Signs from a Peculiar Institution: An Interview with Dr. Mark Waters

Dr. Mark Waters is a vibrantly pro-life professor who teaches English at McHenry County College. Recently, he published his first book, Signs from a Peculiar Institution, inspired by his experiences praying outside a local abortion clinic. In an interview with Illinois Right to Life, Dr. Waters explains why his book, Signs from a Peculiar Institution, is so profound and how it can offer a unique perspective for pro-lifers and non-pro-lifers alike. 

#1 What prompted you to write this book? Can you explain this in detail?

The answer to this isn’t straightforward.  I didn’t set out to write a book.  I didn’t initially intend to write at all.  Nor was witnessing and praying weekly at an abortion clinic a plan of mine.  I went to the Rockford clinic to do a good deed during Lent of 2010.  A group from my parish suggested going, so I thought, Why not? But what began as almost an accident quickly became an urgency, which later I came to understand as a Grace.  

When I started going to this clinic I discovered a warm and loving Christian community, people who understood the power of sacrifice, prayer, generosity, and the endurance it takes to overcome an obstinate evil like abortion.  I also witnessed the animated hostility and degradation of the abortion business and its sympathizers.  The windows of the clinic displayed profane signs and images.  More than one window, for instance, had rubber chickens hanging from nooses.  One of these lynched chickens hung from a crucifix.  In my first weeks at the clinic, there was an abortion supporter, a man of retirement age, who carried a sign that said, “Condoms for Christ.”  He wasn’t assisting anyone or handing anything out; instead he would parade and wave his sign while shouting over the sidewalk counselors who would be explaining options to pregnant women.  He came simply to mock and disrupt our real and immediate assistance for mothers, fathers, and babies.  

So as the book’s title indicates, I saw signs of both an altruistic presence along with an absurd one, and I knew I had to start writing this down.  I was moved.  After returning from Rockford each Friday, I would sit in the Eucharistic adoration chapel at my parish and write down what happened.  These weren’t chronological accounts but something like essays, vignettes.  These essays eventually became the book.  

#2 What is the overarching message you wanted the book to highlight?

Most abortion discussions quickly devolve into tactical arguments, battles of ideas.  But abortion isn’t just an idea to argue.  It’s something that really happens.  Fully alive human beings are dismembered or eviscerated, other human beings actually do this dismembering, and real women—mostly young women—have to live with its physiological and psychological impact their entire lives, coldly comforted by some slogan or something less, a platitude perhaps.  

I quickly found, however, that when you’re at a place that performs abortions, when you see sobbing or distraught women entering the building week after week with great reluctance, when you hear very imposing men shouting at female companions to “Shut the F*** UP!” then you see abortion’s platitudes of “choice” and “freedom” explode and disintegrate, then you recognize the euphemisms of “healthcare” and “reproductive rights” for all their absurdity.  In writing this book, I wasn’t trying to shape a particular message or craft an argument, I simply tried to help readers see what was actually taking place at this strange building on the corner of Broadway and 10th Street in Rockford, IL.  

#3 You talked a bit about how you feel about the words “pro-life” near the end of the book. Can you expand on that?

I tend to be wary of labels.  They don’t make distinctions, and so they don’t necessarily mean much.  Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem couldn’t be further apart in idea and action, but they are both called “feminists.”  So then what does this phrase really mean?  Similarly, many people call themselves “pro-life.”  For example, a woman who volunteers at pregnancy centers, goes to marches, and educates and encourages people she knows can be called pro-life.  While at the same time an elected official who doesn’t introduce life-protecting legislation, doesn’t educate himself and others on life issues, doesn’t speak up for the unborn if it means compromising money for road construction in his district, and doesn’t pray for the unborn can waive the “pro-life” flag when he’s campaigning.  The label itself doesn’t tell us much.  Growing up, my dad used to say: “Don’t tell me; show me.”  What we do and how we live matter much more than what we call ourselves.  

#4  When it came to light that the Rockford Clinic was so unkempt and had so many hazards, did that surprise you, or did you expect that this was the case?

