"We could fill Madison Square Garden with the babies we saved," said Chris Slattery, who opened his first crisis pregnancy center in New York City 37 years ago.
For most of his adulthood, Chris Slattery has been fighting for the lives of the unborn. New York-born-and-reared, with a pugnacious streak in him, Slattery has been involved in fights that have been at times more literal than metaphoric. Consumed by a sense of mission in protecting nascent life, he founded a crisis pregnancy center, Expectant Mother Care, in New York City 37 years ago, and as that center grew into a network of centers called EMC Frontline, he’s had to do battle in courts and the halls of government so it could carry out its life-saving mission.
After all these years, he still cherishes each individual victory of a woman who was abortion-bound but turns to choose life. He claims that the number of children saved by his EMC Frontline network could fill the 19,000-seat Madison Square Garden.
Now he faces perhaps the most difficult battle of his life. Last fall, he announced that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His doctors told him that he might have two or three years to live, he revealed in a recent interview. But he plans to continue the fight that matters most.
“I’m going to die with my boots on,” he said.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview, which began on the eve of the 49th March for Life in Washington, D.C. Slattery was resting in a hotel near Washington, recovering from a treatment for his cancer, but planned to march the next day.
“I have a good strong walking stick, if I need it for support,” he said. “My first march was in 1980. I’ve probably done 90% of them since then.”
We spoke again with Slattery in late March, just weeks before his 67th birthday.
You went to Boston College and started a career in advertising. When and how did you get into pro-life work? What was it that drew you to this kind of work?
I could say that I finally embraced Catholicism after going on a retreat with Opus Dei in 1978 and came back to my faith. I went from age 13 to 23 with no confessions. I’d dropped out of going to Mass for four or five years in my Boston College days.
The introduction to the pro-life movement was actually an invitation by a member of Opus Dei and a seminarian. That seminarian is now New York Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne. He and I and a couple of other people did a counter-demonstration in Union Square [in lower Manhattan] in the Spring of 1979. It was my first pro-life activity. There were lesbians and bra-burners and rage-mongers, railing for abortion and gay rights. Of course, abortion had been legalized in New York in 1970, but they just wanted more and more. So that just got me fired up.
The police put us behind a barricade, and we had some primitive pro-life posters, and I said “Wow, this is great! This is exciting, man!”
Then I would go to lectures. I was one of the founders of the New York Catholic Forum in the early ‘80s. We were the first of the Theology on Tap type of groups.
In 1982, I moved to the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, living in a walk-up alcove studio apartment, around 31st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. One morning I was walking out to my advertising job, and I was walking past this building on 32nd and Park, just a block away from where I was living. And one of the girls I had met at the Catholic Forum was on a plaza in front of this 50-plus story office building. It was 7:30 in the morning and I was in a three-piece suit and had a briefcase. She called me over and I said, “What are you doing out here at 7:30 in the morning?” She said, “They’re killing babies upstairs.” I said, What? “Yeah, there’s an abortion clinic upstairs in this building. I’m talking to the women who are going in.”
So that morning, or another morning after, I talked to a mother bringing her 15-year-old daughter. I don’t remember anything about what I said to that mother, and I didn’t have any brochures; I didn’t have anything. Six months later I was holding that 15-year-old’s baby in my arms in their apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I was new to this. I just looked into this baby’s eyes and thought, “Oh my God, I just saved a baby. I saved this baby’s life.” It was absolutely transformational. I said “My God, you can use me to save babies. How can I do this?”
Then over the next year or two I started asking what sorts of organizations exist to help mothers. And I discovered there were no crisis pregnancy centers in New York City. I was reading some Catholic newspapers and found a story on this guy named Bob Pearson from Arkansas who started pregnancy centers. I invited him to New York and set up meetings with him with the Archdiocese [of New York]. I ended up doing presentations in 17 different parishes, thinking I would set up a pregnancy center in each parish. How naive I was. We ended up setting up one. I signed a lease probably around December of ‘84. We found a space in a building adjacent to Planned Parenthood’s thrift shop. At that time Planned Parenthood was on 22rd Street and Second Avenue, in an office building facing Epiphany Church. There were no second-floor offices or cheap spaces anywhere near there. It was mainly apartment buildings. But I got into a building across from the School of Visual Arts and next to their thrift shop. It was just an empty loft. There were no rooms, no bathroom, no walls, just brick walls on either side of a big empty space, which had been a print shop. So I had to spend like seven or eight months raising $35,000 for a complete renovation of this space.
