George Orwell once said, "All propaganda is a lie, even when it's telling the truth." I ponder this quote as I read a leaflet from a "crisis pregnancy center" (CPC). The leaflet features a haunting photo of a fetus aborted at 20 weeks. Below it, large letters exclaim, "ABORTION KILLS."
I am no stranger to crisis pregnancy centers or the propaganda they distribute. (The gruesome photos used by the anti-abortion movement, for example, almost always depict rare, late-term abortions and fetuses that had already died in the womb, but 90 percent of all abortions occur in the first trimester.) Just over a decade ago, I unwittingly encountered such a center while dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
In a tumultuous relationship with a man (whom I'll call "Rob") who was mentally, verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically abusive, I had been trying to work up the strength to leave him. But fear kept me there: fear that no one else would ever want me and fear of what Rob would do if I ever tried to leave him. (Years later I found out: Rob held me at gunpoint at the edge of our bed, threatening to kill me until I agreed to stay and "work things out.")
My life had become a daily exercise in pain avoidance. I walked on eggshells, put on a happy face when I was miserable, pretended to enjoy sex and hid the fact that most days, I just wanted to die. But an abused woman learns very fast how to be a good actress; it's imperative for her survival. She learns that a relationship with a volatile man means that sex is something she must do, not out of love or passion, but often out of fear.
So when I got pregnant, I was numbed with shock and panic. I was on the pill and couldn't imagine why it had failed. I couldn't fathom bringing a child into such a bleak life, and initially opted to not tell Rob I was pregnant. I was sure that he would try to coerce or manipulate me into having the baby, just to exercise his control over me. So I decided to secretly have an abortion.
I turned to the person I trusted most with my body and reproductive health: my OB/GYN. He gave me a pregnancy test and determined that I was about five weeks along.
As I sat in silence in the examination room, his nurse asked me, "What are your plans?"
I told her flatly, "I want an abortion."
My doctor said, "We don't do that here."
I was taken aback. I had assumed that all OB/GYNs performed abortions. "Can you refer me to someone who does?" I asked.
"Sorry," he said. "You can look in the phone book."
After I got dressed, the nurse took me over to her desk and handed me a page that outlined what my doctor charged to deliver a baby -- about $10,000. "That's what it'll cost to have baby," she said gleefully, emphasizing the word "baby" like it was the fetus' name. I told her again that I wanted an abortion. She said, "I understand, but this is just in case you change your mind. Take some time to think about it." Looking up at the wall next to her desk, I couldn't help but notice a nature-scene calendar with Biblical quotes.
She sent me on my way with the maternity-expense list, literature promoting healthy pregnancy and a prescription for prenatal vitamins. But no abortion referral.
By the next day, the gravity of my situation and my anger at being shunned by my own doctor hit me hard. (I later learned that antibiotics can render the pill ineffective, and prior to my pregnancy, this same doctor had been prescribing antibiotics for me to treat a recurrent bladder infection. He never cautioned me to use a backup method of birth control.)
I frantically looked in the phone book under "abortion." I was terrified. I didn't know how long I could wait to get an abortion, and I had no idea how to choose an abortion doctor. This was long before the age of the Internet, and phone books and word-of-mouth were a woman's only resources for finding abortion providers.
Then I saw an ad that read, "Pregnant? Scared? We can help." I called and explained to a woman over the phone that I was pregnant and in an abusive relationship -- and that I needed an abortion. She said, "I'll help you in any way I can."
At the Orlando-area center, a female staffer asked me about my situation. I gave her a laundry list of reasons why I wanted an abortion: My partner was abusive; I had no money; I wasn't ready for motherhood; and mostly, I didn't want to bring a child into a life of domestic chaos. At first she simply listened and handed me tissues while I wept, telling me, "You're not alone. God cares about you. Just put your faith in God." Although I had long ago rejected the existence of God, had I still been a Catholic, this might have provided some comfort. But it didn't.
After I calmed down a bit, she put a book on my lap, and started turning the pages. It was a book on fetal development. I became confused. "Why do I need to know this?" I asked.
"So you can see what your baby looks like right now," she explained.
"But I need to get an abortion."
