“We find the tables we need to be sitting at”

Second in a series of reports from the 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Part one is here

My first look at the long list of speakers for the third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference (PLWC) told me that there weren’t enough hours on the clock for me to be able to hear all of them. And then at the very first gathering – a Friday night dinner – the organizers threw an unscheduled speaker into the already-full program. I had never heard of her.

Art contest entries at PLWC 2018
Montage of entries in art contest at 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference

I thought Really? Sticking someone right after Serrin Foster? That’s just unkind. The longtime leader of Feminists for Life had keynoted the gathering with a challenging talk. She’s a tough act to follow.

I needn’t have been concerned. Savannah Marten could take care of herself.

Revolutionizing the Conversation

Conference emcee Abby Johnson introduced Marten, who’s the director of The Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo (Ohio). “She is someone who is willing to build bridges. What Savannah has done has absolutely revolutionized the conversation about what it means to be pro-life.”

What she’s done is push past her comfort zone, into working relationships with unconventional allies. That theme was to come up again and again during the conference.

Savannah said that three days into her job as The Pregnancy Center’s director, she was asked by a community leader what the Center was doing about infant mortality. “I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was mortified that I had been in the pro-life community for seven years and hadn’t heard one person talking about infant mortality.”

I later looked up figures from the Centers for Disease Control: in 2016, New Hampshire’s infant mortality rate was 3.7 (deaths per 1,000 live births). Nationwide, the rate was 5.9. In Savannah’s state, Ohio, the rate was 7.4. “In my state, the state of Ohio, we are 49th out of 50 for African-American babies dying before their first birthday.

“The pro-life community should be number one in the community showing up for this topic. My life motto is…’what table do I need to be at to be able to use my voice of influence?’ We find the tables we need to be sitting at in order to effectively advance this cause. Where tables do not exist, we build them, and we invite our community to those tables.”

This is when I started taking notes. I knew I was about to hear a story worth sharing.

“I knocked on every door”

She began to educate herself by reaching out to people already working with at-risk women. “I knocked on every door I possibly could in my community. I said ‘I’m not here to talk about abortion. I’m not here to talk about politics. I’m not here to talk to you about anything other than why black babies are not making it to their first birthdays in our community.’ And they invited me to the table.

“These are people who have even stood outside of my pregnancy center with signs in protest. Now all of a sudden they’re welcoming me to the table.”

Faith leaders with whom Savannah had never spoken before were critical to the conversation. “We began to interact with the African-American faith community. Our center had existed for 32 years, and not one predominantly African-American church had any sort of partnership [with us]. I simply said ‘walk me through your neighborhood and talk to me about what is going on in your neighborhood. Talk to me about the babies.’

“And suddenly they began to talk. They began to want to sit down and hear about what we were doing at the pregnancy center.” Over time, mutual trust and respect developed.

Working with a hospital

Savannah’s next step was to approach the major hospital in her area, on behalf of her pregnancy center. “[Hospital representatives] learned that women come to my pregnancy center, at five or six weeks gestation, and they are the number one women at risk for infant mortality and low birth weight. [Later in pregnancy] this hospital cannot even get them to show up for their appointments. Most of them show up at the emergency room and deliver their children there. And we wonder why [children] are not making it to their first birthday.”

Meeting after meeting followed, progress coming by inches. Eventually, a breakthrough: “the largest hospital in northwest Ohio…gave us access to their scheduler.”

Now, “every woman who comes in [to The Pregnancy Center] for an ultrasound leaves our facility with an OB/GYN appointment scheduled for them. If they leave our center and they wait another six weeks to call [the hospital for an appointment], they’re not going to get in.

“We cannot be satisfied with handing these women pamphlet after pamphlet, and referral after referral.  Women who are in poverty, women who are in crisis, need more than referrals. They need a life raft. That’s what we’re committed to do.”

Anyone who has been involved in interagency collaborations knows that conflicts arise, some of them irreconcilable. Savannah was faced with one shortly after the scheduling breakthrough with the hospital. “The same week that this hospital gave us access to their scheduler, they signed a transfer agreement with our city’s last abortion facility. I was plagued with this question: do we back out from providing thousands of women health care, because a hospital didn’t make a church decision? Or do we live by our core principle that says we come to the table to effect change and influence those in our community?”

She made a decision that brought her criticism from some pro-life allies. I think her experience is instructive. “Among unpopular opinion, we chose to continue our partnership with this hospital. If the abortion facility is going to enter into a partnership and influence our hospital, then the pro-life community should be at that same table advocating [for] what women in our community need.”

