TUPELO, Mississippi — There is a prayer Tanya Britton has said in the hazy first moments of morning and in the stillness of the night. She’s said it on her knees before her church’s gold tabernacle and slumped in the embrace of her living room sofa. The words have morphed, sometimes touching her lips and others echoing only in her mind, but one way or another, they’ve repeated, decade after decade after decade.
“Whatever I do, let it be for the end of abortion,” 70-year-old Britton prays. “Let it be that one child be saved today. Let it be that Roe v. Wade be overturned.”
She hoisted signs outside of clinics, cajoled lawmakers at the statehouse and spread her pro-life gospel to anyone who’d listen, repeating her mantra so often she wondered if she’d live long enough to see it come true. Until Friday came and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. And her prayer was finally answered.
“This was my mission,” she said through tears. “I’m one of millions of people in this country who have done a little bit. We’ve done our part. We’ve done what God called us to do.”
Around the country, many mourned the decision, seeing it as one that robs a basic human right, inordinately affects poor people, and could lead to needless deaths of desperate women.
But on a day that belonged to the victors, people like Britton, vested in a half-century movement, rejoiced.
Britton got started in this work around 1990, praying the rosary outside a clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, and before long, it consumed whatever time was left over from working full-time as a nurse and raising her son.
She became the president of Pro-Life Mississippi, traveling the state to push pro-life laws and trying to win converts to her side. And week after week, she returned to the streets outside clinics.
Sometimes she’d quote scripture or quietly pray. Others, she’d block entrances and make a spectacle. She’d go out in the bitter cold and in the blazing sun, and when she returned home, she’d be so tired, she’d collapse in her hammock.
By her count, she’s had seven arrests. She tried anything she thought might turn patients away, from wielding grotesque photos of aborted late-term remains to sweet-talking women to go for a coffee and a chance to change their mind.
“I’ve used every tactic that we have in our arsenal,” she says. “You prepare. You practice. You know, you discipline yourself. You do all these things before you hit the battlefield.”
Each time a clinic closed its doors, she was filled with ecstasy. When a bill was passed to tighten abortion laws, she rejoiced. A handful of times, someone would introduce her to a baby, saying “You saved her,” prompting a wide smile and a burst of thankfulness.
Her celebrations were brief. There was always more work to do.
And so often, she was disappointed. She’d spend hours outside to change no one’s mind, and watch as a law was overturned or a favored candidate emerged a loser. She found herself, at times, battling her own church, when a priest or bishop didn’t see eye to eye with her tactics. For so many years, predictions that Roe’s days were numbered never came true.
Sometimes she gave up when a woman couldn’t be swayed, saying she couldn’t afford a child or stomach the embarrassment or stand the hit to her education or career. For years, she returned not knowing if she was doing any good. But, always, she returned.
“You just do it,” she says. “You don’t count the cost, but you also don’t do it for the success.”
It’s no accident this became her life’s work. To her, women who have an abortion are murderers. She calls herself a murderer, too.
She was a college student, just 19, when she had an abortion in 1972. Roe hadn’t even been handed down, though she won’t say much about her own experience or if it was illegal. She is a lifelong Catholic and says she knew abortion was wrong but was overtaken by fear and selfishness.
The secret ate at her for years. She found solace in drugs and denial. She contemplated suicide before coming to terms with what she’d done, had a spiritual awakening, and devoted herself to this work.
She says she hasn’t been driven by an attempt to atone. She considers herself forgiven.
“I don’t wrestle with that demon anymore,” she says.
She left the state capital eight years ago and, with the move, her street activism waned. She’ll drive to a protest a couple times a month, but mostly she sees her work continuing in her constant prayers.
She starts them the moment she wakes and continues them till she returns to sleep. She says them as she washes her hands and wanders the supermarket. She says them arranging flowers and walking the dog. She goes to Mass every day, even when she’s nearly the only one in the pews, even when the roof is pelted with rain and trees are seen bowing behind panes of stained glass.
When a draft of the Supreme Court opinion first leaked in May, Britton studiously read it, then wept and was filled with joy, then spent weeks praying and worrying about whether it would be realized. On Friday, she rose early and prayed. She was making waffles and bacon for her grandsons when the news broke on TV. She immediately felt washed over with a paralyzing happiness.
Her throat tightened. Tears welled. She felt numb all over.
Texts began to stream in from those she protested and worked beside. Abortions will continue, she knows, and her work continues too. As it sank in that the moment she spent years praying for had arrived, her prayer was brief.
“Thank you, Jesus!” she said.