"I understand. You're upset, and you're feeling alone. But that's what I'm here for -- to help you." She warned me of the horrific dangers of abortion, and said that if I had one, it would traumatize me forever. Then she picked up a pamphlet from a nearby shelf and handed it to me. On the cover was a gory, bloody photo of an aborted late-term fetus. "This is the reality of abortion," she said. "Have you really thought about that?"
I was stupefied. I explained again that my partner was abusive. She said, "But you don't think he'll change once he sees his beautiful little baby?" I finally realized that I was in some kind of anti-abortion center. (It wasn't until many years later that I learned these places are called "crisis pregnancy centers.") Once again, I was sent walking with no abortion referral, and no real help. This time I got a stack of anti-abortion literature and some religious tracts.
I would have to tell Rob I was pregnant, and I was terrified of his reaction. Luckily, he didn't put up a fight over my decision to terminate the pregnancy. We both agreed that our relationship was severely dysfunctional and that having a child would be the most irresponsible thing we could do.
A few weeks later, I found an OB/GYN who provided abortions at his private practice. I had the abortion and have never regretted my decision.
Unfortunately, I stayed with Rob for another seven years, only breaking free after secretly attending support-group sessions for abused women.
In recalling my own abortion experience, I often think of Gerri Santoro, a 27-year-old mother of two who had also suffered an abusive relationship. Santoro died alone in 1964 in a Connecticut motel room from a botched illegal abortion. The police photo of her -- nude, doubled over on the floor with a blood-soaked towel beneath her -- made her the poster woman of abortion-rights activists in the early 1970s. When I see that photo today, I am chilled to the bone; I always think, "That could have been me."
We're fighting Satan
The first CPC in the United States was launched in 1967 by anti-abortion zealot Robert Pearson in Hawaii after the state liberalized its abortion laws. (Contrary to popular belief, Roe v. Wade did not legalize abortion; it merely made it illegal for states to ban first-trimester abortion. States can still restrict second- and third-trimester abortion. In Florida, second-trimester abortions are legal, but third-trimester abortions are only permitted when the pregnancy threatens a woman's health or life.)
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Roe in January 1973, Pearson founded the Pearson Foundation and wrote a manual titled "How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center." Soon, CPCs were popping up all across the country. Today, there are an estimated 3,200 CPCs nationwide.
Pearson's manual instructs CPC staff to use vague and evasive language so as not to clue women and girls in to the fact that the centers are anti-abortion. He advises centers to list themselves in the phone book "under the headings of abortion, pregnancy, birth control information, clinics, social services, welfare organizations, women's organizations and services, and health services" in order to mislead women. The manual also suggests that CPCs locate themselves in the same buildings as abortion clinics so that "the abortion chamber is paying for advertising to bring that girl to you." (JMJ Life Center, a local CPC, moved directly next door to Planned Parenthood Greater Orlando earlier this month.) Pearson's philosophy deems that CPC staffers should use whatever means necessary to prevent a woman from getting an abortion. In a 1994 speech, he declared: "Obviously, we're fighting Satan ... A killer, who in this case is the girl who wants to kill her baby, has no right to information that will help her [do that]."
Choose Life Inc.
Historically, CPCs have been funded by private donations. But in 1997, Marion County Commissioner Randy Harris formed an anti-abortion organization called Choose Life Inc., and championed a proposal that would create a state-sponsored fund-raising vehicle for CPCs: the unprecedented "Choose Life" license plate.
The first attempt to pass the "Choose Life" tag was vetoed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998. But in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush -- a staunch abortion opponent -- signed into law a bill creating the plate, making it the first of its kind in the country. (Bush is such a fan of CPCs that he donated part of his $675,000 campaign-fund surplus to them after becoming governor.)
For each $22 tag sold, $20 is returned to the county of purchase, where the board of commissioners distributes the funds to CPCs. (To date, $1.48 million has been raised in Florida from sales of more than 37,000 "Choose Life" tags; it remains one of the top-selling specialty tags.) Effectively, the "Choose Life" plate amounts to the state acting as a fund-raising agent (via tag sales) for predominantly religious, anti-abortion organizations.