Back then the only way to advertise was in the Yellow Pages. There was no internet. So I placed an ad anticipating us opening up in the spring, and we started getting calls. So we’re literally counseling women in the office with construction going on. It was insane.
Bob Pearson came in and he was there helping me. He counseled a girl right out of an abortion. I watched him work and said, “Man, this is great.” I remember her going out and vomiting on the sidewalk, from morning sickness, and I thought, “Wow, it’s not always pretty, but saving a baby is exciting.”
So you went full-time with this?
I was still working in advertising. This was the days of payphones – no cell phones. I was running this thing with 10-cent phone calls, raising money from payphones, as I’m out on the sidewalks. I worked for three different ad agencies, then I went to work for The Economist magazine, and then Financial World magazine. I was still working in advertising in early 1990. I got fired from a job because I had too much exposure from Operation Rescue, and then I went and took a part-time job in advertising, to kind of transition into full time [pro-life work]. So by July of 1990, I had lost the part-time advertising job and then I went full-time. I started borrowing money – $1,000 a month for a couple of years – until I started to make enough money to sustain myself. My wife wasn’t working, and we had two of our children on Medicaid because I was making so little.
What was your involvement in Operation Rescue like?
In the mid-eighties, I’m working full time in advertising, and I don’t have time to counsel women during the day. So I’m training people on how to counsel women, primarily. In 1986 one counselor came along that I took a special interest in for some personal training, and she became my wife, Eileen.
In 1987, Tom Herlihy and Randall Terry [founder of Operation Rescue] came to the building. Tom Herlihy came upstairs and said he wanted to book an abortion for his girlfriend. I just said, “You’re full of it. I don’t believe you. I think you’re lying.” I said, “Look, this is a pro-life organization. Are you pro-life?” He said, “Yes I am. I thought you were an abortion clinic. We were going to try to blockade your doors.”
So I joined Operation Rescue with Randall Terry and Tom Herlihy. My wife and I became recruiters and leaders, and on Monday, May 2, 1988 – married now, working full time, and she pregnant full term with our first child – we went out on the sidewalk. There were over 600 people there, and I was the first one at the door and the last one [of 503 people] to be arrested. Eileen went into labor on the sidewalk with our first daughter, Mary Frances. She was born the next day – our Rescue baby.
We brought her to the rallies, held her up – literally, our new born baby – brought her to the rallies later in the week. Of course, the birth of the baby gave me an excuse to take the rest of the week off from work. And then we went rescuing with crews. We went to Queens, Long Island, different places. We had a whole week of rescues.
In the New York Times Metro section, the lead photo was of us blocking the doors, and I was in the picture. And nobody at The Economist where I was working noticed it. Nobody said anything to me.
But that was the start of Operation Rescue. I went to prison three times, and Eileen got arrested a couple of times, with daughter Mary Frances, in one case, in her arms.
How’d that make you feel?
We were totally committed. Once I was in prison, I never felt more sure that I was exactly where I needed to be at that time. I realized this cause deserves it all. I have to give everything for this.
I got forced into making the decision to burn my boats to advertising, and I did. I got fired from the full-time advertising job, because I had a three-page story with a full-page picture in New York magazine in 1989, which brought me a lot of notoriety within the advertising business. I was on television; I was the spokesman for Operation Rescue in New York. Then the pro-aborts put up Wanted posters for me all over Manhattan, with a picture they took of me from the New York Magazine article. “Wanted: Enemy of Women.” Then a woman at my office at Financial World put up this photograph and this wanted poster in the women’s stalls every day for a week. Some pro-life woman gave me a copy of it and said, “This is going up in the bathroom.” So that’s what led to me getting fired.
