“Equal rights now: Stop abortions.” Above the legend on the picket sign was a color photograph of an aborted 11-week-old fetus, small enough to hold in the palm of a human hand. The reds and blues matched the flag held in the other hand of the protester, a stylish woman in her 30s with a ruddy complexion and a train of small children behind her.

“Yours?” asked a man who could have been the kids’ grandfather.

The woman beamed, wrapping the hand with the flag around a little boy in a faded, head-to-toe denim outfit. “This one is,” she said. The pale child, holding his own flag, looked up at the man. “Thank you mom and dad for letting me live,” declared the hand-lettered sign pinned to his back.

“He’s beautiful,” said the man, his hands clasped in prayer. “God bless you.” He was carrying his own sign, “Abortion stills a human heart.”

They were with the nearly 200 other protesters who gathered in front of Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, to demonstrate against the hospital’s abortion policy. Pro-choice advocates chose to ignore the rally, avoiding potential confrontations. One of about a half dozen events organized by the pro-life Operation Rescue in the Chicago area, the gathering fell far short of its projected 1,000 protesters, but those in attendance were adamant about their beliefs.

“The average pro-lifer don’t go to pickets,” said a woman whose sign was emblazoned with “Equal rights for unborn women,” the o in “unborn” replaced by the symbol for a woman. “They write letters, stay home and pray, and set examples.”

“All of us are involved in the pro-life movement, individually or in groups,” explained Tony Lesniewski, a 27-year-old construction worker who was passing out antiabortion literature to the overwhelmingly white, mostly male crowd that stood and listened to a procession of speakers.

The public-address system was particularly bad, so most of the faithful milled about, chatting and trying to keep in line the dozens of small children who had been dragged along as some sort of evidence against abortion. “Six years ago, I was a fetus unable to talk. Today I want to tell you, ‘Abortion is wrong,'” read the sign carried by a little boy tagging after his parents. Later, he used the sign to poke a little girl, and then swatted her with it. The little girl began to cry, prompting her mother to say “Shut up, Jennifer. I’m trying to hear.” The mother’s sign said “Hitler is smiling in his grave.”

Lesniewski, blond, handsome, and muscular, handed the woman a pamphlet. “This is my way of expressing the view that abortion is murder,” he said. “For me, it started when I read a book called The Silent Holocaust, which draws analogies with the killing of the Jews. The premise of the book is, ‘Does anybody else see what I do?'”

At that moment, what Lesniewski saw was a couple of men wearing octagonal stickers on their jackets that read “Keep Abortion Legal.” Lesniewski tucked the pamphlets under his arm and followed them. “They look like troublemakers,” he said, “especially the one in the black leather jacket.” He trailed them, even baited them when he overheard a particularly sarcastic remark, but the two men kept to themselves.

“They’re gay,” a woman told Lesniewski. Her sign said, “Baby death camp here.” “Look at them. That one there hasn’t let us forget his affection for his friend.” The man in the black leather jacket curled his arm around the other’s and leaned his head on his shoulder. “See? It’s the same moral degeneration. It’s abortion mentality, that’s what homosexuality is.”

Lesniewski glanced at the two. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, you can’t really tell what’s in somebody’s heart.”

Just then a woman with a huge family portrait walked by. Underneath it a hand-lettered sign said “None of my children were ‘wanted’: Which should I have aborted?” A wiry man with a bowl of a belly sticking out from his sweater followed behind her. “I know this was my idea,” he was saying to her, looking vaguely carsick. “But I can’t hear a blessed thing, and I’m getting hungry.” She ignored him and used the portrait to wedge her way through the crowd.

Lesniewski shifted the bulk of his pamphlets from under one arm to the other. “I’m married–got married back in December,” he said. “Abortion was never an issue for us, because we didn’t have sexual intercourse before we got married. I really believe it’s part of the problem, all this sexual promiscuity. You know, outside of marriage, sex is just an act, a physical act. God said, ‘Fornicators, adulterers, sodomites will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ To engage in fornication before marriage would have been against God.”

He smiled sheepishly. “It was hard sometimes,” he admitted. “I came close. I did it in my heart, unfortunately, but I lived through it with the grace of God. I was a virgin in the physical sense, but not in the spiritual. I’m as sinful as anybody. The main reason for sexual intercourse is procreation. I mean, sure, it’s fun, and we do it sometimes for pleasure. It is pleasurable–it must be–or we wouldn’t be attracted to each other. But it’s more than that. Sex for pleasure–using contraception, for example–is sex without responsibility.”

“Yeah,” said an older woman who was listening in. “It’s instant pleasure. It doesn’t work half the time and people have to get abortions. Contraception promotes abortion.” A shaggy-haired young man next to her carried a sign that read “Abortion sucks.”

“I really believe contraception is what gives birth to abortion,” Lesniewski continued. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, God, we know better than you.’ It’s a straight line to pornography. That’s why I’m against contraception too.”

Another child ran by, wielding a sign that proclaimed “Mommy didn’t kill me.” One side of the placard had a smiling, healthy baby; the flip side featured the ubiquitous palm-size fetus.

Following the directions from the podium, the crowd turned around and shouted at the hospital, “Stop the killing now!”

Lesniewski added a whispered “Please.”

“What’s a little ironic,” explained Laurel Stevens, manager of media relations for the hospital, “is that our recent change in policy has drastically reduced the number of abortions we do.” Lutheran General, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, began doing elective abortions in 1974, averaging about five a month. But after the recent policy shift, the hospital no longer performs elective abortions and averages only about two other abortions a month. For some that’s still too many.

“It’s a human life,” said Eugene, a little man in a NAPA cap. “It don’t matter how it got started. It don’t matter if it’s rape or incest–it’s a human life, damn it. A woman don’t have to look at the child if she don’t want to–she can put it up for adoption, and she can take her abortion money and go see a psychiatrist if she’s that upset about it. She’ll never be as upset as an aborted baby, that’s for sure.” “Adoption not abortion” decorated his picket sign.

“Twenty-five million babies have died since 1973,” said Lesniewski. A nearby sign contradicted him; “Twenty million dead by ‘choice’ since 1973,” it said. “And that doesn’t include the IUD deaths–life itself begins at conception, so those are abortions too. IUDs work after the egg has been fertilized.”

“Look at the violence in the streets,” said a middle-aged matron who was listening. “Don’t you think that’s related to abortion? Women are just meat today, thanks to Roe v. Wade.”

“It’s a bad law, the wrong law,” said Lesniewski, referring to the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion. His forehead wrinkled with worry. “You know, in his letter from Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘If the law’s not just, don’t obey it.’ That’s how I feel about Roe–just don’t obey it.”

“We have to get back to basics,” the woman piped in.

“Back to God,” said Lesniewski, who’s Roman Catholic.

“Well, that’s basic, isn’t it?” agreed the woman. “They’re just chipping away at us with this lust mentality–that’s what abortion is about, you know. There was a time when people said, ‘No ma’am, yes ma’am.’ Now everything’s a four-letter word. We’ve got to get back to God.”

To the left of her, a protester held an elaborate sign that read “The sixth commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Not far to her right, another leaned on a placard that said “The fifth commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

The matron raised her eyebrows. “We’re so lost,” she said. “Even with some of our people, we have to get back to real basics.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Podgorski–Chicago Sun-Times.