Divided in purpose. Small in number. Almost no wins that anyone can
name. Is it because the pro-life movement suffers from too many chiefs
and not enough indians and divisions in the ranks?
By Robert Hiini
In 1998, the pro-life movement in Western Australia stared down the barrel of abortion on demand and lost – big time. Like 2008’s legalisation of abortion in Victoria, the ready availability of abortion that had been a practical reality for decades was officially approved by the people’s elected representatives and codified in law.
Yet despite 1998’s loss in WA a wellspring of hope grew up amidst the devastation.
“It is a matter of some pride that the Church and pro-life people grasped this opportunity and conducted a strong and fearless campaign… I have never before experienced such a groundswell of faith from all sectors of the Church,” said Perth’s Archbishop Barry Hickey at the time.
“Seeds were planted which will one day grow through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The sentiment was echoed by Dr Ted Watt, then President of the Coalition for the Defence of Human Life, a pro-life umbrella group prominent in 1998’s legislative fight.
“We’re in a better position than we have ever been before to look for new directions and pursue them, he said.
“We have far more people involved and far more enthusiasm than ever before.”
One newspaper report summarised his comment, saying that: “The pro-abortion lobby had woken a “sleeping giant” and would be surprised by events over the coming months and years.” But in 2009 that “giant” stands divided, separated in organisation, divided by purpose, leadership and approach.
Some welcome the diversity in unity as good for the cause, but others bluntly call the pro-life movement’s current divisions practically hopeless in terms of achieving lasting political effect.
With two separate and unaffiliated organisations carrying the name “Right to Life,” several pregnancy crisis centres separated along sectarian lines and a coalition body that has been the subject of constant political wrangling and manouevre, the pro-life movement in WA is an interesting beast to behold.
How did it get this way? Is the situation problematic or ideal? What aims do its proginators think it should have, moving forward into challenging and ever treacherous future? I spoke to the main actors throughout Perth to find out.
I’m greeted by the kindly face of Peter O’Meara – a 70-plus year old stalwart of the pro-life movement, and the person who gave the pro-life movement its first organised presence in Western Australia.
As he shows me into the meeting room of Right to Life WA’s East Perth premises – a federation style house that doesn’t look like it’s had much done to it in the intervening century – I’m struck by his warm, grandfatherly demeanour, his calming voice and his gentle, winning smile.
He’s the sort of man you might hope any woman could encounter if she were “in trouble” and alone.
He’s also been speaking to women, men, students and media about abortion for over 30 years.
In the mid-seventies Peter was a trade union official in Port Hedland when a Victorian couple involved in the pro-life movement invited him round to view some abortion slides.
With an awareness of escalating family breakups across the Pilbara and repeat abortions performed on minors as his motivation, Peter founded Right to Life WA (RTL WA) in 1976 to be an “educative group” delivering talks in schools, writing letters to the media and, from the early 1980s, offering practical help through a “Pregnancy Lifeline” to women and couples experiencing crisis pregnancy. Peter tells me that the bulk of his organisation’s membership came from the 8,000 people who crowded into Perth’s now defunct Entertainment Centre to hear Mother Teresa of Calcutta speak in 1981.
He approached Mother Teresa, agonising over whether to remain a union official or embrace pro-life work full time, wondering how he would survive.
“She asked me ‘What do you think is more important, Peter?’ In my heart, I said, I discerned that right to life was all about the destruction of unborn children. She said ‘You’ve answered your own question. Go and do it. God will provide’.”
Like all of the players in the Perth movement, he says he holds the dignity of human life to be inviolable while speaking of a commensurate need to “make sure the women know that we love them,” and he has the runs on the board to prove it.
However, sitting across from an RTL WA display board featuring images of developing babies and text that looks as if it was assembled some decades ago, it is impossible to avoid the feeling that the organisation’s heady days are behind it.
Although their membership remains significant, Peter says that they are down to four volunteers in the field with five women staffing their pregnancy lifeline.
With dwindling numbers of church goers and a collapse in volunteering more generally, it would seem surprising
then, that Right to Life WA is not the only pro-life organisation in WA to carry the “Right to Life” name.
The presence of a separate and unaffiliated organisation also calling itself Right to Life in a state with a population of just over two million people is testimony to the way debates and political activity in far-off places can have an impact here.
According to Mr O’Meara, pro-lifers in New South Wales and other states in the 1970s favoured state-based Right to Life organisations while Victorians generally favoured a national organisation with state representation. The Victorian push for a national body lead to the establishment of Right to Life Australia by Melbourne pro-life campaigner Margaret Tighe, whom Mr O’Meara describes as “the odd-one out” in her preference for a national organisation.
