I Volunteered At A 'Crisis Pregnancy Center,' And It Changed Me In Ways I Never Imagined

"As a pro-woman Democrat, I decided to do something fairly radical to meet and learn more about Trump-supporting women: I volunteered at a 'crisis pregnancy center,'" the author writes. (Photo: studiocasper via Getty Images)

During the past two years, I haven’t stopped asking myself how any woman could have voted for Donald Trump. Knowing how he views women, not to mention how he has admitted to treating them, it was unfathomable to me that any woman would willingly endorse or defend him.

So when my husband and I decided to leave our home in the northern part of the country and spend our first winter in northern Florida last year, I realized I might have the opportunity to find out why some women continue to support our president.

As a pro-woman Democrat, I decided to do something fairly radical to meet and learn more about Trump-supporting women: I volunteered at a “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC). I am a little embarrassed to admit I never knew these places even existed before last year, but I soon learned they use billboards, pamphlets and websites to advertise free and confidential crisis counseling to pregnant teens and young adults who may be considering abortion. CPCs have been criticized for intentionally giving the impression they are neutral health care providers when, in fact, they work hard to convince women to give birth instead of seeking abortions. I was astounded to learn that there are over 2,500 clinics in the U.S. alone, and they vastly outnumber abortion providers.

Before learning about CPCs, I had done an online search for “places to volunteer” in my new neighborhood. I certainly wasn’t looking to work at a CPC, but the moment I learned of one in the town where I’d be living for the winter, I was drawn to it ― as if it were forbidden fruit ― for a number of reasons. First, I spent decades in the liberal halls of academia and I missed working with young adults, but I wanted a change. I also believed volunteering at this center would not only allow me to learn more about those who think and act very differently from me, but it could also be an opportunity to teach pregnant teens mothering skills ― something I thought would be useful and worthy of my time.

But as I was about to learn, this organization and others like it had a long history of concealing and misrepresenting their true mission.

My reluctance to tell my closest friends about what I wanted to do made me even more intrigued. My friends are ardent feminists. The few I confided in about my plan launched into mini-lectures on how early pregnancies perpetuate income inequality and severely impact a woman’s life-long earning potential.  They were quick to point out that the right to life movement focused on babies, not on their continuing need for food, shelter and health care once they were born.

But I decided to ignore them and quieted my own wary inner voice by telling myself I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself ― and my admittedly unresearched notions of the women who devoted themselves to centers like these. I also told myself that by not actively participating in counseling these young women, I was not fully partaking in aiding the center’s mission to fight abortion. Of course, I was providing my time and energy, but I felt what I would learn and the good I might do for the young women who used the center’s services would be worthwhile.

I downloaded a volunteer application asking for my name, address and three references, which I gladly provided. The form indicated that there were no prerequisites required to serve as a “pregnancy counselor.” I wasn’t going to do that under any circumstances, so I checked off “front desk” as my area of interest. To expedite the process, I drove to the center and personally handed in my application. Once I arrived, I learned they needed volunteers as soon as possible, so I offered to start the next day.

My first day at the center was a trial by fire. I began by stuffing envelopes for a mailing that sought donations to overturn Roe v. Wade. In lieu of a donation, the letter noted, prayers to this end were also welcome and encouraged. Every bone in my body begged me to get up and leave. But I had made a decision to volunteer one afternoon per week for four months. I was now more determined than ever to understand the women who ran and worked for this organization.

This particular CPC was affiliated with the Catholic Church, and it included a high school for pregnant teens that closely resembled a one-room schoolhouse. There were nine or 10 students taking classes there. Everyone (except me) was crestfallen that enrollment was at a historic low. The center also had a communal kitchen, a nursery and a half-dozen dormitory rooms where mothers could live until their youngest child turned two.

There was also a room called “the baby center.” Its walls were covered with photos of smiling young women and their babies. This was the heartbeat of the organization. It was there that anxious teens and young women came for free pregnancy testing and advice about making a “choice” if the results came back positive. Centers like the one I was volunteering at emphasize the word “choice” on their websites, but, in reality, those who worked at the center believed the choice was simple ― have your child ― and it was virtually made for or thrust upon these young women.

This particular center had an outdated sonogram machine that was used to show these young women grainy images of their unborn babies. After the scan, they were handed a tiny pink plastic model of a fetus that corresponded to the stage of their pregnancy at the time. There were drawers full of these models in many, many different sizes.

The “counseling” these women received centered around how much Jesus loved babies. Jesus would love you, too, for taking care of your baby. They were told, “Oh, yes, we can arrange an adoption to a loving family, but you don’t need to decide that today.” Every pregnant young woman left clutching a hand-crocheted crib blanket which had been lovingly made especially for babies like hers.

I could have been a counselor in the baby center. No medical background was necessary. All it took to qualify was loving kindness and the determination to preserve every life.  

