"Always call it a baby. Never call it a fetus."
"Always refer to the pregnant woman as the 'mother.'"
"Emphasize the regret and shame they will experience if they terminate the pregnancy."
These were among the directives I received during my training to volunteer at my local crisis pregnancy center in 2001. I was 21 years old, and I applied for a volunteer position at the center because as a conservative Christian, I wanted to support the pro-life movement. I had just finished filming MTV's Road Rules and its spinoff, The Challenge, wherein I received attention for my theological point of view, and I felt a responsibility to be an ambassador of the pro-life message.
I had spoken at several churches encouraging young people to hold fast to their values, and saw an opportunity to use my 15 minutes of fame as a reality TV star to influence pregnant women to keep their babies.
Crisis pregnancy centers are nonprofit organizations that act as a pro-life alternative to Planned Parenthood, and are designed both structurally and in marketing to resemble their pro-choice counterparts. But despite any superficial similarities, the centers' express purpose is to advise pregnant women against abortions.
Unlike women's reproductive clinics, most crisis pregnancy centers are not medical facilities, and apart from providing free pregnancy tests and possibly limited sonograms, they do not offer medical assistance.
While these centers have paid staff, they rely primarily on volunteers to run day-to-day operations and provide counseling to the pregnant women. They are funded by donations from individuals and often partner with churches that provide financial and staff support.
I had always supported the mission of these centers, and believed them to be heroes in the fight against abortion. My time in the spotlight made me feel like a public representative of the evangelical worldview, and I wanted to put legs to my philosophy. I verbally promoted the pro-life agenda using the same rhetoric that was preached to me about the "sanctity of life" and "personal responsibility," but it felt hollow. I wanted to walk the walk.
I had heard about my local crisis pregnancy center through my church and the Christian school I attended growing up. The center had provided some of the literature used by my school's sex education program (which was an abstinence-only curriculum). The center was located in the suburbs of my city, a familiar local landmark and conversation piece.
I walked into the center on a cold night, and asked for an application. It was quiet, the only sound some of the volunteers chatting in the backroom. The woman working the front desk greeted me and was thrilled that I wanted to volunteer, saying, "We rarely get young people wanting to make a difference." She handed me an application and giddily went to tell the other volunteers about their new recruit.
The volunteer application was thorough and personal. I was required to sign a pledge vowing to practice abstinence (if unmarried) and monogamy (if married). Even though I knew the center's philosophy (promoting full-term pregnancies and condemning abortions), I was still surprised that the volunteer requirements were so strict and intimate. Regardless, I signed the form and began training immediately.
The volunteers at this center were mostly stay-at-home moms and grandmotherly types who felt a special connection to the pro-life movement and the women who needed maternity services. Many of them attended my church or other evangelical churches in the area, and in addition to their services at the crisis pregnancy center, they organized pro-life marches and pickets.
The goal of the center was to convince women that an abortion was an act of violence toward an innocent human life. The training consisted almost exclusively of providing me with a script of answers for questions commonly asked by the pregnant women.
If a woman asked about her options, we were instructed to give her two: parenting and adoption. If she asked specifically about abortion, we were told to explain that abortion was not a responsible or wise choice and focus instead on the "miracle of life," emphasizing how many women want so much to get pregnant but can't.
The instructions said to remind women that while their pregnancies might have been unplanned, they are still a blessing. If a woman asked about the consequences of abortion, we were told to explain "post-abortion syndrome," which the script claimed is characterized by depression and anxiety.
We were directed to tell women that studies show they will regret an abortion for the rest of their lives, that they would inevitably be haunted by night terrors, anxiety, depression, and other physical ailments because of their decision to abort.
The "studies" were not cited, but it didn't seem to matter to the staff, none of whom ever openly questioned the validity of the claims and, from what I saw, always stuck to the script when interacting with the pregnant women. They seemed to be focused solely on the center's mission to prevent abortion, and were either convinced of the studies' accuracy or were operating under an ends-justify-the-means approach.
