Something that might surprise you if you didn’t know me as I graduated from high school in 2006 is that when I went to college, I once spent about two weeks volunteering at a Pregnancy Support Center in Farmville, Virginia. (Click here for an excellent exposé by John Oliver on crisis pregnancy centers.)
I now look back on the few hours I spent there with a bit of shame. Why did I do it? Mostly I think it was guilt left over from my Catholic school indoctrination, the same one that told me I was like a piece of paper who became ripped if you had sex before marriage and couldn’t be put back together again. “Who’s going to want that?” they asked as they held up two shredded pieces of paper.
My freshman year of college was my first time not being in a religious environment full of people who more or less believed the same things I did. Girls acted a certain way and boys acted a certain way and those who were different were held at an arm's’ length, often by me. One of my first friends at Longwood was also Catholic and showed me where the church was and so for a few months I went to Mass on Sundays. It was what I had always done and I didn’t know anything different. Almost immediately the director of Catholic Campus Ministry reached out to me and invited me to some of their weekly meetings and activities.
I was a bit of a retreat and Youth Group junkie so I jumped right in, spending a couple hours every week at a dinner event and eventually a team meeting—years of being class president in high school meant I didn’t get involved in anything if I couldn’t at least be the secretary. So I took notes, and I wrote up and emailed the newsletter, and I uncomfortably pushed through for months after being in the group stopped feeling like a natural fit.
Over pizza theology (a really awkward bible study where students were bribed with the promise of free pizza), the director asked if any one might volunteer for the local pregnancy support center. My faith in the church was waning and I had one foot out the door of Catholic Campus Ministry and the entire thing had been making me sad--who was I without the church? It was a question I wasn’t ready to answer yet. But I had always identified as pro-life and I truly thought well maybe this is how God wants to tell me something.
And that’s how I ended up in a musty armchair, drinking bad coffee out of a borrowed mug and watching anti-abortion videos disguised as training materials.
I had just been dumped by an incredibly conservative, Christian boy I truly believed was meant for me. He was Methodist and I went to church with him a few times and actually wondered if that was where I should be spending my time on Sunday mornings. They seemed softer and more welcoming--an encouraging people that didn’t immediately make gay or divorced people feel like they should get the hell out.
Before my actual pregnancy support “training” took place, I met the woman (let’s call her Dianne) who ran the center at a Chili Cook Off put on by the local Catholic church. It was autumn in Virginia and we were bundled up—I was wearing this black North Face jacket that I still remember today. I was most definitely wearing a low-waist pair of very early 2000s-esque jeans and my hair was probably pulled back into a low side ponytail with a ribbon (my signature look at the time), but for some reason the black jacket I can picture perfectly still today, over 10 years later.
When I let it slip that I was recovering from a breakup, this woman who knew nothing about me and my relationship said “well maybe you can get back together.” A sad college girl with her entire life ahead of her stood there before Dianne with sadness in her eyes and a styrofoam bowl of too-spicy chili in her hand and her first instinct was not to tell me to spend more time with friends or find a therapist or read a book or get a manicure--it was to offer some false hope that getting back together might be the best option, no matter how wrong that relationship might have been for me or how little that boy wanted me anymore.
Maybe this isn’t the norm, but most of the women who came into the “clinic” over the few weeks I spent there seemed to have zero intention of acquiring an abortion—in rural and poverty-stricken Farmville, Virginia I honestly don’t think they even thought it was an option. They were there for the free pregnancy test, the free coffee, and the possibility of some free diapers. Most had kids already. Most were married or at least partnered. Most of them were not helped by this place. But Dianne and her staff felt justified handing them a pregnancy test, reading them the results, and aggressively reaching for the very inaccurate models to demonstrate “how big your baby is right now already.”
I do believe she was trying to help. But after just a few days, I realized that this wasn’t the way to do it. And it struck me for the first time that whatever your personal beliefs about abortion are, the fact is you should mind your own business if you aren’t actually going to help someone. A free pregnancy test, while convenient, is not really a “big picture” solution.
Things that actually would have helped: free birth control, comprehensive sex education, higher wages, affordable child care, paid family leave, a Planned Parenthood that was closer than two hours away.
Instead they sent these women home with a pack of free diapers and a pamphlet with Psalm 139:13 printed on it.
The training was incredibly basic—no concession was made for the victim of rape, the woman with a health condition, the woman carrying a fetus that sadly would not live to or past its due date, the woman whose birth control failed, the woman in an abusive relationship; and you can forget about the woman who just didn’t want to be pregnant or have a baby. The script was always the same—we would be presented with a woman who didn’t yet understand how blessed she was to be pregnant.
One afternoon a woman wearing a hijab came in, took a pregnancy test to confirm what she already knew was true, and very directly asked if there were any free toys she might be able to take home for her older daughter. She didn’t want an abortion, she didn’t want to know how big the baby inside her was (spoiler alert: it was probably the size of a poppy seed, not the fully-formed baby doll that Dianne always attempted to scare them with); she was just poor and overwhelmed and her husband worked all the time but they still couldn’t make ends meet.
“Tell me about your faith life,” Dianne prodded. Steering the conversation to attempt a possible conversion was always the next goal after convincing the pregnant woman to keep her baby.
After explaining to us that she was a practicing Muslim who had no interest in becoming a Christian, she took her diapers and a small bag of toys and left. It was a relief for me to see someone come and go and manage to take their dignity with them--to not be preached at or talked down to through a list of uncomfortable bullet points on a clipboard.
She had received what she came for--we had helped her! But Dianne seemed disappointed, like she didn’t get the dramatic save of either a fetus or a soul that she had hoped for.
I left that day and I never went back. But I learned a couple things I really needed to know: God is bigger than just one specific faith. And we don’t live in a world so simple that outlawing abortion doesn’t have extremely complex and dangerous implications.
This is why I’m pro-choice.