Note 06/09/2016: Since this remains one of my most popular posts, I have rewritten it so that it reflects better work than it originally did; the content has remained largely the same.
At the Christian university I attended, participation in off-campus volunteer work (or “ministry”, as they called it) was strongly encouraged. I sized up my options and decided that I wanted to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. At the time I was a freshman, so newly emerged from homeschooling that you could still smell the isolation. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d read some books which told me that feminists were conniving liars and abortion doctors were monsters on par with Nazis who tortured people to death in the name of science. This anti-choice scaremongering was the only information I had about reproductive rights. Somehow I’d avoided contracting a fuzzy emotional attachment to any fetuses I anticipated saving; my earnest intention was, ironically, to save women from being lied to and taken advantage of.
A fresh-faced innocent like myself would never have made the cut for being involved in any actual reproductive healthcare facility. I only had a very sketchy idea about the most basic mechanics of missionary-style sex, some of which I had found out by accident only a year before when I was reading a library book with a sex scene in it. My mother had read a book with me about menstruation which had some illustrations of reproductive organs, but I had been too ashamed to look at the illustrations long enough to learn what anything was named or how it worked. It would be another two years before a friend told me how large penises actually were (a revelation which horrified me since I didn’t realize that vaginas were capable of stretching to accommodate anything larger than a tampon).
All I knew about contraception was that condoms and pills did exist. The health curriculum I had used in high school only said that contraception fails all the time and that people who have sex usually get horrifying STDs and become pregnant. I had skimmed some very fundamentalist books about how to be a wife, including Debi Pearl’s “Created to be His Help Meet” and Mary Pride’s “The Way Home,” from which I gathered that contraception is sinful. At best it is a lack of faith in God, such authors claimed, and at worst it is murder. This appalling miseducation led to a hilarious conversation with my freshman-year roommate. I looked her dead in the eye and told her that I would never use any kind of birth control because God knew exactly how many children he wanted me to have and I would just trust him. She laughed in my face. I was bewildered because I thought, after all my parents would never do something sinful like use birth control and they only had three children. A few years later I found a box of condoms in their nightstand and by then I was familiar enough with sex and reproduction that I wasn’t surprised.
So, at the enthusiastic and uninformed age of seventeen, I signed up to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. It sounds like the setup for a hilarious joke. Unfortunately this is all completely true. And none of my ignorance mattered at all to the older women who ran the center. They only inquired whether I had a “heart for the Lord.” I tried to prove that I did, but mostly I just wanted to help women in challenging circumstances.
Perhaps because of that sincere desire to help people, questions soon began to creep into my mind. To begin with, the center itself seemed unprofessional and uninviting. I suppose whoever chose the décor was hoping the center would look like a friendly women’s health clinic. Their attempts did not work. The center was located in a dingy repurposed old house with horrible fluorescent lighting, clearly revealing that it was not very clean. It was filled with mismatched furniture in random rooms down narrow hallways. The rooms in which we talked to clients were reasonably tidy, but the rooms in which we did our training or the storerooms filled with donations were total chaos. There was also a room designated as a chapel, in which all the volunteers would pray for about fifteen minutes before the center opened for the evening.
I had been concerned at first that my lack of medical experience would make me less useful. All the other student volunteers were nursing students in their sophomore or junior years. I had yet to declare a major but I knew for sure it wouldn’t be nursing. As it turned out, my lack of experience or even interest in medicine didn’t matter in the least. The only remotely medical thing we ever did was hand our clients home pregnancy tests and then wait for the results. The center did have an ultrasound machine where an RN would offer discounted ultrasounds once a week, but that was in the afternoons and I was never around for that. We were supposed to make it a priority to get “at risk women” (that is, women we thought might decide to have an abortion) to schedule an ultrasound. As I recall, many of them would give in and schedule the ultrasound just to get us to shut up, then never show up for their appointment.
Besides the home pregnancy tests and the ultrasound machine, the only medically related service we offered were referrals. And I use the term loosely, because in reality we just handed women lists of resources for prenatal and postnatal care. Each doctor on that list was carefully vetted to ensure that they would not refer for abortions or even refer to abortions in any way.