In Orange County, the board of commissioners agreed to an arrangement in which a group of seven Christian nonprofits, at least six of which are CPCs, have formed a coalition. The group's self-chosen representative -- William Ort, president of Gorman Family Life Center (which operates the CPC A Center for Women) -- is entrusted with all "Choose Life" funds collected in Orange County, which was about $35,000 last year. Ort distributes the money to each member of the coalition. No other specialty plate works this way, with the head of a religious organization overseeing the distribution of public funds.
In order to qualify for the funds, the "Choose Life" statute specifies that the money may go only to "nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies" for the purpose of "meeting the physical needs of pregnant women who are committed to placing their children for adoption." Seventy percent of the funds must be applied to "provide for the material needs of pregnant women who are committed to placing their children for adoption." None of that money can be spent on children already awaiting adoption.
Advocates of the plate consistently claim that it is meant to promote and support adoption. Yet the actual "Choose Life" statute, No. 320.08058(26), is replete with anti-abortion language: "Funds may not be distributed to any agency that is involved or associated with abortion activities, including counseling for or referrals to abortion clinics, providing medical abortion-related procedures, or pro-abortion advertising." The Choose Life Inc. website even promotes the tag as a way to "speak up for the unborn."
Barry Silver is a Boca Raton attorney who has been making legal challenges to the "Choose Life" tag since its inception. He notes that the tag's catch phrase comes from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:19, a passage abortion foes have long cited as a Biblical condemnation of abortion: "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live."
"The slogan 'Choose Life' sounds innocent," says Silver, "but in fact it is the rallying cry and mantra for a movement that resorts to death threats, arson, bombings and even murder to achieve their agenda." Silver says of CPCs and their sponsors, "They say, 'You're a sinner, but we have the cure.' It's a way of manipulating [pregnant women's] guilt. But, once the kids are born, they don't care about them anymore."
He maintains that the tag is a smoke screen to push an anti-abortion agenda with the stamp of approval from the state. "It's not about the adoption of children; it's about the adoption of a slogan." As evidence of Silver's contention, opponents of the specialty tag challenged its sponsors early on by suggesting slogans such as "Adopt a Child" and "Support Adoption." But all proposals were shot down in favor of "Choose Life." (A proposal for a pro-choice tag was also rejected.)
How successful has the plate been at promoting adoption through CPCs? Not very. Shirley Healey, director of TLC Women's Center (an Orlando CPC) says that of the more than 1,000 visits to her center last year, only one woman opted for adoption. Healy still has funds sitting in an account, which she can't use until another woman chooses to place her baby for adoption.
But not all of the "Choose Life" money has to go to pregnant women; CPCs may use up to 30 percent of the total collected to advertise, which is one of the biggest expenses for the centers. For example, in 2001, JMJ Life Center spent $14,200 on advertising (though how much of that was "Choose Life" money is hard to say since the center's tax returns do not itemize how government funds were used). The center's director, Myrna Hardman, feels the advertising expense is completely justified. "It's necessary. The abortionists have full-page ads."
The secret language of abortion
Anti-abortion crusaders view crisis pregnancy centers as the underground railroad of the war on abortion. To fully understand that battle, one must be able to decipher its semantics. For instance, abortion-rights advocates use medical terminology to discuss fetal development, such as "fetus," "embryo" or "zygote." The anti-abortion camp uses "baby," "little person" or "unborn child."
In keeping with the strategy of confusion and deception via word choice, CPCs use innocuous language in their advertising. "Pregnant? Let us help you!" proclaims an ad for Center for Pregnancy. "Considering abortion? Your health and safety are important to us," says another ad for A Center for Women. Most centers advertise free pregnancy tests, which is often the most appealing lure for young and poor women.
The tactics of CPCs beg examination of consumer fraud, due to misleading advertising and public-health issues, with volunteers calling themselves "counselors," diagnosing pregnancy and giving what could easily be construed as medical information and advice. Investigations and lawsuits in New York, California, Ohio, Missouri and North Dakota have prompted change in the way some CPCs in those states operate.
