Birthright founder Louise Summerhill. Birthright is marking a half-century of service with its annual convention on June 9. Register file photo

Birthright marks a half century of service

  • June 5, 2018

When Birthright first took root 50 years ago, little did the founders foresee it growing from its little office in Toronto to an organization spanning North America and even making inroads into Africa.

But that’s what has been harvested from the fruits of Louise Summerhill’s labour since she started Birthright as a place where women facing a crisis pregnancy could turn in a time of need.

“My mother never intended to create an international movement,” said her daughter, also named Louise, who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is co-president of Birthright.

From that solitary office near Coxwell and Danforth in Toronto’s east end, Birthright now operates some 200 centres in the United States (down from a high of 400 at one point) and another 100 across Canada. The senior Summerhill, a housewife and mother of seven, launched the organization in 1968 feeling there wasn’t enough being done to help women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Birthright is marking a half-century of service with its annual convention on June 9.

It’s been a family affair at Birthright, where the founder’s daughters all took up their mother’s passion and served as co-presidents following their mother’s death in 1991. Mary (Berney) retired last year, leaving Louise and Stephenie (Fox) sharing the role. The next generation is also involved, as Victoria Summerhill Fox, Louise Sr.’s granddaughter, works in the Birthright International head office. 

Hitting the 50-year mark is an accomplishment, but a bittersweet one at that, said Summerhill, the daughter, because it means its services are still needed. But she takes solace in knowing Birthright has been there for women in need.

“We feel blessed that we’ve been able to survive this long and not just survive but flourish and help so many women,” said Summerhill.

Summerhill credits Birthright’s success to her mother and the founders and their understanding of what Birthright should be. They laid out a plan to stay out of the politics of the abortion battles and put the focus on the women in crisis.

“It isn’t because we disrespect the people called to the political action,” said Summerhill. “From Birthright’s point of view our goal has always been to serve the women and by serving the women we save the babies. We have purposefully kept our focus on the service.”

It’s a plan that seems to have worked. Though the organization doesn’t keep meticulous records — part and parcel with keeping the focus on the women — Summerhill guesses Birthright has helped 10 million women.

“A lot of people get into this situation unexpectedly, they’re embarrassed, upset. … All that Birthright volunteers do is offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, a willingness to talk it through with them and listen to what they want to do as opposed to all the noise around them,” said Summerhill.

Birthright volunteers understand they are dealing with women who are in a place they hadn’t planned on being. They refuse to judge or proselytize or tell the women they have done something wrong.

“They’re going to be helped to find a solution to their problems so they can realize that there is a way to do this,” said Summerhill. “Once they feel some hope, the vast majority do want to go on (with) the pregnancy.”

Birthright has had plenty of success over the years saving babies, at the same time helping their mothers. But of course there are disappointments. Not every mother carries the child to birth. Summerhill said it hurts, but they know at least they’ve done their best.

“My mother always said, if we save one that’s OK. You never know whether you saved a president, a prime minister, a banking executive or a plumber.”

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