The center did offer items which would help our clients in a tangible way. We had a couple rooms full of donations, one with maternity clothes (all hideously out of style) and the other with baby clothes, food, diapers, cribs, and strollers. At first I thought, well that’s helpful. But it really wasn’t, because as it turns out the clients had to “earn” these items by completing courses which were partially about baby and child care and partially about Jesus. Even at the time I thought that while it was nice to attempt to help them with motherhood, if I weren’t interested in Jesus being forced to learn about him in order to get free things for my baby wouldn’t make me like him any better. I never considered that many women with unexpected pregnancies already have children whom they are doing a fine job mothering. To be completely honest I don’t know how many women actually even took these courses, because it seemed like we were always getting way more donations coming in than the women we “ministered to” were taking home. I realized this one night when I was yet again assigned to hang up infant clothes in the back room, and as I stuffed them onto the overfull rack I noticed that most of the outfits I’d hung up months ago were still there.
As time went on I began to wonder whether we were doing much good at all. We weren’t giving away much of anything to people in need. One of the stated goals of the center was to enter into long-term mentoring relationships with the women who came in but I never saw the same woman twice. I wasn’t sure, and I almost didn’t care, whether we’d saved any fetuses at all. What I did care about was that we didn’t seem to be improving the lives of any of the women who came in. I began to suspect that the point of the crisis pregnancy center was just to talk women out of having abortions. But that would mean the whole thing was completely pointless. Just deciding to carry a pregnancy to term wasn’t going to materially improve our clients’ lives at all. By the end of that year, although I wasn’t pro-choice yet, I had become substantially disillusioned with crisis pregnancy centers.
So I eventually left that “ministry” behind and moved on to an ill-fated attempt at a Wednesday night program for urban teens. Almost every volunteer group that my other friends were a part of went poorly as well except the ones which placed them in existing church groups. There’s a very basic problem with evangelical Christian ministry in general, which is that well-intentioned church people have a few formulas they want to plug into everyone’s lives. They assume they know what’s best, based on their ideology, instead of connecting with people on a human level and figuring out what the people around them actually want and need.
In retrospect, that’s what bothers me the most about my own attitude when I decided to volunteer at the center. As well-intentioned as I was, I still believed that I was rescuing women from themselves. The whole crisis pregnancy center industry cannot get away from this arrogant violation of others’ autonomy. The movement is a classist, often racist, religion-based messiah-complex, usually with middle class white people playing the role of Jesus. There’s this attitude that as soon as someone considers terminating an unwanted pregnancy, they are no longer able to make their own decisions.
The materials we used at the crisis pregnancy center claimed that Planned Parenthood and other women’s health providers pushed abortion as the only choice for a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. Without any sense of irony, we ourselves pushed carrying the pregnancy to term as the only choice. And that was the only choice we cared about. We never followed up with clients to ensure they were receiving proper prenatal care. A crisis pregnancy center I became familiar with later on was called “Birth Choice,” but that just meant that giving birth was the only choice, it had nothing to do with directing women to any actual medical options for giving birth.
There was of course no information about contraception in any of the materials we used. These were abstinence-only pamphlets, based on the misguided notion that all unwanted pregnancies occur outside of marriage. (For my own part it wasn’t until I went to Planned Parenthood some years later that I got accurate and thorough information about contraception. Believe me, although I was by then a pro-choice feminist it still took some courage to go there for the first time; I was a bit ashamed at how pleasantly surprised I was that they were so professional, knowledgeable, and believed in my ability to make my own decisions).
How I went from being the sort of person who would volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center to the sort of person who would volunteer as a clinic escort is a longer story for another time. I didn’t learn any compelling lessons either way about abortion while volunteering at the crisis pregnancy center. What I have learned since then, especially by contrast to Planned Parenthood, is that the crisis pregnancy center model is unethical. Under the guise of medical care, information, and material resources, crisis pregnancy centers push a one-size-fits-all agenda where evangelical Christianity and giving birth is what every woman needs. These centers target women at their most vulnerable, in their most intimate decisions, with proselytizing attempts and information about sexuality, health, and reproduction which is at best woefully incomplete and at worst downright false. Such a strategy is despicable, even if it is your grandma or your local Christian college student carrying out this mission. I am all for women taking ownership of their own health. Even our doctors do not always automatically know what is best for us. So how much more disempowering is it for a religious group or a politician to use their ideology to make our choices for us?
When I heard that right-wing politicians in Texas and in other states want to replace women’s health centers with crisis pregnancy centers, I was in shock. I envisioned real medical centers with real doctors and nurses being shut down, and church ladies wielding tracts and home pregnancy tests setting up shop instead. My uterus clenched in horror. The false advertising which crisis pregnancy centers routinely engage in has been well documented. Right-wing attempts to bill these centers as a substitute for proper medical care is a travesty. No matter how sincerely some evangelicals might want to help women, they will never manage to do so until they get over their pathological fear of sex and trust that we are wise enough to make our own choices.
How I Lost Faith in the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement by Libby Anne