And now CPCs are in line to collect state and federal monies -- through "Choose Life" tags and President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, respectively -- and some are even being invited into public schools to teach "abstinence only" programs; JMJ Life Center is approved to do so by the Seminole County School Board.
The growing support of CPCs by anti-abortion legislators is creating a demand by abortion-rights groups to make the centers more accountable for how they bill themselves and the advice they give. Yet, most people are completely unaware of what goes on inside CPCs; the only people who really know are the women who go to them for help.
It's been more than 10 years since I've been inside a CPC. Would the fact that they now take government money alter their modus operandi? Would they still give out misleading information? Would they still denounce abortion? Would they still proselytize?
There's only one way to find out. Armed with a positive urine sample from a friend (I'm not pregnant, and the only way to ensure that I would get the "pregnancy counseling" was to convince the centers that I was), I went undercover into Orange County CPCs as a pregnant woman seeking help.
Inside JMJ Life Center, I spot icons of Catholicism including a wall hanging of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the "JMJ" in the center's moniker. Below it a pamphlet rack houses Biblically oriented literature on abstinence and the evils of birth control. Inside the "counseling" room, another rack holds dozens of pamphlets decrying abortion. On the table next to it is a set of plastic fetuses at different gestational stages.
I present myself to the volunteer, "Edna," as a promiscuous, irresponsible, underemployed drug user. (The names of all CPC staffers in this story have been changed as CPC directors did not permit follow-up interviews for this story.) I don't know who the father is, I tell her. What's worse is that I've been taking drugs during my pregnancy, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. I'm very worried that I've already damaged the fetus, I tell her.
Edna reassures me that things will be all right by telling me a story about a drug-addicted prostitute from her neighborhood. "She took drugs during her entire pregnancy, and her baby turned out just fine," she says. "As long as you stop doing drugs now, it should be fine. Babies have a way of protecting themselves from their mothers' bad habits."
I ran some of the counseling I received at CPCs past Dr. Thomas Young, a Winter Park OB/GYN. Young disagrees with the assessment that babies are not easily harmed. "The first trimester is the most critical," says Young. "I'd say the first 45 days especially."
Young considers himself "pro-life." Though he emphatically disagrees with some of the information I received, ironically, he has ties to some of those same centers by offering free sonograms to women considering abortion.
Edna persists in persuading me to have the baby, and I continue to object to the prospect of raising a child alone, having to go on welfare and other government programs to survive. Sensing my unease, Edna tries a different tactic and tries to sell me on "open" adoption: I can pick the parents, name the baby, have a relationship with the child, even become a "member of the family."
"Really?" I ask. "I can do that?"
"Sure you can!" Edna says.
"Could" and "can" are big words in the adoption pitch. True, a woman could become a "member of the family" -- in the rare instance that an adoptive family would agree, or adhere, to such an arrangement.
Heather Carlini, a certified medical hypnotherapist based in British Columbia and founder of the Carlini Institute, (which trains post-adoption counselors) is a reunited birth mother who has been treating other birth mothers and adoptees for 15 years. Her two books, "Adoptee Trauma" and "Birth Mother Trauma" have laid the groundwork for a growing movement to acknowledge the emotional, physical and psychological ramifications of adoption.
"The stories on TV that deal with adoption are usually stories in which everyone lives happily ever after," Carlini says. But that scenario is often far from the truth. Too often, "They forget to tell the girl that adoption has long-term effects on both the mother and child."
In the majority of such adoption cases Carlini has seen, the adoptive parents find a way to end contact. "In reality," she says, "once the adoption is finalized, the adoptive parents can move to another state and discontinue contact, or they can accuse the natural mother of harassing them, and [the birth mother] can be cut out of the picture."
As my session with Edna comes to a close, she warns me that "People who do abortions are very sick people" and gives me some anti-abortion literature, including a leaflet with several gory photos of aborted fetuses.
When I give "Melissa" at A Center for Women the same story about using drugs and not knowing who the father of my baby is, her mouth drops and her eyes go wide. But her disgust with my lifestyle doesn't change her opinion that an abortion is unacceptable. "I don't feel it would be healthy or right for you," she says.
