WACO, Tex. — Waco’s only crisis pregnancy center was built to intercept people en route to their abortions.
Situated right across the street from Planned Parenthood, Care Net advertises free ultrasounds and prenatal care on a sign meant to steer people to the left, instead of the right. Once they’re inside, patients are offered white cheddar popcorn in a consultation room adorned with abstract paintings of flowers and trees, where advocates are waiting to persuade them to choose life.
Now that S.B. 8 has outlawed abortions after six weeks in Texas, the interception will be easier. Across the state, crisis pregnancy centers are anticipating a surge in patients, as pregnant people, in desperate need of care, have nowhere else to go.
Texas has over 200 crisis pregnancy centers, more than any other state in the country. Many offer a limited range of medical services, including pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but typically not birth control, and are staffed by a mix of paid employees and volunteers. The vast majority are faith-based and explicitly antiabortion in their mission. Three days after the six-week ban took effect, many of these centers have already received an influx of calls, according to several center directors across the state. At the Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend in Corpus Christi, Tex., Executive Director Jana Pinson emailed donors on Tuesday asking for donations and volunteers to meet the increased demand.
Pinson expects to see a lot of patients who are angry about the law, a challenge she feels ready to meet. “We’re going to get the honor of walking alongside them until they feel comfortable, until the joy starts rising,” she said.
Crisis pregnancy centers “deny women moral autonomy” by leaving abortion out of the conversation, said Kimberly Kelly, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Mississippi State University who studies crisis pregnancy centers. S.B. 8 will give them access to “a whole population they never would have had access to before,” Kelly said: patients “in a very emotionally vulnerable space” who probably don’t know that these centers have a religious agenda.
“I think your average person might be like, ‘Oh my god, my world is falling down around me — and hey, that says pregnancy care center. Let me go see if they can help me.’”
At Care Net, an evangelical network with over 1,100 centers across the United States, Deborah McGregor, the chief executive of the facility in Waco, was thrilled when S.B. 8 took effect on Wednesday. Over the past few days, she and her staff have been gearing up for patients who are only interested in whether they are under six weeks gestation. Care Net will treat those patients like any other, McGregor said.
They will sit them down in a softly lit room, and talk.
Every day abortions are performed, antiabortion protesters line the perimeter of Waco’s Planned Parenthood. McGregor is quick to say she has little to do with them. Some stand across the street with bullhorns and grim reaper signs, she says, spouting bitter diatribes about genocide.
They approach people seeking an abortion with anger, she said — but “God is a gentleman.” At Care Net, she said, staff speak to patients with tenderness and love.
On Thursday, McGregor, 59, arrives in plum-tinted lipstick and sparkly beaded earrings, with a perfect French manicure. She was an attorney for much of her career, she said, finally leaving her practice after she had her fifth child. McGregor said she prayed for God to point her to her next calling.
She took over Care Net in 2006.
As chief executive, McGregor has committed herself to being “where the women are,” she says. Planned Parenthood, the only abortion clinic in Waco, has operated out of three different locations since McGregor took the job. Each time, McGregor has moved Care Net, or introduced mobile services, so that they could have a presence right outside.
She purchased the current building a year before Planned Parenthood announced its new location, she said. While abortion clinics often purposefully conceal their locations until they open, McGregor got a tip from a pastor. She went down to city hall to check out building plans for a new ambulatory center off Highway 6. “It just looked very suspicious,” she said. She shared her hunch with a couple at her church, who offered a million-dollar donation to buy the building across the street.
When patients who want an abortion come to Care Net, their consultations usually take about an hour, said Julie Miner, a care navigator at the facility who counsels patients but is not a licensed counselor. After the patient takes a pregnancy test and tests positive, a staff member or volunteer will bring in a box of free items. If the patient is open to it, McGregor said, they will pull out its contents one by one: a onesie, a stack of diapers, a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Miner says she will sit with patients still considering abortion and “figure out the why.”
“If they are worried about housing or child care or jobs, we can help with all that,” said Miner. Care Net is one of only a few crisis pregnancy centers in the state that offers short-term housing for pregnant mothers.
Now, Care Net will discuss S.B. 8 with any patient who continues to ask about abortion once a heartbeat is detected on the ultrasound. Unless the law changes, McGregor said, a staff member will inform the patient that abortion is no longer legal. Miner says she would discuss adoption, an option she now expects will become much more popular. She would never mention that a woman could access abortion out of state, she said.
“Besides the fact that it scares me that people would do that healthwise, I worry that people would travel out of state probably alone, probably without support, probably without people knowing,” she said.
For over 15 years, the Texas state legislature has been funneling money into crisis pregnancy centers. In the legislative session this spring, legislators gave them $100 million, more than ever before, said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Avow, an abortion rights group in Texas. At the majority of the centers, Arrambide said, “there is no medical oversight.” In Waco, Care Net has a medical director who weighs in on all “medical decisions,” but who works somewhere else during the day.
“They don’t provide actual health care,” said Arrambide. “They are trying to entrap people into hearing their rhetoric in an attempt to dissuade people from accessing the abortion care they want or need.”
While Planned Parenthood would not comment specifically on Care Net in Waco, Sarah Wheat, chief external affairs officer at Planned Parenthood of greater Texas, said the organization is committed to honoring every patient’s “autonomy and agency.” She said: “If a patient is prevented from having all of her choices, that is fundamentally at odds with our commitment.”
Right up until Wednesday, McGregor said she was not expecting S.B. 8 to take effect. Living in Texas, she’s grown accustomed to ambitious antiabortion legislation that gets blocked or overturned.
Wednesday was “a great day for Texas babies,” she said.
Many antiabortion leaders have not yet strategized for S.B. 8 because the law is so new, said Abby Johnson, an Austin-based antiabortion activist who once worked for Planned Parenthood. The crisis hotline she created called “LoveLine” has already received phone calls from a few women who had planned on getting abortions in Texas, but their appointments had been canceled.
Johnson said the hotline, which worked with 1,500 callers in its first year in 2020, helps women with assistance for things like housing, day care and medical services.
“The abortion clinics are trying to make women feel panicked right now,” Johnson said. “A lot of times if women have a moment to slow down and think about their situation and recognize what’s available to them, that there are supporting people in their life, they will choose something other than abortion.”
S.B 8, she added, “is allowing us to have reasonable conversations with women.”
When Texas abortion clinics shut down for one month during the coronavirus pandemic, after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) left abortion off a list of “medically necessary” procedures, Pinson said she got to talk to a lot of patients she otherwise never would have seen. If she can talk to them, even for a few minutes, she says, she has a chance to make “the light come on in their eyes.”
Since Wednesday, abortion clinics have been turning away people who are more than six weeks along without knowing it. Miner, the care navigator in Waco, expects that some of those people will leave Planned Parenthood and cross the street.
“Why not?” she said, smiling. “Why not have them come over here?”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.