WA’s Right to Life Australia representative, Dr Watt, channels his pro-life efforts through the Coalition for the Defence of Human Life (CDHL), a body founded in WA 1987 to coordinate the efforts of seperate pro-life organisations.
Right to Life WA, however, declined to join the new coalition which also became the body leading the charge to defeat the abortion on demand legislation that eventually passed through WA’s Parliament in 1998.
Peter O’Meara, however, says the proliferation of pro-life groups and associations stems from ignorance of how Right to Life WA came about as the first organised local pro-life group in the state.
“People became interested because of what we were doing,” he explains.
“The fragmentation doesn’t come from the originators. It comes from people who want to do their own thing. They could do that within the context of RTL WA. They didn’t seem to want to do that.”
“Without being critical, I suppose they thought they had more expertise and we think we have a program that is working and will work with groups if they want us to but we won’t negate our own aims and objects in doing so.”
Brian Peachey who says he has “a lot of respect for Peter O’Meara” also has a long record in pro-life activism, recounting the fight against State Liberal MP Dr Hislop’s attempts to decriminalise abortion in the late 1960s.
In 1987 he co-founded the CDHL to bring separate pro-life entities – Catholic, Protestant and others – together after the Australia Labor Party made free access to abortion part of its party platform.
While the Coalition’s present secretary Dr Ted Watt says that “almost everything positive that is happening is happening through the CDHL,” Brian Peachey, a CDHL co-founder, says the organisation “is almost defunct.” He is also still chairman of the board of Pregnancy Assistance – the crisis pregnancy centre he helped to establish in 1996 – which is still formally a member of the CDHL.
Pregnancy Assistance was established to carry out Archbishop Barry Hickey’s public pledge that no woman would need to be without assistance when facing a crisis pregnancy and pressued to abort. While Mr Peachey and the CDHL parted ways in 1998 with some acrimony, he remains in favour of cooperation. He thinks division is bad news for the cause. “One of my criticisms for a long time has been the disunity of the pro-life movement. Many of the organisations do not cooperate with each other and I think that’s a serious problem,” he says, sitting in the front room of Pregnancy Assistance’s Lord Street property with coordinator Lydia Fernandez. Throughout Australia, he says, the pro-life movement has suffered from personalities interested primarily in “pontificating and making statements… there are egos in this business. There is constant bitterness in Victoria and New South Wales where organisations with the same name fight each other.”
While the charisms and specialised work of differenct organisations should be respected, the pro-life movement would have greater power and influence speaking to parliamentarians and policy makers with one, united voice, Mr Peachey says.
“Politicians are not concerned about one or two organisations yapping at them, but when they see an organisation with 23 different names on the letterhead, that’s a different ball game.”
The State President of the Australian Family Association, John Barich, says the current situation has its positives and negatives, but agrees that a movement united under one leadership would have greater political clout. On the other hand, there might also be merit in the idea that “the pro-abortionists have 12 targets to deal with instead of one.”
Having so many organisations working in the field, however, might seem to go against the grain.
As businesses worldwide seek to rationalise in response to dwindling prospects, what sense does it make for the pro-life movement to duplicate infrastructure while continuing to exist on separate shoe-string budgets as well as overlapping and competing memberships?
The problem is more acute when considering that the primary pro-life recruiting base of practicing Christians has been devastated in recent decades. Fewer than 51,000 Catholics were counted as attending Mass on Sundays in the archdiocese of Perth in 2006, in 1992 the figure was somewhere between 65-68,000.
I put this question to Richard Egan, strategist and current treasurer of the CDHL which these days has 11 member organisations – less than half its 23-member peak in 1998.
Mr Egan says that the existence of separate local groups is consistent with the Catholic social teaching principle of Subsidiarity, the idea that the smallest organisation capable of doing the job should be given the task in preference to larger overarching monopolies, and the need for specialisation in pro-life work.
“I think it’s a good Catholic principle really, a biblical principal that there are lots of different gifts, lots of different parts of the Body and lots of different things to be done,”
Mr Egan says. “I wouldn’t be good at crisis pregnancy couselling but I have a gift for analysing legislation and drawing up submissions to government inquiries. And I’m sure that for some of my friends that’s the last thing they’d want to be doing.”
Bronia Karniewicz, the Executive Officer of the Archdiocese of Perth’s Respect Life Office agrees: “Everyone’s doing their own little bits but they come together when it’s important,” she says recalling cooperation between groups last year during the previous Labor Government’s attempt to legalise prostitution; an attempt they very nearly defeated.
