The Missionary Movement to ‘Save’ Black Babies
Last December, Care Net—the nation’s largest network of evangelical Christian crisis pregnancy centers—featured a birth announcement of sorts on the website of its 10-year-old Urban Initiative. Under the headline, “Plans Underway for Care Net’s Newest Center in Kansas City, Mo.!” a block of upbeat text described how a predominantly white, suburban nonprofit called Rachel House had “made contact” with “various African American pastors and community leaders,” who helped them “plant” a “pregnancy resource center” in a predominantly black, poor section of downtown Kansas City.
Rachel House’s mission is clear: It is an evangelical ministry with the primary goal of “protecting the unborn.” But the nonprofit doesn’t do picket signs and bloody-fetus images. Instead, it draws in young women facing unintended pregnancies with things like free pregnancy testing, first-trimester ultrasounds and baby supplies. The Rachel House team proudly emphasizes the quality of its care. “We tell all of our clients, ‘Even though you’ve done a pregnancy test at home, we’re going to do another one here,’ ” explains Rachel House client services director Susanne Hanley. “We buy the hospital-strength pregnancy tests. We don’t know what they used; they could have used one from the dollar store, or whatever.”
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In some ways, Care Net’s Kansas City operation is neither unique nor new. For nearly 20 years, the evangelical anti-abortion movement has used standalone crisis pregnancy centers to dissuade girls and women from ending unintended pregnancies. These mostly volunteer-staffed centers posit themselves as neutral, nonjudgmental sources of information about abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, adoption and abstinence. As Americans United for Life’s Jeanneane Maxon told the New York Times in January, “They’re really the darlings of the pro-life movement” due to their “ground level, one-on-one, reaching-the-woman-where-she’s-at approach.”
Since 2004, Rachel House has run centers in two Kansas City suburbs—one in Lee’s Summit, across the street from a high school, and one in the Northland, next door to Planned Parenthood. Both areas are about 85 percent white and solidly middle class. Rachel House raises most of its funds through events like golf tournaments and “baby bottle drives” that challenge congregants to fill up empty bottles with cash and checks and return them to church on Sunday.
The new Rachel House, however, is on 46th St. and Paseo, in the heart of the city. It sits across the street from J’s Pawn & Fine Jewelry, where patrons can cash checks and get payday loans. This area is mostly black, up to 36 percent of its residents are poor and it has one of the highest infant mortality rates in town.
“A couple of years ago we revisited our mission statement,” says Rachel House president Kathy Edwards, a middle-aged, married mother who eerily resembles “Big Love” star Mary Kay Place. “When you’re passionate about doing something, you want to do it well. We asked ourselves if we were where women were more apt to get abortions, because there’s not a pregnancy center for them to go to. And we thought, ‘No. We’re not in the urban core.’”
Evangelicals have long approached their anti-abortion work with missionary zeal. But over the past four years, national anti-abortion strategists have designated “urban” and “underserved” women and babies as a priority for saving. In practice, these terms tend to be euphemisms for “black” and, to a lesser extent, “Latina.”
Because crisis pregnancy centers are independently run and unregulated, it’s hard to say for sure how many there are in the United States. In a frequently cited 2010 report, the Family Research Council, a Christian right organizer and think tank, says there are more than 1,900 centers in the country affiliated with three major networks: Care Net, Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. An entire section of the report is devoted to the “urban” work of pregnancy centers. “The concentration of abortion facilities in urban, minority and poorer areas of the U.S. is well-known,” the report declares.
The “concentration” claim has already been thoroughly debunked, but many anti-abortion activists still believe deeply in it. It’s that belief, in part, that’s stirred outrage over the gruesome story of Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic in recent weeks. Gosnell is being prosecuted for conducting illegal, dangerous late-term abortions, and rightwing pundits have argued that mainstream media ignored the story because it drew unflattering attention to abortion providers in poor, black neighborhoods. The implication is that anti-abortion activists care more about poor women of color than do the Planned Parenthoods of the world.
In its 2011 federal tax filing, Care Net reported spending nearly $1 million trying to “educate inner-city communities” and develop centers in “underserved areas.” In talking about this work, Care Net typically promotes North Philadelphia’s black-owned Hope Center as a model. But Rachel House offers a window into a different story, one that has unfolded in a series of headline-grabbing controversies over the past three years.
