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Mom's the word 

Pro-life pregnancy centers focus on the woman and stretch the truth to save the child

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At the Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center, women considering abortion are presented with a glossy magazine called As Your Baby Grows.

The periodical traces the "journey of motherhood," from the moment the "speck" of the fertilized egg implants itself in the uterus until the fully formed baby is dispatched out of the womb. A single page at the end shows a sleepy mother and her newborn.

What follows in that trek the infant's childhood, adolescence and adult life gets no mention, as if to say, "Your baby is outside your body! You didn't abort! Well done!"

So it goes at this private Christian clinic in Colorado Springs. Here, women are mothers and mothers are glowing, young and nurturing, tending over sweet, if fussy, babies that never grow up.

Lisa, my pregnant-in-real-life friend, and I go undercover to the Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center to understand what women considering abortion might find out there. (We've changed her name to protect her privacy.)

Lisa pretends to be a 24-year-old bookkeeper whose boyfriend is pressuring her to choose between him and the unborn child. I'm the longtime best friend who only wants her to know her options. While in real life, Lisa plans to give birth, her erstwhile alter ego is gravely undecided. Saddled in the second trimester of her unplanned pregnancy, she could lose her job, her apartment and even her boyfriend if she carries to term.

After filling out paperwork, Lisa is ushered into the back hall as I watch a Disney movie in the waiting room. Once inside, Lisa sits on a couch in a dimly lit space as she describes her conundrum. The volunteer counselor, a middle-aged woman who wears a pin shaped like tiny human feet, perches opposite Lisa and responds in firm, if pleading, tones.

"We want to educate you," she says. "We care about the baby. We are pro-life, and you know that. We care about the baby and we care about you, too. We care about the decision you make.

"One way or another, we want you to take care of it. It still changes [your and your boyfriend's] lives. Even if you don't want to deal with it, it is still in there somewhere. We are here to educate you, and if you do decide to go along with an abortion, we do offer post-abortion counseling. Our main concern is you. Of course, we encompass that as the whole "you,' spiritual as well. If you decide to carry to term, I will be praying for you. I will be praying for you anyway now, just because I met you."

"OK," says Lisa, who had written "atheist' on the intake form.

"I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I don't want to preach to you," the counselor continues. "I will ask you to keep your mind open in the years to come. If you ever hear Christ knocking at your door, you should listen."

The counselor ruminates on abortion, describing in detail the procedure for first-, second- and third-term pregnancies, even the types for which Lisa is ineligible. She cites a link between abortion and breast cancer an anti-choice myth that has been disproved and describes perforations and lacerations that might occur during the procedure, though first-term abortion carries less risk than penicillin or, of course, giving birth.

click to enlarge L'AURA MONTGOMERY-RUTT

The counselor pauses before she talks about the emotional impacts of termination.

"A lot of women don't feel it for up to 10 years," she says. "Sometimes it is a recurring thing. After the abortion, you remember what the baby's birth date would have been. It could affect your future relationships with children.

"Symptoms of stress are guilt, anger, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, anniversary grief, flashbacks of the abortion, sexual dysfunction, relationship problems, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse. Those are all logical reactions."

If Lisa carries to term, she is told, she may enroll in free childcare classes, earning "baby bucks" to buy clothing or formula for her newborn. This incentive not to abort lasts for two years into the baby's life, ending long before the need does.

Still in character, Lisa makes an appointment for an ultrasound "We want you to see it is a life," says the counselor and the volunteer shows her into an adjacent room with racks of maternity clothing, flat-soled shoes, lotion samples and pastel-colored copies of the New Testament. Women who visit the pregnancy center are welcome to eight free items per month, along with prenatal vitamins.

Lisa, at this point, is still undecided. And she might not need those clothes.

Growing centers

The Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center, at 3700 Galley Road, was hatched nearly 25 years ago when a group of fervent pro-lifers from Village Seven Presbyterian Church coalesced to form the Christian clinic. Colorado was the first state to decriminalize abortion in 1967, and the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure soon after. The clinic, then called Bethany Pregnancy Center, was a response to the newly liberalized policies.

"We needed to have a voice in the community that specifically put action to the kind of spiritual or political issues that typically people think of when they think of pro-life," says Melissa Hammock, vice chairwoman of Life Network, the pregnancy center's umbrella organization.

Eventually, the clinic grew into a tripartite outreach group. Now a nondenominational, tax-exempt Christian nonprofit, Life Network provides abstinence training in public schools and at Fort Carson, counsels questioning women like Lisa, and hosts post-abortion support groups for women and their partners.

