This week on blackvoices.com, noted author and drug policy reformer asha bandele declared Life Always's danger-womb billboards "a vulgar twist on the personal as political" and revealed a tragic family history that informs her stance:
"Being anti-abortion is not synonymous with loving children. Sometimes the way to show your love is to choose not to have a child you cannot care for--a factor often forgotten by those who are willing to legislate what to do with a woman's womb... At the heart of my own feelings about abortion is my grandmother, who died alone because in the 1930s, abortion was not an option, and in her small town religious world, neither was having a baby in the months after her husband left her for another woman. In this way, my own mother would become a motherless child at 4 years old, the age she was when my grandmother bled out in someplace now unknown to us, alone and scared."
Bandele's words got me thinking about when and where I entered the battle for reproductive health rights. It started at age 15, when I--a big virgin--was hired as a peer educator at Planned Parenthood. At first it was just a Mickey D's-free way for me to buy gold doorknockers and high-top Reeboks. But then I started talking, really talking, to the mostly black and Puerto Rican girls in my sessions. Some were pregnant or had babies. Some hinted at domestic violence and rape. These girls would sit through my 20-minute talk about pregnancy and disease prevention, then ask lots of questions about how to get a dude to wear a condom, the pros and cons of the pill, and scary stuff like genital warts, herpes and AIDS. A skilled adult educator or medical professional monitored the sessions but played the back. They knew young women needed this information without the finger-wagging.
So that's why I take these billboards and the movement behind them so personally--because they promote shame, and willfully distort and withhold critical health information. The websites they advertise such as thatsabortion.com (Life Always) and toomanyaborted.com (Radiance Foundation), promise resources and help but link to Option Line, the telephone and IM hotline. Heartbeat International and Care Net, the crisis pregnancy center (CPC) networks behind Option Line, are about as black as mayonnaise. Option Line is just a pipeline to the nearest radical Christian, right-wing, anti-abortion CPC.
Stingy with info:
To see how Option Line's chat function works in real time, I logged on under the handle "afraid." I didn't identify myself as a journalist, and, admittedly, veered into hamfisted O'Keefian territory. But unlike James O'Keefe, I didn't doctor up the results of my highly unscientific experiment. Below is a copy of the chat. I redacted the volunteer's name, formatted the text for readability, and trimmed a few "OKs." Otherwise, it's all here, typos and everything:
[Redacted]: hi, how can I help you?
afraid: i think i might be pregnant and i don't know what to do
[Redacted]: okay, we are here to help; have you taken a pregnancy test yet?
afraid: no but my period is late. it's way late
[Redacted]: okay, if you test now; then you should get accurate results
afraid: what test should i use?
[Redacted]: we have local pregnancy centers that provide free, confidential pregnancy tests. I can locate a center for you? It is confidential and no one will know that you were there
afraid: i think it would be easier for me to do a test at home and then come in. i can get a friend to buy the test for me
[Redacted]: it your choice, just remember we have that resources available if you need it
afraid: i guess im just trying to make sure the results work
afraid: well ok thanks
[Redacted]: Someone here would love to talk to you if you'd be willing to call. Our phone number is [redacted] and even if I'm not the one who answers the phone everybody here will be able to find you helpful resources in your area.
afraid: what i want to find out is what the most accurate test would be but i don't want to talk to anyone? because i don't know what to do about it yet. so that's why i was asking about the accurate test. i'm so nervous
[Redacted]: I am not sure; we really don't validate any of the tests; but our centers do provide accurate testing
afraid: but if you can't suggest the most accurate test. ok i'll do some reasearch myself. thanks again
[Redacted]: you are welcome
afraid: if i take the test at home and then come in to get it double checked would someone try to tell me whether or not to have the baby? i've avoided dealing with this because i feel alot of pressure about making the right decision. that's why i don't want to go anywhere. but i need to get help if im pregnant. i don't have insurance at the moment so i can't call a doctor and dont want to be judged. do you know what i mean? it's really hard. i made a mistake
[Redacted]: yes, there is a lot of love and support at our centers; you won't be judged
afraid: i read on your site that you give bible study classes. i'm not christian, btw
[Redacted]: the peer counselor can help you sort things out so that you can make good decisions for yourself ...
afraid: what if i want an abortion? like if i end up deciding that's what i want to do? because i can't support a baby. i don't have insurance. i can't even make sure my baby would be born healthy. is that part of the help? or does it depend? are you tehre?
