It’s Thursday morning at McMaster University Medical Centre. Four men, placards in hand, are slowly walking back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the Hamilton, Ontario hospital, praying at some points and pausing to hand our pamphlets to passersby at others.
The men are members of Hamilton-area Knights of Columbus councils and they are taking part in a weekly effort by the organization, begun seen years ago, to draw attention to the fact that the hospital performs abortions.
“We’re here to show people that we don’t agree with what they’re doing,” says Gerry Conlon, 70. “We are here to show our solidarity with the unborn and the elderly and that we’re against abortion and euthanasia.”
“We are witness. We try to make the community aware of the atrocities that are being performed against life,” says Ed Hickey, 65. “We continue to do it, even though at times the fight may seem lost….We believe the dignity of human beings has to be restored everywhere.”
For David Delaharpe, one profound experience had the effect of shaking him out of complacency on the abortion issue and into regular service on the picket line at the age 72. “I saw a movie about a woman who had an abortion. The doctor didn’t know she had twins, you see, so he only took the one child out…it shook me. That’s why I’m so dead set against abortion.”
The men say their demonstrations draw mixed reactions from passersby and hospital personnel.
“We do get quite a lot of support,” observes Frank Correa, 68. “By the same token, we get a few derogatory comments, too.” “We’ve had people who work in the hospital come out and tell us our work is being noticed in there,” adds Conlon. “Most of the people who acknowledge us seem to be with us. But some of them are not with us and they let us know in no uncertain terms.”
The group’s work is just a small part of the pro-life effort taken up by the K of C on an international scale.
“It’s a major effort of the order,” comments Richard McMunn, editor of the organization’s monthly magazine Columbia. “The Knights of Columbus, both internationally and locally, has been involved in the pro-life effort from the very beginning.”
According to a K of Chandbrook, the organization was founded in 1882 in New Haven, Conn. By Father Michael J. McGivney, a Catholic priest stationed in that city. He envisioned an organization which would help Catholic men remain steadfast in their faith through mutual encouragement, promote fraternal ties and set up a system of insurance so that windows and children of members who died would not find themselves destitute.
The new association was named after Christopher Columbus, the Catholic discoverer of the Western world, and took on the term “to signify that its membership would embody the knightly ideals of spirituality and service to church, country and fellow human beings. By 1897, the organization had spread to Canada.
Today, the K of C boasts a membership of 1.5 million men in more than 9,000 local chapters throughout North and Central America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and Guam. Over the years, it has moved beyond fraternal considerations to become involved in charitable and community work; each year, it donates tens of millions of dollars and a similar number of man hours annually to various causes. With the advent of legalized abortion, its work in the pro-life sphere has grown proportionately.
“Even before 1973 and the Roe vs. Wade decision, we are acting on (pro-life) by promoting Pope Paul V1’s encyclical Humanae Vitae,” says McMunn. “Since then, we’ve given literally millions of dollars to the bishops’ conferences of the various countries in which we’re active, for pro-life purposes and natural family-planning programs.”
He notes that in a recent year, the K of C at the international level donated almost $7 million to the pro-life cause, but that figure doesn’t include further amounts given by Knights at the state, provincial and local levels.
McMunn adds that other than donating money, the K of C has also sponsored the production of films including Life—The Way of Champions, which features professional football and baseball athletes delivering a pro-life message.
A “tombs for the unborn” project has been another major initiative of the organization, he says “Literally hundreds of monuments to unborn children have gone up in Catholic cemeteries throughout Canada, the United States and the Philippines.”
Otherwise, the Knights of Columbus has filed a number of friend-of-the court briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases related to human life issues and has funded educational and information programs in states which have held referendums on euthanasia and related questions. It also maintains an office of public policy in Washington, which monitors developments on the abortion front and communicates with key contacts in the American capital, says McMunn.
In Canada, the Knights of Columbus sponsored a postcard campaign which urged that an effective, new abortion law be enacted after the existing one was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme court in 1988.
Pro-life leaders say the Knights’ local work has not gone unnoticed.
“They’re people we know we can count on if we need some extra hands,” says Mary Muller, a former president of Halton Pro- life in Burlington, Ont. for six years. “They have generously allowed us to use their hall, for instance. We were meeting in their hall for about a year…..It was really life of them to offer us the use of that.”
Local Knights have also helped by giving donations, setting up displays, developing pro-life bus advertisments and paying for billboard, magazine and newspapers advertisements, she says.
But the K of C’s pro-life work has not taken place without some controversy. An article earlier this year in the Human Life International publication HLI Reports criticized the organization for supporting “abortifacient drug makers, (birth control) pill producers and pornographers” through its multi-billion-dollar life insurance investment program.
The article alleged that by the end of 1993, the K of C had invested more than $5 million in the Upjohn pharmaceutical firm, which produces the contraceptive Depo-Provera and the prosaglandins used in late-term abortions. It also charged that the organization had invested millions of dollars more in Bristol-Myers Squibb ad Warner Lambert, both of which produce contraceptive pills.
McMunn, however, replies that K of C policy is to pull its investments as soon as it is found that a corporation is engaged in conduct contrary to Catholic church teaching.
“There are occasions when we have longstanding investment in companies which turn into that business (birth control and abortion), but once a year we hear about that, check it out and are satisfied that’s the case, then we pull our investments…We have a moral responsibility which we try extremely had to live up to. My own feeling is that in that area we have absolutely nothing to apologize for.”
The K of C has also come under criticism for allowing politicians with a publicly pro-abortion position, or a pro-abortion party affiliation, to join its membership. A case of this sort took place in Ontario several months ago, when a member of the pro-abortion provincial NDP party applied to become a Knight.
McMunn says the K of C follows the lead of the Catholic church on the question, “We’re a lay organization. We have to depend on the Church to judge who is Catholic and who isn’t. If the politician’s own bishop won’t say that the man isn’t Catholic, then we can’t…We’re not priests or bishops. We have to rely on the Church to make those judgements.”
McMunn adds that criticism of the K of C in this area is sometimes misguided. He points to statements made by Human Life International founder Father Paul Marx which censured the K of C for allowing staunchly pro-abortion U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy to be a Knight. “The
fact of the matter is, Senator Kennedy has not been a member of the order for a number of years,” notes McMunn.
Controversies notwithstanding it’s clear that the Knights of Columbus intend to continue their pro-life efforts as long as it for all, from conception to natural death.
“We must renew our commitment and continue the (pro-life) struggle.” K of C Supreme Knight Virgil Delaharpeche wrote in a message to members last year. How long? Just as long as it takes.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the Knights in front of McMaster University Medical Centre.
“The only thing that’ll stop me is if I can’t walk home anymore,” remarks Delaharpe. “I’ll come all the time, rain or shine.”
“We have no plans of stopping. We intend to set aside Thursday mornings for this cause,” adds Hickey. “It’s part of my life…Hopefully through the power of prayers, things will turn around.