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Pro-lifers swallow the pill

Coming to a pro-life pregnancy center near you? Some centers are offering clients contraceptives. Others say that compromises their mission

Pro-lifers swallow the pill

Linda Wells at Eden Clinic (Photo by Chris Landsberger/Genesis)

Linda Wells, executive director of Eden Clinic in Norman, Okla., has worked at pro-life pregnancy centers for 22 years. For more than three decades, she has watched the number of centers swell and the care they provide to women and their unborn or newborn babies grow sophisticated. Centers that started as “mom and pop shops,” distributing free diapers and pregnancy tests, are now medical clinics with ultrasound machines, prenatal care, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Recently, Wells found another way to attract women to her center, located 22 miles from a Planned Parenthood facility: She offers contraceptives.

When Eden Clinic began prescribing birth control pills and shots last year, it broke with four decades of pregnancy resource center (PRC) history as it relates to contraceptives. Care Net’s affiliation agreement captures the historical view: “The pregnancy center does not recommend or provide or refer single people for contraceptives. (Married women and men seeking contraception information should be urged to seek counsel, along with their spouses, from their pastor and/or physician.)” 

That standard allowed Christians of many stripes to work together at pregnancy resource centers because they agreed on the main thing: Abortion hurts women and unborn children. Pioneers in pregnancy care center ministry believed that differences over contraception could derail the project.

But times have changed. Now a small but growing number of pro-life pregnancy resource centers in the United States offer contraceptives. They see it as a strategic move to attract clients, build relationships, and prevent future abortions. But the move is not without costs—and some longtime supporters see a dangerous mission drift.

TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THIS new direction, I spoke to directors of more than a dozen pro-life clinics in various states that have considered or are considering the change. They say these conversations are taking place behind closed doors with board members, donors, and doctors.

Michelle Reimer, a registered nurse and director of Clear Choice Clinic in Kalispell, Mont., has for years trained pregnancy center workers from other states to provide ultrasounds and STD testing and treatment. She says the birth control discussion is not new: “It’s just finally coming into the light.” Her clinic is “strongly considering” offering contraceptives. But she understands why other clinics approach the decision cautiously: “Not everyone wants to stick their neck out.”

Last year in Texas, eight independent PRCs stuck their necks out and merged to form a chain called the Source, which in September will begin dispensing birth control pills, some IUDs, the ring, implants, injections, and other contraceptive methods to women age 18 or older (or under 18 with parental consent). 

Andy Schoonover, chief executive officer of the Source, said offering contraceptives is a “proactive approach” to draw more women into their clinics and compete directly with Planned Parenthood and abortion businesses. He says the vast majority of women walking into the Source have already had multiple sex partners. They’re either pregnant, post-abortive, at high risk for an abortion, or seeking STD testing or treatment: “The question now is how do you walk them back?”

He’s betting that offering more services, including contraceptives, will give staff members—including doctors, nurses, and licensed counselors—more ways to meet the needs of the women who come: “Ultimately our hope is to bring them back to a Biblical view of sex.”

So far the Source clinics haven’t faced much backlash. Since announcing its new direction last September, the Source has received more than $2 million in donor support, Schoonover says. The group plans to apply later this year for Title X family planning funds that Planned Parenthood relinquished after the Trump administration changed the rules last year, excluding recipients that refer for abortions. 

Schoonover said dozens of pro-life clinics have asked him about replicating the Source’s business model in their states. He acknowledges that three churches, including one in Austin, stopped supporting the Source after the announcement. Others, he said, have affirmed the decision.

LANDY LIGON, an elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, had just graduated from Rice University in 1984. He moved to Austin to work at IBM and almost immediately joined the effort to launch the city’s first Protestant pro-life pregnancy center. He and other founders agreed that giving clients contraceptives would send a mixed message: “We didn’t want to say, ‘You shouldn’t be engaging in these behaviors, but here’s something to help you deal with the consequences.’”

