Not exactly the John Wayne of the pro-life movement, but something akin to it, Chris Slattery was always easy to spot. A big man sporting a cowboy hat and boots, he was a familiar presence at pro-life events and gatherings, an indisputable movement leader, though at times a controversial one. I can’t remember exactly when we met, maybe at an open house we both attended decades ago at a recently opened Sisters of Life convent, where I observed him talking to some of the unwed mothers the nuns were hosting there. His manner could be gruff, but then I once heard from a reliable source that Mother Teresa wasn’t all sweetness either. Somewhere along the line, I learned that he—like me—had worked in advertising before committing himself full-time to baby-saving, something he did with unmitigated gusto, pioneering the use of mobile vans to reach women on the streets and ultrasound to reach their hearts. The website of EMC Frontline, the network of 14 pregnancy centers he established in the New York Metropolitan area (now part of CompassCare) estimates the number to be 43,000 unborn children who wouldn’t have seen the light of day but for his tireless efforts to protect them from abortion. A couple of years ago, when longtime Human Life Review contributor Brian Caulfield told us he’d like to do a profile of Chris Slattery, who, due to a terminal cancer diagnosis, was then fighting for his own life too, both Maria Maffucci and I couldn’t say Yes fast enough.
—Anne Conlon, Editor
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LIFE IN THE FACE OF DEATH by Brian Caulfield, HLR Spring 2022 (https://humanlifereview.com/life-in-the-face-of-death/)
The sun is shining brightly on a warming February afternoon along McLean Avenue, where every day looks like Saint Patrick’s Day. Past the Irish pubs, breakfast nooks, package stores, and Fáilte travel agencies of the Yonkers neighborhood moves a tall, exceedingly thin figure clothed in layers against the wind while bearing with strength and dignity the slow grind of advanced cancer. Nothing has ever stopped Chris Slattery from pursuing his goals, and it is clear from his still-lively eyes and familiar Irish smile that his current health challenges are not sidelining his prodigious New York pro-life work. Through more than 40 years of defending life in the nation’s abortion capital, Slattery has been a happy warrior. He began his pro-life work counseling women on the streets of Manhattan and opened his first pregnancy center in the summer of 1985, when the city’s prolifers were not well-organized and sometimes worked at cross purposes. The inspiration for the pregnancy center came after he was invited to hold the baby of a woman whom he had counseled out of having an abortion. If he could save one baby’s life by standing on a sidewalk, he reasoned, imagine how many more babies he could save with a pregnancy center.
The idea grew from there. Despite being plagued with lawsuits, fake clients, sting operations, financial hardship, gag orders, crippling fines, subpoenas, and harassment of every kind by rabid abortion advocates, Slattery kept his original center going in a narrow building on East 23rd Street until 2000. By then, he had expanded into the South Bronx across the street from Planned Parenthood in 1995, opened a center in the same building as another Planned Parenthood in downtown Brooklyn, and then opened the third of his currently operating offices in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the early 2000s. His centers bear an appropriate name: EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers, with EMC standing for Expectant Mother Care, the longtime name of his original Manhattan center. With a background in advertising, he is still the best promoter and ad copywriter for the cause; his website declares:
Fighting for life in NYC–The Abortion Capital of America. EMC FRONTLINE has been an innovative leader serving in the mouth of the abortion capital where 70,000 abortions are done annually. Because of our missions and services, we have been able to save 43,000 innocent children from abortion.
Now 67, Slattery faces a diagnosis that puts his life dedicated to life in sharp perspective. Cancer of the colon has spread to his lungs, and doctors give him two to three years to live. The multiple chemotherapy sessions he has undergone will slow but not eradicate his form of cancer, his doctors say. “Everyone dies, we all face it at some time or another,” Slattery said when we met. “I will just die sooner rather than later.”
