On August 23, 1989, 76 courageous pro-life activists were arrested in Toronto during an Operation Rescue. They were incarcerated in maximum security at the Metro West Detention Centre. Among them were the following three women who offer their thoughts on their experiences.
Barbara Cummer, 47, mother of four, says going to jail was a personal and spiritual decision for her, rather than a political one. She observed that if you wait for 500 people to appear at a vigil or a rescue, you may never get them. “I got past the numbers game several years ago. What helped me was the faith of people witnessing outside the Morgentaler abortuary, being faithful to the pro-life cause by their presence and not looking for immediate success.”
She first seriously thought about going to jail for the pro-life cause after reading a collection of Joan Andrews’ inspiring letters from a Florida jail called, “You Reject Them, You Reject Me.” She thought about the invigorating effect that Joan Andrews had on the frustrated pro-life movement, by peacefully going to jail for babies. Her action helped give birth to Operation Rescue across North America and overseas, reawakening public awareness of the abortion issue. The media were taking notice because, incredibly, ordinary people were risking jail to protect the unborn. Then in March 1989, when Vancouver pro-lifers were jailed, she pondered their actions with mixed thoughts but was convinced their sacrifices were not wasted. One jailed Vancouver pro-lifer, James Hanlon, made a comment that stayed with her, “If you can’t find someone to go to jail with you, then go alone.”
But then, Barbara had regularly witnessed on the picket line at the Morgentaler abortuary, two days a week, for four years (summer and winter, rain or shine), and she wanted to continue to make this personal contribution to the cause. However, on May 5, 1989, an injunction prohibiting pro-life witnessing and counseling was handed down. She began to think, “Now is the time to go to jail.” Although she had participated in earlier rescues, the one on August 23 nevertheless caught her by surprise. However, she took her chances and was arrested. She spent 16 days in jail, an experience that shook her, tried her, but spiritually enriched her.
Denied basic essentials
Thoughtful and articulate, Barbara recalls that the reality of jail hit her after her group of seven women refused to sign discharge conditions at court, barring them from returning to Morgentaler’s. After they were returned to jail, she sat down and wept. Only after this catharsis could she face what awaited her: the constant, deafening noise of the blaring radio (on at 5:30 a.m.) and T.V. (on until 10:30 p.m.), the recycled smoke-filled air, and often vulgar language and demeaning attitude of the guards towards inmates, the unappetizing food, the petty fights among the inmates, the leers of lesbians.
She recalls that when the pro-life women first entered jail they were denied basic personal essentials. A few days later, fellow prisoner Anne Packer was released from prison and told those who attended the first Sunday prayer vigil about the women’s mistreatment. Her action prompted some 1800 phone calls to prison authorities. Quickly, their treatment improved.
Interestingly, at first the pro-lifers were better treated by the inmates than by the guards. Barbara thinks some inmates were touched by the prayers and gentleness of the pro-life women. Most of the inmates, aged 18 to 35 years, had children and were in jail on drug charges. Many had had abortions. Sad stories surfaced, like that of an articulate, educated woman in her thirties from a good Christian family, who was in on heroin charges. Ironically, she told of having had an abortion at Morgentaler’s Montreal abortuary. When painful withdrawal symptoms set in, she left the cell for medical treatment and did not return.
One 21-year-old woman was the youngest daughter of a Christian clergyman, whose five older brothers and sisters were in university. She began taking drugs at the age of fourteen while still at school. Barbara asked her about her family’s involvement. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “My father keeps trying. He comes to see me every week.” In jail the tragic toll of drugs on the young and their families was undisguised.
Barbara developed a bad cold after the first week in jail (her request for Tylenol was brushed off for a few days). She hit a low point and wanted to leave. Still she prayed for a sign to tell her whether to stay or not. That evening, Campaign Life Coalition lawyer Paul Dodds was supposed to have seen her to arrange for her release but failed to get there. When he returned the next day, Barbara felt better and knew she could last. She interpreted Paul’s delay in coming as a sign from above to stay. Quietly, she says, “You know, Paul Dodds was so sensitive and kind. In fact, more than once he saved my sanity.”
Of the overall experience, Barbara says, “I found what I expected except for the drugs. I never thought about how long I’d stay but just took it day by day.” She feels she made a contribution by breaking ground in a Toronto jail for others who may follow. She says, “Definitely, jail is not for everyone. People should not feel pressured to come to jail to make a contribution to the pro-life cause because there are many other valuable ways of doing so.” She reflects, “What we think is God’s will for us may not be God’s will. If it is so then obstacles will be removed.” (For the first time in years, Barbara’s home situation was ideal for her to be away.)
Barbara is embarrassed at being called heroic, and quickly dismisses any acclaim by saying simply, “I’m a good survivor.”
Natalie Lochwin, 46, mother of three daughters, was Barbara’s cellmate and soulmate for the first three days of her own 16 days in jail. A newcomer to pro-life activism, Natalie became active almost two years ago. She was dismayed by the January 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down the abortion law. Later she was shocked when a family acquaintance had an abortion. Both these events catapulted her into pro-life action.
Natalie began to witness and to counsel frequently at Morgentaler’s and joined rallies, rescues and prayer vigils. On August 23, 1989, she participated in Operation Rescue, was arrested and went to jail.
A seasoned public health nurse and naturally street-wise, Natalie was probably less unnerved than the other women in jail. Still, she was appalled at the coarse language and callous attitude of many of the female guards towards the inmates. A long-time sufferer from high blood pressure, Natalie was denied essential medication in jail, despite repeated requests to see a doctor or a nurse. Her elevated blood pressure caused her dizzy spells and faintness, times when her fellow inmates were very solicitous, ordering her “to lie down and stay there,” while they refrained from smoking to clear the air for her.
Natalie says jail made her more aware of the poor. She says, “Most guards seem to have had a ‘cardiectomy’ (removal of the heart).” She would like to bring the health and diet needs of some neglected inmates to the attention of the prison authorities. “The animals at the Humane Society get better treated,” she claims.
When the Globe and Mail interviewed Natalie in jail, the reporter likened the pro-life movement to a cult. Natalie calmly countered, “Christianity is not a cult.” Worried about the outcome of the interview, she prayed about it. A few days later, it made the front page of the Globe and Mail (September 13).
Her message to others is, “It’s late, but never too late to get involved in the pro-life cause. Do something. Faith without works is dead.” Natalie is a living example of the words of St. James.
Hilary Furney, 25, is single, a secretary, one of ten children and newly emigrated from Cork, Ireland. She stayed in jail seven days, but also made front-page news in the Globe and Mail about her story mentioned above. Her brother worried about her in jail, and hired a lawyer to get her out. Hilary refused.
As big as a minute, Hilary’s small stature belies her iron will. She first heard about abortion in Toronto, while visiting her sister in 1985, when David Packer made headlines refusing police duty at the Morgentaler abortuary. She recalls, “I thought he was a hero.” Then a few years later, she herself decided to go to jail for the unborn. She says, “Abortion is murder and a great evil against God. Besides, before I die I want to have done something for the cause.”
Often scared in jail, she says, “I prayed a hell of a lot.” She was comforted by the prayer vigils, as were the other women.
Hilary doesn’t think of herself as heroic: “I only stayed in jail a few days.” Perhaps, but valor isn’t measured in terms of days.
On October 4, 1989, all 76 pro-lifers who were arrested August 23, 1989 were given a suspended sentence and placed on probation for one year. Their sacrifices, which they minimized, far exceeded their modest hopes, for in worldly terms they made national headlines. In heavenly terms, they have probably earned an extra jewel in their crowns for witnessing in a very special way for the tiniest of humans.