It was a Saturday in May 1995. Pennie Vandenbroek prayerfully linked arms with about two dozen other men and women, blocking the entrance to what she described as a  “shabby little abortion clinic” in Los Angeles run by a doctor whose license was revoked.  

Those courageous witnesses for life were part of Operation Rescue. Founded by Randall Terry in 1986, Operation Rescue initially stopped the businesses of the abortion centers they targeted simply by blocking the entrances. “Customers” couldn’t come in.  

“All those  blocking the doors were arrested to save the lives of the unborn children scheduled to die that morning,” Vandenbroek said. “It gave mothers a chance to miss an appointment and hear that help was available to them.” 

Hundreds of men, women and youth gathered to pray and offer assistance to the mothers arriving for their appointment. Among them were sidewalk counselors in addition to the living blockade.

It’s the same theory as a house on fire: “People don’t hesitate to enter a (stranger’s) house to save someone’s life,” Vandenbroek said. A former Baptist, she wondered what people would think: she had broken the civil law. 

Witness what the prophet Pope Saint John Paul II said in the Gospel of Life: “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (Gospel of Life, 73). That was what Vandenbroek achieved. She used her conscience and her arms to object to the abortions taking place that Saturday morning. 

“Human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence,” the pope concluded (Gospel of Life, 72).

Pennie Vandenbroek

“Thou shalt not kill.” Pennie Vandenbroek kept that in mind, knowing full well she would receive a guilty verdict in a jury trial. Disobedience of an unjust law leads to martyrdom. Vandenbroek was prepared to accept the terms of community service and probation and then continue with her life. She didn’t expect anything more. 

The trial took place in October of 1995. Only eight chose to go to trial and they were sentenced to 200 hours of community service and three years probation. The rest paid their fines and went home. Vandenbroek wouldn’t pay a fine because it implied guilt.

“I was prepared to go so far, but no farther!” Vandenbroek said. But God had other plans for her. “He wanted me to see more deeply and first hand the harm abortion was doing to women.” She did her community service in Santa Barbara near where she lived. She found she could meet the legal requirements of her sentence and still volunteer 200 hours in a pro-life pregnancy counseling service.

On the way down to Los Angeles on April 17, 1996 to turn in her community service papers, Vandenbroek stopped for 6:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Camarillo, Calif. Vandenbroek had become a Catholic 11 days before at the Easter vigil. It was the Catholic witness  of her fellow pro-lifers that drew her into the church. “They knew their faith and read their Bibles. I knew nothing about the Rosary, but they could explain it to me. They prayed the Rosary reverently right out on the sidewalk.” 

The reading for the day was from Acts 12:1-17 about St. Peter in  prison.

On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter, secured by double chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison. Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying, “Get up quickly.” The chains fell from his wrists. The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.” So he followed him out, not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first guard, then the second, and came to the iron gate leading out to the city, which opened for them by itself. They emerged and made their way down an alley, and suddenly the angel left him.

Acts 12:6-10

“How many of you would be willing to stand up for your faith to the point of imprisonment?” the priest demanded during the homily, not realizing that Vandenbroek would experience incarceration and being freed from prison early very shortly. Vandenbroek herself in her thoughts rejoiced as she knew she wasn’t called to go to jail. “I later realized the Lord had been trying to prepare me for what lay ahead.”

For when she went before the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, the judge wouldn’t accept Vandenbroek’s community service. She implied that the pro-life mother and wife had served in a pregnancy counseling service to “spite” the judge. “This is ridiculous. You’ve done this to undermine my order,” Vandenbroek recalls the judge saying. “You have not learned your lesson. I will not accept your community service. I will send you to jail today!” 

And off she went to jail — that day. 

The only good news was she was sentenced to one year by the irate judge. But because of jail overcrowding and good behavior she only had to serve three months. The angels came and removed her chains early as had happened to Peter. 

During the three months she was there, Vandenbroek was locked in a room that was supposed to accommodate 50 women, but  because of overcrowding there were actually 150. At night she was aware of  the bathroom lights and the toilets flushing constantly because there were no doors on the bathrooms. Her new friends were prostitutes, thieves, drug addicts and women reputed to be aggressive who experienced same sex attraction. 

“Oh my,” I said. “Wasn’t it hell?”  “No,” Vandenbroek said. “It wasn’t hell because Jesus was there.” 

She was ushered into a holding cell where 30 other women were waiting for the bus that took inmates from the courthouse to the jail. “There I saw a young pregnant woman holding a blue plastic Rosary,” Vandenbroek said.  “This Rosary was like a beacon of light to me!” 

