The Woman Who Tells Girls In Trouble: ‘Have Your Baby’
The Woman Who Tells Girls In Trouble: ‘Have Your Baby’
Louise Summerhill has no doubt about her position in Canada's great abortion debate. She is the founder of Birthright, an organization unique in North America.
It offers motherly counsel, companionship and professional advice for the confused and desperate. And it’s just a telephone call away
MANY A GIRL in trouble has spotted the ambiguous classified advertisement in Toronto’s afternoon newspapers. “Pregnant and distressed?” it asks, and gives a telephone number. When the girls ring they are often answered by a rather gruesome recorded message, warning about the dangers of abortion. Says a pleasant, matronly voice: “You could be sterile for the rest of your life.”
The voice belongs to Mrs. Louise Summerhill, a blond housewife in her middle 40s, mother of seven children, and founder of Birthright, an organization unique in North America. The organization, as the title implies, is dedicated to the proposition that every human embryo or fetus has the right to be born and every girl has the right to have her child.
In her crusade against abortion, Mrs. Summerhill has deliberately embroiled herself in the emotional controversy that surrounds the subject today. Birthright has received7 the support of several churches — Protestant as well as Roman Catholic — and is praised by some of the girls it has helped. At the same time, Mrs. Summerhill’s zealous methods of propagating her convictions have been criticized by family-planning groups and social agencies. Professor Benjamin Schlesinger of the University of Toronto's School of Social Work, for instance, feels “she’s playing with fire.”
There is little in Mrs. Summerhill’s background to suggest she is the stuff crusaders are made of. She married young and has devoted most of her adult years to her children — the youngest a set of seven-year-old twins. However, she
did manage to break out of the domestic routine long enough to take an eveningclass course leading to a diploma in theology.
Her interest in abortion began five years ago when reform of the laws on the subject was being heatedly debated in the press. Mrs. Summerhill’s contribution was a letter to the editor, describing the pleasures childbearing had brought to her. Her letter produced several replies suggesting Mrs. Summerhill could have enjoyed her pregnancies only because she had the money to afford seven children. In fact, Mrs. Summerhill describes herself as “well-off middle class.” Her husband Stephen owns a filling station and their house in Toronto’s suburban Leaside is paid for.
The hostile replies taught Mrs. Summerhill a lesson: “I couldn’t base my arguments just on feelings. I had to have facts. I studied a bit and became, if not an expert, knowledgeable about abortion.” Next she joined an organization lobbying against abortion-law reform and learned something else: “1 realized that the people arguing for legal abortions were mostly motivated by a concern for suffering.
I felt it my responsibility to help provide an acceptable alternative.”
Early in 1968 Mrs. Summerhill left the lobbying group and began to put her own plan into action. It is based on the theory that most girls choose abortion as an alternative to social ostracism or forced marriage. They should be told about other solutions. How would Mrs. Summerhill get her anti-abortion message across? By the same discreet, confidential medium that people seeking
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abortions usually use when making their initial contact: the telephone. Her slogan: “Help is as near as your telephone.” However, Birthright had to be more than an answering service. Companionship and aid would be needed to make the alternatives to abortion attractive. Mrs. Summerhill at first envisaged a small army of field volunteers plugged into all available community resources and dispensing aid freely. A complete pregnancy service! The various religious and charitable groups she approached all showed polite interest but explained that an organization conceived on such a scale was impractical. It looked as though Birthright might be stillborn. But Mrs. Summerhill wasn’t licked:
“I had to decide whether to do it myself. The more I thought, the more necessary it seemed. Yet I had no training and I knew I’d be criticized for neglecting my family.” She and Stephen discussed it and decided that such criticism seldom would be justified. Mrs. Summerhill is a remarkably energetic woman who regularly gets along on four hours of sleep a night. She works mostly from her home, going to the office only one day a week. About her lack of experience, she reasoned: “I won’t need training to listen, understand and love.”
