A couple of weeks ago I attended the Merci's Refuge (MR) fundraiser, mostly because I wanted to meet Mike Huckabee. Even after the small, private press conference — and despite all of the reading I'd done about Huckabee's pregnancy politics prior to the event — I couldn't be too negative about the politician I'd just met. Sure, the mass prayer led by MR's staff at the beginning of the actual fundraiser put me off at first, but I had a blast listening to the Tons 'O Fun Band (they really are a ton of fun, tons of puns aside), and really really enjoyed Huckabee's hour-long speech. Whether or not I agreed with what he preached, the guy sure can tell a story. All 60 minutes of his spiel were eloquent, accessible, and perfectly tied together to touch on every single topic he needed in order to pull on the heart strings — and purse strings — of his audience. Two weeks and twelve replays of Huckabee's speech later, I'm still not entirely sure what to think about a home for pregnant women being built in Champaign, or the fact that Mike Huckabee riled up a rather large audience in support of it. Here's what I can make sense of so far.

Merci's Refuge and CPCs

The proposed Merci's Refuge is a part of the current Living Alternatives pregnancy resource center (PRC) in town. PRCs like Living Alternatives are also known as Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), due to their self-identification as "pro-life" and expressed opposition of abortion of any kind for any reason. By definition, CPCs are non-profit organizations that counsel women against having abortions.

In addition to the PRC and proposed MR home for pregnant women, Living Alternatives has another ministry called The Rocking Chair, "a life-honoring organization offering support to expectant mothers whose unborn baby has been diagnosed with an adverse or terminal condition and who wishes to carry the baby to term." The Rocking Chair is also not-for-profit, and aims to prevent those often-cited cases of abortion where a woman seeks to terminate an otherwise wanted pregnancy due to extreme fetal defects or imminent postpartum infant death. Together, Living Alternatives PRC, Merci's Refuge, and The Rocking Chair aim to help every pregnant woman carry her pregnancy to term, regardless of that pregnancy's outcome. The PRC will provide adoption and prenatal care referrals to women; MR will help house select pregnant women during their pregnancies; and The Rocking Chair will help guide, counsel, and support a woman and her family as she carries her terminally-diagnosed pregnancy through birth. For the women who truly want and need these services, the Living Alternatives programs are the only ones of their kind in Champaign-Urbana.

The women who access CPC services without knowing about their pro-life agenda, however, are a different story. Like the services advertised at Living Alternatives, CPCs provide peer counseling related to abortion, pregnancy and childbirth, and may also provide pregnancy testing, sonograms, or other services. Unfortunately, staff at CPCs nationwide have been found to disseminate false or misleading medical information, including the estimated gestation of pregnancy and alleged "facts" that abortion causes breast cancer and childbirth is safer than abortion. This misinformation is in addition to reported emotional manipulation by staff at other CPCs, despite statements similar to the PRC's Statement of Principle that promises "The PRC denounces and forbids any form of deception in its corporate advertising or individual conversations with its client" and "We absolutely do not coerce or badger any woman into making any type of decision about her baby. We present the truth and it is up to the woman to make any decision concerning the outcome of the pregnancy."

I have never visited the Living Alternatives PRC (though after the MR event they kindly invited me), but I visited a similar CPC in college. I suspected a pregnancy and utilized the nearest "pregnancy center" to ask about local resources. When I raised the topic of abortion, my CPC "counselor" asked me to consider what my future husband would think when I told him that I murdered my own son when I was 20. She encouraged me to consider adoption and told me that with today's open adoptions I could probably babysit my own child someday. I was never given a pregnancy test or referred to any local resources that would even mention abortion providers, even though that specific CPC advertised free pregnancy testing, sonograms, and counseling.

Though I thankfully have not heard of any such interactions with local PRC staff, the "testimonies" on Living Alternatives' website point to potential misuse of information, purposeful withholding of facts, or personal judgment for women who visit with pregnancy scares.

Testimony from PRC staff includes, "I discussed the risks of abortion with her ... [then] I told her about our HOPE support services," and "We gave them the information they needed to come to the decision that they were pregnant with a baby, NOT an accident," as well as "To my dismay this was someone I personally knew, as well as her family ... She had grown up in a good Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age but was going through a stubborn rebellious phase and made some foolish choices." Living Alternatives publicizes these testimonies as evidence of the need for their work. How this reflects their commitment to denounce any form of deception or judgment in individual conversations with clients is unclear.

During the Mercy's Refuge fundraiser, the PRC staff showed a film depicting pregnant women as hopeless, ashamed, and living in fear. These terms are echoed in much of the MR and PRC literature, including their recent newsletter where staff recounts a women who sought abortion, was convinced to stay pregnant by the PRC, and later decided to adopt the baby out to her barren sister. Similar to many of PRC's testimonies, God's work was credited in "bringing glory out of our messes and turning our ashes to beauty."