That center is now a Source clinic. After learning it planned to dispense contraceptives, church leaders asked Ligon to investigate. He met with Schoonover last November. Based on his findings, Redeemer removed its $1,000 in annual financial support, donating to another Austin pregnancy center instead. Ligon worries pro-life clinics that offer birth control will earn a reputation for a “bait and switch” message about Biblical sexuality.  

Ligon and Redeemer aren’t the only ones worried about the new direction. Representatives of 13 Texas pregnancy centers, including Austin’s Agape Pregnancy Resource Center, met last fall to draft a response to the Source and other faith-based pregnancy centers that now dispense contraceptives. In their joint statement, initially drafted by Agape executive director Jo Markham, they said they were “grieved” and fear those centers will become a “stumbling block” for women physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The “most loving action” pro-life clinics can offer women, they said, is to promote abstinence until marriage and refrain from dispensing contraceptives.

Abigail Borah, director of operations and community relations at the Austin-based Heart of Texas Pregnancy Center, agrees. She hopes more clinics will expand “toward life, not stopping life.” Centers should be adding prenatal, post-natal, and pediatric care instead of contraceptives, she said. In her experience, clients visiting Heart of Texas need “space to talk … someone to help them see a better way—not the birth control pill.” 

Borah and other pro-life advocates I spoke with raised concerns about whether some contraceptives, including the birth control pill and intrauterine devices, act as abortifacients. Although the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) has not taken a stance on whether pregnancy centers should dispense contraception, it warns that all contraceptive drugs and devices “fail at a certain rate” and could lead to an unintended pregnancy or “create an environment … that may adversely affect embryo survival.”

Photo by Kevin Vandivier/Genesis

Abigail Borah at the Heart of Texas Pregnancy Center. (Photo by Kevin Vandivier/Genesis)

Christina Francis, AAPLOG’s board chairman, said the group’s 5,500 doctors hold diverse views on contraception, but uniformly oppose birth control methods with a “clear post-fertilization effect” such as “morning-after” pills Plan B and Ella. She says more research is needed on other methods: “Some methods we take a hard-line stance on, but for methods there are questions about, we simply say, ‘Here is the information we have. It’s up to you to decide.’” 

She points to a further concern: Combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia reached an all-time high in the United States in 2018, and some hormonal birth control methods increase the likelihood of transmitting those STDs. She fears pro-life clinics risk “watering down” the abstinence message: “It’s important that remains their No. 1 message to women.”

BACK IN OKLAHOMA, the new direction cost Eden Clinic church support. Pastor Ronnie W. Rogers of Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., felt so strongly that he preached an hourlong Sunday sermon charging that Eden Clinic’s “new direction” is “neither consistent with Scripture nor [its] founding documents” as a “Christ-centered … Biblically-compassionate” crisis pregnancy center. The church posted a video of the sermon on Facebook and withdrew its financial support.

Another church owned the property Eden Clinic used rent-free. When that church withdrew its support, Wells had to relocate the clinic.

The cost to the unity of the pregnancy center movement is hard to quantify. Clinics that dispense contraceptives can no longer be affiliated with the nation’s three largest pregnancy center networks—Care Net, Heartbeat International, and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). 

These groups, which provide training and hold members to high standards of care, agreed in 2009 to a joint code of ethics, the “Commitment of Care and Competence,” that prohibits centers from dispensing contraceptives: “We do not offer, recommend or refer for abortions, abortifacients or contraceptives. We are committed to offering accurate information about related risks and procedures.” 

“[Clients need] someone to help them see a better way—not the birth control pill.”

Care Net and Heartbeat International have recently reaffirmed this standard in statements, podcasts, and videos. Care Net President Roland Warren declined an interview, but in a Dec. 3 CareCast podcast episode he said the group primarily opposes giving contraceptives to unmarried women. Its 1,100 affiliated pregnancy centers act as “parachurch ministries,” he noted, and should extend “compassion with truth” to those engaging in sex outside of marriage: “Christ never violated Biblical principles in order to preserve a relationship.” 

