On a dark July night the summer that I am 29, I sit alone in my apartment, open a Google page, and type:
I have the unshakeable feeling that if I can just get the combination of the words right, I can find the key that will reveal the map to my future, the direction of the rest of my life.
“Medically-Accurate Information about Your Pregnancy Options. Schedule an Appointment Today,” the search results say.
The links have names like “Option Line.”
I click one.
“Scared. Pressured. Trapped. If a baby is not in your plans right now, it’s possible you’re feeling at least one of these emotions.”
I am feeling all of these emotions, and a barrage of others.
I see a number. I decide to give it a try.
“Hello, how can I help you?” a woman answers in a very soft tone.
“I need to talk to someone about my pregnancy,” I say.
“Would you like to see someone in person to talk through that?”
“I can do that?”
“Of course,” she says. “Come anytime tomorrow after 5.”
So the next day I climb into my car after work and drive through the summer-singed Virginia landscape to a town an hour south. I pull into the parking lot and sit motionless in the driver’s seat, glancing at my face in the mirror and adjusting the sticky collar of my navy polo. I haven’t had time to change out of my uniform. I look way more like a Prep School student than a pregnant girl, I think as I stare at the insignia emblazoned on my shirt. The shame of it burns my cheeks. You have the word ‘collegiate’ on your shirt, I think. But you still couldn’t keep yourself out of this mess.“I am embarrassed to lay my situation out before her, but relieved to be with someone capable of offering objective feedback. She’s listening, not judging.”
I enter the nondescript building and am greeted by an empty foyer, a stack of chairs in the room to my left, and a buzzer I walk over to and push. A sign tells me to take a seat and wait after I ring the bell.
A moment later, a young brunette wearing a cream-colored, cowl-necked sweater and lovely matching heels comes to the door.
“My name is Lydia,” she tells me.
All I can think is that Lydia looks like an angel—kind eyes and a heart-shaped mouth—and she sounds like one too, with that same soft voice I heard on the phone.
We walk into a room and she tells me I should feel free to have a seat on the green couch.
Lydia sits down and crosses her legs, those beautiful cream heels a welcome distraction.
“Would you like a snack?” she asks.
“Ooh,” I say. “Well… I did just come from work, so I am pretty hungry. What kind?”
She gets up and takes a box from a cabinet, fishes a Snackwell’s out of it, and hands it to me. I check the wrapper, hoping it’s not one of those vanilla shortbread numbers. But nope—I’ve lucked out. It’s the chewy chocolate kind.
“Thank you,” I say, ripping the plastic and taking a bite.
“No problem,” she says. “I work with pregnant women, so I keep cookies on hand at all times.” She smiles.
And just like that, I feel relief, here in this little room with the green couch and the pretty woman and the chewy cookie in my hand.
She’s got this down to a science. I feel my posture relax, thinking I’ve finally found myself in capable hands. All I want is for someone to say, “I’ve got this from here.” Maybe that person is her.
“So, let’s get started, if that’s okay,” she says.
“Sure,” I reply, between bites.
“I have some really dry, boring medical questions to ask you first,” she says.
“Okay. Fire away.”
“First day of your last menstrual period?”
“Okay. And you took a home test? Because we have free tests here, you know.”
“I took two, and it was later confirmed by a urine test and an ultrasound.”
“And you know who the father is?”
She asks several more such questions, jotting down my answers each time.
Then she stops, seeming to have reached the end of the “dry, boring medical” part, and looks up at me, putting her papers aside.
“So… do you have anything else you’d like to tell me, that I didn’t ask about?” she says, and with that, I am off, spreading the whole saga before her.
How I still can’t believe this is happening to me. How completely torn I feel, because the man this happened with is young and irresponsible and I’m scared I might have to raise the child alone if I keep it; that I live my life on student loans; that I can’t imagine dropping out of my master’s program. That despite this, I feel a connection to this pregnancy that makes me want to nurture it, that almost makes me want to continue it. That I’m 29 and this is the perfect physical age to have a baby and I know I could make this work if I tried. That every friend and family member I’ve spoken to about it says without hesitation it would ruin my life.