I came to enjoy certain parts of my job at the front desk. I welcomed the women and children when they arrived, and while they were at the center, they could take what they needed from donated toys, maternity clothes, and well-worn but serviceable baby clothes. If they asked, I could provide one box of disposable diapers and one box of diaper wipes per baby. Occasionally, we also had formula, baby shampoo and baby food. Once a week, the local grocery chain dropped off bread and pastries that were approaching their expiration date. If I sensed that a client needed food, I could fill one bag of groceries from the donations that were kept out of sight.

I met wonderful women. Most were quite willing to sit for a while and chat about themselves. A surprising number were grandmothers. Many told me how they had come to this center when they themselves had been pregnant and frightened. They then knew where to send their daughters when it was their time. Now they came hoping to receive diapers for the grandchildren in their care, and maybe an outfit for the newest baby to wear on Easter.

One day, an 18-year-old young woman came in alone. I asked her if she had children.

“Oh, yes, ma’am ― three boys: 3, 2 and 1,” she replied.

“I see a pattern here,” I told her. “Do you plan to have more?”

“Oh, no, ma’am! I learned my lesson. I’m done!”

I got up and silently hugged her. She wanted a clean white blouse to wear to an upcoming job interview. She was nervous because she had no work experience ― only her high school diploma from the center’s school. I reminded her that having three babies within three years had armed her with plenty of marketable skills: time management, conflict resolution, fiscal restraint, and multitasking, to name only a few. She left with a blouse, squared shoulders and a big smile.

Later, a tall 20-something woman arrived. She sat down and appeared to me to be too weary to make much conversation. With a bit of prodding, she told me she needed diapers for her newborn twins who had been born prematurely. I quickly brought her several boxes along with as many goodies as I could find.

“Oh, could I also have diapers for my 3-month-old?” she asked me.

I just couldn’t make that math work, but she explained that the 3-month-old had been adopted. I was still confused ... what adoption agency would place a baby with this exhausted mother? She laughed.

“I had to take her. She was just so sweet!” she said, adding, “if I hadn’t taken her, they’d have given her to strangers when they took my sister off to jail.” I gave her a huge bag of groceries before she left.

Homeless women living under the highway bridge came in. Women living in their cars came in. Mentally ill women came in. Each left with diapers, wipes and a loaf of bread. I left with snapshots of their lives.

Out of respect for the clients, I never asked them about politics or their voting records. I focused these conversations on the paid staff members, the teaching faculty and other volunteers.  

“Why don’t we refer women to Planned Parenthood when there are serious complications?”

“What kind of birth control counseling are these teens given once they deliver?”

“Aren’t we fostering a cycle of poverty, knowing these teen mothers will have little access to education and job training when they leave here?”

Most of my questions were met with stunned silence.

My attempts at conversation with these women were more successful when I asked about church, their families and their favorite recipes. I had a lot of those kinds of discussions until the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred. Florida was suddenly alive with talk about gun control. I waded in. I started with the director of the center, who had given most of her adult life and many of her own financial resources to help keep the center open.

“Just think how many more lives we could save if we supported comprehensive gun control!” I told her. “After all, Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ He never said, ‘Be sure to keep a shotgun in your pickup truck.’” No, she responded, that would jeopardize her standing with the local churches that were the center’s financial lifeline. That would ruin everything.

These women were stubborn, but so was I. I stayed on. Babies were born; new teens arrived.  

I just kept asking questions, listening to everyone’s story, trying to make sense of their reasoning ― of their passion. But as in so many fundamentalist movements, questioning was discouraged if not forbidden. Truth was handed down to you. You were blessed to receive it early in life. I saw that this truth ― that abortion was a sin ― became the fabric of their identities.

For many of these women, supporting the Right to Life movement had become a means of defining and expressing their femininity. Giving to the baby center reinforced their beliefs and allowed them to put their faith into action. Acting on their beliefs demonstrated to others their love, generosity and kindness. Actively opposing abortion could not be separated from their sense of self as loving Christian women.

I came to realize that these true believers were embracing Christian values by giving to others, loving babies and publicly opposing what they saw as sin. Volunteering at the center enhanced their social standing in their church community. It was a public declaration of faith and was the quintessential statement of self-worth. It was ladylike and appropriate. How could I suggest anything to the contrary that might challenge or endanger that? 

Inevitably, conversations often turned to President Trump, and I pried as gently as I could to learn more about how they could support someone who seemed so antithetical to the Christian values these women claimed to cherish. A few spoke with giddy infatuation for him. Others were blunt about their discomfort with him. These women were educated and well-informed, and they readily admitted that they believed Trump was petulant, selfish and dishonest. They didn’t necessarily like him or respect his behavior, but they approved of him and needed him because he defended the single issue they had devoted their lives to. Like Trump, they had taught themselves to ignore facts when it was convenient, to reject science and to listen only to what they wanted to hear. They were willing to put up with the means, no matter how abhorrent, to see their end: Roe v. Wade finally being overturned.