Fueled by a race-baiting, national marketing campaign and the missionary-like evangelism of its affiliates, Care Net has turned the complex reality behind black abortion rates into a single, fictional story. In that story, poor black women who have abortions are the unwitting victims of feminists and morally deficient reproductive healthcare providers, embodied in sadists such as Gosnell. Crisis pregnancy centers, in this fable, are the best place those women can go to be saved.
In 2009, a white Texas-based anti-abortion activist named Mark Crutcher released a film he wrote and directed, “Maafa 21: Black Genocide in the 21st Century.” Crutcher populated the film with African-American community activists and pastors who have close ties to radical tea party Republicans—familiar faces like Stephen Broden and Alveda King, a conservative niece of Martin Luther King Jr. Over 138 dizzying minutes, “Maafa 21” advances a familiar accusation: That Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League and Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist in cahoots with wealthy, Northeastern white supremacists who wanted to eliminate “the unfit,” including poor blacks. The film presents Sanger’s work to legalize birth control as part of the plot.
The film builds its case with quick flashes of historical documents, mainstream news articles and what it presents as clippings from the Black Panther Party’s iconic newspaper. It is at its most compelling when it presents an interview with Elaine Riddick, a black rape survivor who in 1968 was surreptitiously sterilized on orders from the North Carolina Eugenics Board, immediately after giving birth to the son conceived during the sexual assault. Riddick, who has unsuccessfully sued North Carolina for restitution, describes how she was cast as “feeble minded” and therefore unfit to reproduce. “Maafa 21” is the closest the predominantly white, Christian right has come to successfully exploiting Black Nationalist themes and aesthetics.
At a Juneteenth congressional screening, Rep. Trent Franks, a white tea party Republican from Arizona who routinely compares voluntary abortion to chattel slavery, called the film a vital weapon against “racist abortion policy.” “I hope people will see this movie. … Especially [in] the African-American community [which] can give voice to the truth that it demonstrates so clearly.”
Care Net hopes so as well. A full-color pamphlet, which Edwards says her center will distribute at 46th and Paseo, tells readers that “the black community has been targeted by Planned Parenthood and others,” resulting in “over 15 million black lives eliminated,” a claim taken directly from “Maafa 21.”
“The first time I remember hearing that 43 percent of African-American pregnancies end in abortion might have been through Dean Nelson at Care Net,” Edwards says. Nelson, a black Washington, D.C.-area minister, is vice president of Care Net’s “underserved outreach.” “He also said that in New York, they’re as high as 60 percent. And not only that, but that African Americans only make up 13 percent of the population, so there’s a higher abortion rate and a lower population.”
“That’s very disproportionate,” Hanley chimes in.
Race-based abortion reporting is notoriously uneven. States can choose whether and to what extent they’re going to collect and share this information with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s most recent surveillance report (from 2009) didn’t include 23 states. It excludes most of the Northeast, as well as heavily white Midwestern states that would likely boost the abortion rate among whites. Also missing are California, Florida, and North Carolina, which are among the most densely populated states in the nation. It’s hard to draw real conclusions about race from this data.
Still, based on what we do know about the racial differences in abortion, the disparities are alarming. In 2009, black women ages 15 to 44 had 477 abortions per 1,000 live births, according to the CDC. The ratio for Latinas was 195 per 1,000. For white women it was 140 to 1,000. Data from the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that race-concerned pro-lifers routinely dismiss because of its historical ties to Planned Parenthood, show that black women are more than five times as likely to undergo the procedure than white women.
Guttmacher attributes the disparity to similarly dramatic inequities in birth control access. And according to a a 2006 survey by the Institute, the most prominent reason that women have abortions is because they can’t afford a baby at the moment and they think an infant would hinder them from going to school, working or caring for the kids they already have.
But anti-abortion leaders have severed the data on abortion rates from all of this context, and exploited a lack of more recent, comprehensive research to advance their talking points. “Maafa 21” spells out the claim in a text slide it flashes:
“Since 1973, legal abortion has killed more African-Americans than AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and violent crime combined. Every week more blacks die in American abortion clinics than were killed in the entire Vietnam war. And the largest chain of abortion clinics in the United States is operated by Planned Parenthood.”
