Monday, June 25, 2012

Canadian Abortion Rescue Veteran Tells His Story

While I was attending the Write Canada Christian writers’ conference in Guelph, I overheard a man talking about his involvement in “rescues” during the nineteen-nineties in Toronto. His name is Brian Austin.

I was quite intrigued by his comment, so during lunch the next day, I sat next to him and asked him to tell me about his experiences.

For those of you who are not up on “rescues”-- they consisted of abortion clinic blockades. Their purpose was to disrupt the abortion clinic’s operations so that they could not kill any fetuses that day. The blockade would usually end in police having to arrest a lot of pro-lifers. It got a lot of negative media attention.

I think these rescues were part of the reason so many people were turned off by the abortion debate itself. These rescues brought the debate to a fevered pitch, to the point that no one wanted to deal with the issue any more because it was so stressful.

We are far better off with quiet prayer events and sidewalk counselling.

And what follows below is a summary of what he told me (he emailed his stories to me later).

Consider reading the text as a series of vignettes.

The reason I wanted to publish this is because it’s part of pro-life history. Up-and-coming pro-lifers need to know what went before them to make intelligent decisions about the future course of the pro-life movement.

Brian is somewhat critical of himself. I suspect that these same criticisms could be applied to other pro-lifers at the time. I think it’s important that we be able to be critical of ourselves in a spirit of humility. Humility makes us open to God’s grace. It is this humility that will help us be better Christians and activists.

Revisiting the Old Files

Like so many writers, I have files in my computer from decades ago, and paper files from farther back still. Some of the writing is brimming with passion, but also laced with church jargon and clumsy writing. It would draw few readers. Much of it, in its present form, is unpublishable. The bulk of it, however, preserves stories with the emotional impact and details still intact.

I often have the privilege of talking with beginning writers. Many times if they show samples of their work I see flaws and clumsy sentence structure. But I also usually see deep passion. I tell them I’d rather take a passionate work and improve the structure – than try to infuse passion into a technically perfect piece that lacks emotional impact. Do I dare apply that principal to my own work, gathering dust for years? Do I dare apply it to old computer files, written with great enthusiasm but little skill?

Questions asked at Write Canada 2012 drew old stories from half-buried memory banks.

Characters in my novels borrow rather freely from those memories. But I’ve convinced them to be polite enough to preserve the illusion this is purely fictional. The questions this week brought me to tears more than once – startling me more than the questioner. “Those stories need to be shared,” she told me, while I struggled to maintain my ‘masculine’ dignity. I had just shared a story, then told her, half laughing, that when men first learn how to cry, they have no idea where to find the “off” switch. Twenty-two years later the “off” switch remains uncooperative.

I can’t bring pride to this telling. Looking back, there is much of self in my actions and attitudes through that period, though I believed intensely I was doing something great for God—as if He needed my help. Perhaps that is why a part of me wants to leave the memories buried.

“God has called me!” What is left for a spouse to say? Multiple arrests, in and out of jail, convinced I was doing what would change the world—but sacrificing my own family to do it. “What a great Christian I must be,” subtly invaded my mind. Did you know there’s an adrenaline rush as you wait for the police to drag you away? Do you know the way pride grows each time highly trained officers use pain compliance, but you endure and do not move? Both spread their roots deep beneath the surface. By the time you recognize the weed for what it is, destroying it has become incredibly difficult.

BUT. . .

Doesn’t every good story have a “But?”

While recognizing the pride and the sometimes flawed reasoning, I have no regrets. No twinges of shame accompany my criminal record. I would choose to do many things differently now, but there is nothing I long to undo.

Will you then join me on a journey? We’ll dust off some of those old boxes and see if in spite of the acknowledged flaws, there are indeed stories that need to be told.

Just Foolish Noise – 1988

I scoffed at the term, “Pro-Life.” What was all the noise about? Back-alley abortions had always happened and always would—but legalized abortion? We were a civilized country. It couldn’t happen. Why were people wasting their time?

With Both Feet

My “wise” dismissal of the noise proved wrong. I was shocked awake. Armed with a smattering of facts, intense opinions and a conviction that: this truth is so obvious nobody can fail to see it, I jumped into the fray with both feet. I educated myself on the fly, but never slowed down as I engaged the enemy. I used volatile language. This was truth, wasn’t it? In my mind I held the high moral ground.

But They Couldn’t Know Him

Raised in a strong Christian home where we read the Bible together daily as a family, I remember no anti-Catholic sentiment. They were good people. They were simply “wrong and lost.” For 30 years I found no reason to question that “knowledge.” But now I was one upstart Protestant among a group of Pro-Life Catholics. At first I considered even my association with them as a “sacrifice.” But they kept talking about Jesus as if they actually knew Him. That refused to fit neatly with what I “knew” about them. They kept living lives that suggested they did truly know Him. I saw compassion that had been rare in Protestant circles.

I could out-argue them on Theology. I knew my Bible as well or better than any of them. But how do you argue with the testimony of authentic lives?