Though the pregnancy center is unique in Colorado Springs, it is one of more than 1,000 similar crisis clinics nationwide that provide pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to so-called "abortion-minded" women. Some of the clinics receive federal funding through President Bush's $150 million Compassion Capital Fund.

Last year, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., commissioned a report of the government-funded centers. Female investigators called 25 clinics, posing as pregnant 17-year-olds considering abortion. Of the 23 clinics successfully contacted, 20 of them provided medically inaccurate information, detailing the same phony abortion risks that Lisa's counselor did regarding breast cancer, fertility and mental health.

A 2006 report by the National Abortion Federation revealed that crisis pregnancy centers regularly advertise as mainstream women's health centers. When would-be clients called asking about abortion services, staffers evaded the query and urged them to make an appointment instead.

click to enlarge Fr. Bill Carmody conducts mass each Saturday morning - outside the local Planned Parenthood. - NAOMI ZEVELOFF
  • Naomi Zeveloff
  • Fr. Bill Carmody conducts mass each Saturday morning outside the local Planned Parenthood.

NAF gathered testimony from women who visited pregnancy centers. Many reported they were bullied and harassed, and given false information to deter them from abortion.

The Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center has a mission similar to that of the more covert clinics. But it doesn't hide its Christian, pro-life stance. The center, along with other regional organizations, is listed under "Abortion Alternatives" in the Yellow Pages, beneath a heading that reads, "For businesses that provide alternatives to abortion and primarily engage in counseling against abortion." Life Network's Web site describes the organization as a "sanctity of human life ministry" based upon the "love of Christ."

Life Network is a member of both Care Net and Heart Beat International, two overhead groups that provide training and materials to crisis pregnancy centers. While the local pregnancy center is largely supported by individual donations, a hefty portion of its revenue comes from government grants.

Forms filed in 2005 show that the local center received $529,255 in public dollars, about 40 percent of its total income. The Pregnancy Center is also listed on a "Resources for Women" sheet provided by the El Paso County Health Department, under the Birth Control and Counseling Services category. Yet the center provides literature claiming that condoms are ineffective.

The post-abortion myth

Though Hammock maintains the Pregnancy Center is not backed by Focus on the Family, Life Network's board of directors is stacked with influential right-wing leaders, many with ties to the conservative powerhouse.

President Raul Reyes served as assistant to the president in Focus's public affairs department. Secretary Rob Flanegin was a vice president there, and members Linda Klepacki and Walt Larimore were also employed at Focus. New Life Church associate pastor Rob Brendle is on the board, along with failed 2006 Republican congressional candidate Jeff Crank.

Board makeup aside, Lisa was given pages upon pages of Focus-generated literature during her initial visit.

Pregnancy centers in Colorado have also received kudos from the state Legislature. In 2003, lawmakers passed a resolution lauding the "nonjudgmental" nature of the clinics that provide "accurate information" regarding "pregnancy options." The declaration, co-sponsored by then-Rep. Shawn Mitchell (now a state senator) and former Sen. Doug Lamborn (now a U.S. congressman), said there were approximately 54 pregnancy centers in Colorado.

Though the Colorado Springs clinic which provided tests and counseling to 2,156 women last year is the oldest branch of Life Network, it symbolizes a new direction for pro-lifers, both locally and nationally. Long focused on saving the unborn, the anti-choice movement has shifted gears to convince women that abortion is bad for them, too. The Pregnancy Center, with its muted lighting, woman-as-mother literature and gentle approach, indicates that women who abort chip away at their own souls.

"The message that we would give is that in our opinion, abortion is not the option that will ultimately serve them," says Hammock. "Not only is the life of the child an obvious problem, but it is also their life. It is our experience that while abortion might solve one problem, it appears to set into motion a whole other set of problems that many times, they have not thought through."

Hammock runs the "Bridges of Hope" post-abortion class, where women who may have "psychological stress" following the procedure gather to talk. The class, like Lisa's counselor's warnings, is predicated on the existence of a foggy condition called "post-abortion syndrome." Pro-lifers equate this to the post-traumatic stress that soldiers returning from combat may experience.

"They reflect back on it, and they say things like, "It wasn't my only option. I thought I just didn't have any choices. I felt trapped by the situation. I felt overwhelmed. I felt alone. I felt afraid. I felt embarrassed,'" Hammock says of her pupils. She contends that the women in her classes feel silenced, crowded out by the abortion debate, and unable to share their true experiences in the public sphere.

click to enlarge Cleta Jasper has been involved with Right to Life for - years. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Cleta Jasper has been involved with Right to Life for years.