After I was coached on how to answer questions, I watched several videos on the importance of saving unborn lives. Set to eerie music, the videos aimed to convince the viewer that fetuses were aware, alert, autonomous, and able to feel pain. They compared abortion to genocide, and called it a "growing problem."
The language in the videos was religious and focused on concepts of sin, guilt, and the consequences of sex, adultery, and promiscuity. The videos described abortions as violent, painful, and dangerous.
I believed the video content to be accurate, but the style and tone felt over the top and resembled the evangelical videos I had watched about Armageddon. They had a sense of urgency and a doomsday quality that was designed to convince pregnant women that this was indeed a life-or-death situation.
While the tone of the videos felt overly dramatic, I assumed the center knew how best to reach its audience and accomplish its goal.
The rhetoric in the videos wasn't new to me. I grew up during the rise of the religious right, and was surrounded by the political and religious worldview of evangelicalism wherein abortion was murder. The message was consistent and presented from my church pulpit, in my school's curriculum, and in my home.
I was taught that Roe v. Wade was a reflection of an amoral society that didn't want to take responsibility for its actions. As a result, for most of my life I was a single-issue voter. I believed a person's position on this controversial issue reflected her whole character. If a politician aligned with my conservatism completely but was pro-choice, it was a deal breaker.
While I understood there could be a debate about at which point life begins, it seemed imperative to err on the side of life. While I questioned the center's refusal to make exceptions even in the case of rape or the life of the mother, I thought its overall mission was noble. I was on board.
Within an hour of my first day at the center, a young woman walked in and asked to receive a free pregnancy test. She looked to be about 18. She was fidgety and seemed scared. The lead volunteer asked her to fill out some paperwork and handed her a pregnancy test.
The young woman took the pregnancy test, but was not given her results. Instead, the three of us sat down while the young woman listened as the lead volunteer told her that the only ethical choice was to carry the child to term, and the moral choice was between parenting and adoption. The volunteer also told the woman that abortionists were, without exception, heartless and unethical and were "just trying to make a buck" off unwanted pregnancies.
Just as the training manual stated, the girl was warned of the supposed negative physical, emotional, and psychological effects of abortions. She was told an abortion would lessen the likelihood of conceiving later and the depression from getting an abortion would potentially leave her unable to support herself or have a decent life. The young woman didn't say a word, and had yet to receive the results of her free pregnancy test.
The center, it should be noted, had no medical license.
After listening to the warnings and sitting through a video about the terror of abortion, the young woman was informed that she was, in fact, pregnant. She sat stunned, and the room was silent. She didn't cry or say a thing. The lead volunteer offered to pray with her, and she accepted.
During the prayer, she asked God to reveal himself to the pregnant woman and to lead her down the right path of keeping her baby. After the prayer, the young woman thanked us and asked if she could leave. The lead volunteer escorted her out and said, "We know you'll do the right thing for you and your baby."
There was no discussion about how the center would assist her, and she was not provided a list of resources or aid. It felt like we weren't meeting her needs, but I wasn't sure yet if this initial experience was representative of the center's interactions with women.
After the pregnant woman left, I asked if the center provided anything for women who did choose to carry their pregnancies to term. I was taken to a room packed with used baby equipment and told women could come and sign up to receive things they needed. But most of the equipment was so old and dirty that even a thrift store would turn it away. There were no standards in place for monitoring the safety or quality of these items, and the room lacked the truly necessary child care supplies like diapers and formula.
I never saw the girl again.
It is unclear how many women enter crisis pregnancy centers believing they will receive comprehensive reproductive services and information, but the centers often advertise under "abortion services" despite being a part of the anti-abortion movement.
Furthermore, their names often include terms like "choice" and "health care" to create a false connection with licensed medical facilities that provide abortion services. They are often located close to women's health clinics and abortion providers, but outnumber them by at least two to one. They rely on these measures to hook women who would otherwise go to abortion clinics in the hope of persuading them to choose to maintain their pregnancies.