So I had to make big sacrifices to go full time. That was 32 years ago.
How much time did you spend in prison?
The two times in New York we were arrested and held for one to three nights. We didn’t go to trial. We were just held, and the cases were dismissed. These were trespassing charges. Then I got a conviction and a three-day sentence in a minimum security prison in Freehold, N.J.
I was also brought up on federal charges. I had a three-day federal court trial in front of Judge Robert Ward. I was convicted of violating his injunctions against Operation Rescue in New York State. I was fined $50,000 and assessed $157,000 in National Organization for Women-New York attorneys fees. I had to divest myself. I owned three apartments at that time. I had to fire-sale two of them. One of them was in my wife’s name, so that escaped the court’s reach. But the case miraculously disappeared over the years, and they never collected the money. But it was a case that went for 15 years – NOW v. Terry.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson [abortionist and co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and later pro-life convert] and I violated the injunction again. I wasn’t charged with that, but Dr. Nathanson was. He and I were next to each other. In a seminal moment in his book, The Hand of God, where he finally understood what Christianity is all about, in relation to the pro-life movemnent, I was standing right next to him. I had invited him and brought him to the sit-in we did at the Planned Parenthood at Second Avenue and 22nd Street. I believe that was in January of 1989. If you read his book, there’s a section where he talks about the look on the faces of the rescuers praying. He and I were dragged and went to a holding pen they set up with metal barricades. They didn’t want to have to arrest everyone, so they temporarily detained us in holding pens, which were outdoors, near the facility. Dr. Nathanson ended up paying a settlement to NOW.
Fines for trespassing aside, it must have been hard to leave your advertising job for full-time pro-life work, since you had a young family and, no doubt, growing expenses.
I was making $75,000 a year at my last full-time advertising job. And that was good money in 1988. And I was able to raise enough money to pay myself like $24,000 a year [as director of Expectant Mother Care]. So I took a huge cut. We had the two children on Medicaid because we were so poor. We were living in Stuyvesant Town [a low-cost apartment complex in lower Manhattan], hand-to-mouth. I didn’t even have enough money for a Christmas tree. It was tight. I was scrounging coupons out of garbage cans. It took me time before I could start paying employees, or I could start raising money for more serious advertising.
Sounds like it could have folded at any time.
One thing that put me in connection with wealthy people was another providential thing. There was a Daughters of St. Paul bookstore on Vanderbilt Avenue, that little side street adjacent to Grand Central Terminal and the Pan Am building. I went in there one day and said, “Listen, here’s my business card. If anyone comes in here buying pro-life books, give him my card and have him give me a call, because I have a new pro-life project I’m starting, and I want to meet some people.”
So a guy went in who was a lawyer for J. Peter Grace [an American industrialist and wealthy Catholic philanthropist]. That’s how I met Peter Grace. And I started to get access to some prominent Catholics. My brother went to college at Hamilton College in upstate New York, and his roommate went to intern with the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn. So I met Bowie Kuhn. And I met Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Then I met [Lutheran] Pastor [later Catholic Fr.] Richard John Neuhaus. I met Mother Teresa. I met John Paul II. I met Cardinal John O’Connor. I met Fr. Benedict Groeschel. The confluence of all these people reinforced for me that this was the ultimate cause; this was the cause I was to give my life for. I had a call within a call of a vocation to sanctity as a member of Opus Dei, in whatever profession I’d choose; it didn’t have to be pro-life work. I was in advertising for 12 more years after I met Opus Dei, but it overlapped with the pro-life commitment. And I was doing both. It was kind of schizophrenic, but I was doing it.
My wife was 100% behind me, willing to make the sacrifices and the commitment. And we did it together: she would counsel in the offices, bringing our children to the office. I would recruit other women, mainly from Stuyvesant Town, which was a 15-minute walk to the office.
For a long time, yours was the only crisis pregnancy center in New York, wasn’t it? And then you ended up with quite a network.
