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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"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.