Have things looked bleaker than they do today with assisted suicide and euthanasia recently legalized, abortion available on demand, embryonic stem cell research, designer babies, and organ harvesting for transplants already underway. Is there hope for the pro-life cause today? Perhaps the long perspective of someone who participated at the frontlines can shed some light on the nature of the life and family issues of our day.
Campaign Life Coalition’s Matt Wojciechowski recently interviewed Joanne Dieleman, seeking her insights on the history of the pro-life cause. Matt asked Joanne about how and why she became involved in pro-life activism and what she has learned from those battles. In this article, we explore some of the main themes raised in the interview.
Joanne explained that from a very early age she was exposed to war and its negative experiences. She was born in the Netherlands and was only three-and-a-half when World War II broke out. She recalls how important family was: “The only grandparent I had was killed in the bombardment of Rotterdam … My parents were very staunch protestant Christians, some things you could do and some things you couldn’t do … I received a very strong sense of what was right and wrong.”
Joanne learned about self-sacrifices for principles even at her young age. Her uncle was killed for giving refuge to Jews. She remembers how her dad was very much against hiding the Jews because of the risks involved, and he told the family: “you see, this is what happens when you break the law, that’s what happens when you put your life in danger, look at his wife and children now.” Joanne remarks, “funny how that makes a base for the rest of your life, right?” It was quite a lesson but it did not prevent her from doing what is right in life.
The Jewish issue was not that well known or talked about during the war. It was only after the war that information about that particular tragedy began to surface. She wonders if some people today behave in a similar fashion when it comes to abortion.
After the war, grown up, Joanne studied nursing, feeling called to care for people, especially the elderly. At the entry level of the life cycle, she had little exposure to abortion. She heard about the rare occurrence on the hospital’s emergency floor of someone who had attempted a self-abortion. It surprised her: “I never knew why they would do that.”
Joanne had her own epiphany on abortion, seeing it as immoral, and decided she had to do something about it. She recounted her own personal experience in carrying a child while she had German measles and her doctor suggested she have an abortion: “I looked at him and said, ‘so what’s going to happen?’ He told me that the baby might be handicapped. So I asked, ‘might be? Well why don’t we wait until the baby is born and if he’s handicapped, we’ll kill him then.’ The doctor said, ‘You can’t do that,’ so I said ‘what makes you think you can do it now’?” She felt very bad that she had a doctor that thought that it was all right to kill her preborn child. She changed her doctor immediately. That child today is a father of four children, has a Master’s degree, and is doing fine.
It was in the early 1980s that she began receiving letters from Jim Hughes about a meeting in downtown Toronto. Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) had just started up and her first bit of activism was to send letters to Members of Parliament. The responses she received made her realize what these elected officials were thinking. It was hard for her to comprehend.
That was quite a contrast to the situation today. As she put it: “It’s funny but today I think children grow up different, they know that abortion is an issue, [but] not when I was young …back then there was never any preaching about it or anything like that. It was just not being done.”
Family, as mentioned earlier, was always central to the Dielemans, and circumstances and love expanded that family. Now married in Canada to Adrian, the Dieleman household hosted 251 foster children over a 21-year span, with two of those children being adopted by the Dielemans. The larger family circle was accepted and the kids also understood why their parents did it.
The Dielemans had to make many adjustments and many sacrifices to give them an education that respected their own religious and moral principles. Eventually, they moved to Toronto and did emergency (foster) placement for four years, fostering children with love and responsibility. Sometimes it meant legal involvement, testifying in some court cases. As hectic and demanding as it was, Joanne could not think of doing otherwise.
Joanne found herself one day answering a phone call from someone informing her that abortionist Henry Morgentaler had come to Toronto and that people were being asked to picket him. This was the first time that Joanne would be taking part in street activism. She says that she will never forget it. It was a very hard thing to do at first, but she was buoyed by the people she met on the picket line. Friendships were forged and a sense of solidarity developed. Joanne says: “you become a group of people that have one thing in mind and you walk around with a stick and sign all day,..you walk around and you talk to people, you talk to like-minded people, and then we got involved with CLC.”
Joanne recalls those days with fondness, ordinary people coming together, braving whatever weather, and whatever public counter protests to stand up for the innocent and fight to keep abortion out of the city. How inspiring was the example of a local resident who stood by the clinic’s door with her home-made sign. She had never heard of Campaign Life Coalition, she had never heard of the pro-life movement. She had read in the paper that Morgentaler was going to open an abortion mill in the neighbourhood, and she made a sign and she came on her own to stand there. Joanne described the power of solidarity: “She was so surprised that there were another hundred people that believed with her, can you imagine the bond that you start having with these people…. what Fernanda Lino, that was her name, actually did was, bring coffee, bring food for people, that became her thing. She did not carry a sign very often but she came in.”
