Leslee Unruh: The Queen of Ab-Only and CPCs Now Leads Anti-Choice Efforts in South Dakota

Martha Kempner

Leslee Unruh's fundraising is one of the forces behind South Dakota's newest abortion restrictions.  Who is she and what does she believe?

Leslee Unruh

Leslee Unruh

In her piece on the fight to make abortions even harder to come by in South Dakota, Robin Marty cites Leslee Unruh as one of the fundraisers behind the money that is allowing the state to move forward despite the likelihood of an expensive legal battle. 

Though perhaps not a nationally known figure in the abortion rights debate, those of us who have been fighting against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs know Ms. Unruh quite well. As the founder and head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, Unruh was the voice of the abstinence-only movement for many years. In fact, it was Unruh who I was sent to debate in my very first TV appearance.

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We were debating the best type of sex education for young people.  I was arguing for comprehensive sex education while she was taking the side of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Our backstage conversation was friendly and off-topic; she’d been in a car accident the week before and was having a lot of back trouble (good thing she’s married to a chiropractor).  Our on-camera debate was predictable.  She accused me of giving up on the true potential of children and handing out condoms like candy.  I accused her of depriving kids of the information they really needed and having an underlying religious agenda.  She said kids shouldn’t have sex.  I said should or shouldn’t, they were.  She said abstinence pledges worked.  I said critical thinking worked better. There was one comical bit when Unruh mentioned “lubricant,” a word she couldn’t say without giggling, and refused to define it for the host. But for the most part it was civil, maybe even boring.

But then at the end, when asked if there was anything else she wanted to add, Unruh got very emotional, almost teary, and said something to effect of: “we have to stop lying to girls, we have to tell them the truth and make sure they understand that if they have sex before marriage they are ruining their future, they will not get good jobs or have happy marriages.”  (I am paraphrasing here because it was over five years ago but I remember the part about good jobs very clearly.)  The host asked me to respond and I tried to calmly counter with facts, I believe I said “well, 63 percent of high school seniors have had sex and I don’t think it’s possible that none of them will ever get a good job.”  

When I watched the tape a few months later, however, I realized that as Unruh was giving her impassioned plea, I forgot everything they taught me about facial expressions in media training—the camera caught me with a look on my face that screamed “is this women is crazy?”   Turns out I am neither the first nor the last person to pose that question.

Her Professional Journey

Leslee Unruh’s professional journey from vitamin salesperson to anti-abortion activist has been well documented over the years.  In 1984, Unruh opened the Alpha Center a classic crisis pregnancy center designed to “help” women facing unplanned pregnancies by convincing them not to choose abortion.  Today the center’s public website proclaims:

“Pregnant? Confused? You have options—we can help. The Alpha Center is here to serve you. We offer comprehensive services to help with your pregnancy needs, including free pregnancy tests, to help you in making a decision about your pregnancy.” According to the website, center staff is also available 24-hours-a-day to hear from “anyone who has experienced the pain from an abortion” because the “time to heal is now.”  

A timeline on a different website also run by the center explains how, “A dream of saving lives, changing lives, and redeeming lives became a reality. Through many struggles, some defeats, and many successes, the dream built in the basement of a home has grown so large as to purchasing the remains of what used to be a building of death and redeeming it into a ministry of hope.”  The last albeit poorly written line refers to the Alpha Center’s 2000 purchase of “an old abortion clinic.”  The time line explains that Unruh also founded the Omega Maternity Home, a place where unwed mothers could live rent-free during their pregnancy, in 1986 but sold it in 1994 in order to finance the Alpha’s Centers new facilities. Other entries in the timeline include: “1993: Leslee leads South Dakota parental notification, 24-hour waiting period and informed consent law;” “2006: HB1217 was referred to a public vote and the Vote Yes for Life campaign was started to ban nearly all abortions in the state;”  and “2011: Alpha Center helps protect women from coerced abortion through assisting in the passage of South Dakota pro life House Bill 1217.”

Also noted in the timeline were Unruh’s various forays into the abstinence and chastity arena culminating in the 1997 founding of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse (later just called the Abstinence Clearinghouse so as not to leave out its international work.) As Amanda Robb explains in her 2008 expose on Unruh published in MORE Magazine: “after working with hundreds of women who got pregnant unintentionally, she says she began to realize that this kind of counseling put the cart before the horse in women’s lives. To truly empower women, she became convinced, you have to ‘save them from sexual activity.’”  The Abstinence Clearinghouse worked to do just that by creating materials, speaking about the importance of chastity, and sponsoring purity balls in which fathers and daughters exchange rings as a symbol of the daughter’s purity.

