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“The Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Movement” is a scholarly analysis of the work and history of Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers Part One

by | Jan 14, 2021

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research

It is understandable that with all that was going on, you may have missed that an excellent book on pregnancy care centers was published last year by a scholar well known to the pro-life movement.

Laura S. Hussey, Ph.D.

Laura S. Hussey, Ph.D., an assistant professor from the University of Maryland (Baltimore County) political science department, has written a detailed analysis and definitive history of the pregnancy help movement. In so doing, she greatly expanding our knowledge of and appreciation for the work performed by pregnancy care centers in the United States.  

In the interest of full disclosure, Hussey was once a highly regarded member of the Trust Fund’s research staff and a part of National Right to Life’s Board, and she has studied and written on subjects such as these for years. Her work here in The Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Movement (University of Kansas Press, 2020, available in hardcover from Amazon for$34.95) is excellent, insightful, and informative as always. Pro-lifers wishing to learn more about this side of the movement would benefit greatly by purchasing this book for their own use or use by their local chapters and pregnancy centers.

There have been a few good reports on the work of pregnancy care centers, some by pregnancy help organizations themselves. However, where there has been that rare recognition by academic literature and popular media, much of that has been dismissive or even hostile. Their antagonistic caricature of these women-helping centers is as deceptive, largely amateur enterprises, merely political fronts which have no real practical impact.

By contrast, Hussey’s work, much of it based on her own original studies, interviews, and research, shows a long, rich history of dedicated individuals and institutions providing abortion alternatives, growing professionalization, and increasingly effective programs and assistance. 

A history of helping women and their babies

While popular in the press and the university to believe that pregnancy care centers arose out of pro-life frustrations with the judicial or political process (e.g., disappointing Supreme Court decisions and legislative or electoral defeats), Hussey points out that the origin of the modern pregnancy care center predates Roe.

Maternity homes, adoption agencies, church-based assistance had, of course, been around for decades performing many of the same tasks, a fact Hussey notes has often gone overlooked by social historians. Hussey, though, ties the origins of the modern pregnancy care movement to the activities of a few pro-life efforts in the late 1960s and early 70s, when a few states were starting to legalize abortion.

Whether the first functioning center was in Honolulu or Atlanta, or one of those that took off in Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Woodbury, New Jersey, or Los Angeles served as the model, Hussey makes it clear that there was a broad-based concern in the United States once abortion began to be legalized in the states. Concerned pro-lifers saw this happening and took practical steps to try and provide women who might be tempted to abort with positive and life-affirming alternatives.

Names and faces may have changed over the years, but groups today known as Birthright, Heartbeat International, and Care Net all got their starts during this time frame.

Those who want a more extensive history will consult Hussey’s book. But her point in all this is not merely to lay out the fascinating history of the pregnancy help movement, but to make it clear that the existence of these groups and these helping centers were not merely political afterthoughts. They were the result of people motivated by a genuine concern for women and their unborn children, a sincere desire to help, to enable them to counter the personal, social, and economic pressures pushing them to abort and to then thrive once the baby was born.

Increased Professionalization

While many pregnancy care centers started out largely as a few volunteers offering free pregnancy tests, a short video or pamphlet on fetal development, and a few baby clothes, many centers today are more sophisticated medical centers. Often, they are led by professionals and offer a wide array of programs and services.

Hussey explains why it was these centers moved in this direction.

Some of it was out of necessity, forced by the abortion industry. In 1985 pro-abortion attorney Gloria Allred brought a case in California court, maintaining that pregnancy centers in her state performing pregnancy tests were illegally practicing medicine without a license. In response, those centers took the steps necessary to become state licensed medical clinics.

Over the years, centers added medical staff and other professionals to the critical core of volunteers, hired licensed counselors, developed extensive training programs, added ultrasound and other medical services. Professionals with business, medical, social service backgrounds have been brought in to run the organization. Centers continue the crucially important work of providing baby clothes and diapers, but they have expanded to offer parenting classes, financial counseling, prenatal and housing support, and job help. 

Their objective is not only to turn women away from abortion—obviously, critically important—but also to meet women where they are. They address the issues that brought them there in the first place, issues that will, if unaddressed, keep them in a cycle of crises.

The addition of ultrasound brought a medical vibe to the center, attracting more clients, and helped to reinforce the fetology. But the leaders Hussey talked to told her it accomplished something the centers saw as much more important. 

“The goal was not to change a woman’s cognition about the humanity of the fetus,” Hussey observed, “but to encourage her to embrace what she saw on the screen as her unborn child, promoting emotional bonding.”

Another reason for the increasing medicalization and professionalization of pregnancy care centers was because the centers saw it as necessary to be able to compete for vulnerable clients with heavily marketed abortion giants such as Planned Parenthood.

Hussey points out that while not offering abortion, pregnancy care centers did offer free pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and something Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry did not: a willingness to practically support motherhood – a “choice” for which the “pro-choice” community had no room. 

Who, where, how many?

As an expert in political science, Hussey takes time to document important details about the locations, the services, the demographics, and the opinions of pregnancy center leadership, staff, and clientele.

For example, looking at the national reports of the nation’s top pregnancy help organizations, cross checking with her own research, Hussey found nearly 3,000 pregnancy care centers in the U.S. in 2018, nearly double the number of abortion performing facilities (1,571) reported by the Guttmacher Institute in the United States in 2017.  

According to a research survey conducted by Hussey, there were nearly forty volunteers per center in 2011, working an average of 4.8 hours per week, usually having close to five years of experience. Nearly all (98%) of centers had paid staff in 2011. 

Though the number of paid employees per center ranged from 0 to 95, most centers had somewhere between four and six, typically working about 28 hours a week.  They averaged some 7.3 years of experience and many had started as volunteers.

Contradicting stereotypes promoted by abortion advocates of a pro-life movement dominated by out of touch old men, 97% of pregnancy care center staff were women, 11% specifically identified as “feminist,” and some 34% were even “pro-choice” at one time in the past. 

[Tomorrow, in Part Two of his review of Prof. Hussey’s new book, Dr. O’Bannon discusses the all-important question: do pro-life pregnancy centers save lives?]

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