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.