At the Human Life Conference in Toronto, the theatre in which the 9:00 a.m. session on Friday, October 28 was to be held was jammed full. The topic was pro-life picketing and Operation Rescue. The first two speakers, excellent as they were, were not the main attraction.
John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe gave an account of the development of rescue operation, emphasizing that we are required to protect our brothers and sisters who are scheduled to die. After him Joe Scheidler, who delivered an impassioned address on bringing joy and peace out of evil.
His speech was full of quotable epigrams. The present holocaust is like the Nazi one, he pointed out, except for one thing: “We only kill the children.” Even abortion can be a source of salvation, he said, but “we must become the victim.” Obviously anticipating the next speaker, he also said, “This movement is making saints.”
His inspiring address received lengthy applause. It was nothing like the welcome, however, which greeted the third speaker. Scheidler is a big burly man who is a born orator; he was followed by a diminutive figure in pink dress, who spoke simply, without using rhetorical flourishes. It was Joan Andrews, released from prison in Pensacola, Florida, only ten days before.
She too talked about Christian suffering. We are all called to the Cross, she declared, and many more ought to heed the call than are actually doing so. Recognizing that the victims are indeed our brothers and sisters, we must do more than pray and picket; we must go to where the killing takes place and try to stop it.
In response to the possible argument that we live in a democracy and should try to change the law by legal methods, she answered that it is not a true democracy if people can be killed by due process of the law. Children have a right to be defended; we cannot suspend the obligations of charity. It is our Christian moral duty to rescue those who need to be rescued; but more than duty is involved – we must love the littlest members of the human family.
It is a holocaust which is occurring, she maintained, and great sacrifice is required, as in war. She called herself not a leader in the struggle, but only a foot soldier. She insisted that she has never broken the law; she has tried to enforce it. Murder cannot be legalised, and if it is covered up with pretense of legality civil disobedience is necessary. What cause is greater that the defense of innocent little children.
She spoke with such obvious sincerity and conviction that the applause at the end of her talk was even greater than at the beginning. Along the way she made it clear that she did not presume to criticise those who did not see the issue in the way she did and who did not want to invade abortion clinics and pull the plug from suction machines themselves; it was up to their own consciences, she said, and no one should judge them. As far as she was concerned, however, direct action had to be taken to prevent the slaughter of children: the risks of doing so had to be accepted.
“Do what God intends you to do,” said Joe Scheidler. Many or most would reply, “But how do I know what God wants me to do?” Joan Andrews has no such doubts. She understands what her mission is, she can explain it clearly to others, and she is willing to endure extreme hardship in order to carry it out. Love and fidelity can go no further.
October 15, 1988 was the twentieth anniversary of Birthright. From very modest and even unlikely beginnings in Toronto, it has spread out to encompass over 650 chapters or branches in Canada, the United States and Africa. It is an organisation which gives the lie to the frequent slander by pro-abortionists that those on the pro-life side are more worried about the baby (the fetus, they would call it) than about the mother.
For Birthright, both woman and baby count, but the main aim is to help a woman to have her baby. “If a woman is willing to give life a chance,” says one of its advertisements, “Birthright will reach out, offer her unconditional friendship and help out every step of the way.”
Two days before, the anniversary was celebrated with a special mass in St. Anselm’s Church in Leaside, Toronto – the parish church of its foundress, Louise Summerhill. The sermon on this occasion was a marvellous tribute to her faith and dedication. In a brief speech, she herself told how she began. Almost everything was against her; she had every reason not to open her first Birthright office. She had neither spare money nor spare time, since she had seven children of her own to look after. But she felt that it was the will of God that she do something to save the lives of unborn children, and everything fell into place providentially.
Almost all of those who staff Birthright offices are volunteers, and almost all of them are women. They give pregnancy tests and counselling, they help women find suitable medical care, they help them find maternity homes, and above all they offer them understanding and sympathy. When a woman is surrounded by love and understanding, they say, she can make it through an unplanned pregnancy and have her baby.
Their work necessarily means the passing on of information. For example, a Birthright office may have a set of fetal models, so that a young woman can be shown what the child in the womb looks like at various stages of development. Is it only a blob of tissue or an unorganised “product of conception,” or is it a tiny human being which the pregnant girl is carrying?
“I can’t believe that any honest person could support abortion after looking at all the facts which we know about the development and life of a baby which occurs before birth,” say an American Birthright statement.
Of course, Birthright’s pro-life emphasis is very clear. “In the barbarism of a nation destroying its offspring,” writes Denise Cocciolone, National Executive Director of Birthright U.S.A, “can be sensed the stirring of despair in a people who are lost and disoriented.” All people committed to preserving the sanctity of life, God’s most precious gift, she continues, must not allow themselves to be duped: “termination of pregnancy” and euphemisms like it means killing, the deliberate taking of a baby’s life. “We must envision that baby who is concealed within the mother’s womb so that we never forget, for a moment, that when someone speaks of an abortion, we understand, fully, that a human baby’s life is being taken.”
But if Birthright tries to explain the facts about gestation, it deliberately avoids confrontation. It is not a religious organization, it is not political, it is not even primarily educational. Its volunteers are expected to stay within the guidelines set down by Mrs. Summerhill years ago. They are expected to stay away from the public debate over abortion, because they are to give women the impression that their main aim is to help them, not to get into controversy about the rights and wrongs of abortion or of extra-marital intercourse. They are to keep their eyes firmly fixed on their appointed task, which is to try to save babies one by one, by helping women one by one.
Two women, two approaches to the problem of abortion in our society. Joan Andrews and Louise Summerhill are both heroines in very different ways. Out of a sincere conviction that human life is precious, based on a firm faith and an understanding of what the divine law requires, each has shown herself willing to make tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the unborn.
Which way is preferable? It is the wrong question to ask. Thousands of people serve the pro-life cause in hundred different ways – all worthwhile, from the tedious work of checking people’s names on petitions to the sometimes-perilous activity of blocking the entrance to abortion facilities. As Milton said in a different context, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”