By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun

For Michelle Cervantez, having an abortion destroyed “everything.”

“It destroyed my ability to relate to my husband [and] my children. I became a helicopter mom afraid of losing them. I was unable to feel. I just became numb to everything,” she said, standing at a table with signs that read “I regret my abortion” and “Men regret lost fatherhood” outside the Arizona State Capitol during the Arizona March and Rally for Life Jan. 15.

It wasn’t until she and her husband Joe attended a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat in March 2019 that they were able to start the healing process. Despite that the retreat is inherently Catholic and they attend Generation Church, a non-denominational church in East Mesa, Michelle was able to see herself as a daughter of God.

“Whenever I went on the Vineyard retreat and I realized that God still loves me, it was time for me to get involved,” she said.

Having had the abortion from a previous relationship 28 years earlier — before she met Joe — Michelle found her experience was able to save their grandchild’s life. Their daughter had considered abortion but decided against it after having seen the grief that Michelle had gone through.

“Had I not opened up to them, she would have made the same choice,” said Michelle. “If I can share my story and save someone else from going down that same path, then it’s worth it because then that brings sanctity of life to my child.”

The march began 11:15 a.m. at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Washington Street in Downtown Phoenix, led by parishioners from Our Lady of Joy in Carefree, the result of winning a contest of which group could raise the most money for the Roses for Life — $6,000. Each rose sold for $10. Organizers had 13,097 roses available to represent each child aborted in Arizona in one year, and they were placed on a fenced wall at the rally to draw attention to the number.

“The Rose campaign and the memorial wall is to create a visual image that’s powerful for people to really understand and to draw awareness to the fact that there’s over 13,000 abortions in one year in Arizona,” said Garrett Riley, executive director of the Arizona Life Coalition, which organized the march and rally.

More than 100 volunteers from multiple faith traditions — and some none at all — worked to put together the event, said Riley, who attends St. Bernadette Parish in Scottsdale.

“Abortion is the unequaled social justice issue of our time. Nothing compares,” he said. “Abortion assaults the most fundamental human right of all — the right to life.”

In his opening remarks for the rally, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted spoke of the “incomparable worth” of every human being, despite societal perceptions to the contrary.

“The father of lies is at work when the genocide of unborn children is labeled ‘women’s healthcare,’ when billions of taxpayers’ dollars are subsidizing the carnage, and when unborn children are judged the ideal victims for this merciless killing, since they’re incapable of speaking for themselves,” he said. “Some call abortion healthcare, when in fact it’s closer to Auschwitz.”

The bishop recalled a French commercial titled “Dear Future Mom” featuring children with Down syndrome telling mothers that their children “can be happy — just like I am.” The French high court ruled that the commercial would be “likely to disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices,” banning it from being aired.

“The peace that Jesus brings is not peace and quiet achieved by denying the truth. It’s a peace built on truth and love,” Bishop Olmsted.

He concluded by praying for all of the children killed through abortion and their mothers, for courage for those present to witness to life and for public officials responsible for making and interpreting the law.

“Oh Gracious and Loving Father, look down with compassion today on the vast multitude of infants not allowed to be born and among the millions of mothers who, like Rachel, mourn for their children because they are no more,” he prayed. “Instill in us a readiness to build together with all people of goodwill, a civilization of truth and a culture of life. … Grant light and fortitude to all elected public officials and to the members of the U.S. Supreme Court as they consider and make a decision about Roe v. Wade. Give them light to know the truth, encouraged to fulfill their duties with integrity, and thereby serve the needs of all, especially the most vulnerable among us.”

During the rally, ultrasound technician Iveth Tarantino from Life Choices Women’s Clinic performed an ultrasound on the stage so that the unborn baby’s heartbeat could be heard.

“It was really lovely. My husband was telling me, ‘Your smile! Your smile! You were smiling like you’ve never done it before!’” recalled Tarantino, who worships between St. Helen Parish in Glendale, Most Holy Trinity Parish in North Phoenix and St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Scottsdale with her husband Giuseppe. “I’ve done it thousands of times, but it’s beautiful every time.”

A team from the clinic’s mobile unit was also available. While they didn’t perform any ultrasounds in the bus, they gave tours to those attending the rally and showed them archived ultrasounds as well as the instruments used in an abortion to highlight the brutality of the procedure.

“A lot of the pro-life people don’t really know the brutality of what’s really going on,” said Alejandra Vargas, a receptionist and scheduler at Life Choices who attends St. Joan of Arc Parish in North Phoenix.