After hearing from a mutual friend about his condition, I asked to meet Chris for lunch at an Irish coffee shop not far from his home. I had worked closely with him for a number of years while I was a sidewalk counselor outside Manhattan clinics in the 1990s and wrote about him often as a reporter for Catholic New York. I had not seen him much since I began working twenty years ago for the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Conn., but kept tabs on his frontline labors through email and social media. Seeing him in action many times successfully counseling women from having an abortion, and marveling at his spunk in fighting lawsuits and unfair regulations, I have come to respect his methods and courage. In the culture wars that move closer to home each day, Chris Slattery is one person I would like in the foxhole with me.
Known for his tireless commitment to the cause and 24/7 work ethic, he has been slowed a bit by cancer but remains engaged in his many pro-life works. He still oversees the three pregnancy centers, although he is not on site as often, leaving the work of counseling women, offering pregnancy tests, and providing ultrasounds to his trained employees, volunteers, interns, nurses, and medical technicians. Calls from abortion-minded women still ring on his cell phone, which he answers with his signature, “Can I help you?”—not mentioning that they have contacted an “Abortion Alternatives” hotline rather than an abortion clinic. He opened his pregnancy centers with the clear goal of reaching women who are one step away from scheduling an abortion and has perfected a series of questions, answers, and suggestions designed to change the caller’s mind or delay her decision. This method has been called “deceptive” by various state authorities who have sought to shut down Slattery’s centers or at least make him specify in public statements and ads that he does not offer abortion. Determined, fearless, and unflinching, and backed by the First Amendment and expert legal counsel, Slattery has fought every effort to stifle his work and has prevailed in numerous court proceedings.
“They want to shut us up and shut us down,” he observed. “But we have truth on our side and free speech protected by the First Amendment. They are trying to force speech on us, to make us say something we don’t want to say, to tell people what we don’t provide, but they don’t require the same forced speech for abortion clinics.”
The list of his legal battles and fines is long. He once had as many as twelve centers but was forced to cut back by laws requiring each to have a medical professional on the premises. By his own count he has faced restrictive measures or subpoenas from five New York attorneys general. The current AG, Letitia James, has an open subpoena on Slattery, though he assumes she has been distracted by enforcing draconian Covid rules, issuing a report on disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario), and mounting a reelection campaign after briefly entering the race for governor. As for fines, there are too many to recall, but he’s paid only a few of them. Among the outstanding judgments is $50,000 by New York District Judge Robert Ward for Operation Rescue activities. (Slattery said the judgment disappeared after the judge’s death in 2003. “It was either a miracle or Judge Ward had second thoughts and removed them,” he concludes.)
Slattery’s ongoing challenge to the so-called New York “Boss Bill” held up implementation of the law, passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Cuomo in late 2019. The law prohibits employers from accessing employees’ medical insurance information related to “reproductive health” such as abortion and contraception, and bars employers from firing employees for “reproductive choices.” In a suit against the governor and the attorney general, Slattery claims that the law violates his freedom of expressive speech and religion as an employer who runs a Catholic pro-life organization. The success of his organization requires him to hire and retain only employees who agree with and act upon its pro-life mission, he argues. The case was dismissed by a New York court in March 2021, but Slattery is appealing.
In his battle with cancer, Slattery brings the same determined spirit, though he realizes that he is in his toughest fight yet, with a foe that cannot be reasoned with or brought to court. Coming face to face with his mortality seems to have deepened his contemplative nature and softened some of the rougher edges of his personality. Far from giving up, he is responding to this intractable challenge with a measure of grudging acceptance and grace.
During our long lunch together, his phone buzzed regularly; he texted while continuing to speak to me, and answered a few calls that looked like emergencies.
“Can I help you? . . . An abortion at that stage would cost about $600 in New York. If you come into our office we can give you a free ultrasound.
Where do you live? Yes, we have a center in Brooklyn. Would you like to make an appointment? . . . Okay, call us back after you think it over.”