In our TV interview, Unruh passionately explained that she personally saw how well abstinence vows worked because she was invited to countless wedding in which fathers would remove these rings as part of giving their daughters away. Trying to hide just how creepy I find this particular father-daughter bonding ritual, I countered that while it may have worked for these families, researchers at Yale and Columbia found that 88 percent of young people who pledged to remain virgins until marriage nonetheless engaged in pre-marital sex. 

Unruh’s timing on creating the National Abstinence Clearinghouse was impeccable as it coincided with the first big pot of federal money for abstinence-only-until-marriage programming.  Not only did she become a national figure in the abstinence-only-until-marriage debate, both of her organizations benefitted immensely from federal funding. In federal Fiscal Year 2008, for example, the Abstinence Clearinghouse received $35,000 in Title V abstinence-only funding (it was a sub-grantee for the state of South Dakota) while the Alpha Center received $600,000 directly from the federal government under the Community-Based Abstinence Education funding stream. 

What She Believes

For many years, Leslee Unruh was the go-to-person for journalists and producers working on stories about abstinence-only programs, chastity, purity balls, and other tangentially related topics.   As such, there are whole host of sound bites and quotes, many more bizarre then the next,  that can be strung together to determine what exactly she believes.  Robb points to this diatribe in a May 2007 appearance on Fox News in which Unruh discussed a birth control pill that suppresses menstruation.  She said: “This is a real war on women and war on children. We do not need big pharma, National Abortion Rights Action League, who have had a war on children and on babies, to now come in with another drug and to play God!…wanting us, women, who are feminine and have fertility and it’s something to celebrate, wanting us to be like men — c’mon!”

It can also help to look at the mission and position statements of the organizations she founded. The Abstinence Clearinghouse is very clear on what it believes on topics related to abstinence and sex.  As I cannot do any of these justice by paraphrasing, here some of the organization’s position statements:

Masturbation: “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes the focus of the marriage union is a shared intimacy between two people, a husband and a wife. The arousal response in individuals is the most easily trained response in the human body. Sexual self stimulation along with fantasy or pornography can actually train a person to bond to pictures, objects, etc., and may eventually leave the person unable to respond sexually to a real person. Sex therapists consider masturbation the first stage of sexual addiction for sex addicts. This practice should not be encouraged as a ‘safe’ sexual practice.” 

Homosexuality “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes that emotional intimacy is an innate need for all people, but sexual activity does not replace true intimacy. Friendship with another person of the same sex is healthy, but does not need sexual activity to validate its importance. Research shows the homosexual lifestyle is not a healthy alternative for males or females. The male and female body are not anatomically suited to accommodate sexual relations with members of the same sex. Sexual practices in the homosexual lifestyle are considered very dangerous for disease, infection, etc. This lifestyle should not be encouraged as healthy or as an equal alternative to marriage.”

Images in Educational Materials: “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes it is unnecessary to use graphic images to teach age-appropriate sexuality education or abstinence education. Neurochemical science affirms all imagery is real to the brain whether the setting is scientific, educational or pornographic. Diagrams of internal organs are acceptable, but images or pictures of external genitalia in any form, whether diseased or healthy, can be determined [sic] to the health of young men and women’s minds.”

It is slightly harder to determine exactly what the Alpha Center believes as its website, at least the one that pops up first on a Google search, is a little cagey.  Unlike many crisis pregnancy centers, Alpha Center does not boast a religious mission or suggest that it is in the business of preventing abortions.  According to this website: “The Alpha Center is a nonprofit agency that provides a comprehensive range of services to women and men involved in an unplanned pregnancy. The Alpha Center has been helping women and families facing an unplanned pregnancy since 1984. Over the last twenty years, women of all ages from various cultural backgrounds have received the help and support they needed when faced with a crisis pregnancy.”  It lists it services as pregnancy tests, abortion information, options counseling, and ultrasound exams (as determined by a counselor), in addition to pregnancy support classes and relationship counseling.  It all sounds innocuous enough, though those of us who know about crisis pregnancy centers would be tipped off by the offer of abortion recovery counseling.