So she set to work requesting donations — mainly from Roman Catholic sources. “I’m Roman Catholic, so most of my contacts are Catholic,” she explains. “Four Catholic priests donated a total of $300. This made up most of our starting capital.” Volunteers were recruited through parish magazines, and by means of church and hospital bulletin boards. “Many were unsuitable -— neurotics wanting to expunge neuroses, or girls regretting recent abortions and unable to be objective. The suitable people tended to be nurses and schoolteachers.” More than 60 volunteers were trained during four weekend courses at which doctors, social workers and clergymen gave advice about the work ahead. Later, two evenings a week were spent with police experts, telephone-company officials or psychologists. Mrs. Summerhill also phoned doctors in different areas: “I explained our objectives, then sent literature and phoned again, asking support. One refused but 20 agreed to be on call. We now have 26. They don’t offer free ministration; that would expose us to exploitation. But they’ll see someone when required. We also help girls join Medicare. But if someone’s penniless and ineligible for either Medicare or welfare, the doctor won’t charge.”
Finally, office space was donated, and on October 15, 1968, Birthright was born. A lawyer advised incorporation and registration as a charity. Registration would make donations tax-deductible
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'It's appalling. A nearhysterical girl hearing that taped message might drown herself’
and give Birthright standing. The application to register as a charity was accepted. The board of directors, which meets monthly, includes Louise Summerhill, Dr. G. Solmes (her doctor), Dr. P. Beirne (a gynecologist studying abortion), Dr. W. Fujiwara (a pediatrician), and the Reverends J. Moss and F. Skumavc.
Meanwhile, the phone kept ringing. Mrs. Summerhill found that one difficulty of an all-volunteer staff was the impossibility of manning a 24-hour service. The solution: the taped message that plays during non-office hours. It opens by introducing Birthright, and closes by telling when the office is open. In between is the message:
“Do not consider having an illicit abortion; you could be charged with a criminal offense ... It can be suicidal . . . The abortionist cares nothing for the girl whose body he mutilates but only for financial gain . . . Some syringe the uterus with dangerous chemicals, even straight lye solution, thus destroying not only the baby, but the reproductive organs ... If you live and survive the dangers of embolism, excessive bleeding, or other complications, you could be sterile for the rest of your life. . .”
The tape has resulted in protests to the Toronto Social Planning Council, though the council emphasizes they have been few. However, Mrs. Barbara Cadbury, founder of Planned Parenthood of Toronto, is outspoken: “It’s appalling. There’s no tailoring for individuals. A near - hysterical girl, on hearing that, might well drown herself.”
Mrs. Summerhill is unrepentant: “Girls say it’s saved them from abortions. When we’re not available, it’s important to have the crux of our message on tape as effectively as possible. Girls don’t complain. When a girl says she’s, been distressed by it, I’ll worry. The complainers aren’t the ones it concerns.” But Barbara Cadbury has another point: “They present themselves as nonsectarian. They’re a Catholic anti-abortion group, and their beliefs aren’t necessarily other people’s.’*'
Mrs. Summerhill answers: “Our religious and moral views on abortion are immaterial. We don’t give orders; we make suggestions. Many of us are Roman Catholic, and I think all are Christian. But we don’t moralize; we don’t want girls to feel guiltier. We help anybody and don’t mention religion. Our arguments are practical. Nobody pretends
backroom abortions are safe. Even in Japan, where abortion is legal, the welfare ministry reports that as high as 48 percent of women having abortions suffer ill effects.”
During office hours a telephone volunteer may invite a caller to the office or take the number, passing it to Mrs. Summerhill with a “problem outline.” Mrs. Summerhill then selects a field volunteer whose experience and availability suits her for the particular case. Thus clients encounter only two volunteers plus, possibly, Mrs. Summerhill. Birthright promises secrecy, and the limited number of contacts fosters confidence. No files are kept in the office.