Care Net and its allies have used this kind of material to drive a massive marketing campaign in black communities over the past three years. The campaign’s most prominent platform has been a series of billboards that label black children as endangered species and declare black women’s wombs “the most dangerous place” for their children. The first round appeared in Atlanta, to dovetail with Black History Month in 2010. It sparked just as much controversy as you’d expect.
The 80-board series sent passersby to toomanyaborted.com, a site that solicited funds for the Radiance Foundation and listed Option Line, Care Net’s jointly operated phone referral service, as a resource. The Radiance Foundation is the tax-exempt concern of Ryan Scott Bomberger, a biracial evangelical web designer, singer, Republican operative and adoptee, who frequently tells the story of how his birth mother was raped in 1971 but made the “selfless choice” of having him.
While Bomberger fronted the campaign, Georgia Right to Life paid for it, as part of what appears to have been a suite of marketing around black people and abortion. The virulently anti-Obama group tapped Catherine Davis—a black Republican who had run two failed congressional campaigns—to circulate press releases and talk up the “holocaustic impact” of black women’s voluntary abortions. Meanwhile, it pushed a Georgia state bill to outlaw sex- and race-selective abortions, despite scant evidence that this was a problem. The bill never made it out of the House, but it spurred the intended false debate over abortion as genocide.
In 2011—again during Black History Month—another anti-abortion marketing firm, Heroic Media, sponsored a billboard in New York City that again declared, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Onlookers were directed to thatsabortion.com, another site that promotes Care Net’s Option Line, condemns Planned Parenthood and solicits funds for Life Always.
All of these billboard campaigns stirred a great deal of attention and anxiety in the reproductive justice world. In the popular media, they were largely discussed as a messaging campaign, which in part they were. But the message wasn’t only a repetition of the “Maafa 21” conspiracy theories. It was also actionable. Each billboard sought to drive black women into the hands of a center like Rachel House, where they could be welcomed with missionary zeal by women like Hanley and Edwards.
When I arrive at 4605 Paseo Blvd., the site of Rachel House’s sprawling new office in the Gates Barbecue administrative complex, about six volunteers and staff members are unpacking boxes and awaiting a furniture delivery. They’re all white.
The walls of the space are blank and the rooms bare, but the space still has the trappings of its previous occupant, the teen clinic of Children’s Mercy Hospital. There’s a front desk behind glass, a large waiting area and two exam rooms with hulking ultrasound machines. Between the office space and Rachel House’s website, which uses the slogan, “Your right to choose. Your right to know,” you might even think you were visiting a family planning clinic.
But like the marketing campaign to get women in the door, everything is geared toward delivering a message, rather than providing a service to black women. The “hospital-strength” pregnancy tests, for instance, produce results in about five minutes, but Rachel House requires girls to “visit” with a “client advocate” prior to receiving them. If a pregnant client says she’s keeping her baby, a Rachel House staff member or volunteer helps her with anything from filling out Medicaid paperwork to faith-based counseling. But, says Hanley, “If a girl is ambivalent about what she wants to do, we’ll just sit and talk to her. … We’ll just ask her, ‘Have you read about the different kinds of abortion? Do you know what the risks involved are? Do you know if that’s exactly what you want to do?’”
Rachel House also uses sonography to sway reluctant clients. “Our ultrasound machines can pretty clearly [detect] a 6-week-old baby and we can perform them for up to 14 weeks,” says Hanley, a 40-something wife and mother who had an abortion at 19 that she now likens to murder. “I’ve seen a lot of girls’ countenance completely change when they see their babies. In fact, there is a national statistic about this—the 80 percent rule,” Hanley explains.
“It’s that 80 percent of the time, if she comes to a pregnancy center or an ultrasound facility and she sees her baby, she’ll choose life,” adds Edwards, who also had an abortion she regrets deeply. “I’d have a 40-year-old child that I don’t have now,” she says. “I wish that back then someone had talked through my fears with me.”
