"We could fill Madison Square Garden with the babies we saved," said Chris Slattery, who opened his first crisis pregnancy center in New York City 37 years ago.
For most of his adulthood, Chris Slattery has been fighting for the lives of the unborn. New York-born-and-reared, with a pugnacious streak in him, Slattery has been involved in fights that have been at times more literal than metaphoric. Consumed by a sense of mission in protecting nascent life, he founded a crisis pregnancy center, Expectant Mother Care, in New York City 37 years ago, and as that center grew into a network of centers called EMC Frontline, he’s had to do battle in courts and the halls of government so it could carry out its life-saving mission.
After all these years, he still cherishes each individual victory of a woman who was abortion-bound but turns to choose life. He claims that the number of children saved by his EMC Frontline network could fill the 19,000-seat Madison Square Garden.
Now he faces perhaps the most difficult battle of his life. Last fall, he announced that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His doctors told him that he might have two or three years to live, he revealed in a recent interview. But he plans to continue the fight that matters most.
“I’m going to die with my boots on,” he said.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview, which began on the eve of the 49th March for Life in Washington, D.C. Slattery was resting in a hotel near Washington, recovering from a treatment for his cancer, but planned to march the next day.
“I have a good strong walking stick, if I need it for support,” he said. “My first march was in 1980. I’ve probably done 90% of them since then.”
We spoke again with Slattery in late March, just weeks before his 67th birthday.
You went to Boston College and started a career in advertising. When and how did you get into pro-life work? What was it that drew you to this kind of work?
I could say that I finally embraced Catholicism after going on a retreat with Opus Dei in 1978 and came back to my faith. I went from age 13 to 23 with no confessions. I’d dropped out of going to Mass for four or five years in my Boston College days.
The introduction to the pro-life movement was actually an invitation by a member of Opus Dei and a seminarian. That seminarian is now New York Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne. He and I and a couple of other people did a counter-demonstration in Union Square [in lower Manhattan] in the Spring of 1979. It was my first pro-life activity. There were lesbians and bra-burners and rage-mongers, railing for abortion and gay rights. Of course, abortion had been legalized in New York in 1970, but they just wanted more and more. So that just got me fired up.
The police put us behind a barricade, and we had some primitive pro-life posters, and I said “Wow, this is great! This is exciting, man!”
Then I would go to lectures. I was one of the founders of the New York Catholic Forum in the early ‘80s. We were the first of the Theology on Tap type of groups.
In 1982, I moved to the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, living in a walk-up alcove studio apartment, around 31st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. One morning I was walking out to my advertising job, and I was walking past this building on 32nd and Park, just a block away from where I was living. And one of the girls I had met at the Catholic Forum was on a plaza in front of this 50-plus story office building. It was 7:30 in the morning and I was in a three-piece suit and had a briefcase. She called me over and I said, “What are you doing out here at 7:30 in the morning?” She said, “They’re killing babies upstairs.” I said, What? “Yeah, there’s an abortion clinic upstairs in this building. I’m talking to the women who are going in.”
So that morning, or another morning after, I talked to a mother bringing her 15-year-old daughter. I don’t remember anything about what I said to that mother, and I didn’t have any brochures; I didn’t have anything. Six months later I was holding that 15-year-old’s baby in my arms in their apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I was new to this. I just looked into this baby’s eyes and thought, “Oh my God, I just saved a baby. I saved this baby’s life.” It was absolutely transformational. I said “My God, you can use me to save babies. How can I do this?”
Then over the next year or two I started asking what sorts of organizations exist to help mothers. And I discovered there were no crisis pregnancy centers in New York City. I was reading some Catholic newspapers and found a story on this guy named Bob Pearson from Arkansas who started pregnancy centers. I invited him to New York and set up meetings with him with the Archdiocese [of New York]. I ended up doing presentations in 17 different parishes, thinking I would set up a pregnancy center in each parish. How naive I was. We ended up setting up one. I signed a lease probably around December of ‘84. We found a space in a building adjacent to Planned Parenthood’s thrift shop. At that time Planned Parenthood was on 22rd Street and Second Avenue, in an office building facing Epiphany Church. There were no second-floor offices or cheap spaces anywhere near there. It was mainly apartment buildings. But I got into a building across from the School of Visual Arts and next to their thrift shop. It was just an empty loft. There were no rooms, no bathroom, no walls, just brick walls on either side of a big empty space, which had been a print shop. So I had to spend like seven or eight months raising $35,000 for a complete renovation of this space.
Back then the only way to advertise was in the Yellow Pages. There was no internet. So I placed an ad anticipating us opening up in the spring, and we started getting calls. So we’re literally counseling women in the office with construction going on. It was insane.