The service, which varies with the case, offers friendship and alternatives to abortion. Few girls know all possible courses.
Birthright informs them of maternity homes where schoolgirls can continue their education and of hospital clinics that give free medical care. Birthright also ascertains what government benefits are available and helps get them. And Birthright knows about private homes where pregnant girls do housework in return for accommodation and a small wage.
At the start, many phone calls were hoaxes, but the proportion is dropping. The organization hears from more than 100 cases every month and the ratio of those followed through is growing all the time. On a recent Friday 1 sat in the office while three girls called to say they were going to have abortions during the coming weekend. Two canceled their appointments after talking to Birthright. Says Louise Summerhill, “Had they thought of Birthright as a Catholic or anti-abortion organization, it’s possible those girls wouldn’t have phoned.”
And recognition is growing. Madame Vanier, widow of the late governor general, recently became Birthright’s honorary patroness. Birthright is not in the current Directory Of Social Services — because, says a spokesman, “We felt they might not be around long after publication.” They are around, and people know about them. Mrs. M. Herbert, executive director of the United Church Victor Home in Toronto, says, “There’s a need for Birthright’s services. Their program is admirable.” Detective Doug Walton, who for years has dealt with abortion cases as a member of the Toronto Police morality squad, says, “I know a few girls they’ve kept from backroom abortions. Just that makes them worthwhile. They hear of abortionists but they promise secrecy. They’ve got their job and they do it well.”
The churches also commend Birthright. Letters from the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, the Roman Catholic Coadjutor Archbishop of Toronto, and the Family Life Committee
of the Presbyterian Church, include such phrases as, “Heartfelt congratulations,” “There should be an agency of this kind in every large city,” “My approval of the work that you are doing,” and, “Moral support to your organization.”
And now Mrs. Summerhill receives requests for information from overseas and from such Canadian cities as Edmonton, Kitchener, Regina and Vancouver. A group from Wilmington, Delaware, flew her down to hear her personally describe her experiences. Sometimes she provides information and the rest takes care of itself: “Last fall a Dr. Lapointe requested information for Montreal. I sent the material and forgot it. Last month, Dr. Jean Vanier congratulated me on the approaching opening of a Birthright centre in Montreal. I was stunned.”
But dearer to Birthright are letters from grateful girls: “Thank God for Birthright,” “You gave life a meaning,” “Birthright brought hope,” “My baby wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for you.” However, not all the girls write such letters. Gina and Wendy, for instance, are less enthusiastic. Gina is 17 and single; Wendy, widowed with four children. After contacting Birthright, both canceled abortions. Gina was found accommodation as a mother’s helper. Volunteers collected for Wendy’s children, giving them, she says, “the biggest Christmas ever.” Both had only praise for Birthright at the time. Now, however, the baby each bore is in custody of Children’s Aid and both women are depressed. Wendy admits asking herself, “Why did I ever phone Birthright?” She wonders if the anguish of giving birth to a child and then losing sight of it is, after all, preferable to an abortion.
This is a problem Louise Summerhill admits she cannot resolve. “Both Gina and Wendy were going to backroom abortionists, so one must balance physical risk against any heartache. And heartache from aborting is often greater than from having the baby taken away. It’s true that those who need our,help are often those unable to care for their babies. But don’t you think the babies will be thankful? How many would honestly rather be dead? It’s cruel either way, but I’m sure abortion is worse.”
Meanwhile: “We need a 24-hour service with paid help; $65 a month goes on phone and $60 on advertising. That’s all we have. The Atkinson Charitable Foundation granted us $1,000, but that’ll be needed for a part-time secretary while I’m away for the summer. Stephen insists I go with him and the children, and he’s right. But there’s so much to do. Compared with the number of illegal abortions, Birthright is merely skimming the surface. But when I see a baby, and realize it wouldn’t have been born except for Birthright, it’s a wonderful feeling.” □
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