The center where I volunteered told me to avoid religious references and "Christian speak" if we sensed the woman would be offended by it. The center's affiliation with churches and religious ideology was not advertised, although many of the volunteers offered a prayer if the pregnant woman was in distress or mentioned religion.
I continued to volunteer at the clinic over the next few months and watched the same cycle: Scared young women came in, got lectured, received pregnancy news, and left without anything except for some pamphlets about pregnancy and adoption.
Many of them cried. Most of them said they were scared to tell their parents. Few of them returned to get baby equipment. I don't know whether they had abortions or carried their pregnancies.
Over the months, I started to wonder whether we really were doing the right thing for these women. The services provided were minimal and didn't resolve any of the financial or familial concerns the women had. Furthermore, the center's dismissive treatment of the special needs and worries of rape victims felt contradictory to the essence of the pro-life message.
I wondered why the center claimed to worry about the depression caused by abortion but didn't address the post-traumatic stress induced by rape and abusive relationships. I grew increasingly concerned about the tactics implemented to ensure the center's desired outcome. I even began questioning my devotion to the cause itself.
I started to see the pro-life movement as a means to maintain strict gender roles with women bound to home and family and disproportionately punished for unwanted pregnancies. My passion for the mission was waning.
After the training period of mostly observing the protocol and attempting to comfort and inspire women who found out they were pregnant, despite my private misgivings, I was told I was ready to be a counselor. At that time I had no children, I had never been pregnant, and I was barely old enough to drink, yet the center thought I was qualified to give women serious life advice. I felt uncomfortable, but I was willing to try. This is what I signed up for, I told myself.
On my first night as an official volunteer counselor, a woman about my age came in. She recognized me from reality TV and said she loved watching the show. I was flattered, and hoped that my time in the spotlight could potentially help her decide not to have an abortion.
She asked for a pregnancy test. I followed the script and told her to fill out some paperwork, take the test, and return to the room so we could chat before getting her results. I started telling her about the virtues of keeping her baby (remembering the directive to always call the fetus a baby), and I told her she was about to find out whether she was a mom now (following instructions to remind the women of their maternity).
She looked at me, and her face went white. Perhaps it was the first time it really hit her that the results might indicate that she was pregnant.
She told me she had been raped. She didn't know whether she could carry a baby conceived that way.
I told her I understood. I told her I had been raped too.
I was a virgin when I was attacked. I remembered that feeling of fear, of hoping I wouldn't end up pregnant. She and I shared a moment of silent connection, and we both started to cry.
I knew I could no longer do this job. I could no longer try to convince women what to do with their bodies based on anecdotal evidence, misinformation, and scare tactics.
I got out her test, took a breath, and told her the news. She wasn't pregnant.
I left that day and never went back. I never told the women at the center why I was leaving or that I believed their methods were questionable. I didn't think it would matter. They were steadfast in their devotion and committed to the center's anti-abortion platform.
I believe the women who worked and volunteered at the center were well-intentioned and sincere. It was never clear to me whether they truly believed everything they told the women who came in. At minimum, they told a one-sided story and fostered fear with the aim of preventing abortion.
Many of the women told me they were comfortable with presenting the center as a comprehensive health care facility if it got women in to hear the message. It was common to call this tactic a "bait and switch": Women would mistakenly enter the facility looking for abortion information only to receive a pro-life message.
They said they believed such confusion was worth it if it prevented abortion, which they believed to be the most horrific and despicable act a woman could commit. It seemed like the personal lives of the women, the future of the children they could bear, and the consequences of carrying a child to term were all incidental.
A decade and a half after my experience at the pregnancy center, I now firmly believe in a woman's right to choose abortion. While my philosophical shift to pro-choice was not immediate, my experiences volunteering at the center changed the way I saw the pro-life movement and conservative Christianity more generally.
Ultimately, working at a pro-life pregnancy center made me pro-choice. The women at the center would probably consider that philosophical shift to be the second greatest mistake a woman could make.
Susie Meister is a doctor of religious studies. Her research is on the marketing of evangelicalism and the prosperity gospel. She also hosts The Brain Candy Podcast.
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