She listens without comment as I speak.
I am embarrassed to lay my situation out before her, but relieved to be with someone capable of offering objective feedback. She’s listening, not judging. She’s kind. Her company’s website, which professed to help women in my situation make up their mind without politics or hype, was telling the truth.“But then the little black-and-white graphic emblazoned with the words “Holy Bible” jumps out at me from the corner of the page.”
I finish talking and look up at Lydia, realizing my eyes have been on the floor the whole time.
She looks back at me for a minute, then reaches to her left, plucks a tiny, palm-sized booklet from the table, and hands it to me.
The petals of a pink lily stretch across the cover, blooming above a sloping, gentle font that reads “May I Ask You a Question?”
Lydia looks at me and begins to speak in an even softer tone than before. “Emily, I’d like to talk with you about something now that is very important to me, for just a couple minutes, if that’s okay with you.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Why don’t you turn with me to page one?”
I open the booklet.
Lydia reads aloud the question: “Has anyone ever taken a Bible and shown you how you can know for sure that you’re going to heaven?”
At first I don’t understand.
But then the little black-and-white graphic emblazoned with the words “Holy Bible” jumps out at me from the corner of the page and I want to drop the booklet at Lydia’s beautiful heels and run from the room.
I have been tricked.
Lydia is not an angel, here to help me. Lydia and her front foyer full of chairs and the little bell and the room with the green couch and the cabinets full of chewy cookies and the dry, boring medical questions and the website that promised to provide objective information without politics or hype are, essentially, all lies.
The lines on the next page confirm these thoughts, informing me that the Bible contains both bad news and good news, and that the bad news is something about me, and the good news is something about God. It tells me we are all sinners, that we have all come short of God’s standard of perfection, and that the penalty for sin is death.
I flip through the pages as Lydia talks, numb, no longer hearing her words at all.
There is no one who will objectively help me to decide.
I am sitting here with a woman who works for an organization that lures desperate women like me into its office with the promise of neutrality and free pregnancy tests, then tells us that if we don’t keep our babies, we cannot be with God.“I want to blame Lydia for this moment. And I want to somehow put her in my shoes.”
I want to blame Lydia for this moment. And I want to somehow put her in my shoes. To explain how much I could use someone to sit down with me and say “Okay. Let’s talk about what would actually happen if you had a baby right now.” This approach is the one method that might stand a chance of convincing me not to keep the appointment I have scheduled to end this pregnancy three days from now in Manhattan. Part of me desperately wants someone to talk me out of going.
I meet Lydia’s eyes, see that she believes what she is saying with all her heart.
I’m frozen in my despair as we move from the first booklet to a larger pamphlet entitled Before You Decide. On its cover, a downcast woman sits on some cement steps, looking pensive and ashamed.
The pamphlet describes this unplanned pregnancy as a major roadblock in my life, tells me many women in the same situation have found the help to make positive choices and realize their dreams despite this.
I read that abortion is a life-changing event with significant physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences. It doesn’t say exactly what these consequences are, but I’m pretty sure the you-cannot-be-with-Jesus theme of the first booklet has something to do with it.
Before You Decide lets me know I have the right to continue this pregnancy, despite pressure from my partner, husband, or parents to make a quick decision.
This is followed by descriptions of fetal development that do not feel right.
I read that six weeks after conception, the baby has fingers and has begun to move, although the mom cannot yet feel his or her movement. But six weeks after conception is week eight. The word SIX in the pamphlet is blown up, made to appear much bigger than the tiny, grayed-out 8. This is meant to confuse the woman reading it, to make her think her fetus’s development is more advanced than it actually is.
