Weekend reading: “The Pro-Choice Case for Pregnancy Centers”

This weekend’s recommended reading is from Ardee Coolidge of Care Net, on the pro-choice case for pro-life pregnancy centers.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, the vast majority of women who choose abortion do so because of financial concerns, employment concerns, or problems with the baby’s father. Frederica Mathewes-Green once famously said of abortion, “[D]o women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss.” Indeed, even abortion providers have used her assessment to describe the brutal “necessity” of abortion access for women who have no other apparent choice.

Pregnancy centers provide women with the material support they need to be free to make another choice—one free from the pressures of a desperate situation. At pregnancy centers, women receive job-placement counseling, baby supplies, ultrasounds, and parenting classes. For those who wish to place a child for adoption, they receive resources to assist them with that transition.

Pregnancy centers are not a threat to choice, but are a threat to abortion.

Read the full post. 

Envisioning mobile ultrasound: “Stork Bus” visits Manchester

The Pennacook Pregnancy Center in Manchester recently hosted a representative from Save the Storks, who brought along a “Stork Bus” to demonstrate the organization’s mobile ultrasound units. Save the Storks has facilitated the purchase of 22 mobile units by pregnancy centers around the country and expects have another 18 in action soon.

DSCF1028Representatives of Manchester-area human services agencies were among the visitors who came for a look at the bus, which is a 24-foot vehicle designed as a mobile pregnancy center. “It’s not a converted RV,” said Michael, the Save the Storks representative. “Everything is for the comfort of the mother.”

Michael on Stork Bus
Michael of Save the Storks explains the bus’s features to visitors.

A pregnancy center operating a Stork Bus can park it near an abortion facility, providing a highly visible opportunity for women to obtain no-cost sonograms. Staffing – one counselor and one sonographer – is the responsibility of the local pregnancy center.

No Stork Bus purchase is in the offing for the Pennacook Pregnancy Center, but the Save the Storks visit gave people a chance to see what a mobile unit might look like.

The interior of the bus on display was remarkable: an ultrasound unit with a large display screen for the sonogram, exam table, private bathroom, private counseling area, audiovisual equipment, even a small refrigerator. The exterior was “wrapped” with a Save the Storks promotional message; each center operating a bus chooses its own exterior design.

The investment for a Stork Bus is substantial. Michael of Save the Storks told me that his group can help local pregnancy care centers find grants, but it’s clear that a center wanting a bus would have to do a lot of fundraising on its own. It’s possible for several agencies to cooperate in the purchase and operation of a bus.

“Four out of five women receiving ultrasounds in these buses choose life for their babies. It used to be three out of five,” said Michael. “Prayer is what we need the most. God does the rest.”

Learn more about Save the Storks.

Learn more about Pennacook Pregnancy Center.

At Pathways, “it’s exciting to come to work in the morning”

A January email clued me in to an intriguing story. “My name is Lesley Wotton, and I am the Director of Pathways Pregnancy Care Center in Littleton, New Hampshire. We have recently purchased an ultrasound machine, due to the generosity of the Salem, NH Knights of Columbus. We are having a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on January 14th, and I would love for you to attend.”

I couldn’t attend the ribbon cutting, but I was determined to visit and see what was happening in the north country. Ultrasound availability at a pregnancy care center up in an area that most Granite Staters dismiss as “north of the notches”? I had to see for myself.

Three months later, I finally made the trip. I discovered that ultrasound is the least of the good offerings coming from the team at Pathways.

In the ultrasound room at Pathways Pregnancy Care Center (l-r): Angel Marshall, Lesley Wotten, Gail Betts, Betty Reeg, Shannon Buteau (with daughter Willa),Kathy Perry.
The ministry

I found Pathways in an unassuming building a few blocks off Littleton’s Main Street.  I got a warm welcome from Lesley, who introduced me to the staff and volunteers as they gathered for morning devotions. As a Care Net-affiliated center, Pathways is a Christian ministry, although it provides services without regard to clients’ religious affiliations.

Lesley has been executive director for six years. Of her own beginnings with Pathways, she said, “I went to a meeting just to see what was going on. [The previous executive director] kept telling me ‘you’re going to be involved.'” Lesley began volunteering and later became a client service director before being named executive director.

What does Pathways offer? Options counseling for pregnancy, of course, but a look around the office confirms that this is not simply a crisis-pregnancy refuge. There’s a room, part of the agency’s “Baby Boutique,” filled with children’s clothing. There are neatly-stored toys throughout the offices, handy for clients who come with little ones in tow. There’s a room for private consultations, and another room with a table large enough for group meetings. There’s a posted schedule of prenatal and parenting classes, offered through Pathways in Littleton and Berlin.

