Special gifts of Life

Dame Colleen Bayer (right), pictured with Gianna Emanuela Molla (middle) and Michelle Kaufman (left).

An interview with Dame Colleen Bayer

Dame Colleen Bayer, the Founder and Director of Family Life International (FLI) in New Zealand, has been one of the forces of nature behind Voice of the Family from its beginning. In this interview with Voice of the Family’s Calx Mariae magazine, we are pleased to share her tremendous apostolate in New Zealand and her tireless witness for the special gift of life with disabilities.  

FLI has centres in the main cities of Auckland and Wellington; it provides practical help throughout the country to women and girls facing unplanned pregnancy. Through the media, conferences and its publications, FLI educates the general public on all life issues, from conception to natural death. 

For readers who aren’t familiar with FLI can you tell us a little about the organisation, when it was started, what it does and what its goals are?

Colleen Bayer: Early in 1992, I received a brochure via direct mail about an international pro-life conference to be held in Ottawa, Canada. I was taken aback as this looked like a Catholic conference with an image of the Blessed Mother and a rosary on the cover. This enthralled me as I was used to the pro-life organisation down here in NZ, which was a secular organisation. It did not capture my heart or soul so I was only interested in getting involved with them in a fundraising capacity. However, I soon found myself on a plane to Ottawa with our one-year-old son with Down Syndrome. 

We travelled across the globe to attend a life changing event. Rev Father Paul Marx OSB, founder of Human Life International, hosted the conference, which attracted thousands of faithful Catholics and people of goodwill from all over the world. Among other things, a Benedictine priest, Fr Matthew Habiger, told the audience that married couples should cling to the tabernacle and embrace the Cross every day. That sentence was to change my life forever. 

The second reason I started the organisation here was that, following the opening Mass of the conference, there was a prayerful procession to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. Upon exiting St Patrick’s Cathedral, the congregation was met with the most foul and demonic show of evil, by perhaps a thousand or more homosexual, lesbian and other such activists shouting and screaming, burning effigies of Fr Paul Marx, and displaying every kind of demonic thing. The candlelit procession to Parliament progressed regardless; the most beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima surrounded with magnificent flowers, led by bishops, priests, religious and laity, all prayerfully reciting the Rosary. The procession was protected by mounted police holding back the throngs of the agents of darkness and despair, intent on defiling that which is holy and undefiled. Such events were to carry on throughout the entire conference. The Gospel of Life is surrounded by the light and hope of Christ, even amidst the sad and hopeless culture of death and despair.

Even though I was already immersed in the pro-life movement, this was the moment of total surrender to Christ by pledging the rest of my life to promote, serve and defend the Gospel of Life. 

New Zealand’s abortion law became much more extreme in 2020. Under the new law, abortions before 20 weeks of pregnancy are unrestricted but after this point, the law seems quite vague. What is the situation? Do unborn children have any legal protection before birth? In particular, what does the abortion law say about children with disabilities?

In fact abortion is open to all women. There is no longer any legal protection for the unborn child – right up to the day of birth. Late term abortions only require that the attending health care practitioner “reasonably believes that the abortion is clinically appropriate” in the circumstances, taking into consideration the woman’s physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. A second health care practitioner must agree that it is appropriate. However, that person is not required to meet the woman requesting an abortion. A pregnant mother can refer herself for an abortion without her GP, nor is it mandatory that she receive counselling before it takes place. There is certainly an agenda to detect foetal anomalies in the womb in order to prevent these children from being born.

I am appalled that preborn children have been stripped of their humanity in the eyes of the law. They are viewed as something to be disposed of, not someone worthy to be protected, loved and given a chance of life.

As a nation, we will be held to account for the lives lost to abortion. Hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives have been snuffed out and the wounds for mothers, fathers and families are tremendous.

In pre-Christian societies children born with disabilities were routinely killed. Today we have laws protecting the disabled from discrimination, yet no group faces more prejudice than unborn children with disabilities. Many governments offer financial support to disabled people and their families, but also devote considerable resources to detecting and eliminating unborn children with disabilities. How can we explain these two irreconcilable attitudes towards disability?