I look at these numbers and the accompanying photos and feel rage, realizing they look nothing like the images I have recently seen in my own life.
A week earlier, I’d had an ultrasound at a clinic in my Northern Virginia town. State law required it. The tech on that day squinted and squinted, trying to make up her mind about exactly how far along I was, then gave a frustrated sigh. She pushed a button and printed off a photo. Then she squinted some more at that.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Here you go.”
“Okay. Uhhh… where is it?” I replied.
“It’s right there.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Where?”
“There,” she said again, pointing at what looked like a flake of pepper floating in a fuzzy sea.
“THAT’S it?” I said. “THAT is my baby?”
“I think so,” she said. “I’d put you at 4 weeks and 3 days.”
“How are you getting this from that?”
“It has a sac around it,” she said.
I looked back at the flake.
So did she. We both squinted at it one more time.
“You know, let’s do a urine test, just to be sure,” she said.
I try to tell Lydia about this, shifting in my seat, feeling almost guilty to be arguing with her.
“These pictures don’t fit with what I saw in my ultrasound last week–” I begin.
“79 medical experts are cited in this pamphlet,” she says.
“But I’ve seen–”
“Every image here is medically accurate. You can refer to the back of the pamphlet for more information,” she proclaims with such assurance that I stop speaking.
I cast my eyes down. The certainty of Lydia’s statements somehow has me doubting myself. For a moment I am confused, as if what she’s saying could somehow be true.
Then she tells me that even though the clinic is closing, she needs five more minutes of my time. She wheels a little TV and VCR into the room and pushes play. In the video that comes on, a woman explains that she found out she was pregnant when she hadn’t been planning on it, and was very scared, but that the agency in which I was now sitting had given her the resources she needed to keep her child. Story after story like this one follow; woman after woman repeating that it is possible, expressing gratitude for their children.
This is followed by people claiming to be doctors describing the dangers of various abortion procedures: scarring, rupturing uteri, infertility, bleeding out on the table. If you have this procedure, they imply, you are going to lose your ability to have babies, or be scarred physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Or die.
I am shaking. I tell Lydia that a lot of those things are not true.
“The wording in that video is misleading,” I say. “And it’s not really even a baby at most of the stages they’re talking about. In these really early weeks—in the one I’m in now—it’s just a ball of cells.”
Lydia looks back at me. “I think we both know, Emily, that it’s more than just a ball of cells.”
I want to hate her in this moment. But I know I wouldn’t be here trying to dissect the entire phenomenon on her green couch if I wholeheartedly believed what I’ve just told her; that what’s inside of me is anything other than the beginning of a whole possible life.
“I have to go,” I say, and Lydia presses a card into my hand. “Remember that we’re here for you,” she tells me as I walk out of the room. I hold back tears until I get to the car.
The following day, Lydia calls. “I just want to follow up, Emily,” she says in a voicemail, and invites me to speak further.
She calls the next day, too. She calls Sunday, on my train ride back from Manhattan. I watch her number light up the screen. Finally, I pick up, and in a voice that betrays both emptiness and relief, I tell her that I did decide.
For months the pamphlets languished under a pile of trash on the floor of my car. Whenever I noticed them I filled with rage, wondering how many women have sat on Lydia’s couch since I did. Who runs that place? How many places like this are there?
I decide to find out, and quickly learn that the clinic I went to, Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center, in Manassas, Virginia, is run by a parent company called Care Net—a national Christian organization with over 1,100 affiliated “pregnancy centers” in all 50 states. Many centers like this got their start in church basements, and slowly began to open up businesses masquerading as medical clinics. Their website tells me they believe women have a right to factual pregnancy and parenting information.