Striped Pajamas

My first arrest felt like a triumph. I had joined the elite. My Pro-Life status was now assured. We sang, we prayed, we celebrated. Then the police released us and we returned home. It was a great day.


It had to happen sooner or later. You only deliberately put yourself in the place of arrest so many times until charges are laid. I thought I could face anything you could throw at me. Arrests and celebration behind locked doors had lost all fear.

Holding cells, toilets smeared with excrement, a mattress on the floor making me the 3rd body in a two-man cell. Hand-cuffs, leg-irons, court appearances and six strip-searches in three days. . . In one of those searches a 76 year old Roman Catholic Priest stood naked beside me. Remnants of my beliefs about Catholics lingered, but I’d long ago internalized a deep respect for clergy. His nakedness brought a shame beyond anything of my own, and my own humiliation was more than I know how to bear. I cried for most of the last 24 hours.

Me—the Leader?

We had to go back. I felt compelled, although this time I knew the horror that faced us. Everyone seemed to wait, so I offered myself as a leader. A small group prepared. Numbers dwindled further as the date approached.

A few of us locked ourselves to a barrel with krypton locks embedded in 300 pounds of concrete. Bags of rags cushioned us, but the discomfort wass intense, necks gripped firmly, no possibility of shifting more than an inch or two. We’d dipped our fingers in glue to distort fingerprints. We’d gone without I.D, identifying as fully as possible with the nameless and voiceless unborn.

We’re Down to Three

Just two of us remain in the Mimico Correctional Centre of Toronto, Remand 2C. One young lady remains in the West-End Detention Centre.

The population in Remand changes almost daily. Tensions stay high. Numbers dip as low as 25 and climb to a maximum of 34, all in one large room. Bunks line three walls of the room. An adjoining room houses sinks and toilets, all fully exposed. I hate those toilets, and much of the time my guts torment me.

My journal entry from Saturday, March 31, 1990 gives this description:

If I could picture the scene as it is before me – two men are dancing to the music of a steel band on the radio. Little of the music reaches me, but I can feel, almost as much as hear, the throbbing pulse of steel drums. Twelve to fifteen men, most without shirts, are spread along a group of grey steel tables – watching TV or playing card games. Quite a few of them are in their underwear, boxer shorts with flies that gape. And some of them are fingering their genitals. Smoke rises around many of them to mingle with a thin blue haze. Thirty-four bunks line three walls of the room and men are sprawled on a number of the beds. The whole of the room is painted a drab pale yellow. It seems a lifeless colour emptied of all warmth. The sharp, acrid odour of burning orange and apple peal mingles with tobacco smoke. It is smoked, mixed with tobacco, for some mild drug effect, and a different flavour in a world of intense boredom. This is one of the better jails, yet it could still be a scene out of Hell.

22 years later, certain shades of yellow still drain, leave me feeling exhausted and empty.


It was a court day. I came back emotionally and physically drained. I’d expected that. I’d watched others come back from court and head direct to their bunks.

My one companion from our “Rescue” was the only one who took me seriously. We’d let it slip (was it pride talking?) that we only had to sign conditions to walk away. That paints us as religious nut-cases, too stupid to use the “Get-Out-Of-Jail-FREE” card we held.

It was a weekend and the TV stayed on late. I slept, but wake about 1:00 A.M. Most of the time I was spiritually and emotionally armed. More than 1,000 people across Canada were praying daily for the three of us still behind bars. We’re experiencing unseen, but very real support such as no other time in our lives – but my mind was sluggish with sleep.

The TV burned a rape and a murder-suicide into my brain. I couldn’t keep it on the screen. It became real. Twenty-two years later I can still see the blood pooling on the bed and dripping on the floor.

I spent the rest of the night sitting on a ledge in the bathroom, Bible in my hands, trying to seer those images from my mind.

Mid-morning, the TV and radio were both blaring. Men shouted over the din. Several calls to “turn it down,” were ignored. I turned it down, then yanked the cord when it’s immediately turned up again.

Most fights I saw followed brief moments of shouting and cursing. The guards were inside before I faced blows. Then I added a second violation by pleading with them to put a limit on the noise. You DON’T ask guards for favours in front of other inmates. I knew I’d blown it. I didn’t know at the time, that people in jail die for less.

Fifteen minutes later I asked permission to speak. The prisoners astonished me by giving me the opportunity to apologize.

I climbed the ladder to my bunk then—and cried. These were not gut-wrenching sobs. The tears simply refused to stop. I used my towel to mop them for more than an hour.

Everyone knew I was there as a “Christian.” I had tried so hard to be strong. I had tried so hard to watch every word and action.

I stayed in my bunk and refused to come down for lunch. By supper time I’ve cried myself out. I’m empty and dry, convinced I’m failure personified. I forced myself to choke down a bit of the meal.

His Strength is Made Perfect in Our Weakness

I’ve spent my whole life in the church. I’ve read through my entire Bible many times. Yet some verses have defied my understanding. This is one of those.

A good night’s sleep gave me a bit of emotional balance, but didn’t ease the sense of failure. I knew my apology couldn’t undo the damage. Yet a subtle change had somehow happened. They had seen that I hurt like they hurt in this place of incessant noise and no privacy. My failure made me one of them.

