With the advent of the internet and the new media, many pro-life activists have become familiar with the name John-Henry Westen and LifeSiteNews.com. Westen is a veteran pro-life journalist who has authored thousands of articles touching upon faith, family, marriage, the right to life and public affairs. His guest appearances on many television and radio shows throughout North America include Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. He also sits on the board of CLC and has run as a Family Coalition Party candidate during three Ontario elections.
Westen is the co-founder and editor of LifeSiteNews.com, which he describes as the “first life and family issues news service operating on the internet in Canada.” The e-mail service goes out to thousands of readers each day and is accessed by thousands more via the internet. Its articles are frequently picked up and quoted by other media sympathetic to the pro-life cause, such as The Wanderer – America’s oldest weekly Catholic newspaper.
Westen grew up in Toronto, the oldest of three children born of a Dutch father and an East-Indian mother. The family was devoutly Catholic, Westen says, especially his father, whose daily devotions included Mass and the Rosary. “He used to say, ‘I would rather see you drop dead right now than fall into a life of sin,’” Westen recalls. “When you’re eight, that makes a big impression on you.”
Yet, that did not stop Westen from wandering away from his faith when he became a teenager. It was a combination of things, from the big city to peer pressure. “You find yourself at a point where you’re saying that’s different, but I’ll go for it because it’s cool,” Westen said. While his parents attempted to exert vigilance, he found creative ways to circumvent their rules and oversight. “I tried to convince myself that God did not exist,” Westen said, “so that I could live selfishly for the world.” However, his father’s example of living a faithful Christian life remained a thorn in Westen’s side. “I would play a game with myself,” he said, promising to become a faithful Christian like his father if Jesus could be proven to have been God. Because nobody could prove that Christ was God, Westen reasoned, then religion was all about nothing.
He was also indifferent toward the Christian morals exemplified by his father. “I wasn’t rabidly pro-abortion,” he said. “But I was pro-abortion in that I didn’t care about the issue.” He felt the issue was none of his business.
Having come from a family with a strong background in academia, the young atheist aspired to become a psychologist. “It probably was not with the best of motivations,” Westen said. “I saw it first as a prestigious job.” Westen obtained an honours B.A. in psychology from York University and a master’s degree in child clinical psychology from the University of Toronto. He would eventually be offered a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in psychology. However, it was around this time that his wayward friendships caught up with him. “I had met a friend in university who did stuff that wasn’t legal,” Westen says. He indulged with his friends, lost his licence through too many speeding tickets and would find himself entangled in the court system after being caught driving without a licence. “I felt my whole life falling apart,” he said. “I had graduated from high school young and gone to university early. Now, here I was, 21, I was in trouble with the law and my whole life was going down in the dumps.”
In desperation, Westen picked up his father’s copy of St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary. The popular spiritual work, like St. Augustine’s Confessions, is credited for the conversion of many hardened sinners. “I read it and realized that if this was real, it meant giving my whole life to God,” Westen said. He was struggling with whether to believe and give his life to God, when his father’s example of patience, prayer and Christian sacrifice won him over. “I realized my father’s whole life was real. That’s when I decided to go for it.”
Westen was 22 at the time. He began to practise his faith fervently and attended World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver with thousands of other young pilgrims who came to pray with Pope John Paul II. Westen also undertook a research project at the University of Florence in Italy. After finishing the project, he visited Rome for a week where his faith was again strengthened. “All my doubts about the veracity of and life of Christ were erased very quickly, in a very real way” Westen said. “This was a very visual demonstration of the truth of the faith, of the reality of Christ and the apostles.”
Another fruit of Westen’s conversion is that he asked his girlfriend Dianne to marry him. The couple, who had met at York University, had been dating for several years. “I realized it wasn’t right to go out with a girl forever and not marry her,” he said. “So I proposed and she said yes.” The couple married when Westen returned from Rome. The couple now boast seven children.
It was during the early part of the couple’s marriage that LifeSiteNews.com came into being. The internet was still a new technology and Westen was looking for work, uncertain about his future. Westen went to daily Mass to pray for work. As he was about to leave the church, a lady approached him and said: “Do you have a job?”
“I was literally dumbfounded,” he said. “I replied no, figuring that whatever she told me is what God wanted me to do.”
The woman, an Interim staffer, told him the paper was looking for someone to sell subscriptions. Westen accepted the offer. His wife, in-laws and friends were horrified by the prospect. “You spent seven years in higher education and turned down a doctorate to become a paper-boy,” they said.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes was also doubtful. In his first month on the job, Westen had only sold three subscriptions. He had never worked in sales before and was clueless about what it entailed. It was then that Hughes called Westen into his office and offered him a position researching pro-life issues and writing reports for CLC. “Jim told me, ‘I would love to put your research and writing skills to work for us, but you’re not selling papers.’”
LifeSiteNews.com was inspired from those early reports Westen wrote for CLC. The internet was just becoming popular at the time and the young researcher began to email a summary of daily news developments to an informal list of friends and pro-life activists across Canada. That developed into the current LifeSiteNews list of over 12,000 email subscribers.
With the success of the daily reports, Westen was paired with CLC director and computer guru Steve Jalsevac to build a website to provide an online reference point for those researching pro-life issues. The two pro-life activists hit it off and together they co-founded and developed what would become LifeSiteNews. Westen became the news editor and chief writer/researcher while Jalsevac wrote stories, posts the daily reports and acts as LifeSiteNews’ overall manager.
Today, LifeSiteNews.com is the largest pro-life news service in the world, registering over half-a-million page views a month. It is re-published and quoted in hundreds of other websites and publications, church bulletins and newsletters.