A visit with Laura McArthur and Helen Slattery is an informative and amusing experience. Both are devoted grandmothers. In manner, each is straight talking, street-wise, warm and witty. In spirit each is generous to a fault. Theirs is a story of loving and protecting endangered unborn babies, and of looking after their vulnerable mothers. It is the story of two pro-life guardian angels.
Laura McArthur is President of Right to Life Association of Toronto and Area. Helen Slattery, a social worker, so impressed Laura that she decided Helen was just the person to handle the many phone calls RTL was receiving from distressed pregnant women, often on the brink of abortion. Persuaded by the pressing need for her expertise, Helen agreed to volunteer professional services to RTL. And so began a new service for RTL, conceived from the compassion of two dedicated women and born of the necessity to help distraught pregnant women. This unofficial auxiliary service would save dozens of unborn babies in the next decade.
Helen was born, raised and educated in Toronto. The daughter of a police officer and a social worker, Helen recalls her father saying that he never knew who “was coming home for supper.” Her mother worked for Catholic Children’s Aid Society, and she didn’t always leave her clients at the office.
Raised in a climate of faith, service and sharing, Helen graduated from St. Michael’s College and the Toronto School of Social Work. In her work she would eventually inherit some of her mother’s “progeny,” children of the parents her mother had helped years ago.
Helen met her husband Charlie in college and in 1944 she “married him in uniform.” Charlie was always supportive and proud of her pro-life work. He died just over a year ago and still today she feels his spiritual presence and strength guiding her work.
Their two daughters also graduated from St. Michael’s College. When her younger daughter Sheila was in college, Helen asked if she would like to become a social worker. Sheila responds with an emphatic “No, that’s all I’ve heard all my life.” Today Sheila is a social worker.
The RTL office calls Helen when a woman is in trouble, such as when she is considering an abortion, “wants to hear both sides,” or is considering single parenting, marriage or adoption. She wants this girl or woman to make an intelligent decision. Once a woman realizes that abortion takes a human life, generally, she will decide against it. Most girls who phone are very nervous. They feel isolated, scared and lonely and they are relieved to talk to someone about their feelings. Helen encourages them to do so, so that they can face reality. She finds that one a pregnancy is acknowledged; one or both parents will accept it and support the girl. Yet, there are sad situations where parents persuade or even force their daughter into abortion.
Helen sees her role of social worker as evaluating the woman’s predicament. She has to help her get over the next hurdle and then refer her to proper community resources. She admits, “Even though I may doubt the ability of a teenager to parent or to raise her child, I must support her decision to become a parent and the best one possible.” She has learned to withhold her own views, but does offer direction and guidance when possible. She confides that, “The only time I step in directly is to counsel a girl against abortion.”
Helen has developed a repertoire of comprehensive answers to question and ideas that she encounters in her RTL work. For instance, when an expectant mother tells her, “I don’t want to be pregnant or to have this baby,” Helen gently asks “But what does the baby say? Does he or she want to be snuffed out?” Or when the question of whether or not to be keep the baby arises, Helen tests this idea by saying “Consider the baby first now in your thinking. Will you be able to raise this child, emotionally or financially? Do you have the know how to do so.”
If the girl says, “I couldn’t raise a baby, I don’t know how,” Helen may say “You come across to me as a very sensitive person who would respond to the needs of a child or baby.
Helen admits she is not above “apple polishing” when she sees the need for encouragement. When the idea of adoption is immediately rejected for example, she ponders aloud, “Did you ever think you could be depriving this baby of a better life? Many couples can’t have children and would love a baby,” She then would add, “Only you can make the decision.” When welfare is spurned, she quietly says, “Eating becomes a habit you know, and you do have to pay the rent. Think about it.” When she is asked about the methods of abortion, she answers “I’m not well informed them but I hear they’re all really horrible” Helen has helped dozens of women during the past decade in her Right to Life work. When asked about her success rate she answers, “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.”
Patsy was a drama scholarship student who lived in Toronto but studied in Ottawa. When she told her strict Protestant parents that she was pregnant, they threatened to “throw her out.” She called RTL and Helen met with her. Marjorie’s problems were different from those of Patsy and Dorothy. Unlike them she was a professional with a good job, older and living on her own. Still, there were quarrels with her boyfriend and she felt discouraged.
Helen kept in touch with her. Toward the end of her pregnancy Marjorie had no place to stay so Helen just brought her home. When labour began she and her husband took her to the hospital. Later their daughter Sheila visited Marjorie, being the only one to bring her flowers. Eventually Marjorie’s boyfriend problems were resolved. The couple took a marriage preparation course and were married. Helen attended the wedding and later the baby’s christening—with some satisfaction.
Not every case works out like that of the three girls just mentioned. A mother told Helen that it would be “a most inconvenient time for her daughter to have a baby, after all the girl had just been chosen a cheerleader and likely would be elected class president.” Said the mother, “Some time later she can have a child, but certainly not now.” The girl had an abortion. Sadly, Helen says there are other such stories.
In 1983 Helen co-authorized a booklet entitled Help I Need Hope. It has gone through two printings (1983 and 1985) and has been distributed across Canada and the U.S. through Life Cycle Books in Toronto. Helen knows of one baby saved from abortion as a result of this booklet. A pregnant community college student confided to her pro-life teacher than she planned to have an abortion. She agreed to see Helen but said she had no alternative because of her financial, career and employment reasons. She seemed adamant in another decision. Just the same, Helen slipped her a copy of the booklet before leaving her. The next morning the woman entered the hospital for an abortion. That evening at 10:00 PM., Helen received a phone call from her saying she couldn’t go through with it. Helen happily recalls that the next time the woman left the hospital, she left with her seven-pound baby girl.