"But, I really don't like kids," I tell her. "When I hear them screaming in supermarkets, all I can think is, 'If that kid doesn't shut up, I'm gonna strangle it.' I'd be a bad mother."
"I don't think you'd be a bad mother," she insists, cautioning me to be leery of all abortion providers. "Abortion is a money industry," she says.
Melissa gives me an abortion "safety" checklist, which turns out to be a last-ditch scare tactic. "Do not be the victim of someone's desire to make a quick cash sale," the list warns. Another item urges me not to "confirm a pregnancy test at an abortion clinic." A staffer at A Center for Women fills me in: "They might tell you that you're pregnant when you're not so that they can sell you an abortion."
Before leaving, I ask Melissa how long I can wait to get an abortion. She gives me the same answer I got at JMJ Life Center: "Up to nine months. You can walk in the day before your due date and get one. There's no law about it."
As mentioned earlier, that is simply not true. Under Florida Statute 390.0111, the law states that third-trimester abortion is only permitted "to save the life or preserve the health" of a pregnant woman, and that a physician must attest to such a circumstance in writing.
Another item on the abortion safety checklist from A Center for Women warns that abortion providers and clinics are not required to be licensed, implying that any charlatan with a rusty knife is free to perform abortions without consequence.
Again, not true. The law is clearly spelled out in Florida Statute 797.03(2): "It is unlawful for any person or public body to establish, conduct, manage, or operate an abortion clinic without a valid current license."
And to put Melissa's contention that abortion is a "money industry" in perspective, fees to adopt healthy infants can run as high as $30,000; my former OB/GYN charged $10,000 for prenatal care and delivery; and an abortion costs about $350.
Several weeks after my visit to A Center for Women, I call William Ort, president of the center, requesting an interview. He refuses. "I'm familiar with your paper," Ort says, "and you have an agenda. I don't trust anything you have to say. You lied, you were deceptive, and you misled my counselor."
Center for Pregnancy is an "integrated auxiliary" of the First Baptist Church of Orlando. It is, essentially, an arm of the church, yet it receives public funds from the "Choose Life" tag.
I give them a urine sample and am told my pregnancy test will take 40 minutes. (Pregnancy tests generally take about five minutes.) I ask them if I can leave and come back for the results. The staffer says no.
About 10 minutes later, two women -- "Jesse" and "Maria" -- take me into a room. Within two minutes Maria asks, "What are your attitudes on abortion?"
I object to the question. "Why do I need to answer that? I just came in for a pregnancy test. Can't I just have my results?"
Jesse assures me, "Well, we're here to help you."
"That's fine," I say. "But why is the test taking so long?"
Jesse loses patience with me.
"Look, we're here to help you," she says, "to help you to decide what to do if you are pregnant."
I'm irritated with her. "I just want to know my results!"
She reluctantly agrees to get the results. When both women return with a positive test, the now-familiar anti-abortion drill begins. They show me a little plastic fetus. Maria exclaims, "They cut the baby up inside you and suck it out piece by piece!"
They warn me, in vivid detail, of all the things that could go wrong during an abortion: an instrument could puncture my uterus; part of the "baby" could be left, causing fatal infection; I could become infertile; I could bleed to death; my intestines could be "sucked out" through my uterus; I could develop "post-abortion syndrome"; I could get breast cancer. "Abortion is very, very dangerous!" Jesse concludes.
At one point, Jesse "witnesses" to me, telling me that many years ago, when she was a strung-out prostitute, "God lifted me up and saved me from that life." She also says -- in response to my claim of prenatal drug abuse -- that during her first pregnancy, she too used drugs, but that the infant turned out to be a perfectly healthy baby boy. And if my fetus is already damaged from drug use, Maria says, "Even if your baby only lives for two weeks, at least you'd know that God took its life and not you."
Jesse tells me that if I opt to keep the baby, the center offers all kinds of support services, like the HOPE program, whereby I can get free baby clothes, toys and supplies. But I would first have to watch Christian videos, attend Bible study or Christian support-group meetings, and for each activity, I'd receive vouchers that I could then trade in for the things I need for my baby.
Then Jesse asks, "May we pray with you?" I agree, and they pray.
