Grace Petrasek
The Interim

When Robert Hinchey first decided to carry a sign as a witness for life behind a Morgentaler abortuary in the 1980s, he thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, I could talk to a woman and help save her baby from abortion?”

He need not have worried. Since then, he’s talked to hundreds of women and helped save as many babies. Unlike the biblical shepherd, his route has been the red light district and downtown streets of Toronto, outside an abortuary and at the Aid to Women office. He’s a special kind of shepherd, with a special kind of apostolate.

It was by chance, in 1985, while on holidays from his work as a business writer, that he saw on television the fury over the opening of Morgentaler’s first abortuary in downtown Toronto. Since he was a bachelor, abortion “was not much of an issue for me, nor was I much interested in babies,” he recalls.

Still, intrigued by the controversy, and knowing from his Catholic faith that abortion was very wrong, he decided to “stand up and be counted.” He joined some 200 other people outside the new abortuary – carriers of placards against abortion, pro-abortionists, police and media.

His moral indignation prompted him later to join others carrying signs showing what abortion does, on early weekday mornings when mothers entered Morgentaler’s abortuary through a back alley. He accommodated his new activism by scheduling his work accordingly and taking a Campaign Life Coalition workshop on sidewalk counselling.

“Although I failed to help many women, I felt I had to try,” he remembers. He honoured that commitment for four years, until he moved away from the city.

Upon his return to Toronto in 1997, he found many changes. Court-imposed “bubble zones” prohibited pro-lifers from witnessing outside several abortuaries, including Morgentaler’s new one on Hillsdale Avenue (which was inside a security-guarded office building). Aid to Women, meanwhile, had a new office downtown, next door to the Cabbagetown “Women’s Clinic.”

Ideally located, pro-life sidewalk witnesses now had the opportunity to invite willing, distressed mothers headed for the abortuary upstairs to an office to discuss their pregnancy problems and receive help.

Although this new exposure was a blessing, the number of women needing help and follow-up became overwhelming for Joanne Dieleman (then the head of Aid to Women) and her volunteers. Coincidentally, at that time, Robert was looking for work and a place to live, so Aid to Women offered him a flat above the office, along with a full-time, paid position as a sidewalk and office counsellor.

Among other tasks, he was expected to answer the phone after office hours and do any necessary follow-up with mothers. He made use of the Toronto Transit Commission and Aid to Women’s donated used car (serviced by a volunteer mechanic) to transport baby cribs and food, to move mothers to better places, to take a mother who had just changed her mind about an abortion to a pro-life doctor or to visit an isolated, recent immigrant mother or family who needed an interpreter in hospital.

Little did he realize that his new job would evolve into 24/7 work for the next seven years.

Of Robert’s front-line pro-life work, Joanne Dieleman, who was his mentor and co-worker for years, says, “He was tireless in his efforts and has worn himself out.” She describes how his friendly, gentle manner, laced with humour, enabled him to connect well with all kinds of women, because they sensed his concern about their welfare and that of their babies.

On a deeper level, she says he realized that, among the many women he saw, the problem leading to their pregnancies was an “amoral lifestyle” or a lack of insight about the higher meaning of their sexuality. To help address this, he wrote a clear, factual, one-page handout describing the higher meaning of sexuality as a sacred gift from God.

The handout served as an appeal, especially to young people, to do what God wanted them to do by saving sex for marriage, so God would bless his precious gift. Then, it listed some consequences of sex outside marriage, such as a broken heart, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and abortion – all harmful to women.

Looking back on his pro-life apostolate, Robert confides, “I tried to heed God’s call in doing this work and He will not be outdone in generosity. As a result, I’ve received many unexpected fruits, such as helping women and saving babies” – he’s very fond of babies now – “making many good friends and growing in my spirituality.”

He remembers one of the first women he talked to in the 1980s behind Morgentaler’s abortuary. She was a frail, recent immigrant mother from the Caribbean, living with her husband and two small children in a cockroach-infested flat over a steamy bakery. Both worked long shifts at menial jobs and were poverty-stricken.

She fell ill at her dishwashing job and was taken to a doctor, who told her she was pregnant, but too poor and undernourished to have a baby. He then sent her to Morgentaler’s abortuary, where Robert intercepted her. He offered her help and subsequently, worked with her intermittently for several years.

Today, that family lives in their own suburban home, the parents have good jobs, the children are in school and the rescued baby is 17 years old. Every summer, they all meet for a fun-filled reunion.

Robert’s apostolate has yielded fruits not only among the people and pro-lifers he has worked with, but also in prayer groups he’s attended. He describes his work and needs, with the result that a number have become partners with Aid to Women. This helping network fulfills his vision of reaching out into the larger community for needy women to be helped in their own neighbourhoods.

On a rotating basis, members (30 to 40 to a group) adopt and visit a pregnant woman, to offer her temporary, practical help until she settles. (Aid to Women is limited in its resources to help those in outer areas.)

Robert’s spiritual life has deepened, as well, “because of my heightened awareness of evil at work in our midst every day.” He says that both prayer and action are essential to his work. He tries to receive the Catholic sacraments and recite the Rosary more often now, and in tense moments, says “the Jesus Prayer” (“Lord, have mercy on me”).

At times, he has felt “unworthy of doing this work of God” and hasn’t felt like going out onto the street, but, “If I had not, I might miss a situation of helping a woman and saving a baby.” He notes that others may be wiser and better communicators, “but they weren’t here, so God used me to do this work.”

He stresses the importance of sidewalk witnessing at any abortuary to attract public attention to what abortion is and what goes on inside the facility. “Joanne and I have seen women change their minds about abortion after seeing someone carrying a sign in the street. Even if someone witnesses once a month, it would make a big difference in the numbers of people making a pro-life presence on the street.”

As for the future of Aid to Women, now headed by Ann Wilson, Robert has great hopes. “She’s such a spiritual, prayerful person with a gentle, compassionate manner, that I know God will honour her efforts as she continues this apostolate.”

God has honoured this special kind of apostolate and many friends and families will fondly remember Robert not only for his words, but also his actions.

Love and blessings, Robert.