Secular Pro-Life recently interviewed Sheri Petruso, the Executive Director of Birthright St. Charles (a short drive from St. Louis, MO). Pregnancy resource centers like Birthright play a crucial role in abortion prevention, especially post-Dobbs. A transcript of the interview is below. We thank Sheri for her dedication and for sharing her insights with us.
Tell me about your background. How did you end up as the Executive Director for Birthright St. Charles?
I am and was raised pro-life. I have a Master’s degree in social work from Washington University. I am a LCSW with 28 years experience in varied settings – serving different populations and issues but generally focused on crisis intervention, children, youth, and families which includes women’s issues. I find it interesting, looking back that my first full time job within the field was working Family Preservation Services – it was a home-based program focused on addressing issues that put a child at risk of being placed outside of the home/removed from their family. I worked with many at-risk situations and settings – abuse, substance use, housing/poverty issues, mental health, legal matters… many single family and/or conflicted households.
I loved my job but when I had my second child, I was in a crisis program with some personal risks involved and decided I couldn’t take those risks with my young family at home. At the time, a colleague also worked at Birthright St. Louis on weekends. She connected me with Birthright in 2003 and I began working between the St. Louis and St. Charles Birthright offices as a counselor. In 2010, I began working the entire time at the St. Charles office as we took on our own charter and gradually became the Director of Counseling. In 2016, the Director retired and I became the Executive Director. This was not what I went to school to do – I didn’t have any intention of being the executive director of a pro-life agency when I started my education. What I did want to always do was show people their strength and their value, and help them manage life’s struggles so they knew they were more than their pain, their circumstance – that life could get better and I was willing to walk the path to get there with them.
What is Birthright St. Charles’ mission? How do you work to fulfill that mission?
Our formal mission statement is “to assist women facing an untimely or unexpected pregnancy in a caring and supportive environment.”
We are guided by the Birthright International principle that it is “the right of every pregnant woman to give birth and the right of every child to be born.” We provide an alternative to abortion, but work with any and all pregnant women that need us.
We work to fulfill that mission by showing true acceptance and compassion to every woman that walks through our doors. We really do want to help and show her her worth and purpose in life with no strings attached, no judgment. Caring for her and valuing her life is where the pro-life mission begins for me. We want her to feel heard, validated and supported – we understand facing an unexpected or challenging pregnancy is stressful and overwhelming and that’s true even in the best of circumstances. We offer professional, confidential, optional services at no cost to her – ever – there’s no obligation to pay back, decide a certain way – she determines what best fits her needs. We use a strength-based, client-centered approach – each woman, each circumstance is different.
Our services include free medically approved pregnancy tests, professional counseling to address any needs, not just the pregnancy (we get that the pregnancy may be just one more thing on the list), consistent follow up and care from our trained volunteer staff, possible financial assistance, practical assistance; emotional support items for mom, baby items prior and after delivery, and connections to helpful community resources. We try to hold additional support programs throughout the year such as a support group for pregnant women, Birthright Saturday socials (peer support environment), Diaper Days (free diapers/wipes/blankets and books during the summer).
“I feel like Birthright was honestly the only place that made me feel like I could go to them for any resources or counseling during and after my pregnancy.”Birthright St. Charles client
Tell me about the population(s) you serve. What are some common attributes of the women who seek help from your center?
The population we serve is varied – we see women from all walks of life – socioeconomic status, religion, race, age, geographic area – we welcome them all and say that we are ready to work with whatever they walk in with. I think some of the commonalities they have is a pregnancy or the possibility of one seems to stop everyone in their tracks in some way and takes their breath away – there’s a hesitation of some kind as they wait for confirmation, as they ponder the potential impact to them or those around them, grasp this new reality – how long this altered reality lasts depends on unique circumstance and the access to credible, helpful information, and needed support that leads to solutions.
An attribute that the women we serve have, whether they are aware of it or not, is a strength and resiliency to address this potentially challenging reality and an openness to address it with another person or at least reach out to learn more. Our professional staff work to help show them that strength, resiliency and the capabilities they have, and walk with them to provide answers and help find solutions
“It was wonderful to know that these kind individuals never forgot about me and remained in my corner as a support system.”Birthright St. Charles client
Some of the women we serve are also lacking an extensive, reliable support system. We like to offer some of that needed support and work to connect them to other resources in the community.
“I’m someone that doesn’t find it easy to reach out, so the fact that they text me and check in helps out more than anyone would understand.”Birthright St. Charles client
Is there anything about this population you wish the public better understood?
These are women like you and me – they may be your co-worker, your neighbor, at your church, the gym, mothers, etc. The women we serve that are specifically considering abortion are not selfish, heartless women – they are often in a position that they feel they have no choice. I had a woman tell me, “No one wants to have an abortion, it’s just something that you look back on that was difficult but necessary.” We strive to address the “necessary” pieces she may be facing so that she can carry her pregnancy and preserve the life of her child and empower her own sense of self in the process.