But for some of WA’s pro-life leaders the question of whether the movement should be united is irrelevant because, they say, the simple reality is that it isn’t and is not likely to be.
“It’s not the sort of movement that lends itself to a single organisation with a single approach – which is beside the point because you’re not going to get those things anyway,” says the RTL Australia and CDHL’s Dr Ted Watt.
The large number of pro-life groups in Australia is similar to the situation found in most Western countries and is a natural function of differences in personalities and the directions that different leaders think the movement should be taking.
“In this world, if you think about the sort of people who join and take part, they’re people like Margaret Tighe,” he says, referring to the founder of the national organisation he represents in WA. Such people, he says, are “intelligent, opinionated, articulate, and not interested in coming to compromise positions with anybody; if they weren’t like that they’d probably do something that was less like hard work. I think that’s true everywhere.”
Dwight Randall, founder of the crisis pregnancy centre Pregnancy Problem House and an ordained Church of Christ minister agrees:
“It’s the reality. I don’t know that there are all that many groups and I think there is more cooperation rather than working against each other; we tend to be on the same page more often than not,” he says.
“It could be that they represent different groups to begin with and they reach different groups. Could they be melded? No. Should they be? No. Do they all do good things? Yes,” Mr Randall says.
“It does mean duplication but that also makes the whole thing work.”
Referring to the obvious dividing lines between his organisation and others run by Catholics, he says it would make sense for Protestants and Catholics to run agencies together “if we had one true Church and nothing else.”
“But we don’t, do we?”
But of all the points of division between pro-life organisations, differences in theology would seem the most benign.
When Dwight Randall decided to create a pro-life ministry for fellow evangelical Protestants in Perth in the mid-1980s he turned to a Catholic, Peter O’Meara, and Right to Life WA, for advice. A decade later, Brian Peachey sought the same know-how from Mr Randall prior in setting up Pregnancy Assistance in 1996.
Mr Peachey in turn has assisted Mr Randall’s Pregnancy Problem House, helping him to find new sites for the organisation when councils have sought its relocation.
The crisis pregnancy centres they operate continue to see thousands of women every year providing pregnancy testing, couselling, financial support and the affirmation that the continuation of their pregnancies is possible.
Quite apart from questions of organisation, local pro-lifers are also divided in the approach they take to combating abortion, down to the way way they talk about the issue and in their political targets.
A debate that has raged amongst prolifers worldwide since the mid-1990s has long since found its way to Australian shores. The debate is between those who favour a primary emphasis on the child and those who adopt a ‘new’ pro-woman approach to the issue of unwanted pregnancy.
Traditionally, the pro-life movement focussed on the right to life of the child, trying to convince the public at large, individual women and couples of the humanity of the unborn. Winning this argument, it was believed, would generate widespread opposition to abortion.
But in Australia, this has not transpired. A 2004 study conducted by the Adelaide-based Sexton Marketing Group on behalf of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute found that whereas 58 per cent of respondents said the unborn child or foetus constituted a person – a statistic the pro-life movement can count as a success – 70 per cent of participants believed that legal access to abortion should remain.
In a seminal article published in the respected Catholic journal First Things in 1998, Paul Swope, the director of a network of pregnancy crisis centres across the US argued that the traditional pro-life focus on the child was a colossal turn-off for the majority of women.
“We have made the error of assuming that women, especially those facing the trauma of an unplanned pregnancy, will respond to principles we see as self-evident within our own moral framework, and we have presented our arguments accordingly,” Swope wrote then.
“This is a miscalculation that has fatally handicapped the pro-life cause.”
The child focus of the traditional movement has engendered resentment among the majority of women, he argued, who perceive the movement as “uncaring and judgemental.”
According to Bridget McKenna, Policy Officer of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Life Office, the common assertion of pro-woman approaches is that “most women neither want nor benefit from abortion – that most women do not really ‘choose’ abortion but are pressured into it by others, only to experience a range of negative physical and pyschological effects after abortion.”
In practical terms, this manifests itself in an emphasis on the negative effects that abortion may have on women, on emotional and practical support for women experiencing crisis pregnancies and on post-abortive healing initiatives.
Like its national peers in Sydney and Melbourne, Perth’s Respect Life Office has been a bastion of this approach.
The office was set up in 2003 to undertake the rather fluid task of building “an authentic civilisation of truth and love.”
