A survey recently circulated among Canada’s pro-life community promises interesting findings about stress and burn-out associated with the struggle to defend unborn children.

Entitled “Compassion Fatigue,” the survey is now being analyzed by Mary-Lynn McPherson, national coordinator of Nurses for Life. As a psychiatric nurse, McPherson has more than a passing interest in job-related stress, particularly among pro-lifers.

The survey was distributed initially at the 1995 national pro-life conference in London, Ontario, but McPherson previously had mailed it to selected pro-life workers across the country. The survey is aimed primarily at front-line activists and former activists. It seeks to uncover what motivates pro-lifers and what factors led others to withdraw from more active participation. The survey was not intended specifically for ordinary members of pro-life organizations.

Linked with violence

In describing the need for the survey, McPherson said many in the community face increasing pressure and frustration, due largely to the mainstream media’s linking of pro-life work with violence and fanaticism.

“All this negativity is taking its toll,” McPherson told fellow pro-lifers. “Those of us who believe in the sanctity of human life are hurt, embarrassed and frustrated when being portrayed as violent, hate-filled bigots. Unfortunately, the very special qualities that draw us to pro-life work –our enthusiasm, our deep compassion, and our unbounded love –can also be the emotional triggers that lead us to compassion fatigue.”

McPherson said the information gained from the survey will be used to understand pro-lifer’s coping techniques. She hopes the information can eventually be presented to the community through a series of educational seminars.

Among the information sought in the three page survey are stress level among activists, the effects on family relationships, likes and dislikes of the movement, support from the church and local pro-life organizations, and coping mechanisms.

Although the survey results have not yet been tabulated, McPherson described some preliminary findings for The Interim. She said the overwhelming majority of pro-life activists draw on prayer and religion for support. As well, many respondents said they receive encouragement from other pro-life people. Conversely, many said they are disappointed by the lack of support coming from church leaders.

“Individual bishops and priests can be very supportive,” McPherson said, “but on the whole the survey showed pro-lifers are few people waiting in the wings to replace them.

“Some expressed the view that pro-life work is like a life-sentence,” she said. “People feel the work is tremendously important, yet if they don’t stay at it, no one else will look after the job for them. This can also lead to increasing stress and burn-out.”

A key element of the survey findings is the adjustments pro-lifers often make with respect to full-time work and to their families. Many activists experience difficulties juggling the demands of families, jobs and the pro-life work responsibilities.

“Many of these people can’t take time away from their jobs, so they’re forced to spend less time with their families in order to fulfill their pro-life commitments,” McPherson said. “This also leads to a new set of problems.”

As revealed in the feature story in this of The Interim, pro-life workers are a lot like other Canadians in feeling the need to get away from it all. They enjoy sports, social activities quiet relaxation, reading and trips to the country. Yet many find it increasingly difficult to leave the cares of the office behind whenever they find time for vacations. Some insist they won’t read newspapers or answer the telephone while on vacation in order to remove themselves completely from the demands of the job.

McPherson is nearing completion of a detailed analysis of the questionnaire. She made extra efforts to ensure the survey included respondents from all parts of the country, and was not limited to Ontario pro-life activists.

“We are human beings doing super-human work,” McPherson said in explaining the questionnaire. “In learning to care for ourselves and for each other, we will be better able to continue the wonderful work we do.”