Yet while some women who have had abortions may experience anxiety, or even trauma, after the event, the vast majority have no problems afterward. Since more than one in three women in the United States will have an abortion before the age of 45, post-abortion syndrome's skeptics say that if the condition truly existed, millions of women would be suffering. Neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association has recognized the syndrome.

Abortion is no less risky to mental health than carrying to term or placing a baby up for adoption, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health policy center in New York and Washington D.C.

Pro-choice advocates say that pregnancy centers' and others' continued references to the condition are less about protecting women's health and more about banning abortion altogether. That, they say, wouldn't stop abortion, but only push it back into bedrooms and bathrooms and back alleys, where women, sick with sepsis, would die, as happened before Roe v. Wade.

"If all the women who reported relief told their stories, that would be 99 percent of the women who have abortions," says Kate Horle, spokesperson for Denver's Planned Parenthood. "We don't believe it is our role to force women into a place of public discussion when ultimately it is a private discussion."

But though there is no proof of the existence of post-abortion syndrome, pro-life groups continue to operate within its context. They say that the new women-centered approach has gained them a stronger foothold with the American public.

"Care language'

Fr. Bill Carmody, who is not affiliated with the local pregnancy center, holds mass every Saturday morning outside of Planned Parenthood on Colorado Avenue. As the Respect Life director for the Colorado Springs diocese, Carmody spearheads a group called Project Rachel, the Catholic Church's response to post-abortion syndrome.

Carmody says he has ministered to about 100 women through the program. They find him by way of confession; when a Catholic woman discloses her abortion to a local priest, he passes Carmody's phone number through the window.

Unlike the Pregnancy Center therapy class, Project Rachel is a kind of post-abortion boot camp. Women enter into a regimented schedule in which they "regain the humanity" of their aborted fetuses. First, they share the stories of their abortions. Carmody asks them to ascertain the sex of the baby; some knew before the termination, while others must invent it. He tells those having difficulties to pray, and come up with the sex within the week. Then the women name their aborted fetuses and pen letters to and from the baby, which they read aloud in class. The women identify others in need of forgiveness (typically the boyfriend or the abortion doctor) and finally hold a funeral for the unborn.

"The goal is not to be healed in the sense of, "They're OK,'" says Carmody, who believes every woman who aborts has the syndrome. "It's to be healed to get to the point where they are like any other mother who has lost a child. They never get over it."

Though Carmody calls women the "second victims" of abortion, he didn't always sympathize with them. As a young man, he joined anti-choice protesters outside an abortion clinic in Denver. There, the activists carried photos of mutilated fetuses, creating a menacing gauntlet for the women who walked inside. Carmody found the images were more polarizing than useful.

"I don't see how yelling at someone will convince them to change their mind," he says. "We used to focus on the baby. When you pit mom and baby against each other, they both lose. When you focus on the woman, mom and baby win."

In the past, Carmody's Planned Parenthood masses were joined by a man who carried bloody photos. But Mike Gamble, who once brought his grisly truck to Palmer High School, hasn't been by in recent months. Though Carmody claims his group does little more than pray, pro-choice advocates still see his Saturday morning setup as a gauntlet, albeit less harrowing than the poster-laden kind.

click to enlarge The Touch of Life kit shows models of a developing - fetus at 12, 20, 26 and 30 weeks. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • The Touch of Life kit shows models of a developing fetus at 12, 20, 26 and 30 weeks.

"After 35 years of doing this, they are more sophisticated," says Eileen Bresnahan, director of Colorado College's Feminist and Gender Studies program. "They are moving to this care language. And care language has a lot of traction.

"It's bullshit. Basically bullshit. They are trying to say they care about women. But if they would care about them, they would care about the fact that when abortion is illegal, women die."

Pro-woman ploy

Another anti-choice group, called Colorado Springs Right to Life, has adopted similar tactics to Carmody's, all but shedding the baby talk in favor of addressing "abortion-minded" women directly.

As the political arm of Colorado Springs' pro-life movement, Right to Life (one of many chapters nationwide) calls upon a cadre of volunteers to petition state lawmakers on abortion and family-planning issues. The group is also responsible for the pro-life billboards that periodically pop up around our city.

Cleta Jasper, a woman who wears the same "tiny feet" pin as Lisa's counselor, writes the organization's newsletter. At one time, Jasper endorsed a hard-line approach to abortion. After Sept. 11, 2001, the group bought a billboard comparing abortion statistics to the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks.

"Half of the town went up in a storm," she says.

Lately, the billboards have taken a softer angle on the topic, featuring such phrases as, "Blessings are meant to be born," and "Life is a beautiful choice." A pregnant woman smiles shyly on the signs, clutching her full belly.