Interestingly, the Alpha Center has a second website, www.alphacenterevents.org, hosted by www.faithwebsites.net, which is much more explicit about its background and beliefs.  This is the website that includes the organization’s full timeline and history.  Moreover, in its “About Us” section, this website explains, “The entire Alpha Center story was inspired by God, and the rising up of Godly people with courage to be salt and light; to take action against the most evil act in this generation – the killing of innocent unborn babies and the deliberate deception of millions of women.”

Her Personal Story (or Stories)

It seems that Leslee Unruh is used to having two different stories when it fits her purposes. In 2003, the Abstinence Clearinghouse held its annual conference in Las Vegas.  She joked with a reporter for the Washington Post that being in Vegas was like coming home because that’s where she married her husband, Allen, in 1972. “‘Chapel of the Bells,’ she says. “There I was, in my bridal gown, the whole thing, full-length, with the train.’  ‘Can you imagine?’ Allen, her husband says. ‘The queen of abstinence married in Vegas?’”  According to the article, “His family didn’t like her very much, so the couple ran away to Vegas. And lo, their marriage was blessed, and it took: ‘Five kids, two of my sons are doctors. Abstinence works, people. My daughter saved her first kiss for her wedding day. I’m here to tell ya.’” 

While it makes a nice story, it turns out that Unruh herself did not remain abstinent until her wedding day—either of them.  Moreover, neither of them took place in Vegas in 1972. 

In interviews with Amanda Robb for the MORE expose, Leslee Unruh told an entirely different story about her marriage. She told Robb that she met Allen at a state fair in 1976.  She then explained that in 1978 or 79 she had an abortion at the urging a physician who thought the pregnancy would aggravate an underlying health condition.  She insinuated that Allen—who was giving anti-abortion speeches around the state at that time—was angry with her for having the procedure and, at the very least, allowed Robb to assume that she was pregnant with Allen’s baby at the time. 

When Robb investigated further, however, she found a very different story.  Unruh did have an abortion though the timing of it is not quite clear.  Unruh later clarified that at the time she was actually pregnant with the child of her first husband, Larry Kutzler, the father of her first three children whom she married in February of 1973—6 months before the birth of their first son.  She divorced Kutzler in September of 1977 and married Allen in November of 1978.  

I bring this past up not because I care who she slept with and when or because I want to point out that Unruh is a hypocrite for telling young women to do as she says not as she did. I actually believe that learning from one’s mistake and trying to steer others away from them can be a noble goal.  But as the head of a crisis pregnancy center—that tells women, among other untruths, that abortion causes breast cancer—it seems that Unruh has made lying a part of her life. 

Questionable Practices

Not surprisingly, she’s been called out on questionable practices in all of her organizations.  In 1987, the Alpha Center was charged with 24 counts of unlicensed adoption and foster care practice, and false advertising.  Robb explains, “According to the indictment, several young women stated that they had been offered money to carry their pregnancies to term and then give their babies up for adoption. On the center’s behalf, Unruh entered a plea of no contest to five counts (the rest of the charges were dismissed) and paid a $500 fine.”  The Alpha Center’s more faith-based website has a section dedicated to “false allegations” in which it explains: “Many years ago, false allegations were made about the Alpha Center leading to indictments.  While the charges were dropped, enemies of the Alpha Center continue to repeat these lies.” Unruh’s plea deal is not mentioned. 

More recently, in 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed an IRS complaint against both the Alpha Center and the National Abstinence Clearinghouse alleging that the organizations violated federal law by failing to report their lobbying activities.  According to CREW, “Both NAC and Alpha Center claimed on their 990 tax forms that they engaged in no lobbying activities. Yet, despite these assertions, Ms. Unruh, acting in her official capacity, has repeatedly been quoted in newspaper reports as lobbying legislators to fund abstinence education programs and to ban abortion.”   CREW also noted that the Alpha Center violated federal tax law by openly endorsing (in email and newspaper articles) John Stratman, a board member for both of the organizations, in his bid for the school board.

Out of the Abstinence Spotlight

The debate she and I taped aired on some short-lived newsmagazine on HDNet years before anyone I knew had High Definition Cable so I doubt anyone saw it or caught my “she’s-got- to-be-crazy” facial expression. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that I’m not the only who has thought of Unruh as nice but a little nuts. 