I was the first and only one in Manhattan for a number of years. Our center in the South Bronx has been across the street from Planned Parenthood for 22 years. We opened in downtown Brooklyn, in the same building as Planned Parenthood, in ‘99.
In 2013 I started centers in 10 other cities. I was hoping that some breakthrough donations would allow me to sustain it. But that summer I recruited 50 interns from Spain and deployed them all across the country. I found housing and transportation, and I opened temporary pregnancy center offices for six months at least in each of these cities: Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, Austin, San Antonio. It was the most insane year of my life. I just went all out. I kept one center going in Austin and San Antonio for about a year and a half, but then I had to shut the rest down. It was a management logistical nightmare, but it was great. It was a bold act of daring. I always thought that if I had millions I could have done more.
We also opened up in New Jersey – some offices in Jersey City for some years. We experimented with half a dozen locations in Manhattan over the years, half a dozen locations in the Bronx, half a dozen locations in Queens, a couple of different locations in Brooklyn.
For seven years starting in 2007, we had three different mobile buses, mobile vans, or RVs. We did sidewalk counseling full time at different abortion clinics throughout the city and saved a hell of a lot of babies. We crippled Dr. Emily’s, which had a huge place in the South Bronx. They ended up downsizing to a smaller place. We achieved a lot.
We were the first in a big city to introduce the mobile clinics, the first to use 3-D ultrasound, and 4-D ultrasound with real time 3-D and not playback. We’ve had partnerships with the Knights of Columbus. They’ve gotten us about six ultrasound machines over the years. We were the first in a big city to run full-page advertising in the Yellow Pages in competition with the abortion clinics. Of course, we don’t use the Yellow Pages anymore.
We introduced an international intern program in 2006. We’ve had at least one international intern since 2006. Over the years we brought in 350 Spanish interns, almost all Catholic, of good families. We brought in Koreans, South Americans, Mexicans, people from England, Ireland, Holland, France, and Germany, all over the world. We became an international training center for pro-life counselors.
In the early days, what did you learn about saving babies?
Well, you can bring in women for ancillary things, to come get them, even while they’re considering an abortion, without misleading them that they’re coming to get an abortion. But you can get women into the office by offering them a pregnancy test and an ultrasound, for the pre-abortion evaluation, and learn how to get the women in who are abortion-determined. And this is what infuriated the other side. They wanted to insist that we had to disclose to them that we don’t do abortions. We won the right to not have to disclose that, because it was going to force government speech on us.
We learned that the ultrasound is critical, the education, having compassionate educators, advisers, who are Christian and committed to sharing the gospel with mothers and sharing hope and help. That’s what makes the difference. We’re averaging two and a half saves a day now. We’ve saved tens of thousands of babies, and it all started with that one on a plaza in front of an office building on Park Avenue, 40 years ago.
I imagine you felt you were saving mothers too.
Yes, well, you can’t talk to a baby. You’re dealing with a mother, and of course it’s her change of heart and mind and soul. You’re converting her. You’re converting her to motherhood. She’s a daughter of God, and she’s been blessed with a special gift, the greatest gift she could ever have.
You mentioned an attempt to “force government speech” on you.
We had a major challenge in 2010 and 2011, when New York City tried to regulate us out of business with the Pregnancy Service Centers legislation.
We filed suit in federal court and in 2014 won victory against the City of New York for their unconstitutional restrictions on our speech. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the majority of the law, and the city had to pay our lawyers a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys’ fees. The city decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What remained of the law was that if we were performing ultrasounds and were not supervised by licensed medical personnel in the office, we would have to disclose in all our advertising, outreach, telephone calls, in-person contact, that we were not a medical facility.
The law went into effect in 2016. We couldn’t just have volunteers in the offices counseling women and having them doing pregnancy self-tests. I had to go full-time medical. We have operated with the use of nurse supervision in the offices since then. That added a lot of expense, so I had to cut back the number of locations.
