For the fifth consecutive year, pro-lifers from all over Prince Edward Island attended the annual meeting of Prince County Hospital in Summerside, a small town 40 miles west of Charlottetown..
For the fifth year they anxiously awaited the outcome of their vote to abolish the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee.
For the fifth year tension filled the air as the chairman rose to announce the results to the suddenly hushed audience of 1400. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the vote is 978 to 396 in favour of the motion. The bylaw is deleted.”
It was over. Legal abortions were no longer available in PEI. There was an instant incredulous silence before the waves of joyous applause began.
It was, in fact, the second Right to Life victory on the Island.
In 1981, they prevented the establishment of a therapeutic abortion committee at the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.
“We immediately turned our attention to the Prince County Hospital, having learned that the secret is to make the existing system work for you,” says one organizer.
That translated into efforts to increase pro-life numbers in the hospital’s corporate membership, with two goals: to attain the two thirds’ majority needed to overturn the abortion committee bylaw, and to elect declared pro-life trustees to the 24-member Board of Directors.
The second victory took longer.
At Prince County Hospital, abortion was not the only issue. One veteran was pro-life activists say, “It was a power struggle, with the local establishment resisting the notion of input from and accountability to the general public.”
Pro-abortion Board members were hostile and quite resourceful. Until control by the court, they refused to provide membership lists so necessary for pro-life mailings and phone campaigns. Several times pro-life Board candidates found themselves disqualified without notice. Twice, pro-life proposals that would have provided a graceful end to tension and confrontation were refused.
When it was to their advantage, they ignored parliamentary procedure. Once the hospital administrator used his annual report to campaign against pro-life nominees in favour of the Board chairman, a 29-year-old veteran running for re-election (though defeated that evening, he remained the official voting delegate to the provincial hospital association for another two years.)
One year a general meeting was called unexpectedly, catching pro-life organizers in the midst of the annual membership drive, their numbers too low to prevent the adoption of new bylaws that further entrenched the existing power group.
(Those laws have twice been used to reinstate just-defeated trustees for a three-year term.)
In addition, a group claiming for themselves the title “Friends of Prince County Hospital,” used the local media to distort facts, make accusations, and raise extraneous issues.
In 1981, a pro-life group, members in good standing of the hospital corporation attended the annual meeting. They were told to leave.
By the following year, their activity had aroused enough public concern and questions by the Department of Health, that hospital directors instructed their TAC to “consider only the physical health of the mother in approving abortions.”
From that time, there have been no recorded abortions. Lobbying continued however, because the committee could be reactivated at any time.
Their accomplishments were impressive: four abortion-free years; greatly increased hospital membership (from about 200 to more than 4000); 15 elected pro-life trustees. And finally, on June 3 the TAC was abolished.
Said spokesman David Peppin, a former national president of Alliance for Life, “It’s a big victory. We are naturally quite pleased.” A classic understatement.
Burnout and new direction
Only six months earlier, burnout had caused most of the key Right to Life organizers to withdraw from their high-profile roles. New executive members had been elected at the provincial and county levels. There was no steering committee.
But (Catholic) Bishop James MacDonald rallied them and encouraged a quieter, unobtrusive approach. The outcome was a telephone campaign within parishes and congregations that obviously succeeded in catching the pro-abortionists off guard.
Church support contributed significantly to all the Right to Life accomplishments, though in all denominations the degree of support varied considerably.
A number of Protestant ministers gave strong and courageous leadership. Some declared their anti-abortion stance in local papers. Two won seats on the hospital Board.
A time to build
Few local pro-lifers were prepared for the PEI victory to surface in the House of Commons. Most are surprised at the degree of outrage expressed by national women’s groups, and astonished at their determination to ensure that Islanders have in-province access to abortion despite the fact that they have just rejected it.
“We care about women’s problems,” says Mary Peppin, a long-time activist. “We want to help them. But killing children is not the solution to the problems of our society.”
“The big issue is not a committee, but our whole attitude to life,” says Bertha Lawless, a key member of the steering committee. “We must now develop a very positive education programme teaching respect for life at all stages. The young people will soon be making decisions regarding life and death. They deserve to be provided with the truth, and shown the fallacy of the slogans.”
“This victory is not an end, but a beginning,” say Right to Life members. “If God is with us, who can succeed against us?”
Doreen Beagan is a free-lance writer living in Prince Edward Island.