Spring dragged on; the virulent flu season began to abate. One day, I arrived at the center to find a memo on the front desk reminding all volunteers of the importance of confidentiality and HIPAA regulations. I took this as a welcome sign of professionalism. But my optimism was crushed later that afternoon when the director cheerfully announced to a group of women around my desk, “Praise the Lord, Sarah Jane is pregnant!”

Sarah Jane was their darling. She lived nearby with her 6-month-old. I want to say she was 15 or 16, but I am not completely sure. She was nowhere near graduating from high school. Summoning my best schoolmarm voice, I reminded the director that pregnancy status was protected by HIPAA. I waved the recent memo for everyone to see. To my amazement, the director burst out laughing. “This is Good News! It’s got nothing to do with HIPAA,” she said. 

I realized that for the director and most of the women I worked with at the center, the most important thing in the world was protecting babies. To them, babies were blessings ― and were blessed. All babies. There was no mention or concern for what was actually best for the woman or her unborn child.

I had finally reached my breaking point.

That night, I told my husband about what had happened at the center that day.  

“Who is going to prison?” he roared. “Anytime — every time! ― a 15-year-old gets pregnant, someone needs to go to jail!”

His anger was contagious and it ignited mine.  As a young Catholic, I had been taught abortion was wrong ― end of story. As I grew older, I saw it as a necessary evil, but I had never quite found a way to make myself completely at peace with it. Throughout my career as a college dean and academic adviser, I had actively encouraged students to use reliable birth control to avoid the life-altering decision of whether to end a pregnancy. My experience at the pregnancy center had crystallized my thinking. I now embraced the moral imperative to work publicly to preserve a woman’s right to choose.

Watching worried teens reach out to these older women — only to be given what I believed to be, at best, incomplete information about their health care options — had solidified my decision. Considering the Trump administration’s view on abortion and more and more states moving toward dangerously limiting, if not entirely erasing, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, I knew it was now time, and more important than ever, to voice my support for the right to choose.

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On the last day of my four-month stint at the center, I found myself thinking back on my career spent helping women (and men) complete their college degrees and expand their horizons. I had always urged them to study abroad, learn new languages, become Olympic-caliber athletes or whatever else they strove to do. I listened to their dreams and tried to open whatever doors I could for them. I had worked hard to ensure that women graduated confident in their abilities and untethered by prejudice due to race, class or gender. But I also asked each of them to send me a picture of their first-born ― if they decided to have children ― for I, too, love babies and value motherhood.

It has now been a year since I left the pregnancy center. The experience has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. I know from firsthand experience that CPCs are not just places for pious church women to volunteer ― they are part of an extensive network with an ambitious and insidious political agenda. I now shudder when I see “Choose Life”-themed license plates, as I know firsthand who the true victims of that campaign really are. In retrospect, I am both angry and ashamed that I contributed my time and energy to this organization.

I have also come to understand that the beautiful young women I met at the center were pawns in a system that imposed its moral order on them while failing to provide them longterm low-income housing, universal health care or job training so they could sustain their new families. I was appalled in late March when the Trump administration funneled at least $1.7 million to CPCs in California under the guise of a family planning grant, even though these centers typically do not provide contraception. In an age when women should be developing a voice, exploring all medical options and making decisions best suited for their bodies, their families and their futures, more and more women ― many without much financial or familial support ― are being stripped of the right to choose what happens to them.

If I am to spend more of my life in Florida, I believe I need to make peace with my conservative sisters. I believe I must find a way to maintain a civil dialogue with them to make sure we understand one another even though our views differ so completely. These women, or women like them, are going to be my colleagues, my neighbors, my book club members. In all honesty, we will probably share the same long-term care facility one day. If I have the audacity to ask my elected leaders “to cross the aisle” and “to be bipartisan,” shouldn’t I ask the same of myself?  

But the battle over reproductive rights is escalating, and so is the level of discourse. In light of the recent legislation in GeorgiaAlabama and Missouri, we must not compromise the rights of women in any way. What’s more, we must find ways to open a dialogue with those who hold differing views, perhaps through sharing personal stories in hopes of changing hearts and minds.

A year ago, the notion of Roe v. Wade being overturned seemed a pipe dream of the extreme right. Today, an impending challenge in the Supreme Court is a frightening possibility. I believe it is time for women (and men) who until now have stood silently at the sidelines to work tirelessly to defend the current federal law. In this case, silence will mean complicity.

Supporting the right to choose a legal and safe abortion does not mean encouraging abortion. It means allowing all women in this country access to medical care to make decisions about their own bodies, which I believe is a basic human right.

I began this journey looking for a meaningful way to fill my days in retirement. Stepping out of my comfort zone and hearing the stories of those who are very different from me opened my eyes to the realities of how many women in this country live. Now is the time to insist that we preserve the right for all women to see a doctor and make sound medical decisions based on science, not religious tenets, or we will be allowing crisis pregnancy centers to become the standard of “care” throughout the 50 states.

Kathleen A. Coakley is a retired university administrator who devoted much of her career to promoting the graduation rate of first-generation college students.

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