The Magazine

Inside a Crisis Pregnancy Center

Lessons learned about bad fathers, young mothers, despair, and hope.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By EVE TUSHNET
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THE CAPITOL HILL PREGNANCY CENTER in Washington, D.C., where I've been working as a volunteer for over a year, is a pro-life Christian ministry to pregnant women and poor families. Like most pro-life pregnancy centers, it offers free pregnancy tests, confidential counseling, referrals to outside services like child care, job banks, and housing, and basic material aid like diapers, formula, cribs, and clothes for mother and child. It also provides a childbirth class and a parenting class, and runs abstinence programs in nearby schools. CHPC is one of about 3,000 pro-life pregnancy centers in the United States, and one of some 600 in North America affiliated with the umbrella group CareNet.

Our little center is nestled in a half-gentrified residential neighborhood of Northeast Washington, 15 minutes' walk from the Capitol. We see about 1,000 clients a year, most of them under 25, virtually all of them unmarried, so our accumulated counseling experience gives us a certain perspective on the matter of why women get pregnant out of wedlock--as a record number of American women now do. (In 2001, 33.5 percent of U.S. births were to unmarried women.) We conduct extended interviews with most of our clients and usually cover a number of standard questions. In women's responses, I've noticed four main themes: fatherlessness, fatalism, an attenuated concept of marriage, and the intermittent use of contraception.

"What does the client's father want her to do if she's pregnant?" There's a line on our counseling form for the answer to that question. I think I've filled it out once. I've counseled one or two teenagers who live with their fathers, and a handful of teens and adult women who speak with their fathers now and then. But for most of our clients, fathers are just not there. Growing up fatherless affects how women view their own relationships and their pregnancies. Because so few of our clients have known men who consistently met their family responsibilities, they rarely demand responsibility from the men they date. Even women who want children generally view adult men as a fleeting part of the household. Men flit in and out of women's lives, exotic but untrustworthy creatures, exciting but ultimately irrelevant to the formation of a family.

We see some boyfriends who want to be responsible. But men too suffer from the lack of strong models of paternal and spousal responsibility. Our observations coincide with the findings of Jennifer F. Hamer, author of a study of the attitudes of black non-custodial fathers published under the title "What It Means to Be Daddy" (though not with her policy prescriptions). Hamer believes that marriage is not a necessary or even a superior way to harness men's desires for fatherhood. But even the men she studied who tried to be more than "absent fathers"--more than statistics--didn't do many of the things that distinguish reliable fathers. Because they didn't marry the mothers of their children, they didn't refrain from fathering children by different women (thus splitting their resources and attention, and creating "drama"), or become stable fixtures in their children's homes. Women didn't demand this--and the women's mothers sometimes even shooed the men away, viewing them as threats, rather than encouraging men who wanted to take responsibility to do so. (In my experience, mothers are also at least as likely as boyfriends to pressure their unmarried pregnant daughters to have abortions.)

The women we counsel say they want to get married, just as the men Hamer interviewed want to be good fathers, but they have little sense of how to get what they want. Having sex with "this great guy who hangs around my high school all day, he's 22, he makes me laugh" is generally not a route to marriage. Nor does sleeping with every woman he dates prepare a man to be a reliable father. Not having good fathers themselves has left our clients more likely to fail in their ambition to make good marriages. A fatherless neighborhood quickly becomes a neighborhood of pregnancy scares. When marriage is a chimera, there's nothing to wait for, no reason to be chaste. There's nothing for a woman to demand from men, no reason for her to put "responsible" above "fun" on the checklist of qualities to look for in a potential boyfriend. When responsibility is almost unknown, where would a man acquire the notion that the best thing he can do for his girlfriend is stop having sex with her; or, if she conceives, that the best thing he can do for his child is marry and love the mother? Instead of attitudes conducive to marriage, fatherlessness fosters the second huge problem, fatalism.

"What led you two to begin having sex?" Sometimes I can't ask this question. Not every counseling session builds enough intimacy and trust to broach it. But when I do ask, there's no real answer. For our clients, having sex is the default setting; it's not having sex that would take a conscious decision.

The women we counsel don't speak the language of empowered young women taking control of their sexuality. Instead, they sound profoundly disempowered; they speak as if their sexuality were not in their control at all. It's not that their boyfriends bully them: They simply have no sense that a dating relationship without sex is possible. Chastity is an "alternative lifestyle" so alien as to be nearly inconceivable.