“A lot of people are under the impression that a baby’s just tissue living inside of your body, but that’s not the case. That is a fully-formed baby — at just six weeks, they already have a heartbeat,” she added, emphasizing the need for pro-life education. “I had several women come in today, they didn’t even know what a yolk sac was, they didn’t even know that six-week babies had heartbeats.”

College freshman Lauren Kassulker was among a contingent of students from Holy Spirit Newman Center at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. In an interview with the Sun, she emphasized the importance of members of her generation being involved in the pro-life movement.

“It’s really important — especially for our generation — to see that there are people our age who want to love life and share that message with others,” said Kassulker, who is originally from Andover, Minnesota, about 30 minutes north of the Twin Cities metro area, where she attended Epiphany Parish in Coon Rapids, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

International student Juan Diego Barrantes from Lima, Peru, also from the GCU Newman Center, recalled attending similar marches for life in Peru and in São Paulo, Brazil, and wanted to show his support for the movement in the U.S.

“Abortion continues to be illegal in Peru, thanks be to God, and there’s still a March for Life there just to keep it that way, to keep protecting life and the innocent of our country,” said Barrantes, who is a senior.

In her keynote address at the end of the rally, guest speaker Dr. Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted that the day was her uncle’s actual birthday that would be commemorated nationwide two days later. In her testimony, she recalled that her parents — the Rev. A.D. King, Dr. King’s brother, and Naomi “Neenie” Barber King — were pregnant with her before they were married. Her mother had received a flyer from the Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood, she recalled.

“My grandmama said, “Let’s go talk to our pastor.” Guess who that pastor was? Martin Luther King, Sr.,” she said. “So, granddaddy said to my mother ‘Neenie, they’re lying to you, that’s not a lump of flesh. That’s my granddaughter, and she has bright skin and bright red hair. I saw her in a dream three years ago.’

“That’s a prophetic ultrasound, if you think about it. So, I was allowed to be rescued from abortion myself.”

She briefly shared that she didn’t follow that example initially, recalling that she’d had abortions. She believed herself to still be a Christian while also being a pro-abortion feminist. King noted that her pastor, the late Rev. Allen McNair — who helped her become a born-again Christian — would tell women considering an abortion that if they really believed their unborn child was just a blob of tissue, then to “just leave it there, and nothing will happen.”

“As I began to confess, the question came to me, and I began to say out loud across this nation, and I’ll say it to you right now: A woman has the right to choose what she does with her body, absolutely. However, the baby is not her body,” she declared.

“When we’re marching, choose love, choose life. Love is absolutely the key,” she said. “We want to do it with truth. We will march with love.”

René Caballero, a 34-year-old parishioner at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, said he attended because it’s important for him to be a witness for his future children in standing for life.

“Fatherhood begins at the moment of conception,” he said in Spanish.

Emily Adams, a 14-year-old freshman at Cactus Shadows High School in North Scottsdale who attends Our Lady of Joy Parish in Carefree, participated in the rally in memory of her cousin Koda who died during his birth.

“My cousin Koda didn’t make it through his birth, so this is really important that other babies can have a chance,” she said. “I’m doing this for him.”

Dcn. Ivan Rojas from St. Anne Parish in Gilbert attended the rally with his wife Ines and youngest daughter Ana. Although he’d participated in the March and Rally for Life in the past, this was the first time he’d attended since his Nov. 7, 2020, diaconal Ordination.

“It’s beautiful to see how strong the community is because they rally for the pro-life cause. Everyone comes out and celebrates life and to give the message that life begins at conception, it has to be respected all the way until natural death,” he said. “Seeing it as a deacon is beautiful just because I get to serve that community. I get to attend to their needs while they come out here in the March for Life.”

Attending their first March and Rally for Life in Arizona were the Sisters of Life, who moved to the diocese in September 2021.

“It was beautiful to see people from all different groups. It really is a place of unity where people from all over and different organizations come together in unity, and that’s just beautiful to witness,” said Sr. Fiat Marie.

The sisters are a religious congregation established in 1991 in New York City with a charism of promoting a respect for all human life from conception to natural death.

“We’re consecrated totally to proclaim that the human person is loved by God, willed into existence, totally unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, necessary and worthy of our love and our defending and our upholding,” said local superior Sr. Bethany Madonna.

In addition to serving alongside pregnancy centers like Life Choices and others, they also provide college outreach through All Saints Newman Center at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“This was a moment of great joy in celebration of life and great encouragement that we are so looking forward to joining these groups in serving women who are vulnerable and pregnant,” Sr. Bethany Madonna added.