The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions


Palm Beach Post (US), March 11, 2007

The new war on abortion

By Emily J. Minor

Hindsight is powerful, which means that Allyson Kirk knows now what she didn't know then.

If only she'd been herself that day, she might have realized that the car parked outside the clinic — the one with the bumper stickers, W '04 and Mother, Behold Your Son — was probably owned by someone who worked inside.

And the man behind the reception desk?

"It's odd to have a man in that kind of situation, unless it's the doctor," she says now.

But Kirk was just 22, working a new job in a new city with a new boyfriend.

And she was pregnant — which is why she'd called the National Abortion Federation hot line, written down the number of a clinic and made an appointment.

But what happened to Kirk in November 2004 — she mistakenly wound up getting counseled at a faith-based pregnancy center in Manassas, Va. — is at the core of a powerful campaign that has moved quickly across America.

The campaign has one mission: Stop abortion.

Abortion opponents are running thousands of centers, called crisis pregnancy centers — dispensing everything from baby clothes to free ultrasound pictures to prayer. There are as many as 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S. and about 130 in Florida.

By comparison, about 1,800 centers in the U.S. provide abortions.

In Florida, the crisis pregnancy centers are supported by millions of dollars in taxpayer money. In last year's state budget, then- Gov. Jeb Bush personally put in $2 million from the tobacco settlement fund to pay for things such as billboards, radio spots and job training at the centers. Some crisis centers get state money for every hour a counselor spends face to face with a client — $50 an hour, up to $1,300 a month.

Anti-abortion hot lines — those numbers often called surreptitiously in the wee hours by women who think they're pregnant — get $4 per telephone contact, e-mail or instant-message stream.

And the public money does not stop at the state line.

"There's been an increase in the money and an increase in the focus because I think there is a perception that these clinics play an important role in preventing unwanted pregnancies," U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Delray Beach, said recently. "I don't think that's true.

''There's nothing wrong with having a religious mission," Wexler said. "A religious mission is wonderful. It just needs to be straightforward."

Kirk, who ended up having an abortion and says she has no regrets, recently returned with a documentary film crew to that center outside Washington.

"I walked out of there (that day), and I was shaking, I was so angry," said Kirk, who said she was asked about her religion and pregnancies, and shown an unsettling video about abortion.

"I got in the car and the first thing I did was call the abortion federation hot line. And they instantly knew. They were like, 'Oh.. You went to a crisis pregnancy center.' "

Clearly, not every crisis pregnancy center operates like the one Kirk stumbled on. And there's even a name used by a abortion opponents for the kind of workers Kirk says she encountered during her visit:

"Radical counselors."

Activists so caught up in their mission they will do anything — lie, cajole, mislead — to prevent even one abortion.

But what's more subtle — and more common, say abortion rights supporters, medical experts and lawmakers who have watched this movement — is that women who go to crisis pregnancy centers don't always get plain facts about fetal development, adoption, abortion and birth control.

The responsibilities of single parenting might be oversimplified. Counselors often connect abortion and breast cancer, even though today's leading medical researchers do not. Some activists tell women there's a good chance they'll miscarry after an abortion, and perhaps never have a baby at all.

And birth control?

Well, you've heard of the sympto-thermal technique, today's version of the old rhythm method.

The only trouble is, you need to take your temperature every morning, same time, before the distractions of the day begin.

No forgetting.

"I guess, in the rarest cases, it could work," said Holly W. Hadley, a local family physician who specializes in women's care.

But there's a flip side to every story.

Mary Rodriguez is pretty, warm, smart — and devoutly Catholic. She is the administrator at two crisis pregnancy centers in Palm Beach County — Birthline in Delray Beach and a center in West Palm Beach called Lifeline. And she recently used some of her public money to buy an ultrasound machine for the Delray office.

A registered nurse, she then paid for her own training on the machine.

Now women who come to her can hear the heartbeat thumping inside them — no small tool in Rodriguez's fight to stop abortion.

"It's always made out like, 'Let's get the taxpayers stirred up because we are helping women inside an office where the Blessed Virgin Mary's picture hangs on the wall,' " she said.