After my visit I tried to interview the center's director, Sandy Epperson, for this story. Epperson, like William Ort, called me "deceptive." She reluctantly agreed to an interview, but canceled two days before our meeting due to a sudden death in her family. She did not respond to a subsequent request to reschedule.
Statistics indicate that abortion is one of the safest and most common surgical procedures in modern medicine. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the nation's leading authority on abortion statistics, a woman is 11 times more likely to die by continuing a pregnancy than by terminating it. Yet not a single center I visited gave me any kind of warning about the physical, emotional or socio-economic ramifications of having a baby. "Giving the baby life," in every case, was deemed more important than my life.
The abortion horrors that were described to me by CPCs were seen by emergency-room staff in pre-Roe days. Women were often rushed to hospitals after botched abortions that employed any variety of instruments, from knitting needles to coat hangers to caustic chemicals inserted vaginally. During a discussion with Myrna Hardman of JMJ Life Center, I point out that if abortion is abolished, many women will die or become maimed as a result of trying to perform self- or back-alley abortions.
I don't agree," she says, citing the claims of Bernard Nathanson, a former abortion provider turned anti-abortion spokesman who claims that back-alley and self-abortions are a myth perpetuated by abortion-rights advocates. "This is a big lie," Hardman says.
Sunny Chapman, a New York-based abortion-rights activist and documentarian, says people like Myrna Hardman are "like Holocaust deniers." Chapman has interviewed and shot video footage of thousands of people from the anti-abortion camp and notes that unwavering denial in the face of reams of evidence is commonplace. "These are people who are clearly removed from any kind of rational thinking," she says. While documenting conferences held by the Army of God (an anti-abortion group that encourages violence and murder), she heard members say that if a woman seeks an abortion, "She deserves to die."
After meeting dozens of women over the years who had been traumatized by visits to CPCs, Chapman made two documentary films on the subject, "Misguidance" and "In Bad Faith," in hopes of raising public awareness of the growing problems of CPCs.
Every CPC I visited warned me about "post-abortion syndrome," a condition not recognized or acknowledged by any legitimate medical, psychiatric or psychological institution. It exists nowhere in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the comprehensive reference for mental-health professionals. Research studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, American Psychologist and Professional Psychology: Research and Practice have all concluded that "post-abortion syndrome" is a fiction. The same studies report that the most common emotion reported by women after an abortion is relief.
But by far the most terrifying lie disseminated by CPCs is that abortion increases the odds for breast cancer. Dozens of scientific studies have concluded that no such link exists. The National Breast Cancer Coalition says that the few recent studies that suggest such a link "were severely flawed and their results are not valid." The National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society and the scientific community at large all agree that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer.
Life, not death
A few weeks after visiting JMJ Life Center, I sit down for a chat with Myrna Hardman, the center's director. Her office is sparsely decorated, save for a large picture of the pope hanging on the wall behind her. Her attire is modest and her demeanor reserved. She tells me about her deep faith -- she is God's soldier in the war to stop abortion. I ask her if abortion is ever justified, such as in cases of rape or fetal spina bifida. Nothing sways her anti-abortion stance. I think surely there must be some circumstance where she would find abortion acceptable. So, I pose a hypothetical scenario: "Pretend you can see into the future, what's going to happen if you don't intervene." I tell her to imagine that it's 1888, and that she is Clara Hitler's doctor. Clara is pregnant with what will be her son, Adolph. But she doesn't want to have the baby and asks for an abortion. Knowing what Clara's son will reap upon humanity if born, I ask Hardman, "Do you give her an abortion?"
She pauses a moment, carefully pondering the dilemma. Finally, she answers: "No," she says. "Choose life. ... If you're gonna err, let's err on the side of life, not death."
Choose Life Inc.
JMJ Life Center
1400 W. Colonial Dr., Orlando
Center for Pregnancy
4053 LB McCleod Road, Orlando
A Center for Women
315 N. Wymore Road, Winter Park
CPC Action Kits
NARAL Pro-Choice America
Birth mother/adoptee support
The Carlini Institute
Birth Mother Trauma and Adoptee Trauma books
Birth Mothers in Exile