We had heard accounts from people who’d been in the clinic that led us to believe that it was failing to comply with required medical standards.  Such accounts were corroborated by the egregious and conspicuous neglect of the building’s exterior and the belligerent behavior of its landlord/security guard.  But really I don’t think any audit by the Illinois Department of Public Health could ever begin to account for the depth of human depravity or the darkness of mind and heart inside the Rockford clinic.   

There is a hubris about the abortion industry generally and this clinic particularly that can shock people, me included.  You just can’t believe that so-called “medical professionals” could commit such acts of violence, neglect, and greed toward other human beings.  Observe this industry long enough and you’ll hear account after account of abortion doctors or clinic workers who act with flippant disregard for the well being of their patients or who maliciously abuse them.  One woman described how, in so many words, her abortionist told her to shut up and then had his assistants pin her down while he performed the procedure.  According to a grand jury report, former Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell would only administer anesthesia to white patients, leaving black patients to the deficiencies of unlicensed and untrained employees (one of whom was a high school student).  A former worker at the Planned Parenthood in Aurora, the third biggest abortion clinic in the US, told us that the staff there refers to its pregnant clients as “the cattle line.”  

Abortion is first and foremost a business, one that violently kill babies for money. It exploits women at their most vulnerable moments, it profits off of dysfunctional relationships, and it sweeps all this human carnage under the rug of euphemism, calling it “choice,” or “healthcare” or “rights.”  Many if not most people want to believe this euphemism.  Who really wants to lift the rug and see the filth?  Abortion clinics in Illinois are have very little oversight.  The Rockford clinic went 15 years before it was finally inspected by the Illinois Department of Public Health.  During this inspection all three of its surgical rooms were deemed unsanitary, a “brown substance” was found on surgical equipment as well as an open box of surgical gloves, and it was discovered that its autoclave machine (which sanitizes the medical instruments) had been undergoing quarterly rather than the required weekly inspection and had failed this inspection on at least two occasions.  These infractions only topped the list. When the IDPH findings were made available, The Rockford Register Star didn’t report the specific violations.  Months later when the clinic finally closed, they printed an article eulogizing it.  Those of us who knew better eulogized what the clinic did to the women and children of Rockford.    

#5  Is there anything else you would like readers to know about this book?

Yes there is.  You might think: Abortion book—heavy, depressing.  At times, perhaps.  But the book is also filled with levity.  As odd as it sounds, there’s actually humor here, absurdity, ribaldry, irony, irony, irony.  So the book laughs, smiles, shakes it head and chuckles at the absurdity.  Some of this is gallows humor, like a quip that lightens the mood at a funeral.  Some are just strange or unexpected hijinks.  On one occasion, for instance, the Rockford PD sent six or seven squad cars to handle a parking complaint.  Apparently they needed a second (or third or . . . seventh) opinion on the matter.  After about 20 minutes of vigilant deliberation, a sergeant came over to tell us that they had come to a decision: “We’ve decided to call our supervisor.”  For all I know, they might still be there trying to figure it out.  (It’s okay to laugh at this; no cars were hurt.)  

This is not Fr. Pavone’s book, not Abby Johnson’s book, not the abortion book you’ve read already.  Not the spiritual memoir you’re so familiar with.  I was not trying to replicate what had been done already.  Ultimately, the book became something I never could have planned myself because my experience there didn’t follow any plan.  It became something I couldn’t have foreseen.  When you see mother after mother ignore you and walk in for abortions, when you can’t immediately see the effects of your presence or your prayers, it’s easy to think, “What’s the point?”  “What good am I doing here?”  But if you trust God—and His Mother, who he gave us as an intercessor—then you start to understand how spiritual conversion begins with personal effacement—difficult humility. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase; I must decrease.”  There has to be a surrender to God, to his power.  And so the book is a spiritual journey, like the ones we’re so familiar with. Yahweh sent Moses not only to free the Israelites but to free himself.  Well, God sent his people to transform that abortion clinic but he also sent them to be transformed, to be reformed and redeemed. With God there is always more.