Washington, D.C. - A new California law, pushed by abortion advocacy groups, could force pro-life pregnancy centers to risk serious fines unless they promote or refer for abortions against their beliefs. NARAL, one of the largest and most extreme abortion groups, has recently been targeting these centers by calling them "fake women’s health centers," claiming they mislead women with inaccurate information to prevent them from having abortions. As a Supreme Court case over the law looms, Townhall visited two pro-life pregnancy centers in D.C., that have been called 'fake' by NARAL, to get a firsthand look at the work that they do.
Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, a faith-based nonprofit that serves over 2,000 women a year, is in a quirky but spacious old building with a large entry room. The room has free shoes, children’s books, and a wall of pamphlets with information about pregnancy options, including adoption, as well as descriptions of different abortion procedures and their potential medical risks, citing CDC statistics and the FDA.
Janet Durig, the director of Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, explained to me the various resources the center provides to women.
She said the center starts with offering women “free pregnancy testing and we educate them about their options which would be keeping your baby, adoption, or abortion.” If the expectant mother chooses life, or even if a woman comes in with a baby seeking help, “we have a large material resource department and many of our things are gently used but it's a huge help to women who are in need.”
Durig showed me the rooms of baby clothes, diapers, and other resources which have been sorted and organized by some of the omnipresent and smiling volunteers.
“We have a post-abortion restoration program that helps people who have regretted abortions,” she added, “and we have free childbirth classes, everything that we do here is at no cost.”
When I asked for stories of women whose lives have been helped by the center, Durig laughingly said she has a “book” of such stories over the course of her 15 years there.
Once while Durig was making a deposit at a bank, a woman who worked there recognized the name of the center on a check and thanked her for helping her get back on her feet after a crisis pregnancy.
The woman decided to keep her baby and the center connected her to groups that helped her prepare for a job interview with professional clothing from Dress for Success and childcare for her baby during the interview. With that support, the woman was able to secure her initial job with the bank where she was still working.
The center refers women to two different groups that can help women find jobs and, Durig told me, “they almost always get a job if they go to either one of the two that we can recommend to them.”
Durig said that while the center has plenty of material and emotional support for women in crisis pregnancies and those learning to care for newborns, this woman’s story is just one example of how the center’s support for women doesn’t end there. “We'll walk with them as long as they want to be walked with,” she emphasized.
I got a firsthand look at this Thursday evening at the center’s parenting class taught by Raquel Terry, the center’s director of Parental Development.
The evening began with a meal in a church hall near the center. The atmosphere was like a potluck or large family gathering. The women laughed and swapped stories as dozens of very energetic children ran around the hall.
As I stood to the side finishing a taco prepared by cheerful volunteers, I felt a little hand tugging on my coat. A little girl asked for my name and enlisted me in helping her and a group of toddlers arrange magnetic letters into words. “Can I sit on your lap,” a shy girl who looked about four asked before taking a seat anyway and reaching for one of the letters to help the older girls spell a word. The children were loving, funny, and creative. The noise level grew as they arranged chairs into a train and played tag.
As the dinner portion of the evening ended, Raquel and the volunteers expertly transitioned into the parenting session with the mothers while volunteers moved the youngsters into a childcare room.
The parenting class was very practical and covered the topic of handling stress. The mothers shared stories of missteps and lessons they’ve learned. Raquel’s infectious smile and openness about her own experiences with her children caused the women to laugh at the all-too-familiar parenting pitfalls she discussed. The discussion included women sharing organization techniques they use to simplify their day and recommendations for free museums and parks to help their kids let off that excess energy and have some quality family time.
The sense of camaraderie was strong. One woman held another’s sleeping infant so she could give her arms a break and have some food. All the women were attentive to the rogue toddler that would occasionally venture in with a complaint or who just wanted some time sitting on Mommy’s lap.
After the class, I talked with several of the mothers about their experiences with the center and the role it’s played in their lives.
Andrea Carr, a D.C. resident, was there with her daughter Monica. The center helped them when both mother and daughter were pregnant at the same time and they’ve been coming to the parenting classes for fellowship and parenting guidelines.