As the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement’s battle became tougherbecause of research that showed its approach was ineffective, states that began to reject the money, and public opinion that swayed back towards more comprehensive educationUnruh was turned to less and less.  In fact, the movement gave birth to a whole new organization that seemed to have as its unspoken mission, finding a new national spokesperson for the issue. That role was filled by Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which was founded in 2006. One of the specific goals listed on that organization’s website was to “rebrand the abstinence message to provide positive representation in the public square.”

The Alpha Center and the Abstinence Clearinghouse still exists but they have lost much of their federal funding as have many abstinence-only program providers.  Perhaps this leaves Unruh with more time to concentrate on her original passionpreventing the women of South Dakota from exercising their right to choose abortion–with state funding to do her “work.”

Analysis Abortion

‘Pro-Life’ Pence Transfers Money Intended for Vulnerable Households to Anti-Choice Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Jenn Stanley

Donald Trump's running mate has said that "life is winning in Indiana"—and the biggest winner is probably a chain of crisis pregnancy centers that landed a $3.5 million contract in funds originally intended for poor Hoosiers.

Much has been made of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues. In 2000, when he was running for U.S. representative, Pence wrote that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ [sic] entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He also said that funds meant to help people living with HIV or AIDS should no longer be given to organizations that provide HIV prevention services because they “celebrate and encourage” homosexual activity. Instead, he proposed redirecting those funds to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” programs, which have been widely discredited by the medical community as being ineffective and dangerous.

Under Pence, ideology has replaced evidence in many areas of public life. In fact, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has just hired a running mate who, in the past year, has reallocated millions of dollars in public funds intended to provide food and health care for needy families to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence, who declined multiple requests for an interview with Rewire, has been outspoken about his anti-choice agenda. Currently, Indiana law requires people seeking abortions to receive in-person “counseling” and written information from a physician or other health-care provider 18 hours before the abortion begins. And thanks, in part, to other restrictive laws making it more difficult for clinics to operate, there are currently six abortion providers in Indiana, and none in the northern part of the state. Only four of Indiana’s 92 counties have an abortion provider. All this means that many people in need of abortion care are forced to take significant time off work, arrange child care, and possibly pay for a place to stay overnight in order to obtain it.

This environment is why a contract quietly signed by Pence last fall with the crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization Real Alternatives is so potentially dangerous for Indiana residents seeking abortion: State-subsidized crisis pregnancy centers not only don’t provide abortion but seek to persuade people out of seeking abortion, thus limiting their options.

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“Indiana is committed to the health, safety, and wellbeing [sic] of Hoosier families, women, and children,” reads the first line of the contract between the Indiana State Department of Health and Real Alternatives. The contract, which began on October 1, 2015, allocates $3.5 million over the course of a year for Real Alternatives to use to fund crisis pregnancy centers throughout the state.

Where Funding Comes From

The money for the Real Alternatives contract comes from Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, a federally funded, state-run program meant to support the most vulnerable households with children. The program was created by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by former President Bill Clinton. It changed welfare from a federal program that gave money directly to needy families to one that gave money, and a lot of flexibility with how to use it, to the states.

This TANF block grant is supposed to provide low-income families a monthly cash stipend that can be used for rent, child care, and food. But states have wide discretion over these funds: In general, they must use the money to serve families with children, but they can also fund programs meant, for example, to promote marriage. They can also make changes to the requirements for fund eligibility.

As of 2012, to be eligible for cash assistance in Indiana, a household’s maximum monthly earnings could not exceed $377, the fourth-lowest level of qualification of all 50 states, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Indiana’s program also has some of the lowest maximum payouts to recipients in the country.

Part of this is due to a 2011 work requirement that stripped eligibility from many families. Under the new work requirement, a parent or caretaker receiving assistance needs to be “engaged in work once the State determines the parent or caretaker is ready to engage in work,” or after 24 months of receiving benefits. The maximum time allowed federally for a family to receive assistance is 60 months.

“There was a TANF policy change effective November 2011 that required an up-front job search to be completed at the point of application before we would proceed in authorizing TANF benefits,” Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), told Rewire. “Most [applicants] did not complete the required job search and thus applications were denied.”