Executive Officer, Bronia Karniewicz, describes their approach:
“We really do need to focus on the woman to support her to make the decision not to have an abortion but it is her decision fundamentally – we can’t change her mind and force her to do anything – but we can help support her to make the right choice.”
Lydia Fernandez, the Coordinator of Pregnancy Assistance shares that view:
“It’s understanding the person that’s involved; the woman herself who is thinking “what am I going to do?” Why is she even contemplating abortion? It’s not just because it’s legal and she can go to a clinic,” Ms Fernandez says.
“What is she actually going through? What are her circumstances and what support is there for her? It’s not just about saving the baby. It’s loving the woman and loving the baby.”
Perth’s pro-life veterans say they welcome the approach as one of many, while staying wedded to the traditional movement’s primary concern: the right of the unborn child to survive and come to life.
Richard Egan explains in reference to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae:
“That’s certainly the prime way I think that Evangelium Vitae approaches the question; a moral, social and legal question that involves the right to life of the child,” Mr Egan says.
“The reality, though, is that the unborn child is living its life for the time being within the womb of its mother and so obviously any approach to protect the life of the unborn child has to in some way pass through the woman.”
“I think it’s always been a part of the pro-life movement but I think some elements in the movement have, usefully and very creatively, developed what they call a ‘pro-woman’ focus. They’ve not talked a lot about the rights of the unborn child but focused on the abortion decision itself, explaining notions like the lack of choice in the abortion decision.”
Some pro-life leaders, however, clearly resent the implication, explicit or inferred, that concern for the welfare of women is a new development in the movement.
“My only real objection to them is that they do sometimes come across as though they had only just invented the wheel,” says the CDHL’s Ted Watt referring to pro-woman advocates nationally.
“If people are convinced that this approach really is new and that before that the traditional movement had no interest in the women, well, who’s been running these crisis pregnancy centres for all these years.”
Ms Karniewicz says that while she does not doubt the care and concern that pro-lifers have given practical expression to for many decades, she says a language capable of expressing empathy with women is a recent development.
“Why have women felt so judged and disconnected from the Church when they’ve been through that experience? Pro-life groups have done a great job and people aren’t trying to take over, they’re just trying to add something new to what our culture is today, and that’s important. We need to add to what’s been happening.”
They see at as risking buying into the “choice” mentality, that the only thing that matters in decision making is the effect it will have on the decision maker.
“I think there are some newcomers to the movement, although not so much in Perth, who have mistakenly thought that the pro-woman emphasis should override or lead to a minimisation of talking about the life of the unborn child. I think it’s very mistaken to think that the two things are mutually exclusive,” Richard Egan says.
“If all that we are saying is that abortion is very bad for women, well that’s one thing, but then smoking is very bad for women also and we want to say something more than that. We want to say that abortion is, in every case, wrong because it takes the life of an innocent human being.”
However Bronia Karniewicz says that the intention of authentically pro-woman, pro-life approaches is not to diminish the status of the child as a person in their own right.
“Sometimes, some people see pro-woman approaches as forgetting the unborn and forgetting that that’s murder, but it’s not. It’s just changing the focus slightly because we don’t want any woman to feel ostracised by the Church either but instead that she is loved by God and needs forgiveness.”
Despite some very definite points of disagreement, all of those I spoke to agreed there was a place for both approaches.
“I think there’s got to be a mutual respect between those whose primary focus is highlighting the harm to women and those whose focus is primarily on highlighting the human rights abuse against innocent human beings: the unborn child,” says Richard Egan.
Challenges and the Bishops’ response
Wanting a perspective from outside of Western Australia I spoke on condition of anonymity to one senior strategist in pro-life politics; somebody on the east coast who has followed the fortunes of the pro-life movement since the late 1970s.
Apart from the essential ongoing job of offering help to unexpectedly pregnant women, he sees the main challenge as being one of changing public opinion.
He says the days of a “winner takes all” approach to politicking are over.
“In the last 30 years our entire political strategy has been futile, we haven’t had one lasting significant victory on the east coast,” he says, referring to the “punishment politics” approach of trying to unseat pro-abortion MPs and of refusing to negotiate compromises on abortion bills that were, on voting numbers, a fait accompli.
“I think its quite important that if we are going to have any success at all it must be based on research. We do have to know where the community is.”
“In addition, we need to be able to match it with the sort of PR campaigns that our opponents put together. The truth by itself is not sufficient. The pro-life camp need to be politically savvy.”
“There is no point if all we get is a warm inner glow,” he says bluntly.
Pro-life groups must bring the community with them. With a diminishing base of membership, political success is out of reach without impacting public opinion.