“She sounded uncertain about what she wanted to do,” Slattery explained to me. “I’m not sure if she’ll call back. But I get a couple dozen calls like this every day. With each one, you realize that a human life hangs in the balance.” I first met Slattery in 1988 when he was invited by Professor Bill Marra to Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus to recruit volunteers for his pregnancy center. I was an adult continuing-education student who had shifted to a pro-life position after reading Cardinal John O’Connor’s article in the Human Life Review on the inconsistency of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s “personally opposed but” approach. There was much ferment on the pro-life front at the time, with new ideas, initiatives, and direct-action movements popping up over coffee, around kitchen tables, and in the prayer groups of countless churches. Among the pro-life faithful there was a mixture of supernatural hope and “why-not?” activism, when even the loftiest pro-life dream seemed achievable: So many of the frontline workers had what I called a “let’s roll Jericho” attitude toward the nation’s seemingly impregnable wall of abortion. After all, pro-life Ronald Reagan was president, and Cardinal O’Connor was squaring off with the nation’s powerful abortion forces. The cardinal had given retired Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan permission to risk arrest with Operation Rescue, which was in the infancy of its goal of blocking every abortion clinic. It was hardly surprising, then, when I entered Dr. Marra’s class on St. Augustine in the fall of 1988, that he mentioned offhandedly he was running for president—not president of a philosophical society, as I thought at first, but president of the United States. (Marra was a third-party Right to Life Party candidate; his running mate was Joan Andrews.) He was out to show America what a real Italian Catholic candidate looked like by opposing “that fraud” Mario Cuomo. Marra was, to put it mildly, an intellectual provocateur, a tour-de-force personality who held forth in the classroom with the freedom of a long-tenured professor and hosted his own Sunday night show on AM talk radio, “Where Catholics Meet.” That evening at Fordham, he told his dozen students that they had to do something about the scourge of abortion or risk eternal consequences, as he introduced Slattery and his wife Eileen, who looked every bit the first-year newlyweds they were.
After hearing them talk about their experience sidewalk counseling outside a Manhattan abortion clinic and bringing “turnarounds” to the pregnancy center on 23rd Street, I challenged the Slatterys about their methods. What right did they have to stop someone on the sidewalk and ask if they had come for an abortion? What if a woman was going to another business in the building? How could you bring someone who was looking for abortion to a center that doesn’t do abortions? “I’m against abortion, for sure,” I told them, “but isn’t there a law or some moral restriction against what you do?” Chris grew impatient and finally said, “You can be as genteel and sweet as you want in your so-called opinion against abortion, but you’ll never get an abortion-minded woman to change her mind, and that’s the one I am out to persuade.”
The first thing I learned about Slattery is that he doesn’t suffer fools—like me at the time—lightly. He is so single-mindedly involved in his work that he doesn’t always consider the feelings or perspectives of those who may be sitting on the fence. Or maybe he figures that the only way to get them off the fence is to provide a firm verbal push. Whatever the case, it worked with me. I thought I was doing the pro-life movement a great favor by writing articles against abortion for the Fordham newspaper, but his jabbing words and dismissive attitude got me thinking. A year later, I was praying outside the same abortion clinic where Slattery had started and, as a sidewalk counselor, brought a number of pregnant women to his 23rd Street pregnancy center. I even stood as the godfather at the baptism of one saved baby.
Of course, Slattery’s sharp words have not always had such positive results, as I also witnessed firsthand. In the summer of 1992, when the Democratic National Convention that endorsed Bill Clinton was being held in Madison Square Garden, I was talking with Slattery outside the church where Operation Rescue was holding an evening rally. Earlier that day, he had hung up on a pro-life lawyer friend, and that lawyer walked up to him outside the church and knocked him to the sidewalk with a right hook to the jaw. Cops rushed to the scene, thinking it was a fight between prolifer and pro-abort, before they were finally convinced it was an intramural squabble. Tempers cooled, Chris got up like a gentleman, said he was fine, and the two men remain friends to this day.
