A decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Roe vs. Wade, the decision allowing abortion on demand, Barbara Lyons felt defeated – defeated to the point where she strongly considered giving up the fight against abortion.
“I think my lowest point was 10 years after Roe vs. Wade in 1984. I really, really believed when I became involved that the abortion decision was just an aberration, it was a figment of the minds of seven people on the U.S. Supreme Court that would never stand, because people would surely look at who is involved in a pregnancy, a mother and a baby, and that the baby would have some rights also,” she reflected in a late September interview with the Catholic Herald at her Wisconsin Right to Life office.
While she had thought “education and good public policy” would overwhelm the pro-abortion decision, she realized at that time the debate did not center around the potential life of a baby. Rather, it focused on women’s rights.
“That was terrifying to me. I was very down and found it hard to continue at that time,” she admitted, adding that she felt the pro-life movement had worked so hard, “but seemed to be going backward instead of forward.”
As a young, stay-at-home mother 40 years ago, Lyons became involved in the pro-life movement. Outraged by the Roe vs. Wade decision, she began as a volunteer with Wisconsin Citizens Concerned for Life, a group conceived of by Archbishop William E. Cousins, intended to be a state organization comprised of people of all faiths, not connected to the church, to advocate for life issues.
Her volunteer role became a paid position when the organization that later became Wisconsin Right to Life hired her as its legislative director where she served for 10 years until being promoted to executive director in 1987.
After four decades, Lyons, a member of St. Jude Parish, Wauwatosa, announced her retirement in June, effective at the end of the year.
Instead of the defeated feeling she felt in 1984, however, Lyons is leaving the organization at a time when she can look back on more successes in the battle for life than failures. While abortion is still legal in all states, and while end-of-life issues are a growing concern for pro-lifers, she has see abortion numbers in the state drop by 73 percent since their peak in 1980, according to a June 16 WRTL press release announcing her retirement.
During her tenure, numerous pieces of legislation have passed, including conscience protection for medical professionals, prohibition of the use of tax dollars to pay for abortions, parental consent prior to a minor’s abortion, a 24-hour reflection period for women seeking abortion, prohibition of partial birth abortions, an addition to the homicide code recognizing the crime of harming or killing an unborn child in a non-abortion context, safe haven laws for newborn babies, protection of infants born alive following an abortion, prohibition of web cam abortions, and the requirement that a woman view an ultrasound of her unborn child 24 hours before an abortion can be performed.
Also under her leadership, the organization created the Veritas Society, a group that produces television advertising. The messages, aimed at women 18 to 34, are direct and address some of the beliefs that exist: “I used to be pro-choice, but …” or “it’s just a blob of tissue.” The current ad produced by the Veritas Society that began airing this fall features former abortion clinic manager Abby Johnson, who explains why she is now pro-life.
“People should forget the slogans and get the facts,” she tells viewers.
As WRTL continues reaching the masses through efforts like the television ads, Lyons said the abortion numbers keep going down.
“Barbara has been a true leader for Wisconsin Right to Life, but more importantly, she has served as an outstanding steward for protecting human life,” said Michelle Farrow, president of the WRTL board of directors in a June press release. “Her dedication, compassion and commitment to the cause will be greatly missed.”
Describing Lyons as a mentor, Heather Weininger, who assumed the role of executive director July 1, said, “Her legacy will continue to live on. It’s time for her to spend time with family and do those kinds of things in life, but she has built such a great organization here and I could not be more proud to say I was able to work with her.”
Lyons said retirement has been on her mind for about two years, and she decided the time is right to turn over the reigns of the organization.
“I think it’s time; we have embraced new ideas and have not lived in the past, but it’s time for new leadership. I did not want the organization to have a chaotic future,” she said, worrying that if she became ill, she would not want to leave WRTL in chaos.
She’s also faced difficult personal challenges in her family, she said, which contributed to her decision to step down.
Her husband, Patrick, has several health issues, including Parkinson’s disease and came close to death last summer. He survived and the couple’s son, Timothy, moved home to help care for his father, but within a few months, Timothy died unexpectedly.
“God works in strange ways,” admitted Lyons. “My husband was so ill last summer he almost died, but he was spared, and our son, Tim, lived in Portland, Oregon, but he moved back to Milwaukee in October to help take care of his dad. What a strange turn of events. What a magnificent thing for Tim to do; we were so happy to have him back here and have him so close, but we got to enjoy him for three months.”
Lyons’ future role with WRTL is undefined, and while she knows she wants to continue supporting its work, she’s not sure in what capacity.
She’s looking forward to reclaiming a hobby — painting, is planning a memory box project to honor Timothy, and hopes to spend time with her family, including four grandchildren.
As she looked back on her storied career, she recalled drama, legislative battles, victories and losses.
“I could fill volumes with enormous battles that were fought in the state capitol. I remember the battle for public funding of abortion – oh my gosh – I walked into the middle of that when I became legislative director and it was one of the biggest fights the state has ever seen. High drama, late hours, governor vetoes the bill, you pass the bill, you are driving home late at night, you hear he vetoes it, you have to come back,” she explained, recalling how after one contentious legislative fight that some of the legislators called for Sue Armacost, former WRTL legislative/PAC director and her to be fired.
But in the end, Lyons said the effort was worth it as she looks back proudly on a career where “lives were saved because of our efforts.”
“It’s been such a privilege to do this work, and yes, it’s been exhausting, yes it’s been frustrating and yes, sometimes you drag your feet and wonder why it can’t go faster, but it’s been such a privilege to think of the thousands of people whose lives we have touched, people who wouldn’t even be alive today. It’s a reward beyond imagining. To work with all these wonderful people, I am so blessed to have been associated with them and to work with them to share this mission is truly God’s work,” she said.