“Always being reminded that they care and are always there for me (was helpful).”Birthright St. Charles client
Has your work changed since Missouri outlawed abortion? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yes! There seems to be more urgency in the breath that is lost or the stoppage of movement on life’s track. We’re actually busier than before. We have seen an 84% increase in direct contact with women considering abortion. The abortion pill now accounts for more than half of all abortions. I feel that’s partly due to the messaging of abortion providers to make a DIY abortion acceptable and accessible as it ignores the reality of what is taking place for the woman and the unborn child. There’s a message being disseminated that there’s no power in pregnancy or strength in motherhood. We have increased our social media and community outreach to the abortion-minded woman to try to combat that messaging, but also to build awareness of our services – our compassionate services that no matter what is decided we want to be a resource and support for her.
We have increased the level of financial and practical assistance for the women and families we serve. If Missouri has essentially said we feel its best for you to have your babies – not abort them – then we as a community need to step up and make that possible. So we’ve taken steps to do our part to do so and work to collaborate with other agencies to partner with them to provide the needed support/resources.
We have also expanded our service provision to provide more counseling before, during and after a pregnancy or abortion decision. We are able to address pregnancy loss – miscarriage, post-abortion care and post-partum concerns and issues. Often the mental health piece of the abortion experience is overlooked as well as what is emotionally and mentally needed to have a successful pregnancy and delivery – challenging doesn’t mean impossible especially when there are free, credible, professional services like ours available.
We continue to train and educate our staff, counselors, volunteers, and donors on the realities of the abortion pill, abortion pill reversal, and true options for an unexpected or difficult pregnancy. We look to add more volunteers and counselors to make sure we’re ready and available whenever, and however, she needs us.
“Knowing that I was always welcome to use Birthright services whenever I needed to (was helpful).”Birthright St. Charles client
What are your favorite parts of the job?
Meeting the strongest women in the world – I love getting to meet and work with women that without this setting, without this crisis or need, we may have never met. Women that have been through trauma, hardships, crisis after crisis or this is their first and still surviving. Learning from them – how do they do it? How have they done it? What keeps them going? These are remarkable women – it is an honor to know each one and get to be a small part of their lives.
“You guys saved me – you showed me I’m a good person and I’m gonna make it. Without your organization and (my counselor) I would not be here today. Words can’t express how much you mean to me.”Birthright St. Charles client
Another, without a doubt, is seeing the growth and empowerment of a woman. When she starts to see and become more confident that she has value and purpose and that challenges are opportunities to grow and not obstacles, it is very rewarding. To see her take on a role and become what she thought she never could – to be a mother – is a privilege.
To see her fall in love with her baby that was not supposed to be here and seeing the joy in her eyes is more rewarding than I can adequately express. Getting to hold that baby is indescribable.
“You guys really helped to prepare me for his arrival and made me feel confident that I could take care of him.”Birthright St. Charles client
Collaborating with the staff, volunteers, counselors, donors, community partners – it’s a glimpse of how I feel the world is supposed to be – where everyone has value, everyone is wanted and cared about, and we all work together to help someone in need.
What are the most difficult parts?
Seeing the heartache and pain that comes from a pregnancy loss – whether miscarriage or abortion. Not just the loss of the baby but sometimes also a sense of loss of themselves.
“Birthright is my safe place – biggest part is to have someone hear you. Even when things were dark, I knew you were safe.”Birthright St. Charles client
The disregard or lack of true acknowledgement or what I view as secondary trauma by the abortion industry and its supporters of the women who do choose abortion for their pregnancies. Women who have shared the grief from their abortion as a deeper and darker place than they ever imagined but not faulting the abortion provider because “they just did what I asked for.” There’s no account for the approaches that may have been used that may have led her “to ask” for it. Where are these participants when she is struggling with her decision, insecurity, or regret? They are NOT part of this leg of your journey.
“You always gave me hope.”.Birthright St. Charles clients
“They helped me through my time of need.”
Trying to combat the messaging and influence of the abortion providers/supporters is a constant struggle.
Sometimes the “business” side of the pro-life movement can be difficult. The need for increased collaboration amongst the members of the pro-life community is crucial. We need to unite by emphasizing the commonalities that we all have; supporting the woman and the life of her unborn baby. By focusing on utilizing each organization’s specialties, resources and knowledge in order to provide the comprehensive services and resources the woman facing this difficult pregnancy needs, a larger impact can be made. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of services sometimes can lead to women who need us to fall through the “cracks.”
What recommendations do you have for people who want to better support abortion-vulnerable women?
To genuinely care about them – don’t blame or judge them for how or why they are in the position they are in with a challenging or unexpected pregnancy. Be aware of the challenges they face and let them know they aren’t alone.
How do you do that?
- Get involved: Volunteer or support pro-life agencies through time, finances, spreading the word that help is available. Share, follow social media.
- Be “pro-life” in how you live your life – care for those around you in your own circles. How do the music, movies, shows, etc. that you spend your time with portray women, motherhood? What companies/businesses do you frequent that may support the abortion industry?
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the importance and value of life. Celebrate life events.