We had some violations of the law upheld against us by the Department of Consumer Affairs in the early days. We believe we could use a two-tiered structure where on some days all we were doing were pregnancy tests, self-administered by the mother, with no nurses present because we weren’t doing ultrasounds. But we got fined for doing that anyway – about $6,000 in fines over a couple of years. We eventually realized we were never going to win that battle.
That wasn’t the only legal battle you had.
In ‘87, NOW and the New York State Attorney General’s office held a press conference, charging us with deceptive advertising practices, because we advertised under “Clinics” and “Birth Control Information,” which were the only two headings at that time accepted for advertising for abortion clinics in the Yellow Pages. They didn’t have a heading for abortion clinics. Under the listing for abortion clinics, they would refer you to those two headings. So the abortion clinic advertising was all split between those headings.
So when we went to place ads, the Yellow Pages people said, “Okay, you can go under these two headings.”
So they ended up having congressional hearings; they wanted a nationwide solution for the Yellow Pages. A congressional committee created two headings: Abortion Alternatives and Abortion Providers. As it turns out, Abortion Alternatives was the first page in the Yellow Pages, and from then on, I placed all my advertising under Abortion Alternatives. But I had to sign a consent judgment with the Attorney General’s office in those early days. Eventually we just started ignoring the consent judgment.
In 2002, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued two subpoenas to us and nine or 10 pregnancy centers across the state, from Staten Island to Buffalo. And we organized counter lawsuits in eight or nine courts across the state. I went on the “Alan Keyes is Making Sense” program. We had the Attorney General of South Carolina and myself and Alan Keyes on the pro-life side, versus the head of NOW and the head of Planned Parenthood of New York City. I exposed brochures on the program, which were shown to a national audience, that showed that Eliot Spitzer made a commitment to bring down the pregnancy centers as a pledge to NOW and Planned Parenthood. The next day, the Attorney General lifted all the subpoenas statewide, and we declared victory.
There was a subpoena from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2013. That’s still technically open. Barbara Underwood, after Schneiderman was forced to resign, conducted an in-office interrogation of myself and one of my employees. We took the Fifth a couple hundred times. This was a deposition in front of their Reproductive Rights Unit. That January, just two months later, Letitia James took office, and she’s apparently been more distracted in going after Donald Trump than me. So that didn’t result in anything. Those subpoenas that started nine years ago went nowhere.
What’s your annual budget?
About $750,000. We could easily double that and do a lot more. But after close to 40 years of fund-raising, and my ill health, I am trying to find people to transition to take over from me. But I’m going til my last breath. I’m going to die with my boots on.
There’s another pro-life activist in New York named Chris.
Yes, Chris Bell. We both started at the same time.
He runs Good Counsel Homes. What do you think of his work and his approach?
It’s very important. But over the years, the maternity homes have become less critical, because single motherhood is accepted as the preferred way of raising children today, to the inner city mothers. They don’t get kicked out as often as they used to. I mean, kids get in trouble with their parents and they may leave, but they can go to boyfriends or they can sleep on people’s couches. But when a breakup with a boyfriend happens that they may have been living with and there’s no place to go, the maternity homes are key.
But this isn’t as critical an element of the baby-saving as the counseling and the ultrasound and being there at the decision point. And then there are some pregnancy centers that literally won’t even accept a mother until she’s in her third trimester. And I always thought, “This is ridiculous. You’re trying to say you’re pro-life, and yet during the most vulnerable months – the first six months – you won’t take her in.”
But Chris Bell doesn’t do that. They’ll take them in at any stage. But they’re important to a very small minority of mothers that are desperate. But we’re not turning around mothers and sending them into maternity homes, most of the time. Very few of them want to go live in a maternity home. Many of them are going to live alone with their kids or their boyfriends. Maybe they’re living with their parents. But this is a way of life. Marriages have declined. There are parishes that hardly do any marriages anymore. Single motherhood is the accepted way of child-raising today, whereas 50 years ago it was like a scandal. Don’t even tell anyone you’re pregnant. We’ll ship you off to Aunt Sally. Or Should you be going to a maternity home somewhere so nobody knows? But those days are over. The shame of an unexpected pregnancy is gone, largely, in most communities.