“Unless you educate the community you won’t go anywhere. If you want politicians to change laws we have to be able to claim that we have some community support.”
John Barich of WA’s Australian Family Association branch says that whatever pro-lifers do, they have to try something different.
“We’re not doing well. We’re losing members because of age and death and were not getting new recruits. People don’t like joining up. It’s not succeeding. We’re losing all over the place.”
Will Australia’s bishops show the lead?
In 2007, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Taskforce on Pastoral Responses to Abortion set about ensuring that Catholics at least had the practical understanding they need to make a difference in the concrete situations around them.
The Walking With Love initiative was what eventuated – a series of symposiums throughout Australia and an accompanying DVD to enable Catholics to respond to women, couples and families experiencing an unexpected pregnancy, offering real alternatives to abortion. Angela Lecomber, Walking With Love’s Project Officer, says that the initiative is about popularising the pro-life effort, empowering lay people “to make abortion unthinkable” by providing many different avenues of support.
“We are called to walk with love, we are called to respond better; 60 per cent of people do not know where to go and where to start,” Ms Lecomber says.
“Persuasion is all about changing hearts. There are many ways to access people and some people are persuaded by one approach or another, but the central message is that the womb is a sacred place where life begins.”
“If you want to be radically pro-life you must support the woman who is carrying that life. In any way you can.”
The Walking With Love initiative has received support from Pregnancy Assistance and the Respect Life Office locally in WA, with most other WA pro-lifers that I spoke to saying that they recognised its value.
The initiative is not designed to reach the mass market however and does not feature a popular advertising campaign.
In the wake of the 1998 defeat, the late WA independent MP Phillip Pendal called for a summit to draw up an action plan, part of which would be to ensure the better use of media, describing pro-life efforts in that area as “positively amateurish.”
With an explosion of new media in the past decade and escalating advertising costs, in 2009 it remains to be seen whether the myriad of pro-life organisations in Western Australia are up to that task.
What they do: Prolife organisations in Perth
Australian Family Association
An advocacy group dedicated to defence of the family and the dignity of the human person, including the right to life. The AFA agitates for family friendly policies through parliamentary submissions, grass roots advocacy and liaising with media. Founded in 1980 by BA Santamaria. Tel: 9277 1644
Coalition for the Defence of Human Life
Founded in 1987 by Brian Peachey and Dwight Randall, the CDHL acts as a clearing house for its 11 prolife member-organisations, providing a vehicle for collective action. Dwight Randall (founder of Pregnancy Problem House) is its current president, Ted Watt (Right to Life Australia) is its secretary and Richard Egan (Family Voice Australia) its treasurer.
Helpers of God’s Precious Infants
Established in 1997, a group of trained volunteers who witness outside abortion clinics in Midland, Rivervale and Balcatta every week. Between 50 – 60 volunteers involved. Founded by nurse Helen Sawyer, its present coordinator.
An independent organisation providing emotional and practical assistance – counselling, free pregnancy testing, baby goods and financial help – to women experiencing an unexpected pregnancy.
Lydia Fernandez is the organisation’s present manager. Founded by its current chairman Brian Peachey in 1996.
In 2007-08, Pregnancy Assistance received 1335 calls for assistance, including 80 seeking accomodation, 514 for help with furniture or baby clothes, 74 for financial help and others needing aemotional, moral and spiritual support.
Tel 9328 2929
Pregnancy Problem House
Independent organisation founded by ordained Church of Christ minister, Dwight Randall in 1986, to provide a vehicle through which evangelical protestants could offer practical help to women and families.
Provides counselling, medical and emotional support as well as ante-natal training.
Tel 9344 8110 web www.pregnancyproblemhouse.org/
Right to Life Australia
Founded in Victoria in 1973 by prominent pro-life campaigner Margaret Tighe. It lobbies governments at the federal and state level in a range of life ethics areas – abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and cloning, amongst others. Has representatives in most states. Ted Watt is the organisations WA representative.
Tel: 1300 734 175
Right to Life WA
The first organised prolife organisation in Western Australia, founded in 1976 by Peter O’Meara. Runs a pregnancy helpline and provides practical and emotional support to women, couples and families experiencing crisis pregnancy.
Has a membership of approximately 1500.
Tel: 9221 7117
Respect Life Office
Established in 2003 by Claire Pike in conjunction with Archbishop Barry Hickey to promote the Gospel of Life.
Convenes annual Embrace the Grace conference. Current Executive Officer is Bronia Karniewicz.
Tel 9375 2029.