Politics & Policy

A Life Win

NARAL's disinformation campaign doesn't seem to have worked in Maryland.

You’d think that Maryland state legislators would have more important issues to deal with — considering the subprime mortgage crisis, and all — instead of listening to legal challenges to the pro-life work of pregnancy centers in the state. But the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws is engaged in an ongoing national effort to disparage the reputation of pregnancy centers and deter women from visiting them for help. Fortunately, the showdown in Annapolis didn’t turn out as NARAL expected.

It all began when NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland released an undercover “investigation” claiming that pregnancy centers misled women about their services and provided false information about abortion risks. The report was based on 11 visits to pregnancy centers by women pretending to be pregnant — hardly scientific research, and yet it was enough for NARAL to accuse 42 Maryland pregnancy centers, serving some 30,000 clients annually, of wrongdoing.

NARAL used the report to gin up Senate Bill 690 and House Bill 1146 in the Old Line State. These bills would force pregnancy centers to provide a disclaimer saying that, among other things, “we are not required to provide medically accurate information” to all potential clients upon first contact. In other words, “Welcome to our center. We’re here to lie to you!”

The purpose of pregnancy centers is to empower women with accurate information about abortion risks and abortion alternatives so that they can make an informed choice. Pregnancy center counselors are the embodiment of compassion, and to trick or lie to women about abortion risks is inconsistent with their mission. Exit surveys show that clients consistently give pregnancy centers high marks. Care Net Pregnancy Center of Frederick, Maryland reports that 99 percent of their clients provide overwhelmingly positive feedback. One woman, named Rachael has said that her counselor “felt like mom,” and that her center visit “felt like the first time someone really cared about” her.

Considering the tremendously positive feedback from the pregnancy-center clients of in Maryland, NARAL’s unfair caricature had to be countered. When the Maryland bills hit, Care Net — the national umbrella group for pregnancy centers for which I work — helped to prepare local and national pregnancy centers to oppose the legislation. In March, we joined a united front for hearings in both Maryland’s Senate and House of Delegates. We were warned that the hearings could get nasty and might not necessarily be based on logic. That turned out to be true.

Pregnancy-center staff and volunteers don’t normally make trips to the state capitol for funds and other goodies — unlike Planned Parenthood. Without local pro-life groups like Maryland Right to Life and Maryland Catholic Conference showing them the ropes, they wouldn’t have known their way around. Nevertheless, their rapid organization and willingness to stand and face hostile criticism was a testament to their deeply held convictions.

In both chambers, 45 to 50 witnesses testified against NARAL’s bill, from pregnancy-center staff, volunteers, board members, former clients, and community leaders — who all were grateful for the centers’ service to women in their community. From the national level, we brought attorneys, published experts on abortion risks to women, and organization leaders who could speak to the integrity and high standards of pregnancy centers. The Senate Finance Committee hearing turned out so positively that our folks actually applauded at the end, prompting some of the legislators to chuckle in surprise.

The House hearing was more of a muddy skirmish — or a spiritual battle. Members of the Health and Government Operations Committee fired hostile questions to members of my organization, in particular, and of groups providing education and oversight to the national pregnancy-center movement. Medical experts who had flown in to speak to the accuracy of information provided in pregnancy centers were generally ridiculed.

But when a pair of African-American leaders — Pastor Luke Robinson and Renee Joseph — got their allotted two minutes to testify against the bill, they let loose their fury over the fact that abortion has taken the lives of so many African-American babies, and decried the legacy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, a proponent of eugenics.

Following their testimony, a young and poised African-American teen told her horrific story of taking the abortion pill RU 486 without knowing the potential for negative emotional consequences. She mourned having “poisoned” her child and “flushed her down the toilet,” never getting the opportunity “to braid her hair, like other mothers do.” You could hear a pin drop in the room, and the eyes of many legislators were wide open. In all my years working in the pro-life movement meeting post-abortive women, I’ve never heard a story that made me want to fall on my face like this one did.

At this point in the hearing, one had to ask: What was the greater travesty? Whether pregnancy centers were misleading women by telling them that they might have negative feelings after an abortion, or whether an unknown multitude of women are quietly suffering after realizing the lives of their own children have been knowingly snuffed out?

As of April 7, the Maryland bills have been soundly defeated.

This follows another defeat of anti-pregnancy-center legislation in Oregon in 2007 — an encouraging fact for Care Net, which has taken part in both state skirmishes. When legislators who have been fed misinformation about pregnancy centers actually get a chance to meet and hear from their directors and clients, they realize that they are led by good-hearted, professional people providing a tremendous service to their communities — and that dragging them into hearings to rake them over the coals is a waste of taxpayer money.

It is likely that NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland will renew their efforts next year. However, they may have more difficulty persuading those legislators who have already heard our side of the story. Pregnancy centers will continue to educate legislators and those in positions of influence, so that people better understand and come to support their work. Their story is a compelling one and — knowing NARAL — I’m certain that it will continue to be heard in statehouses across the country.

— Kristin Hansen is vice president of communications for Care Net, an umbrella organization supporting 1,100 pregnancy centers across North America.

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