Well, he was there on May 2, 1988. He sat in with us. He did some rescues. He’d been a pro-life activist at the schools where he was a teacher. Then he started the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, because Operation Rescoue was taking it to the abortion clincs, but he thought there was a better way – vigils and sidewalk counseling. He was one of the great stalwart sidewalk counselors, and this is how I got started. It’s something I always wanted to get back to, and I got back to it with the concept of merging the mobile pregnancy center clinic with sidewalk counseling, doing the ultrasounds on the street. A lot of pregnancy centers are adverse to sidewalk counseling and don’t want to get anywhere near or associated with it, and risk lawsuits.
But I always very much admired Msgr. Reilly and his approach. But he’s been ill for some years, and another organization, Sidewalk Counselors for Life, has been teaching sidewalk counseling for a number of years now. They, in effect, kind of picked up the ball from the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.
I had some paid staff doing sidewalk counseling. I had interns getting free room and board, travel money and a stipend. So there was remuneration for the work. But it’s impractical to do it completely without volunteers. In many cities, it’s very hard to come by volunteers. You can’t sustain it.
Msgr. Reilly did reject the blockades of abortion clinics as a longterm solution. So did I. I’m not against those who are doing that. But I don’t think that’s going to be a significant movement again.
Well, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act took the wind out of its sails.
Yeah, federal lawsuits and state attacks, long jail sentences, crushing the leadership with multi-million dollar lawsuits and fines. The average person couldn’t do it. There were dozens here and there who could do it over time in the 1990s, but it pretty much fell apart.
Then there’s the Sisters of Life.
They’re a very significant influence in the Catholic Church to show a method, a mix of contemplative and active pro-life outreach. And their active pro-life outreach is heavily on the educational and prayer side. It’s not as much activism as the pregnancy centers. They have a resource center in Manhattan for counseling and they do healing after abortion programs. But they’re not really running a serious pregnancy center. They never do pregnancy tests. They’ll never do ultrasounds. They’re not set up like a traditional pregnancy center. They accept referrals, primarily. They don’t do secular competitive advertising with the abortion clinics like we do. For the Archdiocese of New York they have one center to serve pregnant women, and that’s 10 counties. Instead of expanding throughout the archdiocese, they’ve expanded around the country. Their mission is not to populate eight dioceses with pregnancy centers. They don’t do sidewalk counseling. They’ll do witness and prayer. … they’re heavy on providing a spiritual source of prayer to pro-lifers and to mothers who are in crisis and who have been referred mainly by parishes and some pregnancy centers.
But we sign women up for insurance. We get them medical care. We give them supplies. We’re giving away $2 million worth of supplies a year now. We’re getting two or three tractor trailer loads of diapers a year. We’ve branched out into supplying poor families through parishes as well, throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester. We do outreaches in mostly minority-heavy parishes, and we do a weekly giveaway to families in the South Bronx. We get our donations from Walmarts and Kimberly Clark and Amazon.
That’s interesting that a company like Amazon is donating to a pro-life organization.
Well, they’re not knowingly donating to a pro-life group. They don’t know what kind of a group we are. We have to be a 501 (c) 3, and we have to fulfill their conditions of record-keeping and no selling or bartering anything for goods and services. We have to give it away. We’ve reached a commitment with a group called Goods360, which used to be called Gifts in Kind. They partner with us, and we get assigned stores and an Amazon warehouse to work with.
Do you have any idea of how many children are alive today that might not be, were it not for Expectant Mother Care?
I would say we could fill Madison Square Garden with the babies we’ve saved. Tens of thousands. In the heyday of sidewalk counseling, we were contributing a significant number of babies saved a year: 1,500 to 2,000 a year on the sidewalks. But I had to curtail all that because of the lawsuits, which completely distracted me in the last decade, and then the increased cost of operating with nurses and the increased costs of the wages expected from ultrasound techs. The cost of operations has gone up tremendously.
Do you keep in touch with a lot of the children who have been saved?