“Oh how nice, you have a Rosary,” Vandenbroek told the young woman. She  said someone had given it to her but she didn’t know anything about it. Vandenbroek asked, “Would you like me to tell you more about it?” The whole room went silent. 

“God had given me a captive audience for sharing the Gospel! I felt the Lord’s nearness, and that little room didn’t seem so bleak any more. As I explained the Apostle’s Creed to her, my own faith was reinforced. Our wonderful Lord was present with us there! And our Blessed Mother comforted us.” 

After the bus ride to the jail, there was another waiting room. Vandenbroek found herself sitting next to a tired older woman. “What are you in for?” the woman asked. “Praying in front of an abortion clinic,” Vandenbroek responded. “Well you are going to hate me then, honey. I’ve had nine abortions.” 

While Vandenbroek was stunned, she told the woman she was sorry she had experienced nine abortions. And then she asked if she could pray for her. “She began to cry, and said God had put me there for her. I prayed she would know the deep healing and forgiveness of Christ, and that she would see her babies someday in heaven,” Vandenbroek recalled.  

Vandenbroek became friends with a woman in jail named Joanie, who was  a married mother of five. She decided to abort her sixth child without her husband’s knowledge. She deeply regretted the abortion and became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a result. This led to petty crime to pay for her addiction.  

“She showed me pictures of her children. She wept for the losses and separation from her family. Once beautiful, she was a wreck physically,” Vandenbroek recalled. Joanie was Catholic and began to go to Mass every Sunday with Vandenbroek. “I was able to visit her husband in Malibu. I wrote to Joanie that he really did still love her and wanted her back home again.” 

One of the more delightful aspects of her time in jail was the Sunday afternoon teas she and her friends organized every week. The white and blue wrapping on their toilet paper rolls became a plate for a fine tea service. 

“We saved our coffee packets and our cookies from our sack lunches to serve as our tea,” Vandenbroek said. They invited eight girls every Sunday, but made sure to rotate the guest list. The invitations were made with pencils and paper towels. They read Chicken Soup for the Soul and other devotionals at their tea. They had to be prepared to disburse at a moment’s notice as it was illegal to hang out in that large of a crowd around someone’s bunk. 

“The dark sin of abortion had brought many of us inside those jail walls. God had a plan to rescue many of the women there from the inner pain and guilt that had been eating them up. Word got out quickly why I was there,” Vandenbroek recalled. Her new roommates told her their abortion stories, and she shared God’s mercy with them. Many times she heard them say, “God put you here for me.”  

Their stories included teen pregnancy, abortion, heartbreak, drugs, alcohol, theft and prostitution. This path led to jail and friendship with Pennie Vandenbroek. “I had not realized the extent of the harm done by abortion in young women’s lives until I lived among these wounded women.” 

“Far from empowering women, their abortions led to depression, lack of self respect and inner sorrow for the killing of their child,” Vandenbroek said. They had not been offered any real help for healing.  

She also befriended women involved in same sex relationships in jail. She had heard they were aggressive and it was one of the reasons she feared the L.A. jail. “As I got to know women individually, heard their stories, I saw this as another devastating connection to abortion. Women who had been used and trashed by evil men were more vulnerable to what they saw as a form of love that felt safe to them.”

“Please pray for me Pennie!” said the young gender confused woman who bunked next to Vandenbroek. “She finally had enough courage to come to Mass with me before I was released.” 

Vandenbroek found most of the women in jail could date their criminal behavior to an earlier abortion. “Is it any wonder that the incarceration rates of women have risen over 700 percent since abortion was legalized in 1973?” Literally abortion is turning wives and mothers into criminals.

Vandenbroek quoted Carrie Gress, co-author of Theology of the Home. “Women have been destroyed by the culture through the tossing aside of both virginity and motherhood. Or more specifically the casual disposal of the true model of womanhood — the Virgin Mother.”

Today Pennie Vandenbroek is a prayer warrior in Project Rachel in Tyler. She and her husband, Martin, moved to Tyler last year because of the strong pro-life witness of Bishop Joseph Strickland against the Covid-19 vaccine. 

She recalled that when she met the bishop, he said in these dark days, many are called to martyrdom. “I’m not afraid. Whatever God calls us to do, he gives us the grace to deal with it,” Vandenbroek concluded.

By Susan Fox

Susan Fox is a former investigative reporter, who worked for several daily newspapers and a newswire in the 1980s and 90s, including the San Francisco Examiner and the San Diego Union, under her maiden name Susan Burkhardt. She won many awards for her work then, which was in the area of finance, economics and business reporting. In 2019, she received a Master’s in Marriage and Family from the pontifical school ITI Catholic University in Trumau, Austria. Her Catholic blog, https://christsfaithfulwitness.blogspot.com, has over 4.7 million page views since 2012.