While sorting the mail the other day, a front-page article in the Washington Jewish Week immediately caught my eye: It details the launch of In Shifra’s Arms, a D.C.-based organization that “provides support for Jewish women facing unplanned pregnancies.”
What kind of support? The same kind as all other crisis pregnancy centers, apparently. The kind based on misinformation and an agenda that is less about ensuring women have and can exercise their choices than about making sure women facing unintended pregnancy make the “choice” that matches an organization’s ideological agenda.
The founder of the organization, Erica Pelman, an Orthodox Jew, told Jewish Week that she believes her organization is the only one in the United States aimed at Jewish women. The website of In Shifra’s Arms states: “We exist to mobilize the American Jewish community to assist women facing unintended pregnancies.”
On the face of it, that would not be a problem, since organizations such as the National Council for Jewish Women, sundry Jewish family foundations, and many individual donors in the Jewish community are long-time supporters of Planned Parenthood and other non-profit health providers whose missions include services and counseling aimed at assisting women both to prevent unintended pregnancies and to exercises their own choices when facing an unintended pregnancy, whether that means taking a pregnancy to term and bearing a child, terminating a pregnancy or giving a child up for adoption.
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In Shifra’s Arms is, however, quite different in that it appears to model itself on the prototypical crisis pregnancy center, albeit apparently without any physical “center” right now. And because these crisis pregnancy centers are so poorly regarded, it remains to be seen, as Jewish Week notes “if In Shifra’s Arms will gain traction in the overwhelmingly pro-choice Jewish community.”
Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, told Jewish Week that In Shifra’s Arms’ website “looks like it fits the model that targets young women in a deceptive way,” and that “[NCJW] is greatly concerned about pregnancy crisis centers and their focus to limit women’s choice and undermine the rights of women.”
In fact, there are really only two choices offered by the organization: carry to term or choose adoption. Either is a completely valid choice when made freely by a woman facing unintended pregnancy. And while any given woman facing an unplanned pregnancy might want to choose either of these options, she might also want accurate information about abortion. She would not get it at In Shifra’s Arms. The website states:
If you are considering abortion, it is also important that you understand the details about abortion and have fully researched the provider, methods, side-effects etc.
Alyssa Zucker, professor of psychology and women’s studies at George Washington University, noted that crisis pregnancy centers “say they are about choice, they are really not. Their goal is to convince women not to have abortions.”
The group takes a page out of the “abortion is bad” handbook of all crisis pregnancy centers by offering “non-facts” such as that abortion causes long-term psychological problems. When referring to abortion, its website talks about risks, pressure and coercion, and offers materials that provide what appears to be both erroneous and some balanced information on abortion. At the same time, it offers links to highly questionable “sources” such as the anti-choice Elliot Institute and a 2002 book by the Institute’s director, David Reardon, on the supposed psychological effects of abortion, and to other crisis pregnancy centers.
As noted in the Jewish Week article, both the American Psychological Association and Johns Hopkins University researchers have stated that there are no reputable studies linking long-term depression with abortion and that abortion is not a threat to mental health.
“From looking at the In Shifra’s Arms Web site, it is talking about emotional risks, but it is citing studies that show extreme results,” says Zucker. “The majority of studies show women are fine.”
In a phone call with Pelman, I asked whether she felt concerned about offering materials on her website that had been discredited by major medical organizations and experts. She responded that “they [the American Psychological Association and Johns Hopkins] have opinions, and I have opinions. I linked to sources that have been published in peer reviewed journals. I think people need to see these different opinions.”
When asked whether she had any training in medical or behavior sciences or research, she said no.
The organization also appears to be based more on “perception” and hearsay than any qualitative assessment of the need for it in the Jewish community. When I asked Pelman why she started the organization, she said, “One of the biggest barriers [to carrying out a pregnancy] is feeling embarrassed.”
“I have gotten a lot of feedback from people that it is embarrassing to be pregnant [out-of-wedlock],” she said. When I asked through what mechanism she had elicited the feedback she said “You know, just people. Three friends of mine who knew people that had become pregnant told me they were embarrassed.”
The vice-chair of the board of In Shifra’s Arms, Diana Furchtgott-Roth told the Jewish Week that she sees the agency providing a Jewish alternative to Christian crisis centers.
“I always got upset whenever I would go by churches and see signs outside saying ‘pregnant and worried, come see us’ and there was no equivalent in the Jewish community,” says Furchtgott-Roth. “People in the Jewish community want to say this doesn’t happen to us.”