Eventually, as abortion facilities were being established, it was not enough to just picket the facilities. To counter accusations that the pro-lifers did not help the women in need, it was decided that pro-lifers would start a crisis pregnancy centre. Aid to Women came into being through CLC.
Through the efforts of Rev. Ken Campbell a coffee house and counselling center was set up on Harbord Street near Morgentaler’s. But, when the board of his church withdrew its support because the project was costly financially and supposedly not having much impact, he arranged for Joanne to take over the Way Inn and so it became known as Aid to Woman/The Way Inn. According to Joanne, the Way Inn people did the picketing, and Aid to Women personnel provided the counselling. The pro-abort advocates obtained an injunction (prohibiting picketers to 30 feet from the abortion door). Joanne decided to challenge the injunction by having a yard sale of picket signs. She was promptly arrested for her troubles.
Although the police were friendly and respectful at first (Joanne joked that the police at 53 Division even knew that she took coffee with only cream), they became tough and started to lay charges against the counsellors who were breaking the injunction. The pro-lifers then moved the operation to Gerrard Street. Aid to Women was directed by Dick Cochrane who did the counselling, while Joanne looked after the picketers at the Way Inn. They collaborated effectively and eventually they found a rental space right beside an abortuary. Aid to Women has been there now for nearly 30 years. None of the counsellors or other helpers got paid. They were all volunteers, and Joanne believes “that made a difference”. On a daily basis, there were always 10-20 witnesses and counsellors at Aid to Women. Slowly, as Ken Campbell and Dick Cochrane moved on, Joanne took over the whole operation.
In many respects, Aid to Women represents the culmination of Joanne’s activism for pro-life. It was a way of helping, healing, saving babies and mothers, in most unusual circumstances, all done despite the injunction of the 30-foot bubble zone, in very creative ways, and against great odds. For example, not having funds, they “hired” Robert Hinchey who lived at the counselling centre itself. Being a charitable organization but involved in activism, Aid to Women was harassed with regular audits by the Canadian Revenue Agency. It was the target of a television investigative report on the public affairs program W5. The attention frightened some people and buses stopped coming in to bring picketers and other prayer witnesses.
The 30-foot injunction forced counsellors to stay outside the bubble zone. Joanne had her strategy of walking “clients” through the zone and then leaving them. (At other abortion facilities, Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner stayed in the zone and got arrested, but for a reason other than disobeying the injunction. They were charged with obstructing a police officer when they were instructed to leave but refused to do so. They were never charged with breaking the injunction, because then that injunction would come to court.)
It was hard work, but it yielded good results. On average, two women per week changed their mind and chose to carry on with their pregnancy and have their child. Records were kept.
There was a court case over the charges related to the injunction and sidewalk counselling. Joanne recalls that it was a long, grueling trial, with some of the toughest pro-abortion lawyers out to get them. Joanne withstood several days of questioning by Clayton Ruby and Morris Manning, some 17 hours and 3500 questions. Their effort was to try to nail Joanne with the charge of harassment of the women going to the abortion mill for an abortion. In fact, Joanne got arrested, sometimes, a few times a week.
In the middle of this tribulation their son, Adrian, was in a accident that left him paralyzed. Life has many unexpected twists and turns. During an all-night vigil, Joanne was walking in front of Aid to Women all alone when she was joined by an older lady. They shared their stories about their families. The lady told Joanne that she had three handicapped children. She related to her the achievements of her handicapped children but had not seen her two other children in years. The latter had left the church, no longer believing in God. The stranger said to Joanne, “now you tell me, which were the angels, which were the miracle children that we had?” Joanne never saw the lady again.
Joanne got involved in counselling, in response to a telephone call from an angry, frustrated, and distraught woman: ‘‘I’m pregnant, and my boyfriend has left me…you’re just sitting there, and you’re not doing anything for me.” Joanne took up the challenge, arranging to meet with the woman who was carrying twins. She had other problems and was in need. Joanne says that that was actually the start of “‘we need to do something’… No mother kills her own children, they just don’t. Once that woman comes to the realization that she killed her own child, she has to live with that for the rest of her life.” There were many sad stories like that, and the aftermath for those who went in and got the abortion and the awful reality and guilt which tormented them. Many cannot get over that, and Joanne noted that there are so many young people nowadays who commit suicide because there is something in their life that is shameful and to them unforgiveable. She says that the main focus of her work at Aid to Women was to help women change their minds about having an abortion that would have such long-lasting effects on them.