Bob Pearson came in and he was there helping me. He counseled a girl right out of an abortion. I watched him work and said, “Man, this is great.” I remember her going out and vomiting on the sidewalk, from morning sickness, and I thought, “Wow, it’s not always pretty, but saving a baby is exciting.”
So you went full-time with this?
I was still working in advertising. This was the days of payphones – no cell phones. I was running this thing with 10-cent phone calls, raising money from payphones, as I’m out on the sidewalks. I worked for three different ad agencies, then I went to work for The Economist magazine, and then Financial World magazine. I was still working in advertising in early 1990. I got fired from a job because I had too much exposure from Operation Rescue, and then I went and took a part-time job in advertising, to kind of transition into full time [pro-life work]. So by July of 1990, I had lost the part-time advertising job and then I went full-time. I started borrowing money – $1,000 a month for a couple of years – until I started to make enough money to sustain myself. My wife wasn’t working, and we had two of our children on Medicaid because I was making so little.
What was your involvement in Operation Rescue like?
In the mid-eighties, I’m working full time in advertising, and I don’t have time to counsel women during the day. So I’m training people on how to counsel women, primarily. In 1986 one counselor came along that I took a special interest in for some personal training, and she became my wife, Eileen.
In 1987, Tom Herlihy and Randall Terry [founder of Operation Rescue] came to the building. Tom Herlihy came upstairs and said he wanted to book an abortion for his girlfriend. I just said, “You’re full of it. I don’t believe you. I think you’re lying.” I said, “Look, this is a pro-life organization. Are you pro-life?” He said, “Yes I am. I thought you were an abortion clinic. We were going to try to blockade your doors.”
So I joined Operation Rescue with Randall Terry and Tom Herlihy. My wife and I became recruiters and leaders, and on Monday, May 2, 1988 – married now, working full time, and she pregnant full term with our first child – we went out on the sidewalk. There were over 600 people there, and I was the first one at the door and the last one [of 503 people] to be arrested. Eileen went into labor on the sidewalk with our first daughter, Mary Frances. She was born the next day – our Rescue baby.
We brought her to the rallies, held her up – literally, our new born baby – brought her to the rallies later in the week. Of course, the birth of the baby gave me an excuse to take the rest of the week off from work. And then we went rescuing with crews. We went to Queens, Long Island, different places. We had a whole week of rescues.
In the New York Times Metro section, the lead photo was of us blocking the doors, and I was in the picture. And nobody at The Economist where I was working noticed it. Nobody said anything to me.
But that was the start of Operation Rescue. I went to prison three times, and Eileen got arrested a couple of times, with daughter Mary Frances, in one case, in her arms.
How’d that make you feel?
We were totally committed. Once I was in prison, I never felt more sure that I was exactly where I needed to be at that time. I realized this cause deserves it all. I have to give everything for this.
I got forced into making the decision to burn my boats to advertising, and I did. I got fired from the full-time advertising job, because I had a three-page story with a full-page picture in New York magazine in 1989, which brought me a lot of notoriety within the advertising business. I was on television; I was the spokesman for Operation Rescue in New York. Then the pro-aborts put up Wanted posters for me all over Manhattan, with a picture they took of me from the New York Magazine article. “Wanted: Enemy of Women.” Then a woman at my office at Financial World put up this photograph and this wanted poster in the women’s stalls every day for a week. Some pro-life woman gave me a copy of it and said, “This is going up in the bathroom.” So that’s what led to me getting fired.
So I had to make big sacrifices to go full time. That was 32 years ago.
How much time did you spend in prison?
The two times in New York we were arrested and held for one to three nights. We didn’t go to trial. We were just held, and the cases were dismissed. These were trespassing charges. Then I got a conviction and a three-day sentence in a minimum security prison in Freehold, N.J.
I was also brought up on federal charges. I had a three-day federal court trial in front of Judge Robert Ward. I was convicted of violating his injunctions against Operation Rescue in New York State. I was fined $50,000 and assessed $157,000 in National Organization for Women-New York attorneys fees. I had to divest myself. I owned three apartments at that time. I had to fire-sale two of them. One of them was in my wife’s name, so that escaped the court’s reach. But the case miraculously disappeared over the years, and they never collected the money. But it was a case that went for 15 years – NOW v. Terry.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson [abortionist and co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and later pro-life convert] and I violated the injunction again. I wasn’t charged with that, but Dr. Nathanson was. He and I were next to each other. In a seminal moment in his book, The Hand of God, where he finally understood what Christianity is all about, in relation to the pro-life movemnent, I was standing right next to him. I had invited him and brought him to the sit-in we did at the Planned Parenthood at Second Avenue and 22nd Street. I believe that was in January of 1989. If you read his book, there’s a section where he talks about the look on the faces of the rescuers praying. He and I were dragged and went to a holding pen they set up with metal barricades. They didn’t want to have to arrest everyone, so they temporarily detained us in holding pens, which were outdoors, near the facility. Dr. Nathanson ended up paying a settlement to NOW.