I hesitate to tell this story for fear of giving the wrong impression about Slattery in particular and prolifers in general. But I think it belongs in any honest account of his life, because it stands out so starkly as unusual. In the day-to-day struggles of the decades-long movement for life, fraternal ties and habits of charity run deep, as beautifully illustrated by the care two prolife heroes showed for one another not long ago. Despite abdominal pains caused by cancer blocking his colon, Slattery traveled to Washington for the rally outside the Supreme Court last December 1, when oral arguments for the Dobbs case were being held. At some point, his abdominal pains became so excruciating that he could barely stand, and Slattery asked for the assistance of fellow pro-life warrior Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue. In a scene that contradicts the typical media image of prolifers, Terry helped Slattery into the passenger seat of his own car and drove him all the way to Newark Airport, where Slattery’s wife met them to drive Chris the rest of the way home.
What Slattery means to the pro-life movement is best expressed by his many friends who have posted messages on the storyworth.com website. I quote them anonymously and at length to indicate the range and warmth of the comments:
You are my friend who has helped and comforted me when I needed help. You also are one of my heroes.
The Lord of Life loves you, and I do too. And, of course, thousands upon thousands more people love and appreciate you, including those who owe their lives to you because you saved them from abortion.
Your suffering will take you to the presence of eternal, omnipotent, divine Love! I am praying for you. Please pray for me always.
I am so sorry to hear about this cancer. But praying GOD will heal you! It is an honor to know you, and I thank GOD for all of your Pro-Life work and dedication to help pregnant women.
I enjoy our friendship more than you know and have deep gratitude to you for opening the door for my participation in your relentless pursuit of giving voice to the unborn and in saving innumerable lives. With Christ always at your side, the good seeds you have planted will be harvested beyond our knowledge.
I enjoyed every one of our conversations and was deeply enriched by them and by you. You have more courage than an army of men to do everything you have done and to lead every battle, including all those legal battles. You are the man in the arena, Chris, that Theodore Roosevelt wrote about and whom we all try to emulate. Countless people in the pro-life movement know of your courage and strength and beautiful example.
When I think about the many pro-life heroes that I have gone to jail with, prayed with, sidewalk counseled with or heard about as fearless legends, your name comes to the top of the list. And for that I can only offer a humble thank you but that comes with the priceless gift that I can offer you now, which is my prayers for your health and to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass for your intentions.
Do not be afraid of colon cancer or anything of that sort. We prolifers do not die: We only change place: We go to live with God the FATHER in heaven where pro-life fellowship, laughter and peace will have no end. In heaven we will be welcomed by all unborn babies whose lives we have saved while living on earth.
You are a pro-life hero to me. For more than 30 years I have turned to you for advice on how to help run Centro Tepeyac in Silver Spring, Maryland. You are always ahead of the curve in advertising and reaching vulnerable women. And you are always looking for new and improved ways of reaching them. Your training in advertising has certainly been an asset. And you work, work, work, at what you do! Thanks for your example and mentoring.
So sorry to learn of your adverse diagnosis, Chris. I have long been inspired by your dedication to the pro-life cause. I always felt confident supporting EMC’s work because of your direct action. We need many more of you so we must all do our part in stepping up! That way your legacy will be secure. Godspeed in your journey.
I am one of the hundreds of young Spaniards who interned with Chris at EMC. I stayed at the Life House in the Bronx for 12 weeks in the fall of 2010 and I have to say that this experience changed my life, and I cannot be grateful enough to Chris for the hard work he put in all these years and the opportunity to become part of EMC’s family. I made such good friends.
From the first meeting at . . . Westchester-Putnam Right-To-Life group it was you who was the most inspiring to me. That big hat and sure smile belied the passion for the cause of Life in your heart. Many years have passed. God chooses our time. Each minute is precious! God bless you!
But any story about Chris Slattery must give him the last word to express what matters most to him. As vice-postulator for the sainthood cause of Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, I had brought a first-class bone relic to our lunch meeting. After praying to God through Father McGivney’s intercession, Slattery reflected on past days and the days to come.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” he said. “I have been privileged to serve the most defenseless and vulnerable in America’s greatest city. I have had the privilege of getting to know and work side-by-side and go to prison with the great prolifers in history . . . I can’t say it’s been easy, in fact, it’s been very hard, with many challenges that have been tough to withstand. But it’s been very much worth it, and I pray for God to give me an extension. We have a lot more pro-life work to do.”