But both women know they are not the correct someone for downtown Kansas City. They are in fact as convinced of their mission’s humility as they are of its righteousness. “This is a strong voice coming from this community,” Edwards insists. “If we were just, frankly, a bunch of suburban white women coming into the black community saying, ‘We know what’s best for you, and you don’t know,’ that would be a little bit degrading.”
Rather, Edwards believes deeply and passionately that her work facilitates racial reconciliation.
“I’ll tell you that this has been a healing and exciting experience for us and for a lot of African-American friends we’re working with,” she tells me, with her voice wavering and her default smile widening. “We’re having discussions about things we never would have talked about before. We’re seeing each other as real people with real minds and real hearts and not buying the stereotypical things that we’ve learned about each other from our separate corners of the city. So it’s really been an amazing time to see some unity come to Kansas City.”
That unity, however, has taken the form primarily of partnerships between suburban, white evangelicals and conservative black men.
“Instead of trying to come to the urban core and work in an environment that we know nothing about, we contacted some friends with Black Americans for Life,” Edwards explains.
Edwards, a 21-year veteran of the area’s pro-life movement, says she knew members of Black Americans for Life in passing but hadn’t worked with them. They made first contact at a training session put on by the Christian foundation Mission Increase. “My development director and I saw a couple of African Americans in that group who we didn’t really know, but we went over to them. I just said, ‘Excuse me. You probably didn’t notice, but I’m white and you’re black…’ ” She laughs at the joke. “Oddly enough—and I had no clue about it at the moment—but the gentleman we talked to just so happened to be Ivan Griffin, the president of Black Americans for Life in Kansas City.”
After walking the cigarette smoke-filled gauntlet of clients and security guards at the men’s homeless shelter where Ivan Griffin works as a case manager, his small, undecorated office feels like an oasis. The 39-year-old activist agreed to be interviewed at Edwards’s urging, but he’s obviously wary. When I tell him I’m reporting for a racial justice news site, he shoots back, “So you think we’re committing a racial injustice?”
I ask the Kansas City native how he got involved with Black Americans for Life (“BA4L” for short, he says). He tells me how a former board member just walked up to him on the street. “I was a little bit surprised, but you know, no big deal,” says Griffin, who stands about 6-foot-3 and has the torso of a linebacker, but speaks in a near whisper. “I agreed to show up at a meeting, became a member and, eventually, was elected chairman of the board.”
Griffin says that for years his 10-member group has wanted to start its own pregnancy center in downtown Kansas City. He even contacted Care Net, he says, for “information on how to go about starting a pregnancy clinic.” But his group was still unable to raise the capital. Perhaps that’s why he was ready to help the suburban activists from Rachel House set up shop at 46th and Paseo. His participation is certainly crucial. After all, the new center sits in Congressional District 5, which just so happens to be the home of Emmanuel Cleaver, II, Kansas City’s first-ever black mayor, its five-term Democratic congressman and the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. These facts aren’t lost on Griffin.
“If you’re talking about going into a minority community, you’re going to have lots of people who are considered leaders who, because of their political affiliation or other reasons, are not supportive of our cause. They may be outspoken about that fact. What we didn’t want to have was several leaders in the community speaking out against our efforts,” says Griffin. “So we needed to find leaders in our community, mostly pastors, who were supportive and would welcome us.”
Clearly, however, Griffin didn’t seek welcome from the existing infrastructure of black and women’s health organizations in the neighborhood.
Between January and February, I asked representatives of a range of well-established local organizations if they were consulted about Rachel House’s arrival. The Black Health Care Coalition (BHCC), which has been working to eliminate health disparities in downtown Kansas City for more than 26 years, wasn’t consulted. That’s curious given that among its heavily marketed public events, the nonprofit throws at least three, large community baby showers a year. Griffin’s group has even set up tables at the events. The same goes for leaders at the 30-year-old Mother and Child Health Care Coalition, a clearinghouse for all things maternal health in Kansas City’s “urban core.” Not even Sarah Gillooly, a former city council candidate and a current lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Kansas knew about the move. Apparently it’s the best-kept secret in women’s health.
Since Griffin’s group bypassed existing providers in the city, I ask him to describe the ideal crisis pregnancy center for the black community he calls home. He says it would provide ultrasounds, counseling, and “maybe even some prenatal care. There would be parenting classes, support groups, and for women who had already received abortions, there would be post-abortive counseling.”