This is very complex. As Christians who are devoted to saving and protecting all human lives, regardless of their personal state, we find ourselves living in an era that has replaced God with personal gods of prestige, wealth and self-fulfilment. Many people fear the thought of the so-called burden of bringing up a child who is “different and needy”, not fitting into the social order they have become accustomed to. Often, women can also feel pressured into thinking that their child will be a burden on the family, and develop a sense of shame that their baby will not be “perfect”. 

Even though we know clearly the scientific facts of the development of a baby in utero from the very first moment of conception, society has given way to put materialistic wants above the natural order of God Who gives life. In the quest for freedom, we have in fact become a nation enslaved; a godless nation of the strong holding dominion over the weak. 

Adoption is a tremendous witness of love but it’s not without its challenges. This is especially true when an adopted child has a disability. Several children with disabilities have found a home in your family. How did that come about and what are their stories?

My husband, Terry, and I have been blessed with five children, four of whom are adopted and have special needs. 

Michelle (now 47 years old), our eldest daughter and our only birth child, has also gifted us with seven amazing grandchildren, all home-schooled. Michelle, my successor in FLI, is also followed by her first daughter Amie (our first grandchild) in pro-life leadership, thus there are now three generations of Catholic pro-life leaders in the family.

Our eldest son, Andrew (44) was adopted as a wee baby from the Home of Compassion. His mother was very young and had come from a family plagued with psychiatric problems and epilepsy. I have kept contact with Andy’s mum and we have become good friends over the years.

Kathleen (37) was also born to a very young mother, just thirteen years old, a victim of rape and incest. Kathleen was also exposed to solvent abuse in utero, thus compromising her intellectual ability and her stability. Kathleen is a real joy and so helpful to her dad, especially when he is very unwell.

Benjamin Joseph (30) was born with Down Syndrome. When he was born, his poor parents were afraid that a second child would not fit into their lives and thus walked away from the hospital without their baby, convincing others – and themselves – that he had died at birth. If they had only had a glimpse of the unconditional love this young man would bring to everyone he meets and how he radiates the gentle love of Christ in everyone he encounters!

Elizabeth (16) is a bundle of joy, noise and exuberant love of life. Her birth mum was just fifteen and loved her baby very much. Born with Down Syndrome, Waardenburg Syndrome (profoundly deaf), Coeliac Disease, ADHD, heart disease – which required open heart surgery with ongoing monitoring and follow-up throughout her childhood – and compromised eye problems, she has proved to be a huge challenge, but one that is nonetheless a true witness to the sanctity of life and stands at the very core of what FLI’s mission and vision is all about. Again a child of unconditional love and acceptance of everyone she encounters.

Our Blessed Lord has entrusted to me, and to all my children, our very own Joseph. Protector, helper, and provider, Saint Joseph was the foster father of Jesus, a true example of real fatherhood, and self-giving. Terry, my husband, is a “St Joseph” in every sense. As a carpenter himself, he has always been (firstly servant to and) very gracious and friendly to everyone he met. Our home has always been open to children who needed care, and open to every pregnant mother in need who came our way through Gianna’s Pregnancy Options and Choice, a program of Family Life International. 

How do you think this experience has shaped your lives? What has it meant for your faith?

I think our very special family shaped Michelle and her family’s pro-life commitment. This is very evident in each of the family members’ lives and the children have all grown up with the knowledge that it is the most natural order in life to accept and embrace God’s precious gift of life.

For Terry and myself, our special family has brought us so much joy and happiness; so much extra hard work, I guess, but, at the same time, it has moulded us to become less selfish, to be givers of life and hope in every sense of the word. And most especially, it has made our Catholic marriage strong and unshakeable, with our sacramental life the height and summit of our marriage. Our marriage is of three: God, you and me.    

Before you set out on this course, what guidance did you seek and what turned out to be the most valuable piece of advice? What advice would you give to expectant parents who are told that their child is likely to have a disability?

We never set out on a course to adopt special-needs babies. It was the most natural order in our marriage to accept, with open and loving arms, the family that Our Blessed Lord had designed for us from all time. We just accepted each gift of life presented to us and learnt as we went along the pathway of life.