Unspent money from the block grant can be carried over to following years. Indiana receives an annual block grant of $206,799,109, but the state hasn’t been using all of it thanks to those low payouts and strict eligibility requirements. The budget for the Real Alternatives contract comes from these carry-over funds.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is explicitly meant to clothe and feed children, or to create programs that help prevent “non-marital childbearing,” and Indiana’s contract with Real Alternatives does neither. The contract stipulates that Real Alternatives and its subcontractors must “actively promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The funds, the contract says, cannot be used for organizations that will refer clients to abortion providers or promote contraceptives as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Parties involved in the contract defended it to Rewire by saying they provide material goods to expecting and new parents, but Rewire obtained documents that showed a much different reality.

Real Alternatives is an anti-choice organization run by Kevin Bagatta, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has no known professional experience with medical or mental health services. It helps open, finance, and refer clients to crisis pregnancy centers. The program started in Pennsylvania, where it received a $30 million, five-year grant to support a network of 40 subcontracting crisis pregnancy centers. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for an audit of the organization between June 2012 and June 2015 after hearing reports of mismanaged funds, and found $485,000 in inappropriate billing. According to the audit, Real Alternatives would not permit DHS to review how the organization used those funds. However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April that at least some of the money appears to have been designated for programs outside the state.

Real Alternatives also received an $800,000 contract in Michigan, which inspired Gov. Pence to fund a $1 million yearlong pilot program in northern Indiana in the fall of 2014.

“The widespread success [of the pilot program] and large demand for these services led to the statewide expansion of the program,” reads the current $3.5 million contract. It is unclear what measures the state used to define “success.”


“Every Other Baby … Starts With Women’s Care Center”

Real Alternatives has 18 subcontracting centers in Indiana; 15 of them are owned by Women’s Care Center, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers. According to its website, Women’s Care Center serves 25,000 women annually in 23 centers throughout Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Women’s Care Centers in Indiana received 18 percent of their operating budget from state’s Real Alternatives program during the pilot year, October 1, 2014 through September 30, 2015, which were mostly reimbursements for counseling and classes throughout pregnancy, rather than goods and services for new parents.

In fact, instead of the dispensation of diapers and food, “the primary purpose of the [Real Alternatives] program is to provide core services consisting of information, sharing education, and counseling that promotes childbirth and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting,” the most recent contract reads.

The program’s reimbursement system prioritizes these anti-choice classes and counseling sessions: The more they bill for, the more likely they are to get more funding and thus open more clinics.

“This performance driven [sic] reimbursement system rewards vendor service providers who take their program reimbursement and reinvest in their services by opening more centers and hiring more counselors to serve more women in need,” reads the contract.

Classes, which are billed as chastity classes, parenting classes, pregnancy classes, and childbirth classes, are reimbursed at $21.80 per client. Meanwhile, as per the most recent contract, counseling sessions, which are separate from the classes, are reimbursed by the state at minimum rates of $1.09 per minute.

Jenny Hunsberger, vice president of Women’s Care Center, told Rewire that half of all pregnant women in Elkhart, LaPorte, Marshall, and St. Joseph Counties, and one in four pregnant women in Allen County, are clients of their centers. To receive any material goods, such as diapers, food, and clothing, she said, all clients must receive this counseling, at no cost to them. Such counseling is billed by the minute for reimbursement.

“When every other baby born [in those counties] starts with Women’s Care Center, that’s a lot of minutes,” Hunsberger told Rewire.

Rewire was unable to verify exactly what is said in those counseling sessions, except that they are meant to encourage clients to carry their pregnancies to term and to help them decide between adoption or child rearing, according to Hunsberger. As mandated by the contract, both counseling and classes must “provide abstinence education as the best and only method of avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.”

In the first quarter of the new contract alone, Women’s Care Center billed Real Alternatives and, in turn, the state, $239,290.97; about $150,000 of that was for counseling, according to documents obtained by Rewire. In contrast, goods like food, diapers, and other essentials for new parents made up only about 18.5 percent of Women’s Care Center’s first-quarter reimbursements.

Despite the fact that the state is paying for counseling at Women’s Care Center, Rewire was unable to find any licensing for counselors affiliated with the centers. Hunsberger told Rewire that counseling assistants and counselors complete a minimum training of 200 hours overseen by a master’s level counselor, but the counselors and assistants do not all have social work or psychology degrees. Hunsberger wrote in an email to Rewire that “a typical Women’s Care Center is staffed with one or more highly skilled counselors, MSW or equivalent.”