I don’t, personally. The counselors come and go. The ones who have worked with us over the years, every one of them has contact with some of the clients they have dealt with over the years. A baby I saved personally reached out to me. She’s 20 and lives in Massachusetts. She found me on LinkedIn. She said “I’m pro-choice, but I thank you for saving my life.”
There are adoptive children I’m in touch with: three adoptive couples, parents of children we saved. There’s Elizabeth and Charles Rex. He was the assistant concert-master of the New York Philharmonic, and she was a professor of education. They adopted Catherine Rex, who is a star musician now. I personally saved her life from an abortion.
This is not just a job. It’s a vocation, and you’ve got to excel at it. You’ve got to become professional at it. I’ve always tried to be good at it. St. Josemaria Escrivá taught us we have to be excellent professionals. We have to keep God in mind every moment, praying before, during and after our work, always offering it for God’s glory. These are God’s children. The most precious beings in the world are human beings, made in his likeness and image, with an eternal soul. The mothers who abort their babies risk their immortal soul. We don’t know what happens to the souls of aborted babies. We hope that they’ve gone to God, but we don’t know for sure. The Church hasn’t ruled on that. Many good pro-life priests would say they go to Heaven. They can believe this, but we don’t know.
But we want to make sure that the children who do survive, we try to get them baptized, confirmed, become good soldiers for Christ. Msgr. Reilly says it’s all about conversion – conversion of the mothers. And the fathers. And he’s right. It’s not just about saving the babies. It’s saving the mother’s soul, helping her to fulfill her mission in life. And even if we fail with that particular mother and that particular baby, maybe she’ll regret the abortion later and maybe she won’t have any more. We might prevent a future abortion even if we don’t succeed in that encounter with her when she comes in. Maybe what we said to her will sink in later.
What gains has the pro-life movement made over the past several decades? What do we still have to accomplish?
The Catholic dioceses have to embrace at the parish level much more pro-life activism and education, and I don’t think we’ve done that very well in New York City, in the Archdiocese of New York and the Brooklyn Diocese. The Archdiocese has an excellent pro-life office, but with the loss of vocations to the priesthood — and our priests are worn thin — we have to have more lay leadership in parishes. There is an initiative of the bishops, however, a good new program to launch pro-life initiatives in parishes.
Some states have had tremendous pro-life movements. Let’s face it: it’s the blue versus red states. The red states are pro-life, the blue states are pro-choice. It’s that simple. There are some purple states, Virginia, for instance, which just elected a solid pro-life attorney general and governor. It was shocking after they had gone so blue over the past 10 years. Politics have played a part in all this, but in states like New York, we’re so far behind. I can’t perceive a time politically that New York will ever recover. Hundreds of thousands of more conservative people have abandoned the state, moved south. The Republican Party is quite weak in the state of New York. So having strong pro-life politicians helps the pro-life movement in many states. But it doesn’t help it much in the northeast. We have different problems in different regions of the country. The grassroots crisis pregnancy centers are critical, and they almost operate outside of politics. I’m a unique pro-lifer, because I’m very well-rounded in all kinds of activism. Most pregnancy centers are run by women; they’re not political; they’re not involved in politics. They don’t do sidewalk counseling, they don’t do protests.
Pregnancy centers are mainly run by apolitical women. But the pregnancy centers are an essential underpinning of our movement. But they’re not the only aspect to it. The Sisters of Life are often a tremendous spiritual support to mothers and pro-lifers, and an encouragement to the parishes. They’re going to start to make a huge impact across the country when they’re in their thousands.
But our dioceses with our loss of priests and vocations in places like New York and Brooklyn, the pro-life movement is going to be hurt by the lack of priestly vocations. Priests are an important part of the formation of pro-lifers and the encouragement. We don’t have the Fr. Neuhauses, the Fr. Benedicts, the Msgr. Reillys. Priests for Life envisioned having an army of pro-life priests, but the bishops rejected it. They didn’t supply Priests for Life with priests. Fr. Frank Pavone has been an exemplary pro-life priest – one of a kind. A very important influence. But he’s got, what, 10 years to go? Who’s going to replace him?