“Would you offer contraception?” I ask.
After an awkward pause, I continue. “Why not?”
“Well, we believe in abstinence until marriage.”
“So if a married woman were to come in seeking counseling, would you still have the same idea about contraception?”
“That isn’t something I’ve ever thought about because these centers are set up primarily to deal with single women.”
According to Guttmacher Institute research, more than 60 percent of abortions are obtained by women who already have one or more children. In other words, being unmarried doesn’t equal “not having kids.”
I ask about how his center might deal with complex-but-real issues, like transgender health, sexual identity, survival sex and HIV infection. He says he can’t provide an answer “because the centers are designed for people who are having heterosexual sex.”
But what Griffin really wants to talk about is fatherhood rights and the idea that abortion is ultimately a woman’s choice.
“It’s absolutely absurd,” he says. “If we’re being honest with one another the real issue is whether or not there is a human life inside the womb. We actually agree that women do have the right to choose whatever they want to do with their own bodies. I think that we all also agree that murder is not OK. So what it really is all about is if there is an actual life inside that womb. There is. So this isn’t about a woman’s right to do whatever she wants with her body, because that’s not your own body.”
After Griffin takes several cell phone calls, I ask him to name the biggest contradiction in the pro-choice argument. He brings it back to the men who have lost their rights after “planting their seed.” “How do you just pretend that the man doesn’t exist and he has no right? If there are three parties involved in the process why does only one have rights?”
We’re both exhausted, but I ask Griffin to apply his philosophy of ownership to incest and rape. He retorts, “Did God breathe life into this being? That’s what it comes down to.” As I gather my coat Griffin cracks a rare smile. “Did I convert you yet?”
Sherry Payne is a wildcard on the Kansas City reproductive health scene. Born and raised in the easternmost (aka, the blackest) part of town, the 50-year-old had her first child at 16, a second at 17, then six more after she got married. Payne calls herself a product of crisis pregnancy centers like Rachel House.
As a teen she got free pregnancy testing and professional counseling from a Catholic center called Birthright International. In her 20s, she volunteered for the group, and sat on its board in her 30s. Fueled by what she describes as a traumatic childbirth experience with her first baby, Payne became a labor and delivery nurse. She got a job at the hospital where she had given birth, and there she observed how casual and subtle racism fueled decision-making. For example, she says, black babies were routinely tested for drugs without their mothers’ knowledge. “Here in my city, hospitals basically set their own criteria for whose babies they’ll drug test and who they won’t,” she charges. In other cases she’s seen how administrative delays in Medicaid enrollment land black and Latina women and their babies in the informal but insidious category of “high risk.”
What Payne observed illustrates the invisible bias and microaggressions women of color face in medical settings, and that too often becomes a deterrent to seeking routine care, including for sexual and reproductive health. This dynamic is grounded in the long, well-documented history of forcible, secret and unethical medical experimentation on the bodies of black women, men and children. And it’s that legacy which “Maafa 21” and Care Net’s billboard campaign sought to exploit.
Payne’s experience prompted her to transition out of nursing. She became a nurse educator and now she’s in her final year of midwifery education, a passion since she had six of her eight children at home. She also started a nonprofit called Uzazi Village, to combat black infant mortality rates in her city. With her own funds, Payne opened Uzazi in a storefront on 36th and Troost Ave., the city’s dividing line between poor and rich, black and white.
The deliberately homey, loft-like space has shiny wooden floors and African-inspired wall hangings. Here, Uzazi promotes natural, home-based childbirth. It also offers its clients free pregnancy testing and pregnancy confirmation for Medicaid eligibility; free doula and breastfeeding support; training for emerging doulas of color; STI/STD information and even support groups for LGBT youth. Payne doesn’t use the phrase “reproductive justice,” but Uzazi Village certainly embodies the concept.
When I visit in January, I meet three women and a social worker from Rose Brooks Center, a residential shelter for women and children escaping life-threatening domestic violence. In her near-monotone voice, Payne asks them to detail the kinds of services they’d like to receive from a “pregnancy resource center” like Rachel House. Ashley and Wiletta, whose last names I’m not reporting out of concern for their safety, seemed thrilled that someone was asking them.