In the very early ’90s, whilst attending a conference in the USA, I met Prof Jérôme Lejeune who was giving a presentation on genetics and the unravelling of the fascinating DNA sequencing which he had decoded. I was sitting alone at the breakfast table, in the hotel where the conference was being held, when Prof Lejeune asked if he might join me – I was totally stunned and deeply humbled. He spoke with me in the gentlest, yet most authoritative manner about the gift of Down Syndrome. He spoke of the fact that the twenty-third extra chromosome causing the Down Syndrome could be likened to a car that needed some fine-tuning – not running too well but which, with some extra tweaking of the spark plugs, could run very well! Professor went on to give me excellent advice on the medical care of our son Benjamin, and how important vitamin B12 would be in developing our precious son’s intellect and keeping him healthy. Professor Lejeune was to become a major inspiration for Terry and me in the medical care of Benjamin; the saintly man who devoted his life to medicine, and suffered so much at the hands of progressive medical professionals, saw fit to spend a few precious moments with a Kiwi lady who had a son with Down Syndrome.

For parents who receive an adverse diagnosis, they will naturally be dismayed and unsure what this all means. I think it is important to take time to pray together and seek advice: on the nature of the diagnosis, with the view of being prepared for this special gift of life; on what to expect and how to gather together the support network you may need. Most of all, embrace your baby – he or she needs you more than you can ever imagine. Do not succumb to the pressures you will encounter at every level, let this opportunity strengthen you and never ever give up hope. In turn, you will receive abundant grace and the baby will strengthen you too. Your lives may have a different road map than you had planned, but nonetheless that road will bring you ever closer to Christ and each other – if you allow this new journey to begin. 

Sickness, disability and death are a consequence of the sin of Adam, but God always draws good out of evil. The lives of disabled people seem like a sign of contradiction in a world that is increasingly obsessed with bodily health and material success. What can the rest of society learn from them?

The gifts which people with disabilities bring to the world are multiple. For the world, they are the thread that holds the tapestry of life together, bringing the wounded Christ to the world in a very important way, giving strength to a sad and lonely world – if we allow this. Interwoven with vulnerabilities (meaning a certain dependence on family and society), and with giftedness unsurpassed, the world stands to become a better place for everyone if we choose to show authentic compassion. We can learn understanding, acceptance and, above all, to humble ourselves; to recognise that, in our pride and desire to have a perfect life – a utopian world – it may well be ourselves who are the most “handicapped”. 

In 2020 a majority of New Zealanders voted to legalise euthanasia. Why do you think this happened?

Euthanasia stems from the same mentality as contraception, abortion and sterilization. It is inevitable that, in a society that has rejected God and the magisterium of the Catholic Church on critical life issues, despite the massive lobbying, submissions and countless initiatives by many learned professionals, the government still managed to enact the law for euthanasia in our country, traditionally known fondly as God’s Own!  

The introduction of euthanasia is a disturbing development for all vulnerable groups but the parents of disabled children must be even more fearful of what might happen when they are no longer there to protect them. What are families in New Zealand doing to fight the culture of death?

Very little, sadly. It seems to be an individual family thing. FLI makes resources available and has started a project, called the Therese Programme, offering support and resources to families who receive an adverse diagnosis.

For ourselves, we naturally fear what will become of our three special adults who will always need care and protection. I pray daily for good health and longevity of life for the sake of our family. 

Some families I know of are looking to buy a house where their young family members can live in a supported care environment as they get to the age of needing some independence in their lives. It is a long and lonely journey. There are community homes that house these young adults, but even that is very difficult, as the values are not those we would aspire to for our family. Some years ago, I tried to start Missionaries of Love for ours and other young people facing these challenges in life. Hoping that, in our little way, we could start a truly Catholic home for our missionaries of love – a little like we have opened the Saint Gianna’s Home for Mothers and Babies. Perhaps, as I am only seventy years old, there is still time to realise this dream.   

What are your plans for the future and where can people go to find out more about the work of Family Life International?

CB: My personal plans for the future of Family Life International have always been that, God willing, we would be able to establish a much stronger educational facility, with the outcome of a true and effective “Culture of Life” firmly established in this country and fully realising a new and heroic Christian order of life, faith and the family. This new centre would also accommodate Saint Gianna’s Home for Mothers and Babies, along with our Catholic Gifts shop which is a great witness to the faith and an important source of revenue for the apostolate. 

For more information about the work, and other initiatives, of Family Life International, please visit: fli.org.nzpregnancyoptions.org.nz  and catholicgifts.co.nz