviewed for this article suggested another explanation: that NIWC unexpectedly backed down after waging a costly legal battle to re-open because they realized they faced to personally lose what makes the industry run, money.
Scott Richert, executive editor of the Rockford-based Chronicles Magazine, has long followed and written about NIWC. “The moment at which I thought it might be over,” he said, was when Webster’s rhetoric shifted after the facility’s license was suspended last Sept. 30: At first defiant, then standoffish, he claimed he was unaware of the conditions in the business that he served in the building that he owned and in which he lived.
“I think Wayne Webster suddenly realized that the state shutting down the clinic [for all those violations] presents prima facie grounds for lawsuits,” he said, noting that even if he is not the owner, as landlord he could be held liable. “If the clinic had re-opened, local pro-lifers would have been encouraged to find [a woman who had an abortion there] to file one. That’s less likely now.”
Others noted that it is unlikely any local hospital would now give admitting privileges to the two abortionists who weekly commuted from Wisconsin to profit in Illinois and “covered their faces when they left their cars to enter the clinic,” remembered Father Butler. They did not acquire those privileges before the state investigation.
Though the only abortion facility in the area has been closed — the nearest are in Madison, Wis., and the Chicago area, each 70 miles in different directions — local pro-lifers remain vigilant.
“I think Rockford is a pretty pro-life community, and we’ll keep our ears and eyes open to stop another abortionist from setting up,” said Patricia Bainbridge of Human Life International. “We’ll be especially vigilant that they don’t come under an assumed name to deceive anyone like Planned Parenthood did in Aurora [Ill.].”
Others are working to keep abortion not only out of Rockford, but out of mind as an acceptable alternative to bringing a pregnancy to term.
Lisa Youngblood, director of the Rockford Area Pregnancy Care Center, said they helped many women whom people like Kevin Rilott counseled from going through the “girl’s entrance.” And she is encouraged by pro-life trends.
“We’ve seen quite an increase in women coming to us for help,” she said. “And we’re doing a big push right now to expand hours and get more volunteers, especially medical professionals to provide ultrasound time.”
Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago and once lived in Rockford.