When Karen and James Hanlon of Langley B.C. were married four years ago, little did they know that after only one year of marriage, they would be abruptly separated and sent to jail. In fact, that’s where James spent Christmas of 1989.

Their “crime”? Disobeying a court injunction prohibiting pro-lifers from picketing or rescuing outside the Everywoman’s Health Center, a newly opened Vancouver abortuary in January 1989.

Their action was intended to help mothers and save babies from death.

For their efforts, each received several jail terms, a total of four months for Karen and ten for Jim. Still, they say they’ve been blessed for their sacrifices.

Those difficult months are now behind the, now, and this Christmas they’re at a peaceful retreat center in Combermere, Ontario. They began an eighteen month stay here last March, to work, pray and discern God’s will for them in their pro-life apostolate and to establish spiritual roots as a family.

James works as the assistant editor of the Nazareth Catholic Journal, a Catholic quarterly which celebrates family life and its strengths. Their home is a small, simple house, not far from the Madonna House community, an international spiritual resource center established over fifty years ago by Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty. She was a prominent Catholic writer and activist who dedicated her life to the poor and helping people grow spiritually.

Pro-life beginnings

James and Karen met as university students at a prayer meeting in Vancouver in the mid 1980s. They found they had much in common. Both came from Irish Catholic families. Karen and her identical twin sister are the oldest of the four children and James is the youngest of six. Both love music (Karen plays the clarinet, violin and play guitar and sing) and each was taught at home to put their faith into action.

James attended Simon Fraser university for two years but decided to transfer to Mount Angel Seminary, in Oregon, because he thought he might have a vocation to the priesthood. After graduation, with a degree in English and Philosophy, he changed his mind and returned to Langley – and to Karen.

In the meantime, Karen had graduated from the University of British Columbia and was working on a one year psychology research project in the cognitive development of children. When it ended, she decided to become a teacher “because next to the parent the teacher is the most important person to help a child learn a develop emotionally and spiritually.”

After obtaining her teaching certificate, she taught elementary school while James went into for himself. With a friend he formed a painting contract business called “Sons of Thunder.” They did very well in Vancouver during the boom of the 1980s, but that would soon change.

In the mid ‘80’s life was sweet and unfolding as it should for Karen and James, both in their mid twenties. They were married in June’88. In their spare time they volunteers with Birthright, stuffing envelopes, answering telephones and doing pregnancy tests. Earlier, one summer when both were counselors at a camp, Karen had attended a  pro-life talk and saw the video Assignment Life. She recalls, “It struck me that abortion was killing people. I realized I had to get involved.” However, if someone had suggested that they would go to jail someday for the preborn, she would have replied, “No, I could never handle that.”

Occasionally, they attended pro-life rallies and picketed regularly, but they did not consider themselves street activists. They were not in the first “Operation Rescue” and only joined the second one on February 7, 1989, when asked the evening before. Karen was supposed to take several children to the Vancouver Symphony a few days later. She expected to do so, thinking she’d only miss one day of school. It was not to be. She and James were arrested with 104 other pro-lifers and spent a month in jail in pre-trial arrest for refusing to sign a document promising not to return to the abortuary.

The second Vancouver Operation Rescue made the national TV news. Rosemary Hanlon, mother of James, was visiting Ottawa at the time. While watching the evening news, she recognized her ed pick-up truck parked in front of the abortuary. James had borrowed it to transport pro-lifers to the abortuary. Needless to say, she quickly came home to retrieve it. Not long after, she, too, rescued and eventually went to jail for four months, overlapping time with Karen and James.

The newlyweds came home from jail to a welcome of yellow ribbons and hugs but their consciences would not let them rest: they decided to return to the abortuary the next day. Accompanied by David Forsyth, an associate pastor at  New Life Community Church in Burnaby, they each got three months in jail for their efforts. It would not be the last jail term for David and James. Again, after their eventual release the two young men returned to rescue, but on different dates. This time David got four months and James got sixth months in jail.


This was a difficult time of separation Karen recalls, but she believes that he angels protected them during their several incarcerations, served with murderers and other dangerous criminals. During her term of four months, she worked in the sewing room making uniforms for male prisoners. Often she’d think, “I wonder if James will ever wear this uniform.”

In another location James was serving his term where he was allowed to bring in a small portable computer. He and David, together at first but later in separate jails decided to use their time usefully by writing a book on Operation Rescue, explaining its higher meaning and its justification from Scripture. They depended on Karen to c-ordinate the writing, editing and proof reading. She obliged by using her spare time after teaching school all day to commute between both jails to help the complete their inspiring book, The Heart of Rescuing.

The idea of a prisoner writing a book was a bit of a novelty to other prisoners and to some guars, even though they may not have agreed with the pro-life view. One prison manager, a Christian, encouraged James to finish the manuscript. Upon his release, James brought this man, much to his delight, a signed copy of the published book.

Christmas in jail

It was during the end of James’ six month stay that he found himself in jail for Christmas. He applied for a visitors pass to go home but the authorities refused it, except on the condition he sign a document promising not to return to the abortuary. In fact, he would have been released immediately. Not about to surrender his principle, James spent Christmas in jail with thieves and drug pushers. Karen and his mother Rosemary visited him for two hours, bringing him a Christmas stocking from fellow parishioners. They opened each gift and then replaced it in the stocking which Karen took home. He was not allowed to keep it.

After his release on January 1990, unbelievably James once more returned to rescue at the abortuary for three days. The usually busy place, was very quiet except for one lone woman who approached the abortuary door without a word. He tried to talk to her and as she was about to enters, he blocked the door entrance. She walked around the building and left. To his knowledge, she did not return and he hopes that he might have saved her baby. To his astonishment there were no police around. He doesn’t know why but he believes he was blessed. He rescued with impunity.

After this, Karen and James decided to rest from rescuing. Karen was teaching school and James accepted a position with Focus on the Family, a Christian radio network, where he stayed one year. To their joy, on January 9, 1992, they had a baby, Katie.

Their stay in the quiet rural area of Combermere has not cut them off from pro-life events. Last June they came to Toronto to attend the Save the Planet’s People’s Conference where they gave a talk (also on tape), describing and reflecting on their jail experiences. Last fall they went to Saskatchewan to speak at a pro-life conference and, from there, took a side trip home of six weeks.

They’re now back in the little town of Combermere surrounded by snowy hills and quiet countryside.

They’ll spend their first Christmas here, as a family, in a small house close to James’ place of work. It’s called Nazareth House.

The tensions of 1989 are gone, vanquished by the serenity of this spiritual setting that fosters peace and love – like a Christmas of old.

(The Heart of Rescuing – Following Christ opposing abortion, is available for $5.00 (includes postage) from Interim Publishing Co.)