Similarly, Heartbeat International’s Jor-El Godsey addressed the contraceptive controversy in an email appeal to affiliates in October to “find clarity” in their mission and “firm foundation” in the values that have upheld “the supernatural empowerment of the pregnancy help movement.”

Pregnancy resource centers for 40 years have survived the abortion movement’s harassment, media attacks, and investigations. The latest challenge comes from within.


Imperfect prevention

While nearly a dozen contraceptive methods exist today, many are used imperfectly and carry a 7 percent to 13 percent failure rate. Some pro-lifers I spoke to feared the distribution of birth control drugs and devices at pro-life clinics would contribute to additional unplanned pregnancies—and perhaps unintentionally, additional abortions. 

According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of the 6.1 million U.S. pregnancies in 2011 were “unintended.” Of those, 42 percent ended in abortion. Guttmacher research found that women who use contraceptives consistently and correctly account for 5 percent of all unintended pregnancies, while those who use them inconsistently account for 41 percent. 

Some growing chains of pro-life clinics—like Guiding Star Project and Obria Medical Clinics, based in Minnesota and California, respectively—promote natural family planning to clients instead of birth control drugs or devices. Obria CEO Kathleen Bravo said women are increasingly receptive to a “holistic” approach to protecting their bodies and fertility. —M.J.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

Comments

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  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 08/05/2020 11:41 am

    I found myself asking, "But what about the abortifacents?" before I finished reading this.  While that is addressed by the end of the article, I think this rightly focuses on the overarching problem of mission drift.  Contraceptives don't save babies, they only prevent pregnancies (theoretically).  

    I can't help but wonder how many directors, employees and volunteers at these facilities, professing Christians though they may be, receive their training in counseling from secular universities, who miss the point entirely about procreation, and lose sight of the fact that children are a gift of God, not merely a means of producing a strong labor force and ensuring a stable economy.  

    And I question the wisdom of offering non-abortifacent methods, or even natural family planning.  Even when the failure is due to incorrect use by the couple, it still reflects poorly that an organization that claims to abide by Biblical principles might have misled them.  Accurate or not, it's opening a Pandora's box that will eventually harm the the reputation of all crisis pregnancy centers

  • Narissara
    Posted: Fri, 08/14/2020 11:19 am

    In light of Austin city council's vote on August 13, 2020 to defund the police (by $150 million) and "reinvest" $21.5 million into "a wide array of programs, including mental health response, permanent supportive housing food access, abortion access, an early childhood coordinator position and violence prevention," I want to append my previous comment. 

    Providing government-funded access to abortion is wrong on so many levels.  First, the thinking seems to be that it's more expedient to curb criminal activity by preventing miscreants from reproducing than it is to enforce the law.  Abortion advocates are hiding behind a high incidence of crime and low income in their decision where to place clinics, which coincidentally, happen to be in black neighborhoods.  Planned Parenthood's agenda has not changed from that of its founder.  This is the ugly specter of eugenics. 

    Second, government-funded abortion is likely to increase lawlessness.  Men who think they won't be prosecuted for rape and that the women they assault can "fix" the consequences will become more emboldened to literally take what they want.  Free contraceptives offer no more protection from violence than free abortion.  And some women just don't want to use them for health reasons.  They shouldn't have to choose between preventing an unwanted pregnancy or terminating it because the police can't protect them. 

    And finally, there's the obvious — that countless human beings will be murdered at taxpayer expense.  

    The role of government is to ensure law and order, not engage in social engineering.  Many of the programs the city of Austin wants constitute the latter.  When man rebels against the social order God ordained, things get complicated, but truth will out, eventually.  Pro-life pregnancy centers who offer contraceptives really need to think this through and decide whether they are being somehow complicit with their mixed messages.