That Berlin expansion is recent and significant, despite its modest one-day-a-week schedule. The north country is as well known for its economic challenges as for its natural beauty. Littleton is in Grafton County, right next door to Coos County, where Berlin is located. Coos and Grafton counties together have about 10% of New Hampshire’s population, scattered over 3500 square miles. Coos leads the state in unemployment and lags behind other counties in median household income. Young parents in the area are looking for practical support, and Pathways is helping meet the need.

As with many other life-affirming pregnancy care centers – and with nothing comparable in its own area – Pathways services are provided at no cost to clients. Private donations have built the enterprise, and judicious leadership has helped it grow. No government funding is involved, so there are no government strings being pulled to control client services.

What Pathways doesn’t offer is abortion. Accurate information about it, yes, but not abortion itself or referrals for it.  Every page of the agency’s web site makes that clear.  “We tell people we are pro-life,” Lesley told me, “and we do not profit from [their] decision,” whether a woman’s decision is to carry her child to term or not.

Pathways isn’t a medical facility, either, and that’s on every page of the web site, too. The ultrasound service is provided twice a month in Littleton, under medical supervision.

The team

Betty, the administrative assistant, might be the first person a client sees on arrival. She radiates enthusiasm for her work, and gratitude as well. “I’ve always been pro-life.” She told me she just came to Pathways recently. “I had [another] job for 28 years” – a job that was not satisfying – “and got a phone call on my last day there,” about an opening at Pathways. She was and is thrilled with this new position. “It’s exciting to come to work in the morning.”

I met two client advocates, Kathy and Gail. They work one-on-one with women seeking services, listening, offering information, putting the resources of the agency at the service of each client. Kathy also works with post-abortive women, in the Care Net-developed programs Forgiven and Set Free (about which I’ve written before) and Surrendering the Secret. Before becoming familiar with Care Net, she told me, “I always had that feeling that Christians would look down” on women who have had abortions. She found a culture of acceptance and healing at Pathways, and she shares that with her clients.

Gail recalled that more than twenty years ago, she saw an ultrasound image of her own child in utero. “I just cried, because I didn’t know how developed” the preborn child was. Today, accurate information on prenatal development is one of the things she offers pregnant women who come through the door.

She noted that clients are welcome to return after they no longer need Pathways services. “A lot of moms will pop in with their kids when they’re older, just to talk. They feel very loved here.”

Lesley read me letters from two clients. One had worked with Pathways services for three years: “There are times we would have gone without support without you.” Another client was an adoptive parent of a special-needs child. “This baby was brought to us by the grace of God,” he wrote, adding the Pathways “shar[ed] Christ’s grace, truth and love.”

Each office has a client services director – Angel in Littleton, Shannon in Berlin. Along with Lesley, they have developed relationships with other human services agencies in the area. “Referrals are really big,” said Lesley, especially for Pathways’ parenting skills programs.

All volunteers as well as staff receive ongoing training. Where pregnancy help centers were once primarily crisis intervention agencies, now a broader and longer-lasting set of skills is called for. With the expansion of parenting skills programs, outreach to men as well as women has become an important part of the Pathways ministry.

The donation

The Salem chapter of the Knights of Columbus (which is as far down I-93 in New Hampshire as one can get from Littleton) chose to make a gift of an ultrasound machine to a pro-life pregnancy care center. Their search led to Pathways. Now, two days a month, ultrasound is available in the Littleton office.

The machine was an out-of-the-ordinary donation. Lesley reported that the biggest ongoing funding for Pathways comes from its annual banquet, with a Walk for Life held annually as well. “Baby bottle drives” are ongoing, where plastic baby bottles are used as donation canisters at churches.

The 2016 banquet will be in Bethlehem on May 12, and more information is on the Pathways Facebook page.  The guest speaker, Melissa Ohden, is worth traveling to hear.

“Back to basics”

After I met the staff, Lesley and I sat down to lunch to continue our conversation. “So many of our clients do not have support,” she said. “There’s poverty. There’s foster care due to [parents’] drug use or incarceration. Kids aren’t being read to.”

And so “we go back to basics” – the parenting skills, referrals to other agencies when appropriate, the ongoing support for young parents long after the baby is born. “It’s relational here.”

She speaks about Pathways to any area group or church that invites her. She sees the potential for greater support from churches. This will sound familiar to anyone involved in pro-life work countering abortion: pastors “see it as a political issue rather than a moral issue.” Lesley spoke those words matter-of-factly, without elaboration.

Lesley holds a degree in psychology, and she’s now in a master’s degree program in mental health. “My heart is with the whole person,” she told me. The women to whom she introduced me seem to have the same commitment.

North of the notches, something wonderful is going on.

For a list of other pro-life pregnancy care centers in New Hampshire, see the blog’s page here. Each one welcomes volunteers and your financial support.