Centers that counsel women against abortion rank among the fastest-growing expressions of the prolife movement. And perhaps as a result of their success, those centers are coming under increasingly vigorous criticism. Opposition efforts have included a concerted media campaign, bomb threats, and vandalism.

The centers enable prolife advocates to engage the abortion debate one-on-one with women facing problem pregnancies. Virtually all of the centers are run and financed by volunteers who want to be involved in a practical, personal response to abortion. Proponents say these alternative pregnancy centers provide an answer to the criticism that the prolife movement has defended the rights of the unborn child at the mother’s expense.

“The church has been [helping women in crisis pregnancies] for centuries,” says Curt Young, executive director of the Christian Action Council (CAC). “The only difference is that today we’re doing it in a very hostile environment.”

Some 3,000 centers across the country are counseling women about alternatives to abortion. They are sponsored by various prolife organizations, congregations, and denominations. The more than 300 crisis pregnancy centers sponsored by the CAC saw 35,000 clients in 1985. And new centers are opening at a rate of eight per month. “Our goal … is to identify the point of pressure that makes a woman feel she can’t carry the pregnancy to term,” says Young, “and then help her deal with that.”

The centers provide counseling and education on abortion, and practical assistance for those who choose to give birth. Eight out of ten clients seen by the CAC’S crisis pregnancy centers choose to carry their pregnancies to term. Most clients plan to raise their babies themselves, while women choosing adoption reflect the national average of 5 percent.

Charges Of Deception

Since 1985, various prochoice groups have joined forces to discredit the work of alternative pregnancy centers. Those opponents include Planned Parenthood; the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union; the National Abortion Federation; and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

Through a generously funded public relations campaign, stories attacking the centers have appeared in the national news media. They contend that the centers lure women with advertising that implies they provide abortions, then manipulate their clients’ emotions and force religious and moral views on them.

“[Prolife advocates] are deceiving women to get them into clinics so they can give them their opinion on abortion,” says Barbara Radford, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. “I think it’s one of the cruelest and ugliest tactics of the antiabortion movement.”

Marvin Olasky, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas, has documented the effort to discredit the centers. “… Talented public relations women employed by the prochoice organizations called, visited and sent pitch letters and press kits to hundreds of reporters and editors” (from October 1985 through March 1987), Olasky writes. “Prochoice public relations professionals chose [allegations of] ‘deception’ as the key angle for their campaign.”

According to Olasky, opponents seized on allegedly controversial practices followed by many of the 140 centers affiliated with the Pearson Institute, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis. Proabortion critics say those practices include listing centers under “clinic” headings in the telephone directory; implying in advertisements and telephone conversations that the centers perform abortions; and sometimes having volunteers wear white coats that resemble physicians’ jackets.

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Volunteers at the Pearson centers “are not told to lie outright when asked about the availability of abortion at their center,” Olasky writes, “but are to talk around the subject and mislead the caller so that she will come for counseling.… The Pearson folks have helped many women and babies, but they have also handed Planned Parenthood a sword.”

Michael Byers of the Pearson Institute justifies the organization’s tactics. “We have a message that is prolife and will educate the mother in a truthful manner,” he says. “We do reserve the right to tell the mother the truth [about the centers’ prolife stance] at the time best for her, in our judgment.”

While Olasky disagrees with some Pearson tactics, he says, “the issue is not deception, it’s just proabortion versus antiabortion.… [Proabortionists] should not clothe themselves in the garb of angels by saying their only concern is deception.”

Lawsuits have been filed against several alternative pregnancy centers, and some centers have seen their funding decline as a result of negative publicity. But client loads continue to grow.

Public Opinion

Some observers suggest public empathy for the prolife movement has increased due to its leadership in services to women, including counseling and education about abortion. Research has shown that a majority of Americans favor abortion only under narrow circumstances: to save the mother’s life or to prevent severe physical injury to her, or in cases of rape or incest. In these situations, the majority approve of abortion only within the first trimester, except when the mother’s life is endangered.

Only 1 to 2 percent of the 1.5 million abortions annually are performed to protect the mother’s life or health. And an estimated 120,000 abortions each year, more than 300 each day, are performed in the second trimester, often because of a baby’s genetic abnormality.

Indeed, rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have made it clear that abortion is legal at any point during a pregnancy. And the Court has struck down various laws—including such requirements as a 24-hour waiting period—designed to assure a woman’s informed consent before an abortion procedure is performed.

Such high court decisions, says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, have led to “the casual use of abortion as birth control.” It is in that context that alternative pregnancy centers are working to reach women with the facts about abortion before they decide whether to terminate a pregnancy.

By Pamela Pearson Wong.

Visiting A Crisis Pregnancy Center

Many alternative pregnancy centers have been under fire because of their approach to abortion education and counseling. But proponents maintain that most of the centers are forthright about their stand against abortion. The following is a description of one client’s experience at a Washington, D.C., center sponsored by the Christian Action Council. The names of the participants have been changed.

Linda came to the Capitol Hill Crisis Pregnancy Center fearing she was pregnant. Jane, a volunteer counselor, explained that the center’s aim was to provide information on the options available to women with problem pregnancies. She made it clear the center does not refer clients for abortions.

As Linda awaited results of a free pregnancy test, she viewed a film on the biology of fetal development. When the test came back positive, she and Jane discussed the options of single parenting and adoption.

In addition, Jane explained how a baby is killed by abortion, usually by use of a suction machine, by dismemberment, or by salt poisoning. She mentioned that emotional and physical complications may result. And she told Linda about God’s love and forgiveness.

Linda anguished over the decision, saying she knew abortion was taking a life. But she was an unmarried career woman, and she wanted to pursue further education. Two weeks later, Linda told Jane she had aborted her baby.

If success is measured by women never choosing abortion, “then we fail,” says Lynn Marry, the center’s executive director. “If it’s obedience to God [in serving women in need], then we succeed most of the time.”

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