|Dan McCash looked at the stylishly dressed woman, who was visibly in the last trimester of her pregnancy. Accompanied by a slim darker-skinned escort, she was headed through the entrance to Morgentaler’s Toronto abortuary. McCash stood outside in the cold damp snow. To one side of him stood his son, John, and to the other side stood pro-life activist Joanne Dieleman – a veteran sidewalk counsellor. Desperate to save the woman and her child, the elder McCash dropped to his knees. He did not think about what came next. He only heard himself cry out with a deep Scottish brogue: “Please, you don’t have to kill your baby. We can help you.”
Startled, the woman broke down in tears, turned around, and rushed over to where Dan was standing. Not the visibly pregnant woman, but her darker-skinned housekeeper whom the McCash family later discovered to be an undocumented immigrant. The stylishly dressed woman had no intention of terminating her pregnancy; it was the hired help’s baby whom she wanted to abort. “I was surprised,” said Dan. “I thought the Jamaican woman was the escort.”
Father and son convinced the immigrant to keep her child. She came home with them that afternoon and would spend the next few months living with the McCash family. During that time, the family helped her settle and prepare for the birth of her baby. Soon after the child’s birth, Dan would attend the baptism as godfather.
This is one of the many stories Dan and John relate from their days as sidewalk counsellors. The father-and-son team began their journey into pro-life activism back in 1983, shortly after Henry Morgentaler illegally opened his Toronto abortuary. “I had just been at Cursillo and was looking to become more active in my Catholic faith,” Dan said.
That’s when he heard about the abortuary opening up a couple blocks from where he worked. “As a Catholic, I always knew that abortion was wrong,” Dan said. So he would go down to the abortuary on his lunch break and counsel men and women thinking of aborting their child. John was just starting Grade 9 at St. Michael’s College School and, within the year, he joined his father and Joanne after school in front of the abortuary.
“Being a little older, I was often teamed with John,” said Joanne. “He was very compassionate, but being such a young man, he could let his enthusiasm get the better of him.” John’s temperament was just like that of his father, Joanne laughs. “I have seen Dan kneeling in front of a young woman on knees and pleading with her not to go in,” she said.
Joanne and Dan often found themselves arrested while sidewalk counselling. “After a while, the police knew us by name,” she says. The police would arrest the team, bring them down to the station, then let them go after the abortuary closed for the day. “I would usually go quiet,” Joanne says, “but John, in his enthusiasm, would keep talking pro-life.” Joanne says the police generally got a kick out of John, the young teenager, but sometimes they told him “to stop talking.” The young man would nevertheless keep sharing the pro-life message until he was convinced there was nobody to talk to, at which point he would begin praying the Rosary.
John viewed his arrests as an opportunity to share the pro-life message. He was 13 at the time of his most memorable arrest, which came during the September of his first year in high school. Unbeknown to him at the time, police had arrested his father just after John left for school. “I was lying in bed in my pyjamas when they showed up,” Dan said. Police had been alerted after an abortionist ran over Dan near the abortuary while leaving the night before. John had witnessed the incident.
Just before morning announcements, John was called down to the principal’s office. As John entered the office, he noticed two large police officers who immediately tried to handcuff him. John recalls the school principal’s reaction. “Fr. McCabe told the police: ‘You are not going to handcuff him. There’s no danger.’” Yet, John was even more impressed by the reaction of Fr. Monk, a Ukrainian Catholic priest and teacher at the school who was monitoring the halls during morning prayers. “As the police were leading me out of the school, Fr. Monk turned to them with his big ruler and said: ‘This is prayer time. You will stop and respect God.’” The police muttered obscenities under their breath, John recalls, but they nevertheless stopped.
Later, John would be acquitted of the charges. Yet, John was more happy about the opportunity this incident provided to share the pro-life message with his teachers and fellow students. “Naturally, they all questioned me about what happened,” he said. “So I became a witness. This was a starting point for me to invite them down to the Morgentaler clinic to sidewalk counsel.”
From this incident, John recruited other students into the pro-life movement. There was a whole group of young people who would come out after school, Joanne said. “We became witnesses for life,” said John. “I was proud of knowing my son shared my conviction regarding the sanctity of life,” said Dan.
While John and Dan have since moved on in their pro-life focus, both father and son still cherish the time they shared as sidewalk counsellors. It was an opportunity to save babies by working one-on-one with women contemplating abortion, they said. Now, they still discuss the pro-life issue with vigour, just in a different setting. But their convictions remained, forged no doubt in the tumultuous 1980s.
Dan is currently an estate planner and is still actively involved in the pro-life movement. John, who is also still involved, is married and has four sons.