And by the way, that hospital has just accepted Savannah Marten’s application for a board position.

“This is how we effect change. We go to the tables we’re not comfortable in, the tables we’re not invited to, the tables that cause us to think differently and look at things differently.”

“We need Esthers”

Savannah Marten is Christian, and she used a Biblical reference to challenge her listeners at the conference. “We need Esthers to arise. We need Esthers who will stand up and catch the ear of the men and women of influence in our community. But we haven’t done that. We hide in our little pro-life communities. There’s no excuse. There’s no reason for us to hide. Because I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer I who live but he who lives in me. You have nothing to be afraid of. We already have the victory. Be joyful. Stay hopeful. ”

(The PLWC is a non-sectarian gathering, but that doesn’t mean any speaker is bashful about expressing her beliefs.)

She spoke about a community leader, a big-time Democrat, whom she has come to know during her tenure at the Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo. One day he said to her, “I  am now proudly pro-life, because you’ve shown me what true pro-life looks like.”

Savannah Marten could have dismissed as a distraction that long-ago question about infant mortality. She could have discounted it because it came from someone not supportive of her Center’s work. Instead, she had enough humility to acknowledge that she had something to learn. She had the guts to walk up to people she didn’t know and say “please show me around.” She had the patience to work to gain trust from hospital representatives.

And now, she wants to see more of us going out and finding, or building, those tables where conversations can take place.

Blogger at work: greetings from PLWC 2018!



Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018

Months of planning and watching the pennies have brought me here to St. Louis, or rather St. Charles, Missouri. The third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference is a few hours away.

From the conference web site: This is a three day event by women and for women to proclaim that women’s empowerment cannot be attained by the oppression of other human beings. Many groups are represented: And Then There Were None, Feminists for Life, the Radiance Foundation, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Americans United for Life, and more.

The groups aren’t as important as the individuals here. Knowing that And Then There Were None is here is one thing. Listening to a woman who used to work in the abortion industry and who found ATTWN’s help in transitioning to other work is something else entirely. Continue reading “Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018”

The To-Do list from the Pro-Life Women’s Conference

(This is a follow-up to my earlier report on the Pro-Life Women’s Conference held in Dallas, Texas in June.)

Serrin Foster speaking at conference, in front of sign saying Women Deserve Better Than Abortion
Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life speaking at the first Pro-Life Women’s Conference.. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Six weeks after the first-but-not-last Pro-Life Women’s Conference bringing together pro-life women from all over the U.S.A., I’ve had time to digest what I heard from the people I met there. I’ve had time to read the bagful of material I picked up from various groups at the event. How can I summarize it all?

I think a to-do list is the way to go. Here are some of the calls to action I heard, from some of the amazing and challenging people I met in Dallas at PLWC.

Get out there

Not every sidewalk counseling or sidewalk witness organization was represented at the conference, but those that were agreed on this much: peaceful pro-life presence outside abortion facilities is essential.

I’m partial to 40 Days for Life, as longtime readers know. It was great to shake hands with a 40DFL leader from Dallas who was handing out flyers for the next campaign, beginning September 28. For New Hampshire information, go to 40daysforlife.com/manchester.

Expose clinic abuses: the #NotOver Campaign

Put women’s health ahead of politics by scrutinizing every inspection report available from abortion facilities – and if there’s no public health oversight, work to change that.

Even as abortion providers in Texas were challenging the state law calling for abortion facilities to improve their safety standards, concerned Texas citizens led by Abby Johnson were investigating inspection records from abortion facilities. At PLWC, Johnson revealed the first of several records indicating various violations that put women’s health at risk.

The inspection record’s campaign got its name just a day after the conference, when the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Texas law on safety standards for abortion facilities. It’s not over, replied Johnson – and so the #NotOver Campaign got its name.

Read the Texas reports.  Do the abortion facilities in your area get this kind of scrutiny?

Support and expand pro-life women’s health care options

Representatives of The Guiding Star Project shared their ministry of partnering with pregnancy care centers and medical practices to provide abortion-free health care. Other speakers referred to the thousands of federally-funded community clinics where abortions aren’t performed or funded.

Through whatever mechanism is available, reach toward the goal of more abortion-free options for women seeking authentic health care for themselves and their families.

Speakers at Pro-Life Women's Conference
Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2016: panel on abortion’s “hard cases.” Panelists include d Darlene Pawlik and Rebecca Kiessling of Save the 1 (second and third from left) and Melissa Ohden, abortion survivor (speaking, at center).

