Compassionate or coercive?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 17, 2009

An ultrasound that pro-choice advocates call manipulative is, for pro-lifers, a path toward "informed consent."

But there is, broadly speaking, a split between motivation and method at the centers that is hard to ignore. And difficult to reconcile. A movement that seems sincere in its commitment to clients in need is, at the same time, wedded to tactics that do not serve women well.

Nguyen, in just her third month on the job, is clearly wrestling with that contradiction. She acknowledges, for instance, that the center's structure for providing long-term, in-house support to mothers is weak and in need of strengthening.

And days after a reporter asked her about questionable claims on the link between abortion and breast cancer, she called back, clearly troubled. The center's literature was out of date, she said. It did not acknowledge the "dispute" over the purported link. And she was ordering literature that would.

"I can't speak for other centers . . . but for our center, we really are dedicated to understanding the truth of the situation and being as accurate as possible," she said. "We're not in the business of scaring women out of abortion."

But a pamphlet that speaks to the "dispute" over the link between abortion and breast cancer is misleading in its own right. There is no real serious dispute in medical circles. Indeed abortion, whatever its moral implications, is a common and safe surgical procedure.

There were 1.2 million abortions in the United States in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And fewer than 0.5 percent of abortion patients experience serious complications. Indeed, the risk of death in childbirth is 12 times as high as the risk of death during abortion.

A responsible pregnancy counseling service must, in the end, acknowledge these realities. Must focus, solely, on arguments outside the realm of science. Arguments that clearly animate Nguyen and her staff more than any discussion of health risks. Arguments of faith.

"A lot of women feel compelled to have abortions because they're terrified," said Nguyen. "I guess we just feel, 'Yeah, you should be terrified.' "

But "for us," she added, "there's just always the potential for hope and change and possibility. And we don't believe you need an abortion in order to create that hope and change and possibility.

"For us," Nguyen said, "we're just, like, ridiculous optimists."

It is a compelling view. But optimism, in the end, may not be enough.

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Related: A black leadership silent on abortion fabrications, The blessing of abortion, Federal judge: more rights for the unborn, More more >
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