Where these women have gotten the impression that they should feel hopeless, ashamed, and like they created a "mess" is another issue entirely, but whether the staff and volunteers at the PRC believe they are deceiving their clients or not, purposefully withholding information about pregnancy prevention and lying about the outcomes of particular procedures is dangerous.

Living Alternatives' website states, "the PRC does not recommend, provide or refer for abortion or abortifacients or birth control/contraception" and "The PRC does not recommend, provide, or refer single women for contraceptives. Married women seeking contraceptive information are urged to make informed decisions regarding this matter." This means when a woman is in a private counseling session with a PRC employee, she will not be given all of her legal options regarding pregnancy prevention or pregnancy outcomes, regardless of how many times she asks, and instead may receive only staff's personal opinion or incorrect information disguised as facts, if not an all-out guilt trip about the very difficult decision and coping process she has ahead of her.

Huckabee and the plight of the pregnant woman

I was surprised to hear that Mike Huckabee was coming to town when I received an incorrectly-addressed invitation to the Merci's Refuge fundraiser. When I learned a little more about Merci's Refuge, I became less surprised. When I witnessed how perfectly Mike Huckabee personally and politically represented the mission of MR during his speech at their fundraiser, I joined the standing ovation he received.

During his 11-year term as Governor of Arkansas, Huckabee achieved many victories for the pro-life movement. Among these, according to Huckabee's website, was signing legislation that allows motorists to purchase "Choose Life" license plates (with proceeds going to CPCs), signing legislation that bans human cloning, signing the fetal protection act of 1999, implementing abstinence-only-until-marriage education, and issuing a "Month of Prayer to End Abortions" proclamation.

More recently, before his appearance as an avid supporter of the proposed Merci's Refuge home for unwed pregnant women, Huckabee chastised Oscar-winning actress, Harvard graduate, and published scientist Natalie Portman for appearing at the 2011 Academy Awards pregnant and unwed. During an interview he stated,

[O]ne of the things that's troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, 'Hey look, you know, we're having children, we're not married, but we're having these children, and they're doing just fine.' But there aren't really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie. And I think it gives a distorted image that yes, not everybody hires nannies, and caretakers, and nurses. Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care ... And that's the story that we're not seeing, and it's unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock [sic]. You know right now 75% of black kids in this country are born out of wedlock. Sixty-one percent of Hispanic kids, across the board, 41% of all live births in America are out of wedlock births. And the cost of that is simply staggering.

Interestingly, in speeches during his 2008 presidential run, Huckabee supported free prenatal care for pregnant illegal immigrants. On the flip side, he had said illegal aliens who try to vote or try to apply for welfare benefits should be arrested, and "If they're caught as illegal aliens, I don't have any problem with sending them back." Living Alternatives claims, "The PRC does not discriminate in providing services because of race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, or marital status of its clients," yet there was not a single woman of color in their film or literature at the Merci's Refuge event. They use a lot of stock photos of babies-of-color in their newsletters, though, if that counts for anything. Will MR provide hopeless, pregnant illegals with their free services?

Immigration laws aside, Huckabee has publicly proclaimed his desire to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling and, in a separate but related move, help defund Planned Parenthood. Yet during his career as Governor, Huckabee issued an executive order for state agencies to comply with Charitable Choice, allowing faith-based providers access to government funds. In other words, Huckabee wants to yank funds from a non-profit organization that provides medically-accurate sex education, affordable pregnancy prevention services, and other life-saving services like breast and cervical cancer screenings, while simultaneously giving tax-payer dollars to health providers who pick and choose what medical services to offer based on religious beliefs.

In the brief press conference that occurred during his visit to Champaign, Huckabee touted the proposed Merci's Refuge program and its affiliate organization, Living Alternatives, for their commitment to providing education and assistance to pregnant women in need. When someone asked how those education and assistance programs are different than what community resources such as Planned Parenthood already provide, Huckabee responded,

It's not healthy to take the life of the child and put extraordinary danger and risk on a woman. Abortion can be very physically threatening and create longstanding physical issues for a woman, not to mention the emotional ones. I spent 12 years as a pastor; I counseled a lot of women in their late 20s, who in their late teens had undergone an abortion. They didn't think about it much then, because maybe their parents were pushing them, or their boyfriend was pushing them, and they just needed to get out of the dilemma they thought they were in. Move the clock forward 10 years, and now they are in their late 20s, often married, out of college, in their careers, and now they have kids and are starting to understand that the child they aborted would have been one of their children. And I cannot tell you the amazing sense of guilt many of these women carry. And it's not something they are told when they go through the process when [Planned Parenthood] tries to get them in the abortion room. I think it's unfair to women; it's cruel, and a woman has a right to know all the truth and all the facts, and shouldn't be pushed into a decision until fully understanding [it]. And taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for something that they find morally repugnant. [Interviewer states taxpayer money does not fund abortions]... But taxpayer money goes to Planned Parenthood and that frees up their other money to provide abortion services... My heart goes out to people who think they don't have another alternative, and think that abortion is their choice.