Rewire followed up for more information regarding what “typical” or “equivalent” meant, but Hunsberger declined to answer. A search for licenses for the known counselors at Women’s Care Center’s Indiana locations turned up nothing. The Indiana State Department of Health told Rewire that it does not monitor or regulate the staff at Real Alternatives’ subcontractors, and both Women’s Care Center and Real Alternatives were uncooperative when asked for more information regarding their counseling staff and training.

Bethany Christian Services and Heartline Pregnancy Center, Real Alternatives’ other Indiana subcontractors, billed the program $380.41 and $404.39 respectively in the first quarter. They billed only for counseling sessions, and not goods or classes.

In a 2011 interview with Philadelphia City Paper, Kevin Bagatta said that Real Alternatives counselors were not required to have a degree.

“We don’t provide medical services. We provide human services,” Bagatta told the City Paper.

There are pregnancy centers in Indiana that provide a full range of referrals for reproductive health care, including for STI testing and abortion. However, they are not eligible for reimbursement under the Real Alternatives contract because they do not maintain an anti-choice mission.

Parker Dockray is the executive director of Backline, an all-options pregnancy resource center. She told Rewire that Backline serves hundreds of Indiana residents each month, and is overwhelmed by demand for diapers and other goods, but it is ineligible for the funding because it will refer women to abortion providers if they choose not to carry a pregnancy to term.

“At a time when so many Hoosier families are struggling to make ends meet, it is irresponsible for the state to divert funds intended to support low-income women and children and give it to organizations that provide biased pregnancy counseling,” Dockray told Rewire. “We wish that Indiana would use this funding to truly support families by providing job training, child care, and other safety net services, rather than using it to promote an anti-abortion agenda.”

“Life Is Winning in Indiana”

Time and again, Bagatta and Hunsberger stressed to Rewire that their organizations do not employ deceitful tactics to get women in the door and to convince them not to have abortions. However, multiple studies have proven that crisis pregnancy centers often lie to women from the moment they search online for an abortion provider through the end of their appointments inside the center.

These studies have also shown that publicly funded crisis pregnancy centers dispense medically inaccurate information to clients. In addition to spreading lies like abortion causing infertility or breast cancer, they are known to give false hopes of miscarriages to people who are pregnant and don’t want to be. A 2015 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America found this practice to be ubiquitous in centers throughout the United States, and Rewire found that Women’s Care Center is no exception. The organization’s website says that as many as 40 percent of pregnancies end in natural miscarriage. While early pregnancy loss is common, it occurs in about 10 percent of known pregnancies, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Crisis pregnancy centers also tend to crop up next to abortion clinics with flashy, deceitful signs that lead many to mistakenly walk into the wrong building. Once inside, clients are encouraged not to have an abortion.

A Google search for “abortion” and “Indianapolis” turns up an ad for the Women’s Care Center as the first result. It reads: “Abortion – Indianapolis – Free Ultrasound before Abortion. Located on 86th and Georgetown. We’re Here to Help – Call Us Today: Abortion, Ultrasound, Locations, Pregnancy.”

Hunsberger denies any deceit on the part of Women’s Care Center.

“Clients who walk in the wrong door are informed that we are not the abortion clinic and that we do not provide abortions,” Hunsberger told Rewire. “Often a woman will choose to stay or return because we provide services that she feels will help her make the best decision for her, including free medical-grade pregnancy tests and ultrasounds which help determine viability and gestational age.”

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky told Rewire that since Women’s Care Center opened on 86th and Georgetown in Indianapolis, many patients looking for its Georgetown Health Center have walked through the “wrong door.”

“We have had patients miss appointments because they went into their building and were kept there so long they missed their scheduled time,” Judi Morrison, vice president of marketing and education, told Rewire.

Sarah Bardol, director of Women’s Care Center’s Indianapolis clinic, told the Criterion Online Edition, a publication of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, that the first day the center was open, a woman and her boyfriend did walk into the “wrong door” hoping to have an abortion.

“The staff of the new Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis, located just yards from the largest abortion provider in the state, hopes for many such ‘wrong-door’ incidents as they seek to help women choose life for their unborn babies,” reported the Criterion Online Edition.

If they submit to counseling, Hoosiers who walk into the “wrong door” and “choose life” can receive up to about $40 in goods over the course their pregnancy and the first year of that child’s life. Perhaps several years ago they may have been eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but now with the work requirement, they may not qualify.