“The biggest problem that I’ve run into is finding housing for pregnant women who are ex-felons,” says Wiletta, who is five months along with a daughter. “I have nonviolent felonies from six years ago—I was stealing out of Walmart when I was 18. I’m 24 now. I used to go to places thinking I could plead my case. But there’s no, ‘Maybe we can work with her because she’s pregnant.’ At one place, they wouldn’t even let me fill out the application. The lady was like, ‘You’re just gonna have to leave because we don’t take any felonies or any misdemeanors. Now, can I have my pen back?’ You would have thought I murdered somebody.”
Ashley is also 24 years old; she has daughters ages 12 and 10, and she’s seven months into her third pregnancy. She’s having a boy and says she plans to get her tubes tied and practice abstinence afterwards. She came to Uzazi for the free maternity and baby clothes and returned for information about breastfeeding and a free doula. “I’m the kind of mother that they consider low-income,” Ashely says. “Right now my finances are slim-to-none. So I’m looking for anything that can be of assistance and it needs to be free.”
Housing is also a challenge since Ashley was evicted in 2007. “Having an eviction is almost the same as having a felony,” she says.
She also talks about how afraid she’s been—not of parenting, but of telling health providers about chaos in her life. “It’s scary because you can’t tell the people at the hospital the truth because the first thing they’re gonna look at is, ‘Well she’s unstable. We can’t let her leave with this newborn because she don’t have nowhere to go.’ … You can’t open up. People keep these things hidden, or they go for adoption. So even if you fake it throughout your whole pregnancy, you still have to think, ‘Well I’m going to deliver soon. What am I gonna do?’”
Katy, 44, is silent for most of our impromptu meeting. Women like her don’t often come up in the abortion debate, although her circumstances have certainly made her “vulnerable” to it. Two years ago, the married, working mom had a surprise pregnancy, which she decided to maintain. She doesn’t spell out the traumatic events that landed her and her children at a domestic violence shelter, nor does she talk about when or how she lost her job. I don’t press her on it. What she makes clear, however, is that she’s raising a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old alone—and she’s in no mood to talk about the rights and wrongs of abortion.
“My concern is after you have the baby. He’s 1 years old,” she says, pointing to the little boy crawling under the table. “So where do my resources come in at? I know there’s a million places for pregnant women. I’m past that stage. I’m no longer pregnant, ain’t trying to get pregnant, and hope God is through with me and there won’t be no more babies. But after you have the baby, where do you go? Who is gonna help me raise the two children that I do have?”
After discussing these kinds of hard, real material needs—which have made them all “at risk” for abortion—I ask the women how they’d respond if someone at a crisis pregnancy center called the procedure black genocide.
“I’d be like, ‘Woman, I didn’t come in here and ask you to preach to me. I have my own preacher and pastor!” says Ashley. “You can either help me or you can’t. If you can’t help, goodbye.”
Later in the afternoon, two white women representing Liberty Women’s Clinic, another suburban evangelical crisis pregnancy center, drop by Uzazi. They ask Sherry Payne what she thinks about them parking their mobile unit on the block. Payne asks them if they’ve studied the needs of the community. They say no—then ask her how one might do that. Payne points them to a “Community Visioning Statement” on her website, the product of a meeting she convened at the health department where she specifically asked black residents what maternal health should look like in their community. She’s obviously frustrated by the intrusion.
“I wouldn’t want to run them out of town or tar and feather them, because I don’t think that they’re doing bad things to people,” she says after the evangelists have left. “You can even argue that they have a very useful service. But I think it’s a partial service. I [wonder] if the services they’re providing in the community they’ve picked out are going to be respectful to the women being served, or are they just pushing their own agenda and their own way?”
Payne illuminates the toxic paradox of anti-abortion fanaticism. In a big-little place like Kansas City, agnostic can be easily twisted into murderer, and tangible preventative tools such as contraceptives can become symbols of sin and damnation. But the rhetoric doesn’t produce better outcomes for poor black women, or for the babies they have.
“Really I just want to take care of pregnant women,” Payne says, sighing deeply. “But there are so many politics around it.”