Expand your definition of pro-life

Many speakers at the conference came at this point from different angles. Respecting the right to life means respecting it for the unborn, the elderly, the medically vulnerable, the convicted criminal. There’s something to prompt prayer and discernment.

Protect and expand the Hyde Amendment

Members of Secular Pro-Life at PLWC 2016. Here are some of the champions of the #HelloHyde campaign.

I reported on the #HelloHyde campaign in my earlier post on the conference. Since then, one of the two major American political parties has made repeal of the Hyde Amendment a plank in the party platform. This would change the 40-year-old policy, known as the Hyde Amendment, that prevents Medicaid dollars from funding most abortions.

Ask candidates about this – particularly federal candidates. Will you protect Hyde? Will you expand it so that it protects children conceived in violence? Or do  you want taxpayers to pay for abortions?

Listen to birth mothers

“These are the bravest women I know,” said Abby Johnson as she introduced a panel of women who chose life for their children and then placed them for adoption.

Each woman had a different story regarding circumstances of pregnancy and adoption. It’s impossible to be indifferent when listening to them.

Listen more. Learn more. Help build a culture that honors adoption and birth parents. Start here: bravelove.org and talkaboutadoption.com.

Look for allies in unlikely places

The pro-life movement is much broader than its detractors would have you believe. Break a barrier by listening to someone who took a different path from yours to the truth about the value of human life.

In Texas, I met people from way outside my day-to-day experience: Democrats for Life of America. Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Pro-Life Humanists.

They made me wonder how many pro-life allies I haven’t met simply because I haven’t looked.

I was pleased to see at the conference that Pro-Life Humanists were handing out a brochure that included quotes from the late Nat Hentoff, a journalist whose work influenced my early activism.

“Being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual – Williams Obstetrics, for example – points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born ‘should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman.’…It misses a crucial point to say that the extermination can take place because the brain has not yet functioned or because the thing is not yet a ‘person.’ Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.”

I could go on. What I’ll remember about this conference, and the reasons I’ll come back if there’s another, are the women with different beliefs but a common respect for life.

Women united for life: the USA’s first Pro-Life Women’s Conference, part 1

Part 1 of 2.

Abby Johnson walked to the podium and brought the crowd to its feet with her first words.  “Can you believe it took 43 years to do this?”

We cheered. We were loud and exuberant, and I for one didn’t care if we could be heard out in the lobby.

No, I can’t believe it took 43 years.

Abby Johnson, Pro-Life Women's Conference 2016. Ellen Kolb photo.
Abby Johnson, Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2016. Ellen Kolb photo.

“It” was the Pro-Life Women’s Conference, held in Dallas on a sultry July weekend. It was the first gathering of its size since Roe v. Wade to be dedicated to the work and the experience of pro-life women.

I came to the conference to break through my little Granite State bubble. Not every state is like mine, with a strong pro-abortion political culture, hostile to the peaceful exercise of the First Amendment by pro-life witnesses, as Gosnell-friendly a state as may be found on a map.

Let me share a bit of what I saw and heard in Dallas. Be challenged, take heart, and look ahead.

A few of the speakers at the Pro-Life Women's Conference. Ellen Kolb photo.
A few of the speakers at the Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Ellen Kolb photo.

Hello, Hyde: women determined to keep Medicaid abortion-free

Secular Pro-Life describes itself as “an organization that unites people of every faith and no faith to promote the right to life.” The group had a significant presence at the conference, and I was glad to see that. Let all of us with peaceful intentions come together.

Stargift at right with other Secular Pro-Life representatives at Pro-Life Women's Conference
Stargift at right with other Secular Pro-Life representatives at Pro-Life Women’s Conference

Secular Pro-Life previewed a big project that we can all get behind: #HelloHyde. The Hyde Amendment turns 40 (!) in September. This rider to federal Health and Human Services appropriations bills bars federal Medicaid money from being used for most abortions. SPL estimates that Hyde has saved over a million lives.

The 40th anniversary is prompting abortion advocacy groups to redouble their longstanding efforts to torpedo Hyde. The Democratic party has even made Hyde repeal part of the party platform. Not so fast, says Secular Pro-Life: we are going to celebrate and expand Hyde!

(Read more about #HelloHyde on the Secular Pro-Life blog. )

The way SPL is launching the effort is perfect: #HelloHyde (that’s a hash tag, y’all, and use it freely on your social media) features photos of children born through the Medicaid program under Hyde. “Thanks for our lives” is the message.

I met Stargift at the conference. She’s an SPL supporter who is one of the faces of #HelloHyde. Her photo on the SPL press release about the campaign gives you a good idea of her infectious energy.  “For forty years, the Hyde Amendment has affirmed that lives like mine are worth living.”

