Rubric: What monuments to aborted fetuses tell us

At the back of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Boyle Heights, next to a mesh fence, lies a longer-than-usual tombstone.

“In memory of the 16,500 precious unborn buried here, Oct. 6, 1985,” written in whitewashed letters. Strands of fibrous lawn begin to overtake him.

Little in this scene hints at the grave’s pivotal role in the history of anti-abortion memorials—an overlooked but decisive battlefield in one of the most contentious issues of our time.

National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Babies maintains a permanent list of over a thousand such commemorations in the United States. Despite its liberal reputation, California hosts 54 guests, second only to Illinois and slightly ahead of New York. They are in Brentwood and Victorville, Tehachapi and San Clemente. They take the form of statues, headstones, cenotaphs and pews in churches, cemeteries and beyond.

The erection of these memorials over the past three decades has helped anti-abortion activists hone their strategy of turning the personal into the performative into the political. This strategy eventually led to what was once unthinkable: abolition of the constitutional right to abortion.

A couple of days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade, I’ve visited three memorials. And so I ended up in Boyle Heights, where the movement may have started, on a hot weekday morning.

On that October day 36 years ago, about 250 people gathered to bury these thousands of embryos – some barely larger than a stain, others fully formed. They were found in 1982 in buckets of formaldehyde in a storage container in Woodland Hills, many with dates and the woman’s name on them. Some have had miscarriages. Most have been cancelled.

The fight over what to do with the remains—anti-abortion activists demanded that officials bury them, feminist groups demanded they be burned—reached the U.S. Supreme Court and became a rallying cry for the right.

President Reagan spoke in favor of the funeral. Singer Pat Boone released an ominous ballad titled “16,000 Faces” in which she criticized women who choose to have abortions and the Supreme Court for allowing them to have such freedom. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to find the final resting place for the embryos.

“It was a dark event,” then-supervisor Mike Antonovich, who led the vote, told me. “But it was appropriate. We needed to bury these children.”

The Marine color guard stood at attention when non-denominational ceremony, one of the first of its kind, has finally happened. Activists held up a huge photo of one of the aborted fetuses as the coffin was carried by six coffins to the burial site. Antonovich read a eulogy written by Reagan that compared Rowe to Wade to the Dred Scott decision that led to the Civil War.

“Once again,” Reagan wrote, “an entire category of people has been placed outside the protection of the law by a court decision contrary to our deepest moral convictions.”

I expected to see fresh flowers, balloons and other souvenirs when I went in.

Instead, I found scraps of pink plastic scattered all over the place, the foil that once covered a plate of tacos, a battered artificial flower in a vase. Beside him, a single red rose blossomed from a barren bush.

The surrounding graves are better preserved. New bouquets were presented. Souvenirs. Love.

My next stop: Cemetery of the Queen of Heaven in Rowland Heights. The young assistant at the morgue didn’t even know there was an anti-abortion memorial on Catholic shrines until I asked.

Cemetery with a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child.

The Knights of Columbus erected this “Sanctuary of the Unborn” in the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights as part of a nationwide anti-abortion campaign.

(Los Angeles Times)

A six-foot marble statue of the Virgin Mary cradles a baby, towering over a small valley that forms a cemetery. It stands on a black granite base with the inscription “Temple for the Unborn” and bears the logo of the Knights of Columbus, a male Catholic brotherhood.

A funeral in Boyle Heights in 1985 inspired anti-abortion activists across the country, leading to new memorials. But the movement didn’t really explode until the Knights intervened.

In 1992, the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor called on the Knights at his national convention to erect at least one memorial in each of the 1888 Catholic dioceses. They started a multi-million dollar campaign as a result, over 500 shrines to aborted fetuses were built in just a couple of years. In Los Angeles County they put up the same statue of the Madonna that I saw in Rowland Heights at Simi Valley, Culver City, and Mission Hills Catholic Cemeteries.

The campaign transformed the Knights from a mutual aid society that had long fought discrimination against Catholics and immigrants into right-wing culture wars soldiers. They redoubled efforts to fight abortion rights and spent $1 million to help pass Proposition 8, temporarily banning same-sex marriage, in California in 2008. Two years ago, they invited then-President Trump to the feast of Saint John Paul II. National Shrine in Washington DC for what was essentially a re-election photo op.

I thought about the strength of the group as I looked at Mother Mary. She smiled blissfully, looking at the baby, whose face was covered with a withered scarlet rose. Someone tore off one of his legs.

I ended the day at the Piers Creslalon Brothers Memorial Park in Riverside. There, on a shady lawn across the street from an artificial stream, there are three anti-abortion memorials. The oldest of them is a bench and a vertical tombstone in memory of 54 fetuses are buried here in 1998. Found in a Chino Hills field inside cardboard boxes., the fetuses were traced to an abortion clinic. Another memorial is a small plaque to the seven fruits buried here a few years later.

List of children's names on a memorial stone for fetuses.

Headstone at Pierce Crestlon Brothers Memorial Park in Riverside commemorating 54 fruits buried here in 1998 after they were found in a field in Chino Hills.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The most recent of these is a three-piece granite slab installed by Lisa Musil in 2010 so that women who have had abortions, like herself, can deal with their grief.

Musil first agreed to talk to me, then refused. In a voicemail, she said the memorial was “a place of retreat, a place of sacred remembrance, and I don’t want to benefit mothers and fathers from it.”

But that’s exactly what the anti-abortion movement did. Musil’s memorial, about five feet high, towers over nearly all the other graves around it.

The memories of the unborn in Boyle Heights and Rowland Heights merged with their surroundings; this one in Riverside is meant to be seen.

It bears the names that women who went through Musil’s anti-abortion ministry chose for their aborted fetuses, as well as a passage from the Book of Revelation where Jesus vows “not to erase” the names of believers “from the Book of Life.”

What an interesting choice of scripture, I thought as I left. I have no doubt that people like Musil and the Knights of Columbus are sad about abortion.

But their memorials and shrines seem less about the interrupted than about themselves. In these places, abortion is fundamentally wrong, and there is no room for nuances, exceptions, or other opinions.

It’s all about their testimony, their conviction. Their will be done.