When day is done
Helen doesn’t take the girls’ problems home with her. Over the years she has learned to detach herself from their worries. She simply says, “At the time I tell them what I know, evaluate their situation, help them and follow them up later. I trust Almighty God to do the rest.
I’m just a tool. But always I pray for the girls and for their babies.” Helen has offered to act as a “consultant to helpers” to anyone working with a distressed pregnant woman in Toronto or outside. She takes calls from home, where she can be reached at (416) 225- 5511.
At times a woman will walk into the RTL office, centrally locate at Yonge and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto, supposedly seeking information. But sometimes such a woman is emotionally distraught or financially desperate and close to abortion. She cannot wait for a referral and needs help now. She usually gets it, if not from Helen, then from Laura.
Laura explains that often these women fall through the cracks of the legal and social systems if, for example, they are illegal immigrants. Laura will talk to a woman who comes into the office or will speak to someone on the phone. This includes concerned parents, relatives, teachers or friends. She does not ask for a real name. She may not hear from such a person again. But happily, on occasion she does receive follow-up information on a baby who was saved, still not knowing names or particulars about the mother.
Laura’s Irish flair for story telling shines forth when she talks about “the four special notches in her pro-life belt,” that is the four babies she herself knows she helped save from abortion.
Dixie, a beautiful, tiny, fragile immigrant woman from the Caribbean came into the RTL office for help late one Friday afternoon. She was penniless, hungry, scared and three months pregnant. The Caribbean girlfriends with whom she lived refused to help her unless she got an abortion. A determined Dixie quietly said, “When I got pregnant I lost by boyfriend, but I won’t lose my baby.” Laura raided the petty cash in the office and found $85 for her rent, while office volunteers passed the hat and gave her $50 for food. Then Laura called pro-life friend Reverend Hudson Hilsden, Director of Social Action for the Pentecostal Churches of Canada, because Dixie was a Pentecostal. He directed her to one of his downtown where she was given practical help. The next time Laura heard from Dixie she was going to the hospital with premature labor pains. Afraid that she might be aborted “in that hospital,” Laura rushed out, bought perfume “to make her feel good” then raced to the hospital and sat beside Dixie all day. It was a false alarm. Dixie was sent home and two months later she delivered a healthy baby girl.
During Dixie’s pregnancy her girlfriend had introduced her to an admirer, Sean. He wanted to marry her and adopt her baby. Sean was having immigration problems, however and couldn’t get a work permit. This brought Laura back into the picture. She asked the RTL Board to loan him money for a lawyer, personally guaranteeing the loan. After the baby was born and christened, with Laura and her husband Bill as proxy godparents, Sean’s immigration problems were happily resolved and the couple did marry. Laura and Bill attended the wedding and were treated like royalty. Musing on this couple, Laura says, “They’ll be all right. All they needed was help to get over the hump of their legal and financial problems. They’re a good family and will be good Canadians. They want to work and be financially self-sufficient. They are so grateful for our help and keep asking how they can repay us.”
Lia: Ironically, on the same late Friday afternoon that destitute Dixie came to the RTL office for help, in walked an elegant, educated professional woman asking for information. She was three months pregnant and was being pressured by her boyfriend to have an abortion. A Ph.D. academic she wanted the baby, but he didn’t.
Laura recalls that Lia “was dressed in designer clothes from head to toe. I even admired her bag.” After encouraging her to have the baby the visitor left, dropping a $100 bill on the front desk. A few months later she called to say she had a beautiful baby boy. Weeks after that, Laura arrived at the office to find a Gucci bag awaiting her.
Of this incident Laura exclaims, “See how the Holy Spirit works. In come poor, insecure, scared Dixie and we scrape to find her money to survive. Then inside of one hour arrives rich confident independent Lia, who replenishes our petty cash. Imagine, all this happened within one hour one Friday afternoon.
Amelia was an immigrant, working as a nanny. She had arrived in Canada recently and was now pregnant. A priest friend of Laura’s sent Amelia over to her office. In fact, Amelia had been awaiting an abortion in a downtown hospital when she changed her mind and walked out. Older and more experienced than most women, Amelia was able to find her own resources with Laura’s guidance. She had her baby in the fall and Laura stayed with her during labor, and of course brought her a Nova Scotia balsam Christmas tree, complete with decorations. They wanted her to enjoy Christmas with her baby.
Girl at the Ex
Some years ago, during the Toronto summer Exhibition, Laura noticed a lone, sickly, timid woman at the RTL booth. The woman approached and mentioned she was pregnant, into the drug scene and living with a drug addict who beat her and who was the father of her child. Laura gave her list of organizations that could help her, looked her in the eye and said, “You can make it. Kick the bum out.” The woman thanked Laura and left. The next year almost to the day, a woman strode into the RTL booth, hailed Laura, and said “I remember you from last year. I’m working here part-time and just left my son in day care. Remember you told me I could make it. I made it.” Astonished at the transformation in the woman, Laura says she could not believe she was the same person, now smiling, healthy and looking to the future. Says Laura, I’ll never forget her.
In the summer of 1989, during the hot, hectic days of abortion injunctions and incessant media demands at RTL. Laura’s sister in New Brunswick died suddenly. On the way home after the funeral, Laura and Bill stopped the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal. Feeling exhausted, frustrated and drained, Laura surrendered her problems to St. Joseph as her intercessor and told him, “St. Joseph, I can’t cope anymore. I’m putting the unborn babies in your hands.” At that moment she realized “the whole responsibility is not mine alone, but there is a higher power.” She felt a profound sense of peace and now understands what some mean when they say they have sensed the Holy Spirit within. She was finally able to accept that “I can only do what I can and leave the rest to God.”
May the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of St. Joseph, Protector of the Divine Babe, bless all the pro-life guardian angels this Christmas, but especially Laura and Helen.