Rodriguez, 61, says 2,500 women were counseled last year at her two centers. She views this as having actually reached 7,000 people: the women, their living children and their unborn babies — who, she points out, are also living.

Rodriguez has no shortage of clients. According to mainstream research, one in four women will face an unplanned pregnancy in her lifetime. In 1983 — 10 years after Roe vs. Wade — about 30 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion. Today, it's more like 24 percent — which means more women are carrying to full term.

One client at Birthline didn't want to be named but said the center was wonderful. She said the people there were loving and helped her through her unexpected pregnancy.

"People like to say we're sneaking them inside, and then we pressure these women," Rodriguez said. "Maybe that happens somewhere, but not here."

And maybe she's right. Rodriguez practically glows love. She is extremely likable. If you were alone and pregnant, she might be the perfect one to pat your hand and give you strength. Rodriguez has seven children and has never once used birth control. Christianity is a big part of her life — and a big part of the two centers she runs.

At her Birthline center, in a hall near the room where women sit and watch a video of what might be growing inside them, there is a 21/2-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary — whom most Christians consider to be the mother of God.

The statue is different in a way that Rodriguez finds completely lovely.

This Virgin Mary is expecting a baby, her belly protruding under her long ceramic dress.

"Destruction. Mutilation. Death," Rodriguez says. "This can't be the answer."

Centers date to late 1980s

In Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, there are 13 crisis pregnancy centers and two private clinics where abortions are performed. The clinic that sees the most women is Presidential Women's Center in West Palm Beach.

Presidential is owned by Mona Reis, 55, and always has been — since she was a 29-year-old budding feminist determined to provide women with "safe reproductive health care."

"I have always felt that this was the nucleus of freedom for women," Reis said. "To have this choice."

When you run such a clinic, things happen. Protesters. Bomb threats. Last year, arson shut down Presidential for six weeks.

Reis and her counselors, most of them with degrees in psychology or social work, deal with all of that. Indeed, they spend each workday behind bulletproof glass.

Consequently, none of the three counselors interviewed for this story would allow their last names to be published. Ellyn, who's been there for 17 years, said first names are safer, both at the clinic and in print.

Crisis pregnancy centers have been in existence in the United States in smaller numbers since the late 1980s, when they trickled down via Canada's anti-abortion movement. But when the Presidential counseling staff started hearing firsthand about crisis pregnancy centers, Reis decided to do something.

She knew about the increase in government funding, which she feels often steals money from programs run through agencies such as Planned Parenthood Inc.

Nationally, Planned Parenthood gets tens of millions of dollars in public Title X money each year for health programs — everything from family planning to cancer detection to breast health education. Under the Bush administration, these programs have recently been "flat-funded" — meaning money hasn't gone up to match expenses, according to Lillian Tamayo, the chief executive and president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Miami, Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast.

Instead, federal money has increased for abstinence programs and crisis pregnancy centers, Tamayo said.

Reis thought she know what women were being told at these crisis centers.

But she wanted proof.

This fall, Reis compiled a survey and asked her counselors to give it to women who said they'd been to a crisis pregnancy center, also known as CPCs.

So far, Reis has collected an unimpressive number. Only four women have filled out a survey. But it's what these four women have said that is at the forefront of the abortion rights supporters' fight over the state and federal money that is funneled to crisis pregnancy centers.

All four women said they'd been to a crisis pregnancy center before going to Presidential. None had been to either of the centers that Rodriguez runs. None knew the difference between Reis' clinic and a CPC.

From the surveys:

In October, a woman said that she'd been to the Care Net Pregnancy Services in Port St. Lucie — part of a national chain of 1,000 crisis pregnancy centers.

(They) told me I could die from an abortion, that I would never have kids, preached religion, told me I should have the baby and put it up for adoption, told me I had a formed baby and how it was a sin.

Another patient had been to First Care Pregnancy Center near Florida Atlantic University off Glades Road in Boca Raton.

Survey question: Did they offer help if you continue the pregnancy? If so, what?

Yes, to provide me with clothes, milk, carriage, etc.