Carr called it a “wonderful atmosphere” citing friendships in which she is able to share experiences with other parents.
“Everybody here pretty much respects each other and is concerned about the welfare of each other, it's a great place because they also have services here for the children,” she said, “a lot of times you can't get these type of services with so much detail involved with it.”
Darchelle Watson, a mother of three, recalled how, when she received a court order to take a parenting class, she wasn’t sure where to go. Then she remembered that Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, where she had taken a free pregnancy test back when she was 18, also offered parenting classes.
"They helped me overcome a lot of stepping stones,” she said of the class. Watson told me she came from a very difficult upbringing and is hoping to raise her kids differently with the class’s help.
She first became pregnant at 13, but had a miscarriage while experiencing extreme stress from the uncertainty of her situation and a lack of guidance from her own mother, whom she described as largely absent from her life.
“I can't do that to my kids,” she emphasized.
After the mothers left, Raquel talked to me about why she thinks these classes are so important.
"I think that if we can equip these moms and dads to be better parents and give them the skill set that they need to parent well, then we'll be not only helping them but helping their kids and hopefully helping generations to come,” she said.
“That's really why I do it because I know that we don't always get to see the fruit but I know seeds are being planted,” she reflected. “I just hope that each week I can give some information that is practical and that will impart change in some way, you know, for the better, that we'll see families that are healthier and that are living well."
The Northwest Center, which runs both a maternity home and a pregnancy center in D.C., also hopes to equip mothers with the resources they need to live happy, healthy lives.
Northwest’s director, Susan Gallucci, showed me around the rooms of the maternity home quietly as a baby slept in one of them, tended by a staff member while his mother was out attending college classes. The maternity home had six bedrooms and a spacious dining and living area.
Gallucci, a Georgetown grad with a degree in social work who has been with the center for 12 years, told me about how they try to address all the underlying issues a woman might be dealing with when facing a crisis pregnancy and weighing her options.
“On the phone we may ask: It sounds like you're considering abortion, why?” she said. “If it's a housing issue, we have the maternity home connected so we can say, ‘is it housing? Are you getting kicked out?’”
“We'll spend a lot of time letting her know what we do offer, what we don't offer,” Gallucci said, “and trying to meet her, as social workers we say meeting the person where they are, what her needs are."
“A lot of the women we see don't have strong support networks, family, or friends,” she explained, saying the center tries “to help them create that among each other especially in the home because they live here. In the pregnancy center it’s by doing different mom groups so they know that they're not alone."
The pregnancy center next door is relatively small but has a welcoming atmosphere. The entry room features pamphlets and a reception desk where a bilingual staff member was speaking with a pregnant Latina woman as we walked through.
Gallucci said that their pamphlets are reviewed every so often by a medical advisory board to ensure that the information is up to date. She handed me a pamphlet given to women who take the free pregnancy tests. The pamphlet shows photos of fetal development and information about resources if the woman is considering adoption or parenting the child herself. It also contains a thorough description of different abortion procedures and potential risks with a reference page in the back that lists studies, some from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, backing up the information.
In NIFLA v. Becerra, which the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Tuesday, the court will decide whether a 2015 California law violates the free speech rights of pregnancy centers like Northwest and Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center by requiring them to inform their clients that the state has public programs with free or low-cost access to abortion and contraception and to disclose whether or not they are licensed medical facilities.
I asked Gallucci about the impact the Supreme Court’s decision in NIFLA v. Becerra could have on Northwest.
"It could affect the pregnancy center program most directly,” she responded, “because we do not refer for abortions and would have to re-examine what to do because it goes against our mission to refer for abortions.”
Janet Durig also wondered how the decision could affect Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center.
"If NIFLA is not supported in this then what other states, what other groups, what other pregnancy centers will then have to deal with the same issue?” she asked.
Durig pointed out that abortion clinics aren’t facing similar mandates.
