“This is Birthright. Can I help you?”
These were the opening words of a wonderful speech delivered by Louise Summerhill, daughter of the late Foundress of Birthright—also Louise. It would be almost impossible to calculate the number of times those same words have been repeated over phones since they were first spoken by Louise Summerhill Sr. in a small rented office in Toronto, 25 years ago. They have been repeated in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana the Cameroons, to mention a few.
The occasion of the speech was a banquet held in Toronto to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Birthright. A beautiful portrait of the late Louise Summerhill adorned the wall and one could almost feel her presence at what was a really delightful evening, full of sad and happy memories of a lady who left an indelible impact on a society sadly in need of people of heroic caliber.
Some time is 1968, a small pro-life group was formed in Toronto of which Louise Summerhill was a member. After some months it had not made much progress and Louise felt that more needed to be done. With the help of doctor Paddy Beirne of St. Michael’s Hospital, Father John Moss of St. Augustine’s Seminary and Rev. Grahan Scott of the United Church, she founded Birthright. It was the first crisis pregnancy centre in the world. The office was, where it still is, at 777 Coxwell Avenue, Toronto. It was staffed by a few volunteers. The idea slowly spread and Louise was invited to speak at a pro-life gathering in Chicago. There she met a lady named Terry Weaver. Terry was so impressed by Louise and the whole idea of Birthright, that she founded the first Birthright centre in the United States.
The idea exploded and there were requests from many cities in America for information and permission to set up similar centres. It soon became obvious that, if its principles were to be kept intact, it would be necessary to have a Birthright charter. After a great deal of legal advice, discussions and study, a charter was written declaring the main objects of Birthright and the immovable principles which would be the guides of its activities in whatever parts of the world it would spread its wing.
Birthright was founded with really only one objective—“Helping pregnant girls and women.” The approach must be confidential and non-judgmental. Alternative to abortion are explained and pregnancy counseling provided by skilled counselors. Although Birthright is not a specifically Catholic organization—and no woman is asked to declare her religious affiliation—Louise insisted that the use of contraceptives should never be suggested. According to the charter, any group wishing to act under the title of “Birthright” must promise to adhere to these principles or use a different title.
Knowing that the acceptance of government assistance so often entails a compromise of principles, Louise never requested such grants. She decided to depend on private donations alone. At present Birthright is financed mainly by private donations plus donations from, Share Life, the Knights of Columbus, and the Catholic Women’s League. The private donations come from religious organizations of different faiths.
Birthright centres have sprung up at an extraordinary rate. In Canada alone, there are 65 centres and in the U.S., 454. The Canadian offices are staffed by 5000 volunteers. It is on record that in the past 25 years 2 million babies have been saved from the tragedy of abortion. Let us not forget that this means that 2 million women have been spared the agony of post abortion syndrome. Birthright also provides free pregnancy tests, free maternity clothes and free baby clothes. They have a list of private homes who will accept pregnant girls who have nowhere else to go. It is estimated that worldwide, more than 300,000 pregnant girls and women visit Birthright centres annually and are welcomed with sympathy, love, compassion and understanding.
I imagine that Louise Summerhill would have described herself as, “an ordinary person.” She was a married woman with four children. Her husband and children were her life. Then she became conscious of the awful tragedy of abortion, which had begun to afflict her country of Canada. Like countless other “good people” she could have “done nothing” and decided that it was not her affair. But the “Hound of Heaven” was yapping at her heels and she decided to take action. She sowed a small seed which has grown into a great tree.
It is a tree that will continue to grow under the direction of her daughters, Mary Bernie and Louise Summerhill, who have taken over the responsibility of Birthright and continue to breathe into it the same indomitable spirit of live, which inspired their mother. Birthright will be needed for many years to come in a world where “Judgement has fled to brutish beasts and men—and women—have lost their reason.”