One of my most important and treasured allies in pro-life work was Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, now known all over the world as EWTN.
In early 1994, just six months after Father Frank Pavone took the reins of a fledgling organization called Priests for Life, Mother interviewed him for the show she broadcast live for the network. The next day, she invited him to her office and made him an offer he would never have refused.
Mother Angelica wanted a television show dedicated to efforts to end abortion and she wanted Priests for Life to produce it, and for Father Frank to host it. That very moment, she picked up the telephone and called one of her producers, asking them to schedule a taping. By January 1995, Defending Life was on the air.
Since then we have taped 31 seasons of this program, which has been broadcast continually over EWTN's global network that reaches some 250 million households in 140 countries and territories. Along with its primary TV broadcast in English Defending Life has aired also on the radio and in Spanish. The series has also been made available over the years on DVD.
The 1990s were a pivotal time for the pro-life movement. The numbers of abortions had reached their height (but began a slow decline), and Bill Clinton was elected president, providing new obstacles to the effort to end abortion.
Pro-lifers needed new strategies, new ways to fight this devastating blight on our nation. A nationally televised program devoted to pro-life was one tool to help that happen.
In that first season we focused on a concept that many had not yet considered: Not only were babies being murdered by abortion, but their mothers, by exercising their "right to choose," were irrevocably harming themselves. That very first season had episodes titled “Why Women Have Abortions;” “Post-Abortion Forgiveness and Healing,” and “The Myth of Choice.”
We also focused on the importance of activating the clergy, gave an overview of other pro-life organizations working alongside us and reported on former abortionists who had seen the light and left the abortion industry.
In our second season, which aired in 1997, we alerted EWTN viewers to the coming catastrophe of RU-486, the “abortion pill.” A French company named Roussel Uclaf developed RU-486 so that women would be able to abort their children at home. An interesting historical note: Roussel Uclaf was a subsidiary of a German firm that supplied the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis in their extermination camps.
Three years after our show aired, the FDA approved RU-486 for use in the U.S. By 2013, the CDC reported that 22.2 percent of all abortions were medication abortions and its use continues to grow.
It was on Defending Life that pro-life people heard for the first time about a hopeful new development – the abortion pill reversal. Priests for Life medical advisor Dr. Matt Harrison explained how he pioneered a progesterone regimen that offers a good chance for survival for babies whose moms take the first drug in the two-drug RU-486 protocol but have a change of heart before taking the second. Hundreds of babies have since been saved.
There is no aspect of the pro-life movement that has not been covered by Defending Life. The program has served -- and continues to serve -- the entire pro-life movement by highlighting the works and resources, the strategies and successes, of countless pro-life organizations big and small. We have interviewed leaders of organizations as well as key personalities in the history of the pro-life effort, including Norma McCorvey, Sandra Cano, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Joe Scheidler, Carol Everett, Judie Brown, Mark Crutcher, Kristan Hawkins, and so many more, not to mention our entire Priests for Life pastoral team, including Evangelist Alveda King, and her mom Naomi.
We did our first episodes about euthanasia in 1997, and it was thanks to Defending Life that the family of Terri Schiavo reached out to Priests for Life to help them in their plight.
In election years, we have focused heavily on political responsibility, and numerous political analysts have given us significant credit in winning elections for pro-life candidates. In fact, through Defending Life, pro-life members of Congress like Dr. Andy Harris of Maryland credit us for helping him make the decision to run for office.
In 2015 we introduced viewers to the Silent No More Awareness Initiative known as Healing the Shockwaves of Abortion, which identifies all the groups of people who experience abortion’s aftershocks and points to healing programs for all of them.
And, of course, we have lost count of the letters, emails, and other communications telling us of babies saved from abortion, and hearts and minds converted on this issue, thanks to Defending Life.
In 2009, we began airing two 13-episode seasons each calendar year, enabling us to cover more ground and provide more information in a timely manner to our viewers. Every episode offers a "Pro-life Questions" segment where we answer a question from viewers, and every episode also offers a free give-away item that can help one's pro-life spirituality and activism.
I have shared hosting duties over the years with Father Frank; Father Denis Wilde, O.S.A., our associate director, and the newest member of our Pastoral Team, Father Stephen Imbarrato.
In addition to reporting on the abortion issue and the many groups fighting it, our shows try to emphasize that everyone can do something to end abortion, and in every episode we give concrete ideas for action. One of my favorite kinds of messages are those that tell me what people have begun doing in the pro-life arena thanks to our programs.
For instance, a viewer named Diana Bischoff wrote to say: “I truly believe the Holy Spirit brought me to a pro-life ministry. He did it through you and your Defending Life EWTN program. You have been an inspiration for the laity and your organization provides immense help and support to so many. Thank you.”
Another woman phoned in to say she was profoundly moved by the compassion and mercy in the handling of the subject of abortion. After seeing the show, she let us know that she was going to find a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat to attend and return to the Church.
The best feedback of all came with a note from a woman who wrote, “The night before I was going to have an abortion, something woke me up and I saw your Defending Life program. Now I'm having my baby.” I ended up visiting that baby shortly after he was born!
The pro-life message needs to be conveyed in countless ways: In books and homilies, in art and music, in documentaries and testimonies. Along with this, a key medium is television, and we thank God and Mother Angelica's EWTN that Defending Life fills that need, as the longest running, farthest reaching TV program on abortion ever produced. And we look forward to many more years of life-saving broadcasts!
(See DefendingLife.TV for more details of current and past episodes and to find out when a new season will begin.)