Her expression is pensive. Her eyes downcast. She looks frightened, ashamed, and scared. She is only a face on a billboard, but she could be any one of thousands of American women who face an unexpected pregnancy and do not know where to turn.

A cross section of clergy from Houston churches are anticipating that they can help women like her and prevent abortions at the same time. Working with the national crisis-pregnancy network Care Net, Houston pastors hope to raise $250,000 to finance billboard advertising for "A Campaign of Compassion."

The 22 billboards, to be erected this summer, show a toll-free number, the young woman's face, and a simple message: "Pregnant? Free pregnancy tests. Caring and confidential."

The churches' goal is straightforward. They hope that raising money to advertise crisis pregnancy centers will convince women facing unforeseen pregnancies to allow their babies to live rather than be aborted. They like the idea of providing such information in a concerned, direct, and apolitical way. A test campaign in southeast Florida suggests the strategy may work.

CHURCHES COOPERATE: In Houston, the campaign started in January with a meeting of 150 clergy, including megachurch pastors Ed Young of Second Baptist Church, William Hinson of First United Methodist Church, John Bisagno of First Baptist Church, and John Osteen of Lakewood Church.

"So many young people do get pregnant, and they're simply afraid and desperate," Hinson says. "They need a good friend to simply say there are options available. That's what this program is all about."

A key to making such projects work is alerting women that the services are available, says Marcella Colbert, director of the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston's Respect Life office. The diocese also works closely with local parishes, area crisis pregnancy centers, and Birthright, a national pregnancy help group. "We're trying not to duplicate services, but to work together and be effective," Colbert says.

Osteen commends the billboard project as apolitical, a cooperative venture between large and small congregations.

"I'm not someone to get out and carry signs, but I think there should be an alternative for people in this condition," Osteen says. "It ought to be given in love without a lot of fanfare."

Care Net says such concern—if channeled properly—will encourage women contemplating abortion to reconsider.

SEEKING ABORTION ALTERNATIVES: According to an informal Care Net survey, 90 percent of women who had abortions indicated they would have preferred other options had they known about them. Crisis-pregnancy centers are seeking new ways to reach such women, according to Care Net President Guy Condon.

Four years ago, Care Net made "a strategic decision to become what I call the voice of compassion for women in crisis," Condon says.

He believes most women have a "natural revulsion" to abortion and seek the surgery only as a last resort. But reaching these women means widely advertising free crisis-pregnancy services.

Condon says the network decided to gauge the accuracy of its informal findings in a test campaign last year in southeast Florida, where Care Net has 10 centers. The ministry used billboard advertising and a toll-free phone referral system.

"For a number of reasons, we thought this would be a good bellwether area for testing," Condon says. "It is mobile. There are multiple races and cultures."

In the regional test during a 10-week period, the 10 Care Net centers received 600 more phone calls than normal from women with pregnancy-related concerns.

NATIONAL IMPLICATIONS: Projected as a national campaign, Care Net reasoned, as many as 130,000 women might call Care Net-affiliated centers, in addition to the 200,000 already served each year.

Based in Sterling, Virginia, Care Net is a network of 400 locally owned and operated crisis-pregnancy centers. Most Care Net centers operate on annual budgets of only about $70,000, Condon says. The 400 affiliated centers, including eight in Houston, represent about 1,000 paid staff and an estimated 20,000 volunteers, including doctors, nurses, and counselors.

Care Net used its test findings to garner church support for the Houston campaign. Young, Second Baptist's pastor, says the 150 attending the initial clergy meeting pledged more than $60,000 for the campaign.

"There was real excitement about the fact that we could put up these billboards. They make a difference," Young says. "If the statistics in Florida would hold true for Houston, we think we would get about 6,000 more calls to the crisis-pregnancy centers."

Women who make those calls, referred from the toll-free number to local centers, are connected to a system offering practical, medical, spiritual, financial, and counseling assistance. The goal is to help women make "an informed decision," says Ray Sanders, executive director of Crisis Pregnancy Center Central, Houston's newest center. His wife, Lanna Sanders, is director of client services.

"We are here to offer—at no charge—confidentially and compassionately, accurate information to men and women who find themselves with an unplanned pregnancy and in crisis," she says. "Not to make their decisions for them, not to push them toward adoption, not to push them toward parenting. And with their permission, to minister to them the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ."

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Women who call a Houston center may receive free pregnancy testing, Christian adoption counseling, postabortion counseling, follow-up support during pregnancy, sonograms, maternity clothes, baby clothes, diapers, formula, and shelter in private homes. Clients who want to become Christians are referred to local churches.

Offering such support to women early in an unplanned pregnancy is key, Condon says. "Carrying a baby to term is a very difficult choice to make," he says.

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