"We have been perceived as anti-woman," says Jasper. "There is only one person that can save the baby's life, and that is the mother."

But Right to Life hasn't abandoned its fetus-centric roots altogether. If a woman comes into the tiny brick office asking about the procedure, Jasper reaches into a cabinet on the east-facing wall and pulls out a color brochure with several bloody photos many of them recognizable from national campaigns. These pamphlets were printed in the early 1980s, but Jasper still has a stack of them. One reads: "THE U.S. SUPREME COURT HAS RULED IT'S STILL LEGAL TO KILL A BABY ..."

"Our pictures of aborted babies are not really that graphic," Jasper maintains. "My contention is that all we do is make people angry at us, and not at the abortionists."

Though Right to Life is working quietly to mainstream itself, the group won't budge on a near-total abortion ban, with exception only to prevent a woman's death. (Jasper differentiates this from an exception to save a woman's life, though it seems a question of semantics.) The organization occasionally sets up a booth in the Citadel Mall, replete with anti-choice literature and a boxed set of realistic-looking fetuses at 12, 20, 26 and 30 weeks.

The so-called "Touch of Life" kit is Jasper's new favorite. The plastic models sit nestled in polka-dotted fabric with a tiny bottle of baby powder above their heads. Each one's weight correlates with its age, and the artificially pink skin feels sticky and almost warm. Jasper seems to find nothing peculiar in holding these models of the unborn, the figurines that exist only in the womb. As much as she claims to care for the mother, it's these tiny things that fuel her protest.

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What's inside

Back at the Pregnancy Center, Lisa and I walk in for her second and final visit. She's further along this time, but still claims to be considering abortion. A nurse-in-training ushers us into the ultrasound room and then pours lubricant onto Lisa's stomach as she sits on a white cushioned chair.

"We want you to know what is going on in there," the counselor had said during her first appointment. "We want you to see it is a life. We want you to know how far along it is. We want you to know what the risks are to you."

Now, at Lisa's behest, she squeezes into the corner of the room, watching for the ultrasound screen to flicker on.

Doctors typically recommend ultrasounds to date the pregnancy and ensure the health of the fetus. But it's not uncommon even in a mainstream medical setting to use an ultrasound to create "bonding and reassurance" between mother and child, as Colorado Springs obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Deborah Lasley puts it.

"If they are sick from pregnancy, women can feel like it's the baby's fault," Lasley says. The ultrasound visually connects a woman with the growing embryo inside her.

At many crisis pregnancy centers, the ultrasound is employed solely for this purpose. The notion that a woman will change her mind once she sees the unborn baby is gaining in popularity around the country. South Carolina's state House passed a bill in March mandating women considering abortion to view ultrasounds of their fetuses. The state Senate compromised amid outrage from pro-choicers, drafting its own bill for an optional ultrasound.

The Colorado Springs center received its equipment from Focus on the Family's Option Ultrasound program, which provides machinery and training to crisis pregnancy centers around the country in order to "[empower] young women to choose life for their pre-born babies," as the Focus Web site reads.

Lisa lies back in the chair as the nurse-in-training runs a sensor over her stomach. A squiggly black-and-white image blooms and shrinks on a TV monitor across the room. The counselor, still in the corner, exclaims softly, "Oh, look!" as the fetus comes into view. A doctor walks into the room and guides the nurse through the ultrasound, pointing out the baby's limbs and head.

"It could be a basketball player or a ballerina," says the nurse, as the fetus stretches its legs.

I ask about the dimensions of the baby, and the doctor reaches into a floor-level cabinet, lifting out the same "Touch of Life" kit from the Right to Life group. She produces one of the rubber dolls, telling us the head is the size of a cherry tomato.

Back in the dimly lit room, the counselor recommends a video to Lisa, saying it might help her decision. Hard Truth depicts bloody fetuses and dismembered heads, and the video's host likens abortion to the Holocaust. Lisa declines the offer.

At the end of the visit, she is shown into the maternity room again, where the clothing racks hang full of elastic-waist pants and dresses. The Pregnancy Center claims never to coerce women one way or another. If they abort, Hammock says, they can always come back inside. But still, there are the clothes, free for the taking, expandable and accommodating. Eight complimentary pieces a month for the duration of a pregnancy.

Lisa walks out of the building a free agent, but she doesn't walk out alone. Apparitions of the pro-lifers sidle next to her their words and their pictures, too.

They tell her she can't decide on her own. That there are things she should know. That abortion won't do her any good. And that ultimately, it shouldn't exist for her, for anyone, at all.

naomi@csindy.com

  • Pro-life pregnancy centers focus on the woman and stretch the truth to save the child

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