A few of the young women we counsel buck this trend. They're the ones who sound brave and determined even in their frightening situation. These few come to the center because they've slipped up after deciding to stop having sex for a while. In general, they report that abstinence improved their relationships, but the allure of sex got the better of them one night. Because they have already struggled to practice chastity, they believe it is possible. If their tests come back positive, these women's lives swerve onto paths they have not planned, but they still sound more self-possessed and self-aware than most of our clients. Loral Patchen, director of the Teen Alliance for Prepared Parenting (TAPP) at Washington Hospital Center, recently told the Washington City Paper, "The idea that you're going to tell anyone who's already sexually active to abstain usually isn't realistic. It isn't realistic for adults or for kids." Our experience belies this. We see the real women behind slogans like, "It's never too late for abstinence." We've seen that there is hope for women who want to try again. The Patchen approach pushes hopelessness under the guise of realism.

"What are your goals for this relationship?" Fatherlessness warps women's views of marriage, but broader cultural trends do at least as much harm. Like so many Americans, the women we counsel view marriage not as a sacred vow, or a promise that can strengthen a relationship and help it last, but as an expensive ceremony validating but not changing a relationship. Marriage is postponed when couples can't scrounge up the money for a big wedding--confirming Miss Manners' observation that weddings become more and more elaborate as marriage becomes less and less meaningful. "We just can't afford it," is the excuse by which many cohabiting couples disguise their ambivalence about the idea of marrying.

Because marriage is not viewed as significantly different from cohabitation, there's no reason to prefer marriage and postpone sex. Unfortunately, when the cohabiting woman misses a period, she realizes that her relationship is much less stable than she'd imagined--much shakier than a marriage.

"Were you using any kind of birth control?" The women we counsel generally know about birth control. They know about condoms, the Pill, Depo-Provera. Most of them use condoms intermittently and have used hormonal birth control at some time. But half of all unintended pregnancies in the United States occur when the woman is not using birth control. We see a lot of those women. They have the usual reasons; all contraceptive options have drawbacks. They're unromantic; they're hard to use correctly; and many have unpleasant side effects. Combine these problems with the wishful belief that pregnancy happens to other people, a deep ambivalence about the man you're dating, conflicted desires about having a child, and most of all a fatalistic desire to forget about the future and go with the flow--and you have a recipe for unwanted pregnancy.

"What would have to change in your life to make you feel good about having this baby?" Public officials' tweaking a regulation here or funding an initiative there won't untangle the emotional roots of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. What's needed more than anything is realistic hope. Men and women need models of chastity, marriage, and fatherhood. They need to be able to imagine themselves as abstinent singles or married parents, and they need to know how to make realistic plans to move toward those goals.

HOW CAN HOPE BE PROVIDED? My experience suggests a few possibilities. Personal relationships are crucial, and neither government nor bureaucratic charities can supply them. Mentoring can. This might come through a Big Brother or Big Sister relationship, or through marriage mentoring. Some churches in well-off areas have found "sister congregations" in poor areas, holding joint celebrations and building relationships based on friendship and reciprocity rather than on one-way charity.

Pro-life pregnancy centers can focus not solely on discouraging abortion, but also on helping men and women orient their romantic lives toward marriage. Many of us were startled in our training for our work at Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center to learn that clients whose pregnancy tests came out negative also need to be counseled. We were so conditioned to view pregnancy centers as baby-savers, we'd failed to notice that virtually every negative test is also a sign that something is going wrong in a woman's life. Too often, women heave a sigh of relief at the results, but don't change their habits--and are back in six months with the old anxious stare and a double load of guilt.

Sex education curricula, then, should emphasize chastity and good marriages. Both "safe sex" and "abstinence-only" curricula tend to fall into the trap of trying to scare teens with statistics on pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But teens are not very interested in reducing risk, and they're certainly not good at it. They are interested in romance, taking control of their relationships, and preparing for the future. Chastity counseling is what I do most often at the center.

Finally, since Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center is a Christian ministry, I should touch on religion. Almost all the women we see were raised as Christians and consider themselves Christians, but feel profoundly alienated from the heart of their faith. I've been surprised at how many women respond with interest and enthusiasm when they hear a brief, clear explanation of the essential Christian truths. "That makes a lot more sense," one teen said ruefully, than the confused and diluted notions she had brought with her. Such understanding is the best weapon of all against fatalism.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are her own and not those of the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center.