The woman said they'd told her "to keep the baby or adopt."

In November, one pregnant woman wrote that she'd found the Boca center in the Yellow Pages and had gone there for a pregnancy test.

"They told me to keep it, not have an abortion," the woman wrote.

Eventually, the woman came to Presidential and was assigned a counselor named Brooke, who said recently she remembers the woman because of her unsettling worries.

"She said, 'I need to know. Does this doctor, does he hate women?' At first, I was kind of stunned," Brooke said. "And I said, 'Not at all. Our doctors are very committed to women.' "

The woman wrote that a counselor told her: "abortion centers use drills knife. cut u open. doctor hate women."

"The purpose of these centers is to talk you into continuing with the pregnancy — not give you any honest information about abortion," Presidential's Reis said recently. "It's just shameful."

The fourth woman, who filled out the questionnaire in December, said she'd also been to First Care in Boca. She said she was told this about abortion:

That it is wrong. That the abortion is going to be painful and you may not been able to have a child.

Sharon Brewer, the executive director at six First Care centers in Palm Beach County, said she was "glad this has come up."

"If some people at our centers are speaking inappropriately, that's my job to deal with it," she said.

Across the nation, and across the movement, many center administrators have a much more visceral response, pooh-poohing these "testimonial" stories as the abortion rights movement's way of discrediting good Christian work.

Sue Chess, the administrator at the Port St. Lucie Care Net center, had a fit when she heard the woman's comments about her center. Chess said that's "the kind of information that paints crisis pregnancy centers in a black light."

"That is absolutely not true," Chess said about the woman's comments. "That would not happen here. We would lose our affiliation."

Chess said every woman who leaves her center must complete an exit interview, and no one ever made this complaint to her.

And Rodriguez simply smiled when she heard the patient's comment about the knives.

"That's gotta be a lie," Rodriguez said. "Who says that?"

Vicki Saporta, the chief executive of the National Abortion Federation in Washington, says it sounds like the stories they hear on their toll-free line.

"It's despicable," Saporta said.

"When you go to your church, you know you're getting their dogma. You know that.

"But when you go to the crisis pregnancy center, you don't know that's what you're getting. You think you're getting unbiased medical information."

A report released in July by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., an abortion rights supporter, was based on calls by staffers posing as 17-year-old girls to 25 crisis pregnancy centers. His researchers talked to counselors at 23 of the 25 centers, which were chosen because they'd received federal money. The report claims that 20 of the 23 counselors misled the callers or told them an outright lie.

"These centers frequently fail to provide medically accurate information," the report says.

In Florida, not all crisis pregnancy centers were keen about taking state money from Gov. Bush's budget last year. Brewer, the executive director of the six centers in Palm Beach County — all of them operating under First Care Family Resources Inc. — said their board decided against applying for the money.

When centers take the state money, they have to submit paperwork saying religion was not discussed during counseling.

Brewer said they didn't want to do that.

"We thought it wasn't a good fit," Brewer said. "We are a faith-based organization. One of the things we do is share faith."

But other forms of this movement aren't as straightforward.

Some crisis centers have rented office space near established centers where abortions are performed. One crisis center in Massachusetts used the name PP, Inc. — it stood for Problem Pregnancy — then rented space on the same floor as an established Planned Parenthood office.

In another case, an anti-abortion center named itself Fargo Women's Health and opened its doors near the existing Fargo Women's Health Organization, which provided abortions.

And if a patient gets mixed up?

Allyson Kirk says her confusion went something like this:

Directions in hand, she pulled into the parking lot of the strip shopping center, saw the sign for pregnancy counseling, and assumed it was the clinic. She walked inside, said she had an appointment at 2, and was told to take a seat. No one ever told her she was in the wrong place, she said.

Instead, she was taken to a room, asked questions about her religion and any past pregnancies and eventually shown a video that animated "a fetus being ripped apart." It was then, she said, that she knew something was wrong.

"I'm grateful that it happened because I stumbled into something that is an extremely urgent issue," said Kirk, who said she and her boyfriend are still together and now considering a family.