As one ages, they slow down and need to pace themselves and also make room for younger people who can take up the cause. When a supporter named Lillian died, she left to Aid to Women $35,000 in her will. This bounty allowed Joanne to retire from being the executive director of Aid to Women and the board of directors was able to hire someone to continue the life-saving work. By this time, the Dielemans had moved to Grimsby, Ont., a small city in the Niagara Region.
Various pro-life organizations including CLC got together to hold a wonderful retirement party for Joanne in 2004, one memorable for the people who showed up and a totally deserving celebration of a life of selfless service to the unborn and their mothers. But like a true trooper, Joanne has continued to be involved in various ways with the pro-life movement, not just serving on the editorial advisory board of The Interim, but in her own local community. She recognizes that the issues just keep piling up. Now approaching 80, Joanne feels the relentless pressure of the dangerous new developments, whether euthanasia, or the prospect of gestational laws to regulate the abortion problem.
To keep busy, and active in her community, she assists at the Ontario Christian Gleaners, a mission program that provides meals in the form of soup to thousands of people. The simple act of making soup helps change lives. She explains: “these people, these mission organizations, come back to us and tell us what they’ve done with it, with videos and pictures, at least twice a week they are there to show you … they’ve taken our soup to feed the people, but in the meantime, they have programs, and it’s really interesting, plus there are all these people with gray hair, and they love being there, and they are all Christian, and they are all talking together, and it’s a great outreach for retired people.”
Of course, Joanne remembers getting a bowl of soup when she was a child in World War II, and sees these kids at Gleaners doing the same thing. To her it’s a perfect circle. Within that perfect circle of service and sustenance are her family, her church, and her devotion to life.
In Joanne’s eyes the only sad thing about the present situation is that people have awareness of the wickedness of certain human behaviour, but very few do anything about it. Even as a grandmother she has kept up and is on Facebook and has hundreds of Facebook friends and keeps in touch, but the others – she can’t understand the lack of any action, even something simple as writing a letter to the editor or to a local MP.
According to Joanne: “there is a law. Thou shalt not kill. That’s it. That’s God’s law and that’s the law that we need. And if they say that it’s legal to have an abortion, I say it’s not legal. I cannot kill you and you cannot kill me, that’s Canadian law. So why can they kill unborn children?”
This is symptomatic of how our society has been going downhill morally. Joanne says that one can see it everywhere: “You see it on the streets, advertising signs, movies, television, songs… all of that, it’s just become normal. It’s desensitised me … I hear stories, and I think what are people thinking. Women killing their own children, people sick of living and requesting to be killed…How do they ever think that this is good for our society?”
That is not the answer to pain and suffering and aging. As Joanne puts it: “I volunteer in a Christian nursing home, and there nothing like this over there. People there, with Alzheimers, live for years and years and they are taken care of like babies. As they should be. That’s what God wants from us.”
In the end it all comes back to faith. CLC’s Wojciechowski asked Joanne: “So how should people of good conscience react and respond to these times that we’re facing in Canada and around the world?” Joanne is unequivocal in stating that they should respond by doing something: “The picture is not getting any better. Groups are doing good things advocating for people in need, getting them going with these little flags and now they are going to knit booties, and I’m thinking to myself, why don’t you go to the abortion clinic and put them all outside there. But then it would only be one child at the time, but you would be changing minds. I think that’s where you have to go. Changing one mind at a time.”
The advice she would give to anyone who wanted to take a first step in doing something about the situation is to start, period. It may be something that costs nothing but a few minutes of one’s time. With the internet it is very easy to do: “It’s amazing what a letter to an MP can do. Just do something, and then you will get hooked. Helping to inform one’s congregation about LifeChain Sunday can be very effective….Some people really don’t want to get hooked. The presence of young people gives great signs of hope…like this young man in pouring rain, at a LifeChain, standing there in his Sunday suit, and by the time he left there, I don’t know if he went to church or not, but his whole suit was soaked and he just stood there.”
Coming right to the recent federal election and the way forward, Joanne has harsh words for former prime minister Stephen Harper. She feels that basically he was a failure as a prime minister in the context of pro-life advances. In her assessment Harper did a lousy job, with some 800,000 children killed by abortion during his tenure as PM. Joanne concludes that “he may not have been able to do anything, but he didn’t stick out one finger. He says he’s a Christian. He’s got all these children and all these mothers on his shoulders. He was not a good prime minister….Trudeau is not going to get any better, probably going to get worse, but that doesn’t mean that you choose one that is a little bit less evil than the others.”
In the final analysis, looking back at 35 plus years of pro-life work and activism Joanne today still calls for action: “Wake up people… and smell the cheese. Change your way of thinking to understand what needs to be done to improve things. Let’s not let the cheese get moldy.”