Furchtgott-Roth has serious conservative street cred: She is a senior fellow at the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute, held an earlier position as a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served in the Administrations of both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and has connections to the Independent Women’s Forum.
In Shifra’s Arms calls itself a national organization but is in reality very small. Pelman is the sole staff member and has five board members, two interns and a “handful of volunteers.” They just received their non-profit determination this week, according to Pelman.
Shifra’s Arms is apparently tightly connected to Birthright International, a crisis pregnancy organization that supports centers in the United States and “worldwide.” A phone call this morning to the organization did not reveal how many crisis pregnancy centers are affiliated with Birthright nor in how many countries. It’s website claims 400 such centers in the U.S., Canada and about 5 other countries in 2002. A request to speak with one of the directors regarding the organization’s reach and its policies was not answered as of this writing.
In Shifra’s Arms also will not give referrals for abortion. But they don’t refer for contraception either. In a brief call, Furchgott-Roth told me that In Shifra’s Arms neither provides information on nor refers women to centers that might offer advice on avoiding future unintended pregnancies. In other words, they don’t encourage future prevention of unplanned pregnancies. Birthright International similarly confirmed it does not “do that kind of thing.” Birthright International’s website states that it does not show clients “abortion pictures or slides” although the person to whom I spoke on the phone at Birthright, when asked what services are offered to pregnant women seeking their input, told me unprompted that “we show them what abortions look like.”
When I asked what training Pelman had for her job as director, she said “I was trained in counseling by Birthright and got their materials.”
Pelman admits that the reach of In Shifra’s Arms is limited yet still makes huge promises. Pelman told Jewish Week:
We provide caring listening, confidential support and resource information for our callers facing unplanned pregnancy. We listen to our callers as they work through understanding their options, learning about available resources, communicate with people in their life, and make their choice.
“We can also accompany DC Metro callers to visit Birthright Centers (pregnancy resource centers) for face-to-face interactions.” Pelman also told Jewish Week that “we will help advocate for you if you are currently in school and need support to finish your pregnancy and stay in school.”
“I will walk with them through the pregnancy,” says Pelman, 30, whose group offers to help a woman find a job or finish school, obtain baby supplies and find counselors.
Exactly how an essentially one-person organization can make these promises in this economic climate is unknown. The District of Columbia is facing a $500 million dollar deficit and is slashing social services that serve, you know, born people. The state of Maryland has a projected $2 billion budget deficit and my own county’s school district is selling off our curricula and access to our school leadership for a mere $2.5 million dollars to raise money. In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell is cutting K-12 education, health programs, furloughing employees, and taking other measures to offset a $2.2 billion budget shortfall over two years and, of course, avoid raising taxes to pay for any of it.
When I asked about her work in supporting people through unintended pregnancies, she said that a college student who is pregnant and embarrassed to attend classes while pregnant and doesn’t want to continue her education in class might want to work online from home on her degree or “put college on hold, so we help her with that. We can also help her find an internship to add to her resume.” And where are such internships available? “At various think tanks in town.” (See above).
Strikingly, Pelman’s premise seems to be one based on–and reinforcing–social stigma aimed at women pregnant out of wedlock. She helps “pregnant college students ‘lie low,'” and “get away from her normal situation to maintain privacy,” but provides little detail on exactly how this works. “We are creating it and inventing it along the way,” she said. “It is all customized.”
Whatever “it” is doesn’t sound like much in the way of education, jobs, housing or any of the other things you need to provide over a lifetime to raise a child. Pelman herself had a hard time coming up with concrete strategies, organizations or agencies that she could point to working with or having knowledge of and did not appear to have experience in say, applying for food stamps, though she offered that as a strategy with which she could help a woman in need.
And this is a simple reality of the “crisis pregnancy” approach: Not only do they provide misinformation on various options and on medical science and interventions, to which they refer as “opinions,” they also make promises they can’t keep. In reality, Pelman’s group appears to be relying on Birthright International to provide the “support” she promises. But when asked what type of support Birthright offers, I was told, “well, it depends on what we have on hand, in terms of diapers or things like that.”
Perhaps it is both telling and also reassuring that to date Pelman claims only one “client.”
In the end, the point is not to decide or “channel” women’s choices. The point is to provide women with choices and support each individual woman in whatever choice she makes, the one that is best for her and her family and any current or future children. In that regard, these crisis pregnancy centers–whether Jewish, Christian or non-sectarian–still fail miserably. More so when they offer the promise of help they can not possibly provide.