Compassionate or coercive?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 17, 2009

And Nguyen, who has taken her Vietnamese husband's last name, was pro-choice for many years.

But her views began to shift when she got pregnant for the first time. She felt a change, she said. Something biological, of course. But something deeper, too. Something maternal that made abortion unthinkable.

It was a personal conviction, at first. Nothing more. But a religious awakening six years ago helped turn it into something larger, pushing her toward what she calls the "ministry" of Care Net-Rhode Island.

Nguyen says she didn't enter the field to push some sort of rigid dogma, though. Christ's teaching, she said, is to offer "non-judgmental, compassionate support" to the vulnerable.

"It's not about expecting people to do what we want them to do in order to get that love and support," she said. "Christ did not ask people to convert in order to be loved and supported by him, he simply did it."

The center — like most, a private Christian charity — offers its services free of charge. There is counseling for women with unplanned pregnancies. Bible-based, post-abortion group therapy. Religiously themed "sexual wholeness" classes for those uncomfortable with their sexual history.

Parenting courses are available for the expecting mothers and their partners. A volunteer doula helps clients in the delivery room. Those who participate in center activities get "gift certificates" for clothes, diapers and toys, neatly displayed in a back room.

And Care Net-Rhode Island, part of a national network of some 1100 Care Net centers, is one of hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers that have tapped conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family's "Option Ultrasound" program to purchase an ultrasound machine, part of a broader "medicalization" of the movement.

The offerings, taken as a whole, suggest a systematic attempt to dissuade women from seeking abortions. But Nguyen and others at Rhode Island's crisis pregnancy centers insist there is no political motive behind their work. No attempt, in Nguyen's words, to build "a way around" Roe v. Wade.

The organizations are about connecting with women one-on-one, they say. Offering compassion. Sharing information. And nothing more.

"The idea is certainly not to coerce anyone," said David O'Connell, executive director at Mother of Life Center on Atwells Avenue in Providence. "They could walk out the door whenever they want. We're just showing them the truth."

But this is where critics sound the alarm.

The centers' work is, in fact, coercive, they say. Political. And the "truth" offered by the centers, they say, is anything but true.


On Dean Street, about a half block from Westminster on the West Side of Providence, a young Latina looks out at passers-by from a fraying billboard. "Free Pregnancy Testing," the sign reads, offering a phone number for Problem Pregnancy of Providence. "Be Informed. Get the Facts."

The message is typical for crisis pregnancy centers. And for pro-life partisans, it is not terribly controversial: women considering an abortion need information and the centers are there to inform.

But for critics, the offers of "free pregnancy testing" are designed to lure the poor and the vulnerable; the failure to disclose the centers' position on abortion is a deception; and the meetings with the misled are too often manipulative.

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