Fines for trespassing aside, it must have been hard to leave your advertising job for full-time pro-life work, since you had a young family and, no doubt, growing expenses.
I was making $75,000 a year at my last full-time advertising job. And that was good money in 1988. And I was able to raise enough money to pay myself like $24,000 a year [as director of Expectant Mother Care]. So I took a huge cut. We had the two children on Medicaid because we were so poor. We were living in Stuyvesant Town [a low-cost apartment complex in lower Manhattan], hand-to-mouth. I didn’t even have enough money for a Christmas tree. It was tight. I was scrounging coupons out of garbage cans. It took me time before I could start paying employees, or I could start raising money for more serious advertising.
Sounds like it could have folded at any time.
One thing that put me in connection with wealthy people was another providential thing. There was a Daughters of St. Paul bookstore on Vanderbilt Avenue, that little side street adjacent to Grand Central Terminal and the Pan Am building. I went in there one day and said, “Listen, here’s my business card. If anyone comes in here buying pro-life books, give him my card and have him give me a call, because I have a new pro-life project I’m starting, and I want to meet some people.”
So a guy went in who was a lawyer for J. Peter Grace [an American industrialist and wealthy Catholic philanthropist]. That’s how I met Peter Grace. And I started to get access to some prominent Catholics. My brother went to college at Hamilton College in upstate New York, and his roommate went to intern with the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn. So I met Bowie Kuhn. And I met Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Then I met [Lutheran] Pastor [later Catholic Fr.] Richard John Neuhaus. I met Mother Teresa. I met John Paul II. I met Cardinal John O’Connor. I met Fr. Benedict Groeschel. The confluence of all these people reinforced for me that this was the ultimate cause; this was the cause I was to give my life for. I had a call within a call of a vocation to sanctity as a member of Opus Dei, in whatever profession I’d choose; it didn’t have to be pro-life work. I was in advertising for 12 more years after I met Opus Dei, but it overlapped with the pro-life commitment. And I was doing both. It was kind of schizophrenic, but I was doing it.
My wife was 100% behind me, willing to make the sacrifices and the commitment. And we did it together: she would counsel in the offices, bringing our children to the office. I would recruit other women, mainly from Stuyvesant Town, which was a 15-minute walk to the office.
For a long time, yours was the only crisis pregnancy center in New York, wasn’t it? And then you ended up with quite a network.
I was the first and only one in Manhattan for a number of years. Our center in the South Bronx has been across the street from Planned Parenthood for 22 years. We opened in downtown Brooklyn, in the same building as Planned Parenthood, in ‘99.
In 2013 I started centers in 10 other cities. I was hoping that some breakthrough donations would allow me to sustain it. But that summer I recruited 50 interns from Spain and deployed them all across the country. I found housing and transportation, and I opened temporary pregnancy center offices for six months at least in each of these cities: Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, Austin, San Antonio. It was the most insane year of my life. I just went all out. I kept one center going in Austin and San Antonio for about a year and a half, but then I had to shut the rest down. It was a management logistical nightmare, but it was great. It was a bold act of daring. I always thought that if I had millions I could have done more.
We also opened up in New Jersey – some offices in Jersey City for some years. We experimented with half a dozen locations in Manhattan over the years, half a dozen locations in the Bronx, half a dozen locations in Queens, a couple of different locations in Brooklyn.
For seven years starting in 2007, we had three different mobile buses, mobile vans, or RVs. We did sidewalk counseling full time at different abortion clinics throughout the city and saved a hell of a lot of babies. We crippled Dr. Emily’s, which had a huge place in the South Bronx. They ended up downsizing to a smaller place. We achieved a lot.
We were the first in a big city to introduce the mobile clinics, the first to use 3-D ultrasound, and 4-D ultrasound with real time 3-D and not playback. We’ve had partnerships with the Knights of Columbus. They’ve gotten us about six ultrasound machines over the years. We were the first in a big city to run full-page advertising in the Yellow Pages in competition with the abortion clinics. Of course, we don’t use the Yellow Pages anymore.
We introduced an international intern program in 2006. We’ve had at least one international intern since 2006. Over the years we brought in 350 Spanish interns, almost all Catholic, of good families. We brought in Koreans, South Americans, Mexicans, people from England, Ireland, Holland, France, and Germany, all over the world. We became an international training center for pro-life counselors.