I’ll be writing more about the campaign in the coming weeks. Judging from the reception at the Dallas conference, #HelloHyde is off to a good start.

Women are watching: Abby Johnson rolls out inspection reports on abortion facilities

Even with a law seeking to put women’s health ahead of abortion providers’ profits, Texas abortion facilities have fallen short – which is to say, regulatory authorities have failed to do their jobs. At the Pro-Life Women’s Conference, Abby Johnson presented the first in a series of inspection reports that document abuses that put women at risk.

Ironically, within days of the conference, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Texas law regulating abortion facilities. Johnson responded immediately with still more inspection reports, and a message for the Court and for abortion providers: scrutiny isn’t over.

A few of the inspection reports, including the one featured at the conference, are available here.

Read more about the #NotOver campaign. Take that, Judge Ginsburg.

How about sending the message to the White House? Abby Johnson is leading a petition drive that you can join. 

The faces of A Culture of Life

Culture of Life panel, Pro-Life Women's Conference
Culture of Life panel, Pro-Life Women’s Conference

I can’t help but give a shout-out to my Granite State neighbor, Darlene Pawlik. She is one of the gutsiest women I know. She was in good company at the conference, as part of a panel on Culture of Life.

I feel nervous whenever I’m out for something like 40 Days for Life. These women in Dallas made me squirm. I have no business being nervous when they’re witnessing to their own experiences in front of hundreds of people at a time.

Darlene was on the panel as a member of Save the 1, as was Rebecca Kiessling. Conceived in rape, they challenge rape-and-incest exceptions in laws limiting abortion. They ARE the exceptions. Tough to promote a culture of life while saying “…except for you” to Darlene and Rebecca.

Melissa Ohden led the panel. She survived a saline abortion. Not getting one, but being the target of one at seven months’ gestation. She wasn’t supposed to be born. She survived and was adopted. She talked at the conference about forgiveness for her biological family, which is an amazing thing. She also spoke about the generational effects of abortion, expected and unexpected, even on other family members. Her ministry is called the Abortion Survivors Network. There’s another facet of the culture of life: 40-some-odd years after Roe, we share a culture with people who actually survived attempted abortion. Think about that the next time your legislators turn down a bill to protect abortion survivors.

I hadn’t heard before from the other women on the panel, and they left me in awe.

Claire Culwell is another abortion survivor, who didn’t know the circumstances of her birth until just a few years ago when she met her birth mother. At the age of 13, her mother was subjected to an abortion that actually did take the life of her twin brother. It was a few weeks after the abortion that her mother realized she was still carrying a baby, who was born prematurely.

Claire told us that she speaks in her brother’s honor. She is obviously a witness to his life and to the value of her own, but she also a passionate advocate for alternatives to abortion as she reflects on what her birth mother endured.

The panel also included Rebekah Buell, whose second child was born after abortion-pill reversal. Rebekah took an abortion-inducing drug at a Planned Parenthood facility, and had second thoughts almost immediately. PP was no help. Rebekah sought out and found a physician who performs abortion-pill reversal, and the procedure was successful. She said that PP staff warned her that reversal was a fraud, and that even if it “worked,” her child would be harmed. That turned out to be nonsense. Rebekah isn’t afraid to tell people what PP doesn’t want us to hear.

The panel lasted only an hour. I could have listened to these women all afternoon. They gave me – and probably most of us in the room – a reality check.

By the way, this may seem unimportant, but I couldn’t help but notice something: most of the women in the room were younger than I, many by a generation or more. Claire Culwell and Rebekah Buell are younger than most of my own children.

On second thought, that is important. I see this at every March for Life in Washington, too. The rising generation is pro-life. Courts and legislatures and massive “public policy” budgets by abortion providers to the contrary, people defending the right to life aren’t going away.

There was no siege mentality in Dallas. No woman in sight was conceding loss or discouragement. We’re in it to win it.


“…so much good!”: a thought about funding PP

Upon my arrival in Texas for the Pro-life Women’s Conference, I checked my messages and learned that it looks like the New Hampshire Executive Council will indeed grant a retroactive contract to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. The vote will come on June 29.

I’ve shared that news with some of the women here with me. I added that the pro-PP Councilors liked to emphasize all the “good things” the organization does. One of my listeners in particular, active in Secular Pro-Life, responded thus:

“If a child care contract were up for a vote, and the organization killed only 3% of the human beings who walked in the door, would they approve THAT contract?”

Food for thought there.

Have you contacted your Councilor yet?