Peggy Hartshorn has been working on advancing a culture of life for 35 of the 36 years that abortion has been the law of the land.

President of Heartbeat International, an organization serving more than 1,100 pregnancy centers internationally, Hartshorn was recently the recipient of one of six $100,000 inaugural Life Prizes award given by the Gerard Health Foundation to individuals and groups that have made unsurpassed strides in preserving and upholding the sanctity of human life.

She recently spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about her work and the award.

Where are you from originally? Tell me about your family.

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but grew up in Lancaster (Ohio). I have two younger sisters and a younger brother, all of whom are Catholic and pro-life. My father was a podiatrist and worked out of our home. My mother was a nurse before she became a stay-at-home mother. Their caring and ministering to people had an influence on me. My father died of cancer at the age of 48. My mother is still living.

Do you have a favorite memory of growing up Catholic?

I lived within a half block of a Catholic church and school. Every year, I got to spend a week with my dad’s mother. When I did that, every day, when it was still dark, we would walk through the alley to attend 6:30 a.m. Mass. I have wonderful memories of that dark church lit up with candles and walking home while the sun was coming up. The church was as much a part of my life growing up as my own home.

How did you first get involved in the pro-life movement?

I grew up pro-life, but don’t remember hearing or learning anything about abortion until I was in an ethics class at Dominican College in California in 1968. During my senior year, the priest teaching that class told us, “Mark my words, in five years, abortion will be legal in all 50 states.” There was an audible gasp from the students. Abortion was legal in California at the time, but I simply considered that it was another example of how the world in California seemed to be coming apart. I didn’t realize that this was going to be happening anywhere else. I wasn’t aware that this was the beginning in the change of cultural mores that would lead to where we are today.

After graduation, I returned to Ohio and started graduate school. I can remember, at the age of 20, having this overwhelming experience of sadness that the Christian worldview in the U.S. and the family values — the underpinnings of order in our society — were all disintegrating. I can still remember driving my car down the street when I heard the news on the radio of Jan. 22, 1973. It was the prophecy of my ethics professor coming true.

I asked myself, “Where have I been? Why hadn’t I been doing something all along?” I didn’t see it coming, and there it was. I was so convicted at that moment that I needed to do something to help.

Somehow, I knew that there was a Right to Life group. I found Columbus Right to Life in the telephone book, called them, and offered to help in whatever way I could. When they learned that my background was in English, they told me I could be their education director.

What happened next?

The president of Columbus Right to Life was housing pregnant girls in her home, and they asked if we would be willing to do that. In 1975, we started housing pregnant girls. That’s when I began to realize how difficult it was for women to get the help they needed to work through the system. Women needed advocates who could walk with them, providing emotional and practical support. Over the years, we helped 12 girls, six of whom made adoption plans. That experience really helped us to understand the needs of pregnant women and be drawn into the alternatives to abortion.

Meanwhile, my husband and I discovered that we had an infertility problem. The numbers of women choosing adoption plummeted after Roe v. Wade. Thankfully, we were able to adopt a son in 1976 and a daughter in 1979. That solidified our commitment to birth mothers and our understanding of how beautiful God’s plan can be when a mother chooses life, even when she knows that she can’t raise that child on her own.

How did you become involved with Heartbeat International?

Eventually, I became president of Columbus Right to Life. Early on, we thought that if people understood that abortion killed a human being we could change hearts. We discovered that wasn’t true. There were people in powerful positions that needed to protect and promote a right to abortion because it was the lynchpin of the sexual lifestyle that they wanted to promote and live. They were not about to let the commonsense fact that abortion kills a human being affect their promotion of abortion.

The numbers of abortions became so immediately high — 1.5 million — that many were left with the wounds of abortion and had to continue to promote and protect abortion to live with what they had done.

Because of our experience housing pregnant girls and seeing the needs, we started the pregnancy center in Columbus and a hotline. I was the chairman of the board for the pregnancy center for 22 years. That center eventually became a medical clinic, and we went on to open several branches and had the first federally funded abstinence program.

Up until 1992, I had been teaching English and humanities at Franklin University and doing all of this other work as a volunteer. Once Bill Clinton was elected, I felt called. I felt like many pro-life people feel now — that we’ll never be able to make any legislative progress. So, we changed the name of Abortion Alternatives International to Heartbeat International, revamped the services that we offered, and began affiliating with pregnancy centers. We’re now up to about 1,100 affiliates in the U.S., Canada and 43 other countries.

I was called into the movement because abortion killed babies. However, almost immediately after I became involved in the movement, one of the first abortion activists in Columbus came into Columbus Right to Life after her abortion. She was devastated by it and wanted to do anything she could to prevent other women from having an abortion. It was then that I realized that abortion doesn’t just kill children — it also harms women, men and siblings. It destroys families. It affects an entire generation. That led me to the spiritual realization that life is part of God’s plan. It’s part of humans’ cooperation with God. These children are made in his image. Abortion, therefore, is really Satan’s perfect plan to attack the plan of God, because it attacks the image of God in this world, destroys the unity between man and woman, and destroys God’s call for procreation. It is the most critical issue of our time.

What changes have you seen in crisis-pregnancy counseling over the years?

Crisis-pregnancy work originated about the same time as crisis-intervention counseling. The belief was that once we provided emergency help and support we could get a woman past the crisis and return her to a point of stability.

However, there’s no longer a strong network of protection or care in the home. There is, in fact, for many women, no stability to return her to after the crisis. There is no end to the crisis, in fact. Therefore, Heartbeat International has urged pregnancy centers to network with other organizations that can provide long-term support as part of the pregnancy center’s work. Because the family and the culture have fallen apart, centers need to provide much more than crisis-pregnancy services.

One thing we’ve developed is our sexual integrity program. Young people aren’t learning this at home, or even in their churches. The program has much in common with Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. We’re trying to teach clients how their bodies work so that they can appreciate God’s handiwork and see that this tremendous gift of fertility that they’ve been given is something that doesn’t need to be thwarted by the pill or dismantled through surgery. Pregnancy centers can and should be a part of this whole effort to re-educate and reenvision women as to what is true reproductive health.

A strong crisis-pregnancy center renews the life in a community and renews a community for life. It not only does that one-on-one, but it renews the community of life through all of its connections. I estimate that our center in Columbus has trained about 3,000 volunteers over the past 25 years. A center connects with other pregnancy centers, with churches, social service agencies, schools, medical and community organizations. It touches thousands of people in the community. By building strong pregnancy centers, not only are we changing the lives of those who come to us, but we are also building a community for life.

Do you have any special plans for your Life Prize winnings?

The winnings will be donated to Heartbeat to be used for our major initiatives: our OptionLine, our Third Wave Network — trying to raise up African-American and Hispanic leaders in the movement — and supporting our international program.

I know so many people who are deserving of this award that it’s embarrassing to have been singled out. This award recognizes that pro-life people are compassionate and caring.

The award also recognizes the longevity needed in our movement. One of my mentors told me that this work “is not a sprint, but a long-distance run.” Later, he told me, he should have described it as a “relay race.” Not only is this work a lifelong commitment, but we need to pass it on to the next generation. That’s what this award is trying to do — inspire the next generation.

Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.