KENSINGTON, Md.—Serving in the front lines of the pro-life movement, sidewalk counselors rarely see the victories they help win in the battle against abortion.
In many cases, they come to witness and give prayerful support to women facing crisis pregnancies. But there are few “turnarounds,” in which women with appointments cancel them and announce to counselors their plans to carry their pregnancies to term.
Eight years ago in Kensington, Md., Inez Ryan played a key role in a turnaround. Not only that, the mother Ryan helped thanked her profusely for leading her to make the right decision. The two have kept in touch through the years.
In April 1990, Ryan stood in front of Cygma Health Center with two other women. Toward the day's end, a Chinese woman approached Ryan and told her, “I have heard there were people like you who could help, but I didn't know where to find them.”
The woman told her story: she had a one-year old son whose pregnancy had been complicated and expensive due to maternal diabetes. Since her husband was an unemployed violin maker, she rued the thought of another pregnancy.
She had an abortion appointment in 15 minutes.
Ryan prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance and persuaded the woman to enter a diocesan-sponsored program at Providence Hospital that provides a discounted prenatal and delivery program to women in crisis pregnancies.
“Inez was very involved with her,” said Liz Troy of Bethesda, Md., one of the women with Ryan that day. “She drove her many times,” to appointments. “She didn't just give her an address and a name.”
Within a few months, the family moved to Philadelphia, but the mother sent Ryan a letter in response to a one-year birthday card for her son, Billy (not his real name) in December 1991.
“I know you must be happy for him, he seems like your grandson. I am so grateful for what you have done for him. Thank you from the bottom of my heart…. I'll never forget the first time we met each other at clinic,” the woman wrote.
Two years ago, the two brothers played music for Ryan, the older one on the violin and the younger at the piano.
Last year, she came to visit relatives in the Washington area, but Ryan was in the hospital, so the Chinese woman wrote a letter to her and called her on the phone. The boy Ryan helped save is getting all A+ marks in school, his mother told her.
The Cygma Women's Center still performs abortions in Kensington, but Inez Ryan made a profound difference with one family.
Although some sociologists point out that there are now fewer young women of child-bearing age to explain the declining number of abortions reported by the Centers for Disease Control in recent years, the persistent work of pro-lifers such as Ryan has also helped improve the situation.
Stories about turnarounds fly in the face of conventional logic that all women who enter abortion clinics have irrevocably made their minds up to have abortions and that sidewalk counselors or people who come to pray at clinics are wasting their time.
And pro-lifers such as Ryan show by their continued involvement with the women they meet in abortion clinics that they are concerned for more than just the child's welfare.
Success did not come very often for Ryan as a sidewalk counselor, but she did not develop a negative attitude.
“She has too much trust in God to get discouraged,” said Father William Ryan, one of Inez's two sons who has become a priest.
Father Ryan said his mother has supported the pro-life cause for years but familial obligations restricted her involvement for years.
She had eight children with her husband Philip, who died in 1977. Her first pro-life activism occurred in 1972 when she held a pro-life sign in downtown Washington for her son Bill, then a recent graduate of Georgetown University waiting to enter the Peace Corps.
After Inez Ryan's mother died in 1984, she became more involved in the pro-life movement, according to Father Ryan. She participated in rescues at abortion clinics and got arrested “two or three times.”
“She's the last person you'd think would get arrested,” said Father Ryan. “She's a very selfless, loving, giving person.”
Linda Cicone, a student at John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family in Washington, who has rented a room in Ryan's house for two years, calls her “a role model of what a woman is.”
Ryan has a bachelor's degree in art from Wellesley College and a master's degree in art history from Harvard University, and Cicone enjoys discussing her graduate classes in theology with her, she said. Despite her educational accomplishments, “she always wanted to be a wife and mother. She never wanted to work,” said Cicone.
“You can see how her children and many grandchildren respect her,” Cicone said. Ryan has remained “joyful,” through the process of seeing her children grow up and leave the house and seeing her husband die, Cicone said. “She's always active, pouring herself out for others,” and is a humble woman.
Seeing her six sons carry her husband's casket into church for his funeral made all the sacrifices worthwhile, Ryan told her children.
She now has 18 grandchildren — plus Billy — and serves on the board of directors for Centro Tepeyac, a crisis pregnancy center in Silver Spring, Md., that specializes in helping Hispanic women.
She also helped launch Bible study and literary groups at her parish, Holy Redeemer in Kensington, and hosts out-of-town guests during the annual March for Life in Washington each January.
In a quiet, unassuming way, Ryan has practiced and imparted in her children an apostolic Catholicism. An African woman that Ryan met through other sidewalk counselors — who called her because Ryan can speak French — later converted. Ryan is now the godmother to her child, Cicone said.
Her son Father Ryan, a priest of the Washington archdiocese who dedicates his priestly ministry to Hispanic Catholics at St. Martin's Parish in Gaithersburg, Md., helped found Centro Tepeyac.
William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.