In a February 2016 interview with National Right to Life, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-choice groups, Gov. Pence said, “Life is winning in Indiana.” Though Pence was referring to the Real Alternatives contract, and the wave of anti-choice legislation sweeping through the state, it’s not clear what “life is winning” actually means. The state’s opioid epidemic claimed 1,172 lives in 2014, a statistically significant increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV infections have spread dramatically throughout the state, in part because of Pence’s unwillingness to support medically sound prevention practices. Indiana’s infant mortality rate is above the national average, and infant mortality among Black babies is even higher. And Pence has reduced access to prevention services such as those offered by Planned Parenthood through budget cuts and unnecessary regulations—while increasing spending on anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence’s track record shows that these policies are no mistake. The medical and financial needs of his most vulnerable constituents have taken a backseat to religious ideology throughout his time in office. He has literally reallocated money for poor Hoosiers to fund anti-choice organizations. In his tenure as both a congressman and a governor, he’s proven that whether on a national or state level, he’s willing to put “pro-life” over quality-of-life for his constituents.

Analysis Violence

Do U.S. Laws Protecting Abuse Survivors Help Only Women Who Are U.S. Citizens?

Tina Vasquez

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

After graduating from college in Mexico, Gina was raped by a man. Her rapist was never arrested, but she was held by the police for “defamation” after reporting the crime. Gina had no support from her family and upon her release, she was unable to find work in Mexico. At 28, she made the difficult decision to uproot the only life she knew to come to the United States.

“I decided to come here to find my ‘American dream,’ but it turned into a nightmare when I attempted to cross the border,” Gina said, referring to U.S. immigration policies that have made seeking help as an undocumented survivor of violence a “difficult, painful process.”

The United Nations General Assembly has designated November 25 as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—violence that afflicts 70 percent of women in their lifetime, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

While there are systems in place in the United States that purport to help all women suffering from violence, what is rarely said is that these systems primarily benefit women who are citizens. Migrant women face multiple hurdles when it comes to accessing help, and U.S. immigration policies only put them in more danger.

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The United States has taken a strong stance over the years in response to violence against women. September of 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and last year during October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, President Obama committed to “reaching a future free of domestic violence.”

Initially, undocumented women experiencing violence were not protected under VAWA. After a long legal battle, however, VAWA was extended in 2013 to include undocumented women. But VAWA is helpful only if the victim of domestic violence is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. According to the Department of Homeland Security, if you are abused by a citizen or permanent resident, you may be eligible to apply for a green card without needing the abuser to file for immigration benefits. Also, a paper trail must exist and victims must establish they have or had a qualifying relationship with the abuser spouse or are the parent or child of the abuser; reside or resided with the abuser; “have good moral character”; and have been victims of battery or extreme cruelty.

Forty-eight percent of Latinas report their partner’s violence against them increases upon immigrating to the United States, according to Cristina Aguilar, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). These are the many women not protected by laws like VAWA. For this, and many other reasons, women like Gina are becoming their own advocates, joining grassroots organizations like COLOR to work directly in their communities and educate women about their rights, including their ability to obtain U-Visas if they or their children are experiencing violence. U-Visas are for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

The work of women like Gina is crucial because for the estimated five million undocumented women in the United States, the fear of deportation or incarceration is real and navigating the system as an abuse survivor only compounds those fears.

We Belong Together, a campaign to “mobilize women in support of common sense immigration policies that will keep families together and empower women,” has conducted extensive research on the many ways immigration policies make an already vulnerable populationundocumented women—more susceptible to violence, abuse, and exploitation. An entire economy has been created from jailing asylum-seeking women and their infants and toddlers, most of whom have experienced gender-based violence.

Furthermore, as history shows us, undocumented women can face prolonged incarceration and deportation for contacting police to report abuse in their homes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Maria Calderon after she asked the Tucson police for help because her husband was beating her again. When a neighbor called the police after a domestic dispute in her home turned physical, Claudia Valdez was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to deportation proceedings. When she escaped an abusive relationship with her daughter, Nan-Hui Jo was arrested and held without bail for nine months and then detained by ICE and subject to deportation proceedings.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, stories such as these teach undocumented women not to contact the authorities even during dire situations.

Undocumented women in the United States also can become tethered to abusive partners because of employment visas. Only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, according to We Belong Together, which means that most immigrant women in the employment visa category are dependents on their spouse’s visa, with no authorization to work themselves, making them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.

