Sometimes I end up in situations that I don’t want to be in, and sometimes circumstances lead to blog posts. This is one of those times. A few weeks ago, I found myself at the annual fundraising banquet for a non-profit, pro-life crisis pregnancy and parenting center. How doesn’t really matter, and while I could have walked out the door because I knew what I was about to hear would conflict with my beliefs about prevention and choice, I thought getting the inside scoop might give me some clarity.
Well, that didn’t happen, but I was able to solidify my beliefs that these pro-life pregnancy crisis centers are primarily focused on pushing their worldview (i.e., women are meant to bear) instead of truly reducing the number of abortions. If they did truly want to make a difference, these organizations would offer preventative services, which have been shown to significantly reduce unwanted pregnancies and consequently the number of abortions.
[Note: I am using the words women/woman as a term for the person that is statistically higher to be carrying a fetus to term, but I recognize that this term may not be fully inclusive of non-binary or transgender individuals who may also experience pregnancy and should also be included in this discussion.]
In January 2017, the Guttmacher Institute reported that, based on 2014 data, the abortion rate in the United States was at its lowest since the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade. The study did not look for reasons for this trend, but other reproductive health officials have surmised that because Affordable Care Act increased access to free and/or affordable birth control, more women, particularly those with low incomes, were accessing and using more reliable birth control. Long-term methods, like IUDs, have also proven successful. Anti-abortion groups have taken the stance that closing and/or highly regulating abortion providers is responsible for the decrease in abortions. For pro-life groups, that’s where the discussion ends: restrictions instead of prevention.
While no one wants to put themselves out of a job, I think pro-life pregnancy crisis centers would be wise to also preach prevention. Why wait until a woman feels like she is out of options before stepping in? I believe it makes much more sense and is much more ethical for clinics to help women to never be in that position. At some point during the fundraiser, a video showed the inside of the center. Near the receptionist’s desk was a basket of plastic fetus models wrapped in tiny blankets, but where were the condoms? No pamphlets about choosing the right birth control or posters about checking monthly for cancers cluttered the tables or walls. Surely, if the center is going to preach giving birth, they’d also be preaching prevention. This is not the case, and here is where this center and the pro-life movement loses me entirely.
Because pro-life crisis centers heavily align themselves with religious allies, they are restricted by the beliefs of those religious organizations. In the case of the clinic whose fundraiser I essentially crashed (as I wasn’t their intended feet-kissing audience member), they are heavily sponsored by Catholics, so I suspect that saying anything about birth control has been drummed out of their minds, preferring an abstinence-only model.
As one of my Catholic friends put it, the Catholic Church will have “a come to Jesus” moment about birth control when it finally realizes that its abstinence-only message has driven some of its followers to make difficult choices between their Catholic faith and what may be best for them and their family. Until then, many Catholics will either not follow their church’s teaching and will use birth control or they may find themselves in a difficult position, having to choose to carry an unwanted pregnancy full-term or to have an abortion. I know this is an unpopular belief, but I believe that the Catholic Church’s anti-birth control message is responsible for some of the very abortions that it seeks to prevent.
The church must atone for this and change its policies. If the church (and these pro-life pregnancy centers by extension) would honestly talk about sex and pregnancy/disease prevention, then fewer women would face such a crisis of this type. Until such a change is made within the church, I believe that the church’s stance is hypocritical and harmful to its followers and to the United States’ populous as a whole because of the stronghold that Christianity has over the Republican party and consequently American laws.
The pro-life pregnancy center whose fundraiser I attended mentioned that they do provide educational courses for middle and high school students, noting that they want to focus on the emotional turmoil of having multiple sexual partners. The undertones of the event indicated that the students will be heavily indoctrinated in the belief that sex before marriage is sinful. No mention was made of discussing condoms, hormonal birth control, IUDs, elective sterilization, etc. According to their website, the courses unsurprisingly cover abstinence, potential consequences of sex outside of marriage, emotional distress, STDs, and the effects of media and sex. I find these classes shortsighted because it is unhelpful and harmful to make people afraid of their own bodies.
While I have never attended one of these classes that the pro-life pregnancy crisis offers to youth, I can only assume that it would be highly reminiscent of the lectures that I heard during my catechism courses, which reinforced the idea that my worth as a woman depended upon my sexual purity. If I sinned through sex before marriage, I would be considered damaged, and I should expect to be shamed by my community (well, at least, until a child was born; then the unwanted pregnancy would be seen as a wonderful miracle). The burden of saying “no” was often laid at the feet of women as the physical burden of bearing a child would be theirs. Men are told that sex before marriage is sinful, but the shame leveled at promiscuous men, even in religious cultures, is significantly less than that leveled at women as virile and hyper-masculine men are still celebrated.
At the event, the head of this clinic blatantly confirmed that the clinic’s advertising uses words like non-judgmental and choice to attract more clients. By rhetorically choosing to align their advertisements with the comprehensive care that Planned Parenthood and other truly pro-choice organizations provide, these strictly pro-life crisis centers are using deception to reach their means of swaying a woman’s mind to sustain a pregnancy. She who suspects that she is with child can receive a free pregnancy test, sonogram, and a heavy dose of Christian guilt.
Now, if simply walking through the pro-life clinic’s doors isn’t the profound sign that a woman seeks to tell her that she’s meant to bear, the staff will gladly pray one of the choices away with the woman, leaving just adoption or motherhood. (They do offer counseling services for those who have a pregnancy end prematurely through abortion, which will also be filled with prayer and pleas for forgiveness, I’m certain.)