[Redacted]: our centers do not perform or make referrals for an abortion; but they do help with pregnancy
afraid: how do you help with pregnancy? why don't you make referrals for an abortion? is it because it's christian? i don't get why you're pausing before answering. this seems like more of the same judgment this was a bad idea i shouldnt have come here
[Redacted]: Our local resource centers offer free and confidential lab quality tests. They also offer a number of other services to help women who are pregnant. If you would like to find a center in your area, call our helpline at [redacted]. It's completely confidential and available 24/7.Someone here would love to talk to you if you'd be willing to call. Our phone number is [redacted] and even if I'm not the one who answers the phone everybody here will be able to find you helpful resources in your area.
afraid: thanks again i guess
[Redacted]: Have a nice night
How an online sexual health chat should go:
Now, since the CPC movement frequently accuses Planned Parenthood of deception, I also wanted to reality-test their claim. An equally frazzled "afraid" logged on to a Planned Parenthood help line. Here's how that chat went:
[Redacted]: Welcome to our live chat service. How may I help you
afraid: i'm afriad i might be pregnant. i've missed my period and want to do a test
[Redacted]: OK, you've contacted the right place.
afraid: i would like to see if i'm pregnant first. before i come in
[Redacted]: Taking a test is the only way to know for sure if you're pregnant
afraid: is there a kind of test you recommend? there are so many. im freaking out. this is a big mistake. i don't have insurance and i can't have a baby
[Redacted]: I understand your concern. Pregnancy tests are very accurate. Most home pregnancy tests work 99 out of 100 times if used correctly after a missed period. They can be less effective if you take the pregnancy test too early, if you do not use it correctly, or if the expiration date on the pregnancy test has passed.
[Redacted]: It sounds like you may be in a difficult situation. We are here to help.
afraid: so i should look for the right date? when you say too early like how early? i already missed two periods but i don't always get it. so ive been avoiding it
[Redacted]: If you have missed a period then you could take one now.
afraid: but, so. ok. ok
[Redacted]: Home pregnancy tests usually cost about $15. They are sold in most drugstores.
afraid: i think i just have been avoiding the whole thing, i'm nervious. i don't want to go to a clinic because i don't want to be judged
[Redacted]: It's common to be nervous. Maybe you can be with someone you trust when you take the test.
afraid: and i don't know what i want to do yet. like if someone tried to tell me to get an abortion
[Redacted]: Many women make the decision that is best for them and their families.
afraid: if i wanted to keep the baby
[Redacted]: Sometimes coming in and speaking in person helps you with your options.
afraid: but i dont want to feel pressure. pressure one way or another. there are people saying don't do certain things. people saying do it
[Redacted]: Coming into a Planned Parenthood, we will only show support.
[Redacted]: The choice is yours and yours only.
afraid: ok can i get tested tehre too for diseases?
afraid: i mean when i come in
afraid: like it could be done all on the same day?
[Redacted]: Would you like the Planned Parenthood contact information?
afraid: yes ok i'll take it. im going to start with the pregnancy test first then go from there bcs i have to do it quietly. i cant really come in without people noticing
[Redacted]: [Local Planned Parenthood] can be contacted at [redacted number]. They are located on [redacted address]
afraid: ok. Ok. thank you ...
[Redacted]: We are here to help. Do you have any other questions?
afraid: if i have a disease will they tell me not to have the baby? or will they want me to put it up for adoption?
[Redacted]: The doctor will be able to give you more information on that. They won't tell you what to do though, just give you medical advice.
afraid: i don't want to feel judged. ok. the doctor would talk to me
[Redacted]: Nobody will be judging you. Many women go through the same things.
afraid: ok i think thats it. thank you again
[Redacted]: You're welcome.
You already know where I, a former peer educator, and current information-lover stand. So I'll ask you, which helpline is more helpful to vulnerable girls and women?