Excerpted with permission from Colorlines.
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 ten-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 non-profit 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 non-profit 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.”
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.”
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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 right-wing 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 health-care 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.