Toronto Aid to Women volunteers are a candle in the darkness for mothers and babies in crisis

Tom Brown takes finger signs in stride when he’s outside a downtown Toronto abortuary. “Thumbs up” is supportive, and “a finger in the air” is not. A foot soldier working on the front lines of the pro-life movement to counter the culture of death in abortuaries, he paces the sidewalk for five busy hours, one day a week, handing out about 100 pieces of literature. His favorite one is, “She’s a Child, Not a Choice.”

A retired businessman, Tom has been picketing and counselling for the last 14 years, since the 1984 Morgentaler abortuary opening. Until he retired four years ago, he would do four hours weekly, planning his business appointments around that time.

He makes this generous commitment because, he says, “I strongly believe that a public witness outside the abortuary is indispensable. It tells motorists and passers-by what goes on inside, and that we still care about babies being aborted and what happens to their mothers.” Of his vigil, he confides, “It’s hard work, and I’m drained when I get home, but it’s one way I can contribute regularly to the pro-life cause.”

A handful of foot soldiers like Tom, who also have been picketing for 14 years, still come: Stella (just turned 80), Mike (close to 70), George, Hettie, Anne, Barbara (Tom’s wife), and the feisty Burnie sisters (recently retired). Other dedicated picketers have come and gone, offering their time and prayers as a sign of peaceful pro-life activism.

Occasionally, good things do happen on the street. Hettie Boot, a long-time picketer and counsellor like Tom, comes once a week for half a day. Her sign says, “Abortion stops a beating heart. Please let me live.” Often saddened by seeing so many women enter the abortuary, she laments that so many babies will never “see the light.” Then she tells about a recent incident.

A young couple, with heads down, left the abortuary for the streetcar stop nearby. Seeing them come out of the abortuary, Hettie approached them offering a pamphlet. They paused, so she opened it to pictures of the developing baby. The couple stopped short.

Then Hettie said, “You know God creates life and we are not allowed to kill it.” Tears welled in the young woman’s eyes, but the man seemed unshaken. Quietly, she told them that a pregnancy involves the life of a growing baby, and that abortion ends that life. She also told them about Aid to Women.

A short time later, as the streetcar approached, the young man accepted her pamphlet. Then he looked straight at her, and said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going through with it.” For picketers and counsellors, a moment like this is a candle in the darkness.

Aid to Women offers help to women who change their minds about abortion. It is a branch of The Way Inn, established after the Morgentaler abortuary opening in 1984. Joanne Dieleman is the director, assisted by Dick Cochrane, and more recently by Robert Hinchey.

From her long experience in working with women in crisis, Joanne finds that in their hearts, most don’t want an abortion, but they don’t know what else to do.

That is why the centre’s mandate is to help a woman before she has an abortion. She says that many resort to abortion because of social, financial, or legal problems, including abandonment or abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend; estrangement from family and friends; fear of social disgrace; lack of money for food and rent; unemployment; irregular immigrant status, or just plain loneliness and isolation, leading to despair.

Whatever her troubles, each woman is accepted and helped according to her problems and needs. About a dozen women come in to talk to counsellors. Not all of their eventual decisions are known, but Joanne estimates that two women a week will decide to have their babies. Last year, close to 100 babies were saved.

Robert Hinchey, who assists Joanne, finds that education about the humanity of the child they are carrying is a moment of truth for pregnant mothers in distress. He gives them medical information about the growth and development of their baby, using life-like fetal models, slides, and videos. He says, “Most of all, we assure them that they will never be alone and that we are here to help them before and after the baby comes.”

Pictures of saved babies adorn the office of Aid to Women. Among them are Stephanie and Jacqueline, whose mothers were helped by the centre.

Stephanie’s mother Ruth, 29, was a mother of three experiencing an abusive marriage. Having been told that she should have an abortion or she’d likely lose her children to foster care, she was referred indirectly to Aid to Women through the popular Christian TV program, 100 Huntley Street. She and her Children’s Aid Society social worker met with Joanne, and a strange thing happened during the course of the visit.

In the next room, Lois, a mother previously helped by the centre, had dropped in to show Joanne the latest picture of her saved baby. Robert told Ruth that Joanne was next door counselling. Lois invited herself in to speak her mind.

“Are you thinking about an abortion?” she asked. “It won’t solve your problems. I had problems too, and here they helped me with them. Problems are no reason to kill your baby. See, look at my baby.”

The social worker had been inclined toward abortion, but eventually came around, and gave CAS approval for Joanne to help Ruth.

Several months later, beautiful, blond, blue-eyed Stephanie was born. Of the help she received, Ruth says, “God bless this good woman. She stuck her neck out for me with the CAS before and after my delivery, and even came to see me in hospital. She still helps me emotionally with my three other kids.”

Then there is Sewranie, 41, also in an abusive marriage and abandoned by her husband. Living close to the abortuary, she often noticed picketers with their signs and the Aid to Women phone number posted outside.

As a teenager, Sewranie had three abortions. Told that she was carrying “extra tissue,” she recalls always feeling bad afterward, “but I didn’t know anything about the baby inside me.” She was ill during her other pregnancies and that was the reason her doctor suggested abortions.

“But when Robert told me that my baby’s heart began beating from the start, that’s when I decided against abortion,” she recalls. Seven months ago, perfect little Jacqueline was born.

Ruth, Sewranie, and their babies are examples of why picketers and counsellors are so important. Joanne says, “We never have enough of them. Even if someone can commit one hour a week or a month, it helps. You never know the effect they can have on changing a troubled woman’s mind about abortion.”