With a decision expected soon in the Dobbs v. Jacksoncase at the Supreme Court, what do you think the prospects are of overturning Roe v. Wade?
It looks good. Certainly abortion is going to be crippled by the decision, whatever it is. They’re going to allow states to outlaw abortion at much earlier stages in pregnancy. I believe they’ll uphold the Dobbs law. I think we’re going to get a victory. It may not be a complete overturn of Roe and Casey, but it will give us substantial advances and the ability to regulate abortion. But what are we going to do in New York State? Forget it. We have a completely Democrat-controlled state, like Michigan and Illinois and California and other states. There’s not much hope for pro-life legislation. In fact, they’re going to try to pass in advance pro-abortion legislation.
So our jobs, in certain parts of the country, are going to get tougher. But in other parts it’s going to get easier.
But also, if Roe is overturned, we’re going to find complacency set in. That’s a big danger. “Okay, Our mission is done. We overturned Roe v. Wade.” No, that wasn’t the mission.
You used the word complacency.
Yes. It could provide an excuse for people to get slack. And that worries me. I never want to slacken off. That’s why I keep coming to the March for Life, stay close to sidewalk counseling. You can’t just depend on laws. You’ve got to reach the mother where she’s at, one by one.
Finally, I’d love to hear your reflections on the new battle you face in your own personal life: terminal cancer. How are you dealing with it? What are you going through, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually? We think of such things as something negative–and many people would call it a “death sentence.” But perhaps you can reflect on the graces you are receiving through it all.
I think I’ve never abandoned myself so completely to God and the prayers of my friends and family. I’ve been in trouble before and sweat bullets in court and prison and lawsuits, but this is a time of peace for me because God’s given me a chance to get my affairs in order. I have a lot of complicated affairs between my personal family issues, ownerships of things, and my management of EMC. Yesterday I just had my 10th chemotherapy treatment. It’s going well. My doctor said that on average we could probably continue the treatment for another year before, typically, the cancer finds a way around the chemical assault it’s experiencing – the chemical treatments, which I take via pill and intravenous infusion. The side effects for me … I had some nasty side effects from some chemical drink treatments I had to take for CAT scans, and I won’t do those again. I had an episode of eight days and eight nights non-stop hiccupping. I had a blocked colon, with the most excruciating pain of my life. I spent three days in the hospital getting a stent in my colon to open the blockage from the cancer. I’ve gone bald. People will look at me and say ‘Kojak, who loves you baby?’ I’ve lost a lot of weight. I was down to 128, but over the last couple of months I’ve gotten back up to 154. I’m fine with being skinny, but I’m bald. I’m fine with knowing I might have two or three years to live.
But I am very happy to have had many Masses said for me, and my friends are praying up a storm, so I know that God is being pestered to keep this guy alive. I have the unique talent of saving children from being killed. I am the most tenacious pro-lifer in New York, and nothing has stopped me and nothing will stop me except my death. I’m not being foolish; I’ve prepared myself. We’ve purchased a burial plot at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne in Westchester County, and I’m starting to prepare my will and all that stuff.
I hope and pray that I will live a long life. I might not eradicate the cancer without a miracle, but I can extend my life with the treatments that will stop the cancer from growing. The last CAT scan showed that I had stopped the cancer from growing, in both my colon and in my lungs. But, like I say, cancer is extremely clever. It does workarounds. It may find another way to mutate and get back into my lungs with more ferocity and possibly into my liver. Colon cancer spreads into two areas: the liver and the lungs. Those are what would typically kill you, when you get massive growth into the liver and the lungs. For now, it looks good that we’ll probably proceed with similar cancer treatments as long as the CAT scans show that it’s having an effect. There are other chemical chemo trials I might be eligible for if this treatment package fails. They’re using new drugs that are under FDA approved tests that a hospital can try on a patient if they’re eligible, if they’ve exhausted the current treatment they’re going through and it looks like it’s no longer working.
I’ve been through a lot of battles.