The Word Among Us

Jan/Feb 2015 Issue

One Life at a Time

The Story of Heartbeat International and the Pregnancy Help Movement

By: Bob French

One Life at a Time: The Story of Heartbeat International and the Pregnancy Help Movement by Bob French

You may have heard this story before: A man at the beach sees thousands of starfish washed ashore by the tide. He notices a young girl throwing them back into the sea, one by one.

“Don’t bother!” he tells her. “There are too many starfish to save. What you’re doing won’t make any difference.” The little girl throws another starfish into the water, turns to the man, and says, “It made a difference to that one!” Moved by her reply, the man joins her; seeing them, other people join in. Through their efforts, many starfish are saved.

This simple story is a good illustration of what the pregnancy help movement is all about. It’s particularly fitting for Heartbeat International, the world’s largest network of outreaches to women at risk for abortion. Through 1,800 affiliates on all six inhabited continents, Heartbeat saves the lives of some three thousand babies each week. It serves many more people than that, perhaps one million a year in the United States alone, including mothers who have decided to keep their babies but need ongoing support. Option Line, its 24-hour hotline, recently answered its two-millionth phone call.

These are big numbers, but Heartbeat did not begin big. Rather, it originated with just three people who, like that little girl on the beach, knew they had to start somewhere.

Three Pioneers. In the 1960s, years before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision paved the way for legal abortions in the United States, several states had already begun lifting their long-standing restrictions on the procedure. People who could see that on-demand abortion was on the horizon were alarmed. Some formed small groups that offered counseling and hotline services to help women find alternatives.

One of these small, independent outreaches developed in conjunction with the medical practice of Dr. John Hillabrand, an obstetrician from Toledo, Ohio, who was known for his convictions about the sanctity of human life. Helping him was Lore Maier, a German immigrant who had lived through the Nazi takeover of her country. After World War II, she worked for the United Nations, aiding concentration-camp victims; she was also a court reporter at the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. All these experiences had shaped Maier’s views about abortion, which she considered worse than war:

Abortion not only takes a far greater toll of innocent life, but it degrades the abortion collaborators to the lowest level of cruelty. . . . Our efforts to push back the tide of abortion will be the measure of our character and will determine for us and for all posterity the kind of world in which we shall live.

In 1971, Dr. Hillabrand and Lore Maier met Sr. Paula Vandegaer, SSS (Sisters of Social Service), who was on the front lines of the pregnancy help movement on the West Coast. A professional counselor and social worker for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Vandegaer launched one of the first crisis-pregnancy hotlines and wrote the first training manuals to help people counsel women with unplanned pregnancies.

As they talked, these three pioneers identified the need for an umbrella organization that could offer support to the many pro-life initiatives that were springing up throughout the country. Later that year, they founded a network called Alternatives to Abortion, which brought together about sixty outreaches. Growth was rapid, and the network—renamed Heartbeat International in 1992—now has affiliates in fifty countries.

“I Wish I Could Thank Her.” Ministries affiliated with Heartbeat have reached millions of women in the last forty years. One of them is Diana Mylek. Mylek was raised with strong Catholic values. But as a young woman in 1978, she got “caught up in stuff” and became pregnant. When she received the news, she felt a deep internal conflict. On the one hand, she told herself that abortion would be just like miscarrying. On the other hand, she knew that the child growing inside of her had a right to live and shouldn’t have to pay the price for her mistake.

Some of Mylek’s friends told her to get it over with and have an abortion. But she felt the Holy Spirit leading her to ask for help, so she picked up the phone. “I think I was so desperate for someone to tell me to do what I knew in my heart was right and that there was no easy way out either way.” The Heartbeat phone counselor gave Mylek the courage she needed to go forward with her pregnancy. Today her son, Brandon, is a decorated Marine veteran and a police officer who has himself saved many lives. And he has brought his mom another gift of life: three beloved grandchildren.

Raising Brandon as a single mother wasn’t easy, Mylek admits. But it was the right decision, and she says she will always be grateful to Heartbeat for helping her make it. On occasion, she has expressed her appreciation by volunteering with Heartbeat. But Mylek also wishes she could tell both that nameless counselor and founder Lore Maier, “Thank you! You saved my baby!”

From Panic to Peace. Annie Wright tells a similar story. Also raised Catholic, she was the “good girl” of her family, a valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude from high school at the age of sixteen. Still, in 2011 she became pregnant—with twins. Although overwhelmed with panic, Wright rejected a friend’s advice to go to Planned Parenthood. She just couldn’t go against her pro-life beliefs. Instead, she found the phone number of a Heartbeat-affiliated pregnancy center near the university she was attending and called it, sobbing.

Laura, the counselor who answered, convinced Wright to come in and talk. “As soon as she saw me, she hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay. She convinced me to talk to my mom and assured me that my family would be supportive.” Indeed they were, and Wright moved back home to be near them. Laura too kept in touch and checked in with Wright at least once a week throughout her pregnancy; she even bought cribs for her twin girls.

Wright was impressed. “Laura genuinely cared for me. I was not some nameless person she just wanted to stop from having an abortion.”

Remembering how panicked and alone she felt before talking with Laura, Wright says she can relate to women who have had abortions. “They don’t always choose this because they want to, but because they feel they have no other option.” And so last year, Wright took her daughters to Washington, DC, to participate in Heartbeat’s Babies Go to Congress program, which advocates for crisis-pregnancy centers. “The centers are really important! They help women when they are afraid to talk to the people closest to them.”

One Life at a Time. As stories like this show, Heartbeat reaches out to mothers as well as their babies. Its affiliates offer a wide range of services, including ultrasound, prenatal care, maternity housing, and adoption services. There are also educational programs on topics like parenting, fatherhood, and sexuality, as well as postabortion healing programs. In all that they do, these affiliates seek to affirm the dignity of every woman who comes to them and to share the love of Jesus in tangible ways.

Heartbeat’s philosophy (and the name of its counseling manual) is “the LOVE approach,” explains Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Hartshorn, who has been president of the organization since 1993. When a woman first comes for help, “We listen to her and help her to choose life, to understand that abortion is not the only option. We also want to offer her a new vision—to help her see who she is, a person created by God.” This involves helping her appreciate “the gift of her fertility” and “God’s plan for the whole human race.” The last step is to empower women by offering them solid, practical help.

Working one-by-one, one-on-one, Heartbeat is making a dramatic life-saving difference for many. Option Line alone serves five hundred to six hundred clients a day, says Hart- shorn. She attributes this success to the organization’s grassroots, ecumenical nature—“a phenomenal collaboration” with pregnancy centers, religious media, churches, and websites. But as she points out, none of these efforts would add up to much without God’s help. “Our success over the last forty years is a clear indication that we are empowered by the Lord,” says Hartshorn. “Almost every person who has called in has some kind of a ‘God’ story.”

So does Heartbeat, for it was God who called its three founders into this vital ministry. And it is God who continues to reach out to his children through its critical work, one person at a time.

Bob French is a Word Among Us contributing writer. Material for this article came from personal interviews and from Peggy Hartshorn’s book, Foot Soldiers Armed with Love.

Just a Heartbeat Away

Option Line offers 24/7 pregnancy help in the US and Canada:
1 (800) 712-HELP

For a worldwide directory of pregnancy-help services: