A British journalist named Jenny Stocks recently went undercover, pretending to be a woman in a crisis pregnancy, in order to investigate the practices of six pregnancy resource centers—some with pro-choice leanings, some with pro-life leanings. Her article about her experience is thorough and balanced, and is a must-read for anyone involved in the pro-life movement. Here were my top takeaways from the thought-provoking piece:
1. Women feel uncomfortable when counselors push for too much personal information. I can see how a counselor could do this in an effort to be friendly, but it’s easy for a woman in such an emotionally stressful situation to feel like her privacy is being invaded. Stocks writes of her experience at one pro-life Christian charity called LIFE:
For more than 20 minutes, Sheila asked a series of personal questions, ranging from where I went to university to the relationship status of my brothers and sisters. It then became clear why she was asking so much about my parents and my boyfriend’s parents. “So your baby’s their first grandchild?” she asked. She then dropped in an anecdote about a young couple whose five-week-old twins had brought ‘so much joy’ after LIFE had helped them…Like all the counsellors I saw, I truly believe Sheila cared about my wellbeing. But I felt manipulated. LIFE describes itself as non-directive (i.e. it won’t tell you what to do), but my experience suggests the opposite.
I have a feeling that the problem here wasn’t so much that Sheila pointed out the truth that a child could bring great joy to a family, but that her previous questions seemed disingenuous in light of their tie to her eventual efforts to influence Stocks not to have an abortion. A woman feeling scared and vulnerable would feel like she opened herself up to someone who didn’t really care.
2. Women feel uncomfortable when pregnancy centers aren’t honest about their agenda. In another part of the piece Stocks says that Sheila, the LIFE counselor, said that she couldn’t give her any information about abortion because they’re a pro-life organization. As someone who had not made up her mind about this issue, Stocks didn’t like that; though it seems like the main problem there is that they represented themselves as a “non-directive” organization, thus Stocks’ expectations weren’t set correctly, and she had gone in hoping to be able to learn more about abortion.
It was worse at the organizations with pro-abortion ties. One sexual health clinic that also provides abortions claimed to offer women “access to comprehensive, impartial and non-judgmental information” about pregnancy. Stocks writes of that encounter:
The message seemed very much to be that abortion was the best option. ‘It goes against our very nature to have an abortion,’ she said. ‘But we do things every day that go against our very nature.’ This was followed by: ‘You want what you want…is it worth having a child because you don’t want to deal with a bit of guilt?’ [...]
The session came to an abrupt end after 29 minutes and I left not knowing the medical or emotional side-effects of abortion. Keeping the baby was not seen as an option at all. I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t scared and pregnant for real.
3. Women feel insulted when counselors downplay the difficulties of one path. In both types of centers, Stocks encountered counselors who weren’t upfront about the challenges she would encounter by taking the path they recommended. The centers affiliated with abortion providers glossed over the real trauma that women often experience in wake of an abortion. And she says of her visit to one of the pro-life centers:
[The counselor] carried on trying to explain how to keep my life as it was, but just add a ‘little one’ into the equation. I left feeling angry—I may not yet be a parent, but even I know that a baby changes life dramatically. It might change for the better, but I felt it was wrong and naïve to suggest it might not change at all.
4. It adds to women’s stress if they’re made to feel like they’re incapable of good decision making. Though Stocks didn’t spell this out, you notice that the only time she reported walking away from a session feeling calm and confident is also when she makes the comment that she would likely not abort her child had she really been pregnant. After her meeting with the Christian group CareConfidential, she says:
After offering me a comfy chair and a cup of tea, [the counselor] started by saying: ‘What I can do is tell you what your options are. I can’t tell you what to do: that’s completely your decision.’
And that’s exactly what she did. Over the 50-minute session, she encouraged me to talk through my thoughts on continuing or terminating the pregnancy…it was the first session I left feeling equipped to make my own decision. Had I really been pregnant, I would have considered keeping the baby, without feeling pressured to do so.
In a grave life-or-death situation like this, I can see how it would be easy for a pro-life counselor to lean towards a more heavy-handed approach. But for a woman who feels scared and alone, and has not yet developed her own views about abortion, it seems that that tactic may make her feel disrespected, thus adding to her already enormous stress level and tempting her toward the option that (falsely) promises to make “the problem” go away.
5. Counselors are extremely influential. At the end of the article, Stocks remarks on what is obvious to the reader from following her descriptions of each encounter: Counselors can have a powerful effect on a woman’s emotional wellbeing as well as her decision making process—for better and for worse.
Again, the whole article is well worth reading, especially the part at the end where she talks with women who have actually been pregnant and gone through this process. As I read Stock’s stories of these meetings and the intense effect they had on her, it reminded me of something that Austin Coalition for Life Director Elizabeth McClung often says: As important as pro-life writing or speaking or media efforts are, the real power to transform our culture’s attitude toward abortion lies in our willingness to lovingly engage with those who are contemplating abortion, one person at a time.