By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 24, 2019 | En Español
ATLANTA—Birthright of Atlanta pregnancy center director Lisa Olwine recently took a call from a pregnant woman who was about to get evicted from her home and sought an abortion.
“She was thinking if I’m going to be homeless I don’t want to be homeless and pregnant and she was wanting an abortion,” Olwine recalled. “I said I can’t help you with that but here are some resources for people who are in danger of being evicted and help them to work with their landlord and she was very grateful and kind of surprised …We were still willing to help her in another way where she was a woman in need.”
Women seeking abortions sometimes find Birthright’s “abortion alternatives” descriptor online. “Their panic has them only thinking about abortion and we help them think outside the box,” she said. “Before making a life-and-death decision she should be thinking of it every which way.”
As activists have petitioned, protested and marched each January to overturn Roe v. Wade, Birthright of Atlanta volunteers have quietly served women facing crisis pregnancies for 50 years and helped them create workable plans to overcome hardships. Last year, the Atlanta office provided free help to about 350 women.
Birthright was established in Toronto, Canada, by Louise Summerhill in 1968. Terry Weaver, upon connecting with Summerhill, opened the first Birthright office in the United States in Atlanta six months later in 1969. The Atlanta chapter originally operated out of the St. Vincent de Paul Society building and eventually received a donated house from which it operates at 3424 Hardee Ave. in Chamblee. There are now 236 chapters across the United States and Canada.
Marking 50 years of love
On June 7-9 Birthright International will hold its annual conference at the Atlanta Marriott Buckhead and mark its 50th anniversary in the United States with the theme “Birthright Takes Flight: Celebrating 50 Years of Spreading the Love.” It will open with a talk by former Birthright chaplain, Msgr. Richard Lopez.
“Now there are many, many Birthright chapters as well as other pro-life pregnancy services who followed the path that Birthright pioneered,” said Olwine. “It just seems very fitting that it (the conference) would not just be in the U.S. but be in Atlanta where it all began with what Terry Weaver put together.”
Olwine noted that the founder Summerhill, a Catholic, made sure that its objectives were harmonious with church teachings.
“It’s a beautiful thing that her design for Birthright was always guided by the answer to the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ And she ensured that (in her words) ‘the essence of Birthright is love.’”
Olwine began volunteering in 1990 at Birthright and embraced Weaver’s mission “to love them both,” eventually becoming director in 2014 when the Atlanta founder retired.
“We care as much about the mother as we do for the baby. And in serving the mother we help the baby have a better chance of being born if we improve her circumstances where a baby doesn’t seem so threatening to her. By doing what’s best for her, by loving her, she feels strengthened and gains the confidence to continue her pregnancy,” Olwine said. “As far as their needs, with respect to their situation, housing is a really big need and we try to help them find housing whether an emergency shelter or transitional shelter or affordable permanent housing.”
Now 83, Weaver looks back with gratitude on her 45 years of unpaid labors and hopes the archdiocese will continue to support it.
“It has a great purpose and I think it serves a need and will continue to do so as long as they engender volunteers to keep it moving … The basis of Birthright was to help women through a pregnancy. In my own experience through the years, if you find a woman who is unhappy with her pregnancy and she can talk with you, you can almost always find a solution other than abortion,” said Weaver, who also led Birthright USA. “We’ve been able to prove it over and over again. It takes time, it takes knowledge of what’s available in the community to help and mostly I think it’s being a good friend to someone.”
And Weaver still receives Christmas cards from former clients.
“I’ve got one right in front of me in senior living, telling me about her child and what’s going on in her child’s life,” said Weaver, the mother of seven. “It’s always a real blessing when you hear from somebody. You never know what impact you’ll have in someone’s life just by caring about them and what’s going on in their life.”
As director Weaver also established the international helpline, which received over 13,000 calls in 2018. Today its manager Mark Foster answers calls from women mainly from North America, often referring them to their local Birthright or another pregnancy center or to a social service agency like Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services. Many need practical help such as accessing Medicaid, finding a doctor, or getting baby and maternity clothes or a pregnancy test.
“We ask them ‘what are you needing?’ because we want to give our Birthright centers in the U.S. and Canada or wherever we are referring them as much information as possible so that they can go to the local centers and they are prepared for the clients to get them off to a good start,” said Foster.
Working at Birthright since 2001, Foster has become more compassionate.
“I’m more understanding of their situations. I’ve found having a nonjudgmental attitude is what a lot of these women need in crisis situations not condemnation,” he said.
A need for volunteers
To build on its 50-year mission, the Atlanta center relies on support from Catholic individuals and churches, from referrals to baby shower gifts to fundraisers collecting spare change in baby bottles. And some of the first donors continue to be regular contributors 50 years later. But they need more volunteers to meet with clients or provide administrative support, which would enable them to expand their part-time service hours. Another major challenge is to get the word out as clients most often fine them online.
At the same time, the nonprofit avoids any activism as distressed women don’t exactly want to talk to a picketer.
“Even pro-choice people can be pro-Birthright when they learn that what we do is just say to a pregnant woman if you want to know what help is available for you to have your baby come with us we’re here for you,” said Olwine. “Nobody can argue with helping pregnant women make a workable plan. You might argue with the politics of the legislation or the politics of the witnessing but you can’t argue with helping pregnant women without pressure, without judgment, the way Birthright does it. It keeps us out of the fray and fairly immune to criticism being the service end of the pro-life movement.”
While Olwine may never know the outcome of the pregnant caller facing eviction, she joyfully recalled another woman who brought in her pregnant daughter lacking health insurance for prenatal care. The mother went on to thank Birthright for the help she herself had received years earlier.
“She had come to Birthright unsure whether or not to continue her first pregnancy and had always been grateful for the caring guidance that resulted in the birth of her son,” said Olwine. “In describing her immense pride in him, she pointed to her daughter and told me ‘he actually saved her from drowning when she was a toddler.’ She and her daughter both marveled with me at the ripple effects of the decision she made to choose life for her son.”