I followed up by asking Huckabee, "What education methods do you hope Merci's Refuge provides to the women who stay there in order to prevent future unplanned pregnancies?" He replied, "I'm not aware of all the things they do ... but I do know they will provide assistance if they want to have an adoption ... Every service provided that brings forth a healthy birth is a good thing." Obviously, Huckabee, MR, and the PRC are more invested in dealing with unplanned pregnancies than preventing them from happening in the first place.

Piecing it together

From what I gathered at the Merci's Refuge fundraiser, MR and Living Alternatives PRC staff and supporters, as well as keynote speaker Mike Huckabee, truly and honestly believe that abortion is terrible for women, and every product of conception has inalienable rights and should lead to a pregnancy that leads to a birth — regardless of what happens after said birth. Women, as well as the pregnancies they carry, should be valued and cared for during this time. Merci's Refuge, the PRC, and Mike Huckabee do not set out to intentionally hurt women, mislead them, or trick them into becoming baby machines. What they intend to do and what they actually do, unfortunately, are two different things.

Some statistics:

  • On average, 90–95% of Americans have had sex before they get married (of those who marry).
  • American women and men are sexually active, on average, for 8–10 years before they get married.
  • Medically-accurate, age-appropriate (aka: "comprehensive") sexual health education has been shown to delay initiation of first intercourse, reduce the number of lifetime partners, and increase the use of protection against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.
  • Studies have shown that students who receive abstinence-only-until-marriage education don't have lower pregnancy, HIV, or STI rates than recipients of other forms of sex education. Instead, students who receive such programs are less likely to use contraception and condoms when they do have sex.
  • Each year about 750,000 American adolescent females become pregnant.
  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) evaluation of the Medicaid family planning expansion provision removed from the House stimulus plan would have saved the federal government $200 million over five years and $700 million over ten years.

While abstaining from sex guarantees pregnancy prevention, most Americans do not wait until they enter a lifelong partnership to have sex. Even when American youth receive abstinence-only sex education, they still have sex in their teen years like most of their peers, but they are less likely to use protection and, therefore, more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy or disease than their peers who received accurate education about protection.

Most people agree that having a baby in one's teens is not the most desirable time to start a family. Babies born to teens or families who cannot provide necessary emotional, financial, and economic support are less likely to do well in childhood and throughout life, and are more likely to be abused.

Merci's Refuge aims to help pregnant women who might otherwise face homelessness. This is a noble cause, as babies born to homeless mothers are at an even greater disadvantage to health and development risks. Similarly, placement in foster care predicts adult homelessness, and 70% of women who were in foster care as kids currently have at least one child in foster care. Merci's Refuge wants to take part in breaking this cycle, 12 women at a time, by housing pregnant women and helping them create job and life skills, as well as a healthy baby that will be born into a safe and loving home.

According to their website, Merci's Refuge and Living Alternatives PRC survive on private donations and do not receive any state or federal grant money. This is in stark contrast to the more than 4,000 CPCs around the country that have received tens of millions in government monies over the years. Still, like at CPCs, women who visit MR or the PRC will only receive half-truths and subjectively-selected resource referrals, and because MR and the PRC are privately funded, these centers have no one to answer to. Sound illegal? The PRC receives legal and medical training and advice from organizations like NILFA and Heartbeat International.

Huckabee and PRC staff accuse other community resources of forcing or coercing women into abortion. They claim that they have listened to and prayed with women who have unexpected or unwanted pregnancies, and tell them the full truth about their possible decisions. Huckabee and the PRC want to help these hopeless and ashamed women, and they want to protect babies.

Nevertheless, Huckabee and the PRC are feeding the unplanned parenthood fire by prohibiting effective sex education and pregnancy-preventing birth control information from reaching their clients and followers. They go as far as to try to defund the providers of these resources. When access to valuable education and prevention methods is denied, pregnancies happen. When pregnancies happen, Huckabee and the PRC do everything within their power to ensure each pregnancy results in a living, breathing, hungry, needy human baby. They want each baby to be loved and provided for, but they have very limited means to ensure the health and happiness of mother and baby.

The Merci's Refuge event raised over $200,000 for the proposed home for unwed pregnant women. They need $600,000 to build the home, staff it, and begin operations. Merci's Refuge, Living Alternatives PRC, and supporting politicians like Mike Huckabee want to end homeless pregnancies just as much as they want to end abortions. Unfortunately, they are mum on how women can avoid facing an unplanned pregnancy at all.

If these organizations sincerely wanted to create effectual change, they'd spend as much time and energy raising funds for — and counseling clients on — realistic and effective ways to avoid pregnancy until the time is right, and offer services that help women before they experience an unwanted pregnancy.

Until that day comes, women will keep experiencing unplanned pregnancies, and the PRC will continue to counsel them, regardless of each woman's personal situation. Luckily, $400,000 from now, each of these hopeless women might have a chance to be one out of twelve residents of the Merci's Refuge home for unwed mothers. Maybe these women will even get to babysit their kids after the PRC adopts them out to a more worthy, barren relative.