On the pro-life front lines in Texas
Pregnancy center staff navigate a new normal under the state’s new heartbeat law
Several dozen staff members from pregnancy centers around the state of Texas gathered in late August on the lawn of Sanctuary of Hope maternity home in San Antonio. On a break from CareNet’s four-day national conference, they ate tacos and discussed a law Gov. Greg Abbott signed in May. Pro-lifers had expected a court to block it, but, a week out from the law’s Sept. 1 effective date, pregnancy center workers were starting to realize it might take effect. For the first time since 1973, babies in Texas with detectable heartbeats could be safe from abortion.
Texas Right to Life legislative director John Seago explained the details of the law to make sure the pregnancy center workers understood whom it affected and to dispel some of the misinformation on social media about the bill. But there were some questions he couldn’t answer: How should pregnancy center workers counsel women whose babies don’t yet have a detectable heartbeat? They can still legally abort and they might feel rushed to do so—what’s a pregnancy center staff person to do?
The Texas heartbeat law launched pregnancy centers into uncharted territory. They expected some of it: increased client loads and women wanting answers about what the law would mean for them. Other effects of the law caught them by surprise. An existing support network of Texas centers has shared ideas and resources for how to navigate the new normal.
Threesa Sadler, director of the Raffa Clinic in Greenville, Texas, prepared for an influx of women after Sept. 1. She changed the center’s previously part-time sonographer to full-time so women could get ultrasounds as soon as possible. She increased the number of nurses working at a time to allow more appointments. She prepared to have staff available after hours.
It’s a good thing she did. Pregnancy tests at her center have increased by more than 30 percent since the same time last year, and ultrasounds have gone up by 150 percent. Other centers have seen similar increases. When I asked one Houston director how busy her center was, she texted: “Standing room only Line out the door.”
But the August gathering also revealed uncertainty. The next day, Sadler met with two nurses from a central Texas pregnancy center to discuss their questions. If part of the center’s role is to give women the information needed to make a thoughtful decision, how should workers counsel women who have a very short time frame to get an abortion? How should they counsel women whose babies do not yet have a detectable heartbeat?
Sadler created a tip sheet for women to take home after pregnancy center appointments that explained the law and talked about the abortion pills and pill reversal treatment. It also explained what it means for women if they can’t see a heartbeat, including that 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies naturally end in miscarriage, making an abortion redundant. Although some might take that information as a stall tactic, Sadler said the point was to make sure women had all available information before making a decision.
Sadler shared the document with a group of more than 60 other Texas pregnancy centers, leaving a spot for them to insert their own logos. Since then, other centers have started using it during appointments.
Through a GroupMe messaging app and weekly Zoom meetings started during the pandemic, Sadler hears about unexpected trends at other centers: No-show rates have gone up in some places, suggesting frantic women made appointments wherever they could and decided last-minute which option to pursue. One center mentioned several girls said they hoped to find a heartbeat so abortion wouldn’t be an option anymore. Multiple places saw an increase in phone calls from supporters and members of the community who have questions about the heartbeat law.
Sadler said supporters have called her asking if she would close the center now that abortion was largely prohibited in the state. Others have asked if the law means people can sue the women who have abortions. One donor—a post-abortive woman—called Sadler in distress because she thought the law meant she could be sued for the abortion she had 20 years ago. (She can’t.)
As pregnancy centers continue to see increasing loads, many are looking ahead to when all the mothers who are now coming to them for pregnancy tests and ultrasounds give birth to their babies.
“Just simple math will tell you, in Texas, that’s about 40,000 women that may have babies this year that wouldn’t have—they would have aborted,” Sadler said. “That’s a lot of women that we need to serve and that are going to be showing up at our doors of our centers and the doors of our churches. And we need to be prepared to help them.”
Sadler said her center is well-equipped with diapers and baby clothes, but she and her staff usually rely on the community when a mother needs help paying rent, finding a job, or getting her car repaired. Her center has talked about the possibility of setting up a benevolence fund for needs like that. But no matter what, Texas centers like hers will need people who are willing to offer their money or time without being asked. “We are the front lines of this battle,” said Sadler. “We think about what we need at like 2 in the morning when we can’t sleep.”
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