In the early days, what did you learn about saving babies?
Well, you can bring in women for ancillary things, to come get them, even while they’re considering an abortion, without misleading them that they’re coming to get an abortion. But you can get women into the office by offering them a pregnancy test and an ultrasound, for the pre-abortion evaluation, and learn how to get the women in who are abortion-determined. And this is what infuriated the other side. They wanted to insist that we had to disclose to them that we don’t do abortions. We won the right to not have to disclose that, because it was going to force government speech on us.
We learned that the ultrasound is critical, the education, having compassionate educators, advisers, who are Christian and committed to sharing the gospel with mothers and sharing hope and help. That’s what makes the difference. We’re averaging two and a half saves a day now. We’ve saved tens of thousands of babies, and it all started with that one on a plaza in front of an office building on Park Avenue, 40 years ago.
I imagine you felt you were saving mothers too.
Yes, well, you can’t talk to a baby. You’re dealing with a mother, and of course it’s her change of heart and mind and soul. You’re converting her. You’re converting her to motherhood. She’s a daughter of God, and she’s been blessed with a special gift, the greatest gift she could ever have.
You mentioned an attempt to “force government speech” on you.
We had a major challenge in 2010 and 2011, when New York City tried to regulate us out of business with the Pregnancy Service Centers legislation.
We filed suit in federal court and in 2014 won victory against the City of New York for their unconstitutional restrictions on our speech. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the majority of the law, and the city had to pay our lawyers a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys’ fees. The city decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What remained of the law was that if we were performing ultrasounds and were not supervised by licensed medical personnel in the office, we would have to disclose in all our advertising, outreach, telephone calls, in-person contact, that we were not a medical facility.
The law went into effect in 2016. We couldn’t just have volunteers in the offices counseling women and having them doing pregnancy self-tests. I had to go full-time medical. We have operated with the use of nurse supervision in the offices since then. That added a lot of expense, so I had to cut back the number of locations.
We had some violations of the law upheld against us by the Department of Consumer Affairs in the early days. We believe we could use a two-tiered structure where on some days all we were doing were pregnancy tests, self-administered by the mother, with no nurses present because we weren’t doing ultrasounds. But we got fined for doing that anyway – about $6,000 in fines over a couple of years. We eventually realized we were never going to win that battle.
That wasn’t the only legal battle you had.
In ‘87, NOW and the New York State Attorney General’s office held a press conference, charging us with deceptive advertising practices, because we advertised under “Clinics” and “Birth Control Information,” which were the only two headings at that time accepted for advertising for abortion clinics in the Yellow Pages. They didn’t have a heading for abortion clinics. Under the listing for abortion clinics, they would refer you to those two headings. So the abortion clinic advertising was all split between those headings.
So when we went to place ads, the Yellow Pages people said, “Okay, you can go under these two headings.”
So they ended up having congressional hearings; they wanted a nationwide solution for the Yellow Pages. A congressional committee created two headings: Abortion Alternatives and Abortion Providers. As it turns out, Abortion Alternatives was the first page in the Yellow Pages, and from then on, I placed all my advertising under Abortion Alternatives. But I had to sign a consent judgment with the Attorney General’s office in those early days. Eventually we just started ignoring the consent judgment.
In 2002, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued two subpoenas to us and nine or 10 pregnancy centers across the state, from Staten Island to Buffalo. And we organized counter lawsuits in eight or nine courts across the state. I went on the “Alan Keyes is Making Sense” program. We had the Attorney General of South Carolina and myself and Alan Keyes on the pro-life side, versus the head of NOW and the head of Planned Parenthood of New York City. I exposed brochures on the program, which were shown to a national audience, that showed that Eliot Spitzer made a commitment to bring down the pregnancy centers as a pledge to NOW and Planned Parenthood. The next day, the Attorney General lifted all the subpoenas statewide, and we declared victory.
There was a subpoena from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2013. That’s still technically open. Barbara Underwood, after Schneiderman was forced to resign, conducted an in-office interrogation of myself and one of my employees. We took the Fifth a couple hundred times. This was a deposition in front of their Reproductive Rights Unit. That January, just two months later, Letitia James took office, and she’s apparently been more distracted in going after Donald Trump than me. So that didn’t result in anything. Those subpoenas that started nine years ago went nowhere.
What’s your annual budget?
About $750,000. We could easily double that and do a lot more. But after close to 40 years of fund-raising, and my ill health, I am trying to find people to transition to take over from me. But I’m going til my last breath. I’m going to die with my boots on.