Strangest of all, Gideon New Testaments began appearing. Men begin cornering me to ask questions, sparking small, brief Bible studies. My failure—my weakness—had allowed a door to open in that maximum security section of a minimum security jail—that I could never have forced open in my strength. To this day I find no possible explanation except, “Look what God did!”

His Failure—or the Churches?

My journal records this account in stark detail. I was thankful even then that I didn’t know the whole story up front. He came in with an abscessed tooth, visible swelling on the side of his face as he paced the floor for hours.

It had become my practice to sit at one of the tables with my Bible and notebook. I kept a detailed journal, but men also frequently sat down to question me. I had quit glancing repeatedly over my shoulder, a habit you learn quickly in jail.

I was under protection from the inmates themselves now, as impossible as that sounds even to my own ears. I don’t know how that protection was communicated within the continually changing population. I was certainly not at the top of the pecking order. In fact I seemed outside the pecking order while still being one of them—a reality I cannot fully understand or articulate.

His story came out in bits and pieces, interrupted by pacing. He seemed emotionally dead.

With his wife and child, he had taken part in the first Pro-Life rally in Toronto I had participated in. They had been active in a church. I don’t recall him telling me where or if he was employed, but they already faced financial hardships and obviously had no insurance when his tooth became infected.

My journal asks one set of questions, but a second set of questions, even more painful, haunt me today. Where was the church? How could a family be part of a Christian church here in Canada, where love is in the vocabulary and creed, yet feel compelled to choose such a desperate path of “self-help?” Was there no one among that body of Christians who recognized their need? Non-Christians are more compassionate than that. Again, I have to ask, where was the church?

There are three practices I find exceptionally abhorrent, pimping, child sexual abuse, and senior sexual abuse. My Bible uses an old word, a brief word, “sin.” It uses the same word for stealing a candy. I acknowledge that all are equally wrong in God’s eyes, but confess that my gut reacts to some much more than to others.

I had spent as much time as I could with him, trying to find ways to encourage, to challenge him to cling to the remnants of his faith. Then I learned that he faced pimping charges, “living off the avails of a prostitute.” His wife had been working the streets of Toronto, trying to raise money to pay a dentist.

Yes he had failed! He had failed as a Christian. He had failed as a father. He had failed as a husband. On my gut-level emotional scale he could have fallen no farther. But God loved him, even if I didn’t know how. Somehow God used me as a channel for that love, though my natural inclination would be to see him as scum.

It’s not a story I’m proud to tell. But it reminds me again that God measures love so much differently than I do. It reminds me again that there is no one outside the scope of His love.

I’m still struggling with how best to share the story below. In some ways I think simply quoting the whole thing from my journal might be the best, although it is rather long and cumbersome. I’ve only given the beginning of this particular story – and since I’m here to tell the tale, obviously I survived.

These are stories from my time in jail that still draw intense emotional reaction when I allow myself to reflect on them. My journal also records times of dryness, boredom and lack of conflict – just a mind-numbing sameness that is also a reality of jail. It records the mixed emotions as my release approached and the strangeness as I stood outside the bars for the first time in 31 days.

I still believe in “Operation Rescue.” I believe it is morally and ethically sound to put one’s body in a place of jeopardy when the law itself has become morally corrupt. BUT, I also believe such actions demand being willing to allow the full weight of the law to apply, and not crying, “Poor me!” when they do.

 I’m no longer convinced “Rescue” is the best tactic. I’m also very aware of the addictive nature of the adrenaline rush, and the almost hero-worship I received from a segment of the Pro-Life movement. That has forced me to question the purity of my own motives.

I hurt my wife deeply by my choices. I put our marriage at risk. Our girls were six, eight and ten at the time, and their Daddy chose to leave them and go to jail. My conviction that I was called by God and in the centre of His will had become all-consuming.

Looking back. I see so much of self involved—much more than I could recognize at the time. Yet I acted with sincerity. I believed without reservation that I was following God’s call. I made mistakes, but I have no regrets.

That’s perhaps the strangest thing. I’m deeply aware of the hurt to my wife and children. I ache with the knowledge that my actions brought that hurt. My intellect wrestles with what I could have done differently, and finds a few possibilities, but only a few. I ache, but I have no regrets. I followed all the light I knew at the time. I followed with every atom of my being. God used even my mistakes, my weaknesses, my failings. Twenty-two years of hindsight hasn’t revealed another path.

A Capital Offense

I should have known better, and on some level I did. Perhaps I’d become a bit too complacent with my “protection.” I slipped a note under the door telling the guards of an attempt to bring drugs in with the large thermoses of tea. My note added “I am not willing or able to lie to protect myself.”

A “snitch” in jail, an informer, earns hatred and contempt. Men spend weeks or even months making home-made “shanks.” Even a piece of plastic can become a lethal weapon. In a crowded prison range a body can fall without anyone knowing who was closest to that body. Informers who want to survive should be skilled liars. I’m not.

Used by permission of
Brian C. Austin