The Sisters of Life Aim to Give Pregnant Women a Choice

The abortion rate in New York City is among the highest in the U.S.; nearly double the national average. The latest department of health figures show that 40 percent of all New York pregnancies end in termination. Among African American women, the abortion rate stands at 60 percent. These are statistics that a group of young nuns named the Sisters of Life, are working to change.

"Women deserve better. They shouldn't be pressured into feeling like abortion is the only way," says Sister Magdalene, 39. "Fear makes people do things very quickly, without thinking. Women need to know they have options," she adds. "There are so many people who want to provide and step in to help them. We believe that love is always stronger than death."

Founded in 1991 after Cardinal John O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, wrote an article in a national Catholic newspaper, the nuns provide support, counselling and outreach to women facing unplanned pregnancy or trauma from past abortions. As well as the traditional commitments of poverty, obedience and chastity, the sisters take an additional vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life. They connect women with adoption agencies and a network of volunteer helpers, organize home stays and even invite women to live in their Sacred Heart Convent in Midtown during pregnancy and up to six months after.

Along with Planned Parenthood, NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) Pro Choice America, advocate for easier access to preventative measures. Communications director for NARAL Pro Choice, Tara Sweeney, commented; "every woman's situation is different and every decision about whether to become a parent is unique," asserting that "the abortion rate in New York should not be used as an excuse to restrict abortion rights, or as a factor in women's decisions."

The sisters, however, offer an alternative viewpoint. They voice concern that more and more frequently, termination is being presented as the only choice. Whether or not this is the case, the nuns' own records show that they serve over 700 women throughout the U.S. each year of every race, religion and economic background - many are college students or young professionals. Over 90 percent of the women the sisters come into contact with end up keeping their babies, with only around two percent opting for adoption. "We surround them with a network of people and make them feel safe," says Sister Magdalene.

One of the women who quickly became part of their network was Jasmine (who wished to withhold her last name). Originally from Central America, she was a young, single mother with two small children, struggling to keep her apartment in the Bronx when she found out she was pregnant again with twins. She called the sisters in desperation. They found her a doctor, a lawyer to help her save the apartment, organized volunteers to drive her to appointments and linked her to city programs where she could receive financial aid. "They changed my life," Jasmine remembers. "I was in a bad moment and they helped me though everything." The sisters, Jasmine says, have given her continued strength, confidence and a support network. Her twin girls are named after two of them.

The nuns depend entirely on donations and goodwill to perform their outreach but have a database of over 5,000 volunteers signed up to assist them with any services they can. A downstairs storeroom at their mission center is filled with donated maternity wear, diapers and assorted baby accessories, all of which they give away. "It can be emptied out in days," said Sister Maris Stella, 34, picking out two embroidered, white dresses for the Christening celebration of Jasmine's twins, "but it's amazing how God always seems to provide."

The 10 sisters describe their mission as one of female empowerment. "We want to help women see their own goodness and beauty and believe in their ability to love and make the right choices for themselves," says Sister Magdalene.

"Love is the most powerful force in the world and to bring that force to others is a beautiful thing," adds Sister Maris Stella.