When Mark and Laura Ackerman of Clarkston were pregnant with their son, Conrad, 23 years ago, they were asked by their doctor if they wanted to do genetic testing.
Mark Ackerman said he doesn’t know if the doctor suspected something was wrong at the time, but he posed the question in case the Ackermans wanted to consider abortion.
Ackerman said he and his wife had no interest in abortion, and they said the doctor was relieved at their decision. About two years after Conrad was born he was showing symptoms of some kind of disorder and was eventually diagnosed with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes medical problems including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning challenges. People with the syndrome also often have striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music.
Today, Ackerman said he and his family have been overwhelmed by the grace that Conrad has brought into their lives.
“This is an amazing blessing to have a child like this,” Ackerman said. “They take you places that you have never been able to go before.”
And yet, he said, disabilities that can be detected in utero such as Williams syndrome, Down syndrome and other developmental defects are sometimes the reason people choose to have an abortion rather than bring their babies to full term.
“This is what I fear: The whole culture of death is wanting to systematically eliminate certain people and this is a situation where you can, through abortion, justify genocide,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman was among nearly 200 people Saturday who took part in the March for Life in downtown Lewiston. The largely unmasked group met at Brackenbury Square, heard opening remarks from Shannon Eggleston, the organizer of the event, and a prayer written by Pope-emeritus Benedict the 16th and read by the Rev. Jeff Core of Holy Family Catholic Church in Clarkston. The group then proceeded along Main Street bearing signs with messages such as: “Ask for help, not death,” and “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
There were few reactions from motorists driving by but it appeared to be mostly approving, with a few honks of support and friendly waves.
That’s not always the case, Eggleston said.
“We have boos. We had one person at an intersection say, ‘Just go home and have a beer. Relax,’ ” Eggleston said.
But her message to the marchers Saturday was to meet any negativity with love.
“If a person gives you a one-finger wave, return it with a five-finger wave,” she said. “So we get honks of appreciation; we get people roll down their window and yell at us in an angry kind of a way. But I think if we always respond with love or we respond with respect for that person, that might be where they are right now and it might not be where they are in five years or 10 years.”
Although the emphasis on Saturday’s rally had mainly to do with abortion, Eggleston emphasized that it really is a respect for life issue to encourage people to value human life from conception to natural death.
“The message is: ‘I am not alone.’ So whenever a person has the courage to stand up in a crowd, another person looks at that person and says, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so glad you stood up. Now I will stand up,’ ” Eggleston said.
“Whether it was a person who agrees with us and waves or if it’s a person who disagrees, I hope that we can plant the seed that if they were ever in need for something, like at the end of a person’s life or at the beginning of a new life, that they would remember that they are not alone. And then go out and seek what the resources are to help them make the best life that they can and they don’t have to give in to despair.”
Helping people find resources to deal with unplanned pregnancies and other life-challenging issues is what Reliance Ministries is all about, said Heather Lawless, who founded the agency in Lewiston two years ago.
She was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s march.
“Being pro-life is a stance. Being pro-love is an action and we call ourselves pro-love because there’s a difference between shouting that you’re pro-life and then being pro-love and actually putting your money where your mouth is and helping these women,” Lawless said.
Last year, she said her agency had an impact on 6,000 lives and assisted about 2,000 men and women with pregnancy and other life issues. The response from the public has been positive and the agency has received financial support, not only from anti-abortion proponents but also those who hold an opposing view, she said.
“The rhetoric says that pro-life people don’t care about the mother and there are pro-life people that just want that baby to be saved,” Lawless said.
“But that’s not the majority of the pro-life population. (They) care about the woman and the child. And so the way that we are communicating our message has helped to bridge that gap and we see that gap getting smaller and smaller and people that are pro-choice are changing their mind. Because they’re seeing that our mission is to make women see their worth and their value.”
Lawless said she does not believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance, including rape or incest.
“Just because a woman was raped,” she said, “doesn’t mean that that baby deserves to die. There’s no point in punishing the child for the crime of its father.
“Those women (victims of rape or incest) have already experienced a huge trauma. And so choosing abortion just causes a second trauma, which takes a lifetime to heal. And we believe that’s not the best choice for them. So our goal is to be here and support them after that awful thing.”
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