Abortion-breast cancer debate

Workers at crisis pregnancy centers and clinics where abortions are performed provide women with medical information, and those answers often guide clients to a decision.

So what's said inside those rooms, one-on-one, really does matter.

At both places, clients meet almost immediately with a counselor. And it's during these private meetings that all those initial questions get asked, and answered.

But today's answers aren't always pulled from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In today's world, we go online.

If you want a link between breast cancer and abortion, go online.

If you don't want a link, go online.

If you want to say that a fetus feels pain at two weeks, go online. If you want to argue that a fetus doesn't feel pain until 20 weeks, 30 weeks, birth, it's all there.

And so forth, until the only way to decipher it is through mainstream medical science.

The National Cancer Institute. The New England Journal of Medicine. The American Cancer Society. The National Breast Cancer Coalition. World Health Organization. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. All of those respected institutions say there is no link between abortion and breast cancer, which is often called the ABC link.

Part of the problem with this lingering notion is the early research. The studies used to rely on women who were diagnosed with breast cancer. Then scientists would take those cases, and backtrack to the results: i.e. How many of them ever had an abortion?

But scientifically, those kinds of results — called retrospective — are often flawed, mainly because they rely on information from women who are going through a very emotional time and might want an explanation for their cancer.

Now studies track women who have had abortions, and then watch the actual incidence of breast cancer among those women. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute joined with leading researchers from across the world to issue this policy statement:

"Induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk." The NCI, a prestigious research arm of the federal government, also said the findings were "well established" — the institute's highest rating.

Abortion opponents rely mightily on the studies of Dr. Joel Brind, a Ph.D.-educated researcher and born-again Christian whose recent studies support the ABC link. Brind speculates that abortion suddenly interrupts the estrogen surge, leaving rapidly growing breast cells in an undifferentiated state and more vulnerable to carcinogens. But none of the major institutions endorses this.

Still, Brind is the dream man for the faith-based movement, working tirelessly, always updating his Web site, speaking on the anti-abortion circuit.

At the Delray clinic run by Mary Rodriguez, she says, she talks to women about abortion and breast cancer.

"I tell them the truth," Rodriguez says.

Some states — Texas and Mississippi, for example — have a state law that requires public health workers to discuss with their clients a possible link between abortion and breast cancer.

Abortion rights supporters argue that those laws are based on politics, not science.

Stephanie Grutman — who until recently was executive director of Florida Planned Parenthood — maintains some of these fallacies are routinely dispensed through the movement's toll-free hot lines. For a while, Grutman was a bit obsessed with calling the 1-800 numbers — paid for, in part, with that money from former Gov. Bush.

In the past year, Grutman says she probably called "60 or 70 times," each time posing as a young pregnant woman.

"Every single time I was given some sort of inaccurate information," she said.

She said the misinformation ranged from the kind of medical personnel on staff at the centers to the "inaccurate description of the abortion procedure."

"I think the one that upset me the most is when they said I had to go to one of their centers for an ultrasound, because abortion clinics don't do ultrasounds," she said.

At Reis' office, where they do perform ultrasounds, they do not link abortion and breast cancer. They do tell women about a risk of miscarriage in the next pregnancy. Researchers think this sometimes happens because the uterine lining isn't ready for implantation.

"We will talk about whatever they want to talk about," Reis said, including the actual abortion itself. Few women want to see the instruments before the procedure, she said.

"Does the surgeon show you the scalpel before you go in?"

Mary Rodriguez also recently talked candidly about these private counseling sessions — often the first chance a woman has to talk frankly about her unplanned pregnancy:

Usually it's just someone who needs to know what all of her options are, and it's information based on fact. And we're hoping to make a difference. Women are hurt by abortion. Women need to know all of the truth before they choose that as an option. The thing that bothers me is that women are so easily duped. They're manipulated. They mutilate their own bodies with tubal ligations and hysterectomies. They find out the whole truth after they've aborted their child.

And though these sessions are critical to her work, Rodriguez said the state money she gets for them means nothing.

What matters lies in the bellies of all those women.

"Fifty million unborn citizens have lost their lives," she said. "And that bothers me."

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