Pregnancy help network reaches across the world

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BOSTON When Peggy Hartshorn and her family began taking in pregnant women, she didn’t know they were taking the first steps toward joining an international organization. But three years later in 1978, she discovered a network, now known as Heartbeat International, devoted to helping women through maternity.

“Some of them had been “thrown out” of their homes or been abandoned by boyfriends because they refused to have an abortion,” Hartshorn says about the first women she helped in “Foot Soldiers Armed with Love,” her book about the organization’s history. She became the group’s chairman in 1990.

In 1971, Paula Vandegaer, a Catholic nun, joined with Dr. John Hillabrand, an obstetrician in Toledo, Ohio, and Lore Maier, who had fled Nazi Germany, to create Alternatives to Abortion International, the first U.S. network to offer pregnancy help services. The group offered access to assistance centers, medical clinics, maternity homes and adoption agencies to pregnant women in need. They developed hotlines and counseling services as well.

Within five years, the organization had started affiliates in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Colombia, Australia and Haiti. By 1993, when it changed its name to Heartbeat International, it had about 200 affiliates worldwide and Hartshorn stepped into the added role of president. Today, it numbers 1,800 affiliated pregnancy help locations, maternity homes and adoption agencies on six continents, according to its website.

In the early 1990s, Hartshorn learned of Rev. John Ensor, who single-handedly ran A Woman’s Concern, a pregnancy help center in Boston. That’s when Heartbeat officially came to the Bay State. Hartshorn invited Ensor to join the organization, and today the operation has grown to 14 affiliates across Massachusetts.

Like Hartshorn, Ensor wasn’t content with having only served his community, but sought opportunities to work in areas of great need. In the early 2000s, he moved to Florida to start Heartbeat Miami. The city is known for a high rate of pregnancies ending in abortion, and that hasn’t changed.

“But abortion’s greatest concentration isn’t in the U.S.,” Ensor said in a recent interview. “It’s in places like Asia.”

“Only 3 percent of all abortions occur in the U.S.,” said Ensor, who is now president of PassionLife Ministries, based in Marietta, Georgia. “That means the pro-life movement has work to do outside of America.”

So Ensor embarked on serving other parts of the world. Most recently, he has focused mostly on Asia, where China long had an official ban on families having more than one child. Last year, the government loosened the rules to allow two children per family.

“The one-child policy has resulted in over 400 million abortions, much larger than the entire US population of 319 million,” Ensor said, referring to the ban.

“We have 1 million abortions per year in the US, down from 1.7 million in the early 90’s,” Ensor explained. “The abortion rate has dropped significantly in America, and the pro-life movement has become a worldwide, international phenomenon.”

“My job is to be something of a catalyst for that,” Ensor said. He focuses on teaching international affiliates the science of human development and on teaching the philosophy of human rights.

“We’re trying to prevent gendercide, abortion, and infanticide,” Ensor said, adding that they teach theology to affiliate groups and train Christians as well. Gendercide, he said, is when gender plays a role in motivating an abortion and usually “girls are the victims.”

“As a leader, I want to keep looking at places where there is the greatest need,” Ensor said. “That’s usually urban centers, where abortion is concentrated, and internationally, where abortion is high or supported by a religion or ideology.”

With reporting by Kara Bettis