With his characteristic directness and warmth, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago announced recently that he would be joining in a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic.

“I encourage those who wish to pray in a peaceful way to join me,” the archbishop was quoted saying in the June 26 Chicago Sun Times. “Please do not bring signs or pickets — bring only your desire to give peaceful witness to our love and deep respect for mothers and their children.”

Who could object to such a peaceful vigil for mothers and their children? The National Organization for Women, for openers.

Michelle Devine, president of the group's Chicago chapter, was quoted saying, “It's the wrong place at the wrong time. Their position on [abortion] is offensive, but it would be less offensive in front of their own church.”

Rabbi Gary S. Gerson, of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Illinois, joined in: “A clinic is absolutely not an appropriate setting for a march or prayer vigil. While I honor his right to free speech, I find that setting confrontational.”

Does a prayer vigil outside a clinic really constitute a “wrong place” and a “wrong time” to express views on abortion, as Devine argues? Or is free speech “appropriate” everywhere in America … except outside abortion clinics, as Rabbi Gerson suggests?

Frances Kissling, who calls her organization “Catholics for a Free Choice” even though it has no standing within the Church, may have inadvertently touched on the real reason for the opposition.

“No matter how peaceful,” she was quoted saying, “the cardinal seems to be unaware this [vigil] will cause great pain to the women … and will subject them to intrusion.”

So there it is: It is wrong to pray outside of an abortion clinic because it causes women great pain. In fact, the very presence of the vigil is a difficult “intrusion” on them.

Kissling has a point. People praying outside an emergency room at a hospital would not cause “great pain” or be an “intrusion” on patients rushing in; in fact, they would probably be welcomed. But people praying outside an abortion clinic will cause emotional pain to the aborting mothers, because abortion is the killing of a human being, and the vigil will remind them of that.

Even so, when Cardinal George claims the vigil will be kept because of love and respect for those mothers, he is not being ironic. After all, the pain of abortion is known to haunt mothers for the rest of their lives. By its silent and peaceful witness to God's love for his infants, a vigil reminds all involved in the abortion industry of what they are doing —and it can save lives and prevent that greater pain.

Those who oppose vigils like the cardinal's have already seen their objections codified by law. Participants must keep a distance from abortion clinics, under federal rules.

But abortion supporters should be careful when they curtail the free speech of their opponents. In their zeal to silence these painful voices of conscience, they are setting federal precedents against the very idea of freedom itself.

Three Cheers for the House

The U.S. House on June 30 passed the Child Custody Protection Act, a bill which would make it illegal for anyone to transport a minor to another state to obtain an abortion without permission of her parents. The bill, if it becomes law, would be an important federal safeguard to the pro-life initiatives of the 25 states that have passed similar “parental notification” laws.

The news from the House is encouraging for several reasons. First, it shows that a pro-life issue is still very much alive, despite the Republicans' smaller majority after last fall's election losses. The bill passed easily by a 270-159 vote, less that last year's 276-150 vote, but still an encouraging tally.Second, the bill shows a willingness to support the rights of states to govern themselves — a particularly important concept in the case of abortion. By federalizing the abortion question, the U.S. Supreme Court had effectively limited the ability of pro-lifers to make a political impact at the state level. The House vote shows the federal government may be leaning once again toward protecting the sovereignty of states.

Third, the House has rejected the extreme views of abortion proponents, particularly those in high places. The National Right to Life Committee has reported that the Clinton-Gore administration, behind the scenes, has threatened to veto the bill, demanding the measure give rights to other relatives of the girl — uncles, in-laws, brothers or sisters, etc. — to take them over state lines for abortions without parental permission.

This ignores the role that parents have in their children's lives, not to mention the traumatic burdens that they would have to help their daughters bear in the wake of an abortion.

The bill now goes to the Senate. You can give your senators your opinion on the matter by asking for their offices at (202) 224-3121.