Birthline marks 50 years of saving babies

Birthline volunteers Diane Bebak, left, and Bernadette Sanders could paper the walls of their office at 339 N. Seneca in Wichita with photos of the babies born to mothers who chose not to end the lives of their children. (Advance photo)

Birthline is marking its 50th year of providing an alternative to abortion for women with unplanned pregnancies.

Bernadette Sanders said the local organization originally was associated with Birthright but changed its name after the death of its founder, Louise Summerhill, the mother of seven children who established Birthright in 1968 in Toronto, Canada.

Sanders said the genesis of Birthline in Wichita began in 1971 when Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice spoke at Blessed Sacrament Parish for Right to Life of Sedgwick County.

“Professor Rice said the day is coming – sooner than you think – when abortion will be legal across the board,” she said.

Those attending were astonished and wondered what they could do, Sanders said. Rice told them first to pray and then recommended they look into Birthright.

Canadian beginning

“There’s this lady in Canada,” he said, “who has started an organization. She is advertising a phone number and telling girls she would help them. She takes them one at a time and is talking them out of an abortion.”

After reading an article about Summerhill in Our Sunday Visitor, Sanders ordered the book, The Story of Birthright. But the book wasn’t enough.

Sanders, her husband, Bill, and Sister Madeleine, a Sister of the Sorrowful Mother from St. Francis Hospital, drove to Toronto to meet Summerhill and sit in on an informative meeting to set up the organization’s international charter.

“We came back to Wichita and things moved rather quickly,” she said. They began holding meetings and recruited key volunteers such as Dr. Ruth Taylor, attorney Francis Hesse, Fr. Reinard Eck, and Don Malone, who became part of the organization’s board of directors, along with Bernadette, her husband, Bill, and Sister Madeleine.

Office moved over the years

With the help of Catholic Charities and other pro-lifers, Birthline established an office that was moved several times over the years. “The first four or five years we had four locations because they were free,” Sanders said, much to the dismay of the husbands and other men who moved the office furniture.

Thanks to Realtor Matt Eck, the organization was able to buy, at a good price, a house he owned at 339 N. Seneca in Wichita. The word got out about the house and the donations rolled in. Birthline has been in that house for 45 years.

One of the unique features of the Wichita Birthline story is that no one has ever been paid thanks to hundreds of volunteers over the years staffing the office six days a week. Because of that, along with the lack of a rent payment, Sanders said she, Office Manager Diane Bebak, and other volunteers have been able to help an estimated 100,000 women over 50 years.

After Summerhill’s death in 1991, philosophical differences with two of the daughters who succeeded her prompted Wichita Birthright to disassociate with the organization and change its name to Birthline in 1994.

Thousands of babies saved

Sanders said she and Bill knew early on that Birthline was the work of the Lord. “The tens of thousands of women and children that came through our doors during these 50 years were all part of God’s plan.”

She added that their three children and their families were involved in this ministry through the years from office volunteers to newsletter production to other duties behind the scenes. “It has been a blessing for our family. I would never have imagined that we would be doing this 50 years later.”
Bebak said she believes God also intervened in her life for the ministry.

“God surely sent us to Wichita from Syracuse, New York, where Dr. Don could practice Catholic medicine and become the medical director of our Birthline. I become a volunteer, also having trained new volunteers for many years. Both of our husbands were behind the scenes often accompanying us to the many speaking engagements.”