Information like the fact that at seven days post-conception, a “tiny human” implants in a woman’s uterus. Or that a “baby” sucks its thumbs at seven weeks. It’s not that this information is technically wrong—it’s that it’s written to provoke guilt and pluck at the heartstrings of a pregnant person. Before You Decide, with its distorted fetal development timeline, is used in numerous clinics across a variety of states. I learn this by speaking with a woman we’ll call Jen who manages a center like the one I went to. Hers is in Ohio, and is also affiliated with Care Net. During our conversation, she informs me that her clinic uses this pamphlet, and that she believes the information in it is medically accurate. I ask if she will open to the pages on fetal development.
“So, for example, it makes it seem like at six weeks, the baby has fingers, Jen,” I say.
“So that’s not true. By six weeks there aren’t even arms. They’re just buds.”
“Well, I think it depends what you mean by fingers,” she says.
“By fingers I mean fingers, Jen.”
Our conversation continues like this for a while, till she tells me: “Listen, there’s been an age-old debate on [development]. There’re things we still don’t know. Even among the medical community there’s a huge discrepancy.”
Week-by-week timelines of fetal development from the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and other respected medical establishments in fact show no discrepancy on questions such as the development of digits—but Jen is not persuaded.
She tells me there are risks to abortion, that the pamphlet cites medical experts. She will not be convinced otherwise, not even when I tell her that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently found that complications from abortion are rare, that evidence shows that legal abortion in the US is safe and effective, that Obstetrics & Gynecology found that a woman is 14 times more likely to die from childbirth than ending a pregnancy. Jen tells me we simply have a difference of opinion.
“You have your worldview,” she says. “And I have mine.”
Jen, like the other people who run these places, which we should call ministries, not clinics, believes that medical consensus is meaningless when set against preventing abortion. Hers is a righteous cause, facts be damned.
There are 4,000 such centers—commonly called crisis pregnancy centers—in the United States, and I am one of many, many women who has been lured through their doors. They do this by offering free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. When women Google abortion or the morning-after pill, the results direct them to places like the one I went to—places which of course offer neither of those services. These clinics, or crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) set up shop in areas redolent with underserved women and college students—women who are less likely to have information about and resources for safe and legal abortion.
Care Net is one major parent company. Heartbeat International, Life International, and National Life Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) are others.
NIFLA was in the news in March, as oral arguments in the case NIFLA v. Becerra were heard by the Supreme Court beginning March 20th. The case has to do with California’s FACT Act—which stands for Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act—and which requires healthcare facilities to post a notice that informs patients that the state of California has public programs to help them with family planning services including abortion. Non-medical facilities are required to post the same information—and they must add an acknowledgment that they are not licensed as medical facilities by the state.
But of course this is why NIFLA is challenging the law—because women who read such a notice on a set of doors might not walk through them.
Because deception and manipulation is how such centers work.
They also work because of government funding.
In 11 states, money from Choose Life license plates goes to CPCs. But states are also re-routing welfare funds to CPCs. As of 2016, more than $30 million designated for welfare funds in seven states—Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Dakota, and Texas—went instead to CPCs. In Ohio, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds are being redirected to fund CPCs, due to vague legal language from a 1996 Clinton-era law aimed at reducing “out-of-wedlock pregnancies.”
The Trump Administration has been very good to CPCs. As of September 2017, over three million federal dollars went to fund CPCs. In 2018, new Title X rules opened federal grant programs to CPCs and other faith-based organizations at the expense of organizations that provide birth control, such as Planned Parenthood.
I’ve never forgotten the way Lydia made me feel that day on her couch, the anger I felt at her organization and at myself for having fallen prey to the sham. Every time I drive past a billboard touting such a center now, I lose myself in that rage all over again. THE BEST ADVENTURES ARE UNPLANNED, proclaims one I pass daily on my way home from work in Ohio. And another: BELIEVE IN MIRACLES. I’M ONE. The miracle in question is a wide-eyed baby who towers high in the sky, greeting everyone heading to Kentucky for the night. In smaller font: HEARTBEAT IN 18 DAYS. In even smaller font, so tiny it’s almost not legible: from conception.