“This is even a greater threat when there are children involved, because the abusers take advantage of the lack of documentation to inflict violence and threaten to take away our children,” Gina said. “This and many other reasons are why undocumented women are a thousand times more vulnerable to living in violent situation and not reporting them.”

Karina Alonso, a 43-year-old undocumented mother of two, shared similar sentiments with Rewire. Alonso immigrated to Denver, Colorado, with her young son in tow, wanting to raise her child with her husband. Growing up in an abusive home, she recognized the signs in her own marriage. After suffering years of emotional and psychological abuse, Alonso asked her husband for a divorce.

“My husband grabbed a knife and put in on his chest, saying that if I wanted a separation, he would kill himself,” Alonso said.

When things got worse and her husband began stalking her and threatening to “destroy” her, Alonso said she was afraid to ask for help or approach a police officer because of her citizenship status. Above all else, she feared being separated from her children.

“We are afraid our husbands will get more violent if we report the violence,” Alonso said. “In my case, he was also saying that he will make me to go to jail or get deported if I wanted to divorce.”

Stories like Alonso’s are sadly common, explained Aguilar. The executive director said immigrant women might feel that they cannot leave a violent relationship because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources.

“Too often immigrant and undocumented women and our families have been scared into silence. The issues of domestic and sexual violence are already shrouded in shame and secrecy. It is that much worse for women who feel isolated and scared to seek help from the authorities, because they fear being separated from their families,” Aguilar said.

Undocumented women also carry the burden of the deportation of men. According to findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 93 percent of ICE deportees were men in fiscal year 2013. When the head of their household gets deported, women are left as sole providers for their families, often working in the informal economy as domestic workers or caregivers. Given that a central tenet for comprehensive immigration reform has been employment—employment in specific fields or proof of employment—We Belong Together reports that a pathway to citizenship requiring proof of employment would exclude millions of women. A survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that workers in occupations with high percentages of women did not receive pay stubs with their pay, including 98 percent of surveyed undocumented nannies, 92 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 77 percent of garment workers.

When violence against women is discussed in the United States, advocates say that immigrant and undocumented women are rarely included in those conversations. Gina said that part of the reason accessing care can be so challenging is because many advocacy groups don’t have a basic understanding of the hurdles undocumented women face.

“I think that still there is a lot work to do. I can see ads in the TV, radio, or the media [about abuse], but they’re distant to me,” Alonso said.

Gina added, “They always ask you, ‘Why don’t you call the police? Why don’t you report your husband if he hit you?’ The answer is very simple: Because I am afraid. Afraid that they might ask me for my papers, afraid that I’ll be accused of being the violent one, afraid of being deported and having my children taken away from me.” 

Also, the importance of culturally and linguistically competent care can’t be overstated, they stated. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at its best, culturally competent care should advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate disparities. Aguilar said there are groups providing these services, including Mujeres Latinas en Acción, an organization out of Chicago that works to provide culturally competent services to Latinas. Too many support and service programs working with survivors do not have bilingual shelters or hotlines, though. Court advocate programs may not have an interpreter available, Aguilar added, and even a woman calling 9-1-1 may encounter language barriers.

Gina told Rewire most agencies don’t have a staff that is bicultural or bilingual and for women like her, that is a major problem.

“As a Mexican woman, for example, I was raised in a culture completely different from the culture of an American woman,” she said, “and it is going to be very difficult for a social worker to understand my roots and why it took me so long to report the violence or that I was so afraid of the police investigating my family.”

As Aguilar said, any program that is providing care to survivors should have a sense of the community and the different cultures represented. They should also have contacts for interpreters for people whose first language is not English. Primarily, it’s important that those enlisted to help truly understand the community they are serving.

“We need people who can understand our experiences,” Aguilar said.

“Women who are not immigrants, for the most part, do not understand the immigration system,” Gina said. “A simple phone call to the police or a traffic ticket can put you at risk of deportation.”

This was echoed by Alonso, who told Rewire that not knowing her rights, not knowing the language, not having money to pay for legal assistance, and not having traditional access to the help for victims of domestic violence made her feel like she didn’t know where to start.

“In the community, many good resources exist, the problem is that people don’t know where to go or who to call when violence has been inflicted on them,” Gina said. “The problem resides in that when we are victims of violence, we are afraid of everything and we do not know what to do.”


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