The head of the organization mentioned that they recently hired a male advocate with the hope that heterosexual couples will visit the clinic together. If this happens, the expectant woman would meet with a female advocate, and her partner would meet with the male advocate. The idea is to divide and conquer the couple because misinformation works better if more than one person hears it. The head seemed to believe that the decision to continue a pregnancy is often left to the child’s father, so it may be more beneficial for the clinic to talk to him instead of the mother. This is very problematic because the head was implying that women are too fickle and indecisive to be able to make their own choices about their bodies.
I know that the individuals who work at these centers believe they are doing noble work because they will never refer a pregnant woman to an abortion-provider, and yes, I can see the ways in which they do provide some valuable services to women in need because they are able to direct woman to other resources that specialize in prenatal care, financial stability, food, housing, etc. What I am not okay with lying to women exploring options, whether through omission or shaming tactics.
The Supreme Court will soon decide whether laws that bar pro-life pregnancy centers from omitting or contorting information about abortion when discussing options with their clients are constitutional. The Court recently accepted a challenge to California’s 2015 Reproductive FACT Act that requires all clinics, including pro-life ones, to provide clients with the knowledge that California "has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, prenatal care, and abortion, for eligible women." Clinics that don’t comply face penalties, and the Supreme Court will be specifically looking at whether or not this law violates the employee’s freedom of speech. The Court will have to decide whether misinformation related to women’s reproductive health is protected by the Constitution.
From my personal perspective, I believe that this is not protected because the consequences of omission and misinformation may be harmful in terms of physical and mental health to the person receiving the information. Without having accurate information, the woman facing the crisis will not have all the information needed to make the best informed decision for what is best for her body. Medical officials promise to “do no harm,” and I believe it’s harmful to withhold this information.
What I also found troubling during this event was the cognitive dissonance between the keynote speaker’s beliefs that no one should be forced to have an abortion and her belief that all women should be forced to carry a pregnancy full-term no matter the circumstances. [Note: The keynote speaker is a survivor of human trafficking who was almost forced to have an abortion by the abuser who impregnated her, but she was able escape and carry her pregnancy to term. I truly feel for the trials that she’s overcome, but I still question how she is using those experiences to work against choices for other women.] I agree with the first statement because true equality and true choice for women is being able to end a pregnancy, if needed, and to continue as pregnancy, if wanted.
This opinion was at the core of why a young ACLU lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg took on the case Struck v. Secretary of Defence, where a female Air Force Captain was almost forced to have an abortion or leave the military. Fortunately or unfortunately, the case was never heard before the Supreme Court because the military changed their policy, but the ramifications of allowing women to stay pregnant if they so choose is equal to the ramifications of allowing women to end a pregnancy. Both options put the decision up to the woman as it should be.
Now, I could conclude this piece the same way that any other pro-choice piece does by saying that deciding to end a pregnancy is one of the hardest decisions that a woman will ever have to make, and while that is true, I am worried that such hedge statements have led to the corruption of the word choice. Even the pro-life movement must recognize that when a woman chooses to continue a pregnancy, she has made a choice, yet this is often ignored because both sides of the argument perpetuate the idea that choice only matters if someone isn’t doing the “natural action of growing life.” Similarly, the decision to use birth control is, to an extent, treated as an unnatural action. This needs to change.
Finally, if you’re concerned that the clinic offers very little in regards to men’s health, don’t worry. They offer a section titled “For Men” on their website. It discusses how they can provide “pregnancy tests for your girlfriend” and tips on how to handle a pregnancy scare. To be fair, the clinic’s in-town signs mention that they provide “Mall STD” testing. Either misspelling or poor font choice suggests that once again, this clinic is not really in the business of preventative care for men either.
Getting treatment for STDs is very important, but men’s reproductive health isn’t just about getting someone pregnant or catching an STD. It’s also about cancer screenings, UTIs, infertility, and prevention. The same is true of women’s reproductive health; pregnancy and STDs aren’t the only crisis. Women also have to worry about UTIs, cancer, endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, irregular periods, infertility, etc. Missing in the pro-life pregnancy clinic’s case for giving them money was any discussion about maternal or prenatal care. That’s because the clinic’s only role is to confirm that a woman is carrying a fetus and to convince her to continue being pregnant. They are not in the business of healthy pregnancies and offer no emergency services for women who may be experiencing a miscarriage.
Pro-life organizations also ignore the fact that the same procedures used when performing an abortion are often used to save a woman from an incomplete miscarriage. Rounding out the list of services that these clinics do not provide are ones specifically for the LGBTQ+ community, including information on gender confirmation procedures.
The bottom line is that these pro-life, non-profit pregnancy crisis centers may offer some services, but their commitment to religious dogma limits how much good they can actually do. The people who would visit these centers would be better served by an all encompassing reproductive healthcare provider, like Planned Parenthood or similar pro-choice organizations, because these organizations are actively engaged in prevention.
At the end of the event, attendees were asked to pledge to save babies with their donations—the brochure was complete with a picture of a fetus in the womb embellished with the words Choose Life (again, the irony of using the word choice appears to be lost on this group). In many cases, these pro-life clinics do not ask clients to pay for services rendered, which can be a blessing for those in need, but I fear that the misinformation these clients receive will negatively impact the very people the clinics want to serve.
For $50, I could have sponsored five baby-saving prayer sessions where five different women are made to feel guilty for even thinking about abortion, but instead of sponsoring this deceptive narrative, I will continue to donate to organization that give women complete and accurate information and offer a full range of reproductive health services. I encourage you to do the same.