“If pregnancy centers, one by one or group by group are being forced to by law to put signs up of this nature,” she said, “then when can we turn that around and have the abortion clinics post signs saying we are not a care center that helps people in crisis pregnancies or signs that say if you decide you don't want your abortion here's where you can go to get help?”
As a decision in NIFLA v. Becerra looms, NARAL has launched a website targeting specific pro-life pregnancy centers, including Northwest and Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, by posting a directory of “fake women’s health centers” and claiming these centers demonstrate the need for the California law.
NARAL defines fake centers as “facilities that claim to offer pregnancy-related health care and medical services, but prey on women at a vulnerable moment in their lives by pushing medically inaccurate information, using deceptive advertising, running misleading websites, and engaging in a variety of other dishonest tactics to lure women seeking care and information about their full range of healthcare options into visiting these facilities.”
When asked about NARAL labeling their centers as “fake” both Gallucci and Durig emphasized that their centers are not pretending to be something they’re not.
“When people call and ask if we provide abortions we let them know we don't provide abortions,” Gallucci said. “We let them know what services we do provide, invite them in to partake in those services, receive those services free of charge so I'm not sure, because we're a pregnancy center and some pregnancy centers are medical and some are not, I think perhaps they're just blanketing all of us under that umbrella."
In its mission statement framed near the door in their entry room, Northwest describes itself as a “non-medical Pregnancy Help Center” and also discloses that in another statement by the door saying they do not perform or provide referrals for abortions.
Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center discloses the services they provide on their website, including free pregnancy tests, parenting classes, baby clothing and other supplies. All the services listed are fairly straightforward and non-medical in nature. The website also discloses that the center does not “perform or refer for abortions.”
NARAL did not respond to requests for comment on why they listed Northwest and Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center as fake women’s health centers. On their website, however, they explain that their map contains “fake women’s health centers as listed from directories directly posted by umbrella organizations Heartbeat International, The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), and Care Net.”
Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center is an affiliate of Care Net and both centers are affiliated with Heartbeat International, another national pro-life organization.
NARAL’s website did not indicate that the group had visited either D.C. center or even had people evaluate the pregnancy centers’ respective websites and pamphlets.
Across the nation, pregnancy centers will be watching closely Tuesday as the Supreme Court weighs the merits of NIFLA’s request not to be compelled to post messages referring their clients for abortion. For them, the court’s decision could mean heavy fines and even shutting down the centers altogether if they don’t comply with such laws.
Documenting clients’ experiences at centers, like the two I visited, has helped NIFLA’s supporters illustrate what the centers do. The Catholic Association, for example, filed an amicus curiae brief which used client experiences to show the impact of pregnancy centers nationwide on their communities.
Andrea Piciotti-Bayer, legal adviser for The Catholic Association, described the brief to me as “a collection of the stories of 13 courageous, beautiful women who have been beneficiaries of pregnancy centers across the country.”
One woman in the brief, Ebony, discovered she was pregnant at the age of 26 and decided she would have an abortion. However, Ebony found the staff at the abortion clinic to be “cold and harsh.” The clinic did not give her any information about the procedure, aside from how much it would cost, and did not give her a chance to discuss the procedure with a nurse or doctor.
She then went to Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, where a staff member hugged her, the first compassionate gesture she received since discovering she was pregnant. Ebony received information on multiple resources and received a sonogram. She left still leaning towards abortion but ultimately decided to keep her child. The center supported her in this decision and Ebony credits them with empowering her to go on to be a successful mother, author, and speaker.
“I am not pro-life and I am not pro-choice. I am pro-information,” Ebony says in the brief. “People should be properly educated before making a decision. The abortion clinic did not offer any education, counseling, or support. The clinic had a cold attitude. It felt like someone was trying to make a sale.”
Those words resonate as I reflect on the many women helped by the D.C. centers. The ones I spoke to at the parenting class desperately wanted to be moms, good moms, but most started with little or no support system. Beyond providing women with information to address the question of choosing abortion or choosing to keep the baby, the centers I visited also equipped them with confidence, resources, and a community of mothers just like them.