Pregnancy centers, not politics – the future of the pro-life movement

By Matt Hadro

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Credit: CDC/James Gathany.

Amid the chilling dark chaos of a woman’s unwanted and unexpected pregnancy, a group of pro-life Catholics try to be a light to both the mother and the unborn child.

Their mission is in an unassuming plot in a modest town well outside the sprawling Washington, D.C. suburbs. Not much car traffic passes through town other than tourists on their way to see the mountain leaves turn every October.

Seventy miles outside the nation’s capital in northern Virginia, there is no national pro-life headquarters, army of lobbyists, or melodramatic political battle being waged. The Front Royal Pregnancy Center is simply part of a national chain of crisis pregnancy centers, “the real future of the pro-life movement,” as board member Mary Brand put it.

And this future is carried out in a drab brick building on South Royal Avenue, ministering to pregnant women from town and from the surrounding area. Walk through the door, however, and one will meet a disarmingly festive atmosphere. Decorations festoon the ceiling and walls. A joyful, peaceful intoxication pervades the place.

“It’s liberating to work in a place like this where every life is precious. Every life is important. Planned or unplanned,” said head nurse Rosemary Antunes, RN.

If there’s any gravitas over a battle for the life of an unborn child, the volunteers aren’t showing it. There’s no grim reminder of what’s at stake, no guilt-trip ready for an anxious mother who is not sure what to do with her baby. The focus here is simply on the goodness of life and the Gospel.

“We work hard to be across-the-board life-affirming,” Antunes told EWTN News. “Not just the baby’s personhood. (The mother's) personhood. Oh, and their significant other’s personhood.”

Crisis pregnancy centers are sometimes criticized for existing solely to save babies. The staff flatly rejects that line of thought when treating expectant mothers.

If the mother’s needs aren’t taken care of, if she is not affirmed and cared for through and even after the pregnancy, than the child will suffer the consequences, explained outreach coordinator Maura McMahon. A healthy mother is necessary for a healthy child.

This includes a mother who freely chooses to carry the child to term. She may be feeling intense pressure, on multiple fronts, to abort or keep the child, but the volunteers will not pressure her to save the life of the baby. All the witness to life is done through gentle, patient affirmation and education, through an authentic personal care for the woman.

“You’re merely giving them all the tools that they need to make an educated choice. And they know it,” McMahon said. “We’re giving them the space and time to make the decision. And we obviously pray that they keep (the baby), for the baby’s sake but (also) for their own sake. For the sake of their health, their well-being, and their conscience.”

“We really work hard on our non-judgmental, cheerful attitude,” Antunes says. This welcoming atmosphere begins right when a mother walks in the door.

“It’s important to get someone to smile or laugh,” said executive director Kathy Clowes. And no judgment of the woman is even considered.

In fact, the staff admire the women who come through the door, knowing that many of them are under intense pressure to abort their child.

“I think that a lot of them have heroic virtue, according to where they’ve come from, the very little training they’ve had,” Clowes added.

From humble beginnings

The center was begun in 1991, and presently ministers to almost 400 women per year and provides $23,000 worth of material assistance to mothers.

A local Catholic businessman offered the building that is the current location, and once they saw the building, the staff then knew they had room for an ultrasound machine. They procured one with the fundraising help of the Knights of Columbus. The local Knights council, the John Carrell Jenkins Council at St. John the Baptist Church, raised $24,000.

The national Knights of Columbus covered half the cost of the ultrasound machine. Through a program begun in 2009, the Supreme Council matches the funds raised by local Knights councils for ultrasound machines for local pregnancy centers.

The staff acknowledge the machine has been a game-changer.

“It’s been transformative, really,” Clowes said of the ultrasound machine. “The most common thing that the women say is that it did not seem real until they saw the baby on the screen. And they might expect to see a motionless little figure, they don’t expect to see it moving. Sometimes they don’t expect a heartbeat.”

The staff recounted once how an unborn baby on the ultrasound screen waved with his hand and the two year-old in the room waved back.

“You just let it dawn on them,” Clowes said. “Let the beauty of it come to mind.”

The image of a baby on the screen is transformative for fathers as well.

“They’re frequently stunned,” Antunes remarked. “There’s a genuine disconnect in our society between having sex and having a child. It’s documentable with the advent of contraception and the proliferation of contraception devices and use.”

Caring for the woman, no matter what

However, the woman needs more than pre-natal care if she decides to bring her baby to term. For many women the journey to childbirth can be a lonely and scary one. Motherhood, said McMahon, is a “life-changing experience,” and the women and babies need to be cared for even after the birth.

Women can participate in the center’s “Earn While You Learn” program, where women can “earn” supplies for motherhood as they are educated about pregnancy and motherhood.

“We make what seems like an impossible feat possible to them,” said McMahon. “Like you’re taking something that’s so intangible and you’re saying look, we have these material things for you to help you through the rough patches.”

The program also brings women back to the center, where they can establish a relationship with one of the volunteers.

“That first 45 minutes, you’re creating the start of a relationship, and if they come to ‘Earn While You Learn,’ you have all these hours to build on that relationship,” said Clowes.

And it is especially though these personal one-on-one meetings that the center strives to “share the Gospel,” as Antunes put it.

“A lot of centers have a group class, and you have to sign up for the group class, you come for the group class, you’re in the group with all these other people that you don’t really know,” Clowes explained.

“And we do one-on-one individual lessons. You come, you come with your mom, you come with your boyfriend, whatever. And if we can, we’ll sit in with you, most of the time, sit in with you and spend that time with you one-on-one.”

And any judgments of the women walking through the door go out the window.

“If they’ve had a couple of kids, or something like that, we’re not looking down our noses that they’re pregnant again,” Antunes said. “We’re here to help you through this pregnancy. And we think your kids are cute, by the way.”

“There has to be a safe place where they can know that this baby is welcomed,” Clowes said.

“And their other kids are welcome,” Antunes chimed in.

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