May 02 2013

Colorlines: The Missionary Movement to ‘Save’ Black Babies

Last December, Care Net—the nation’s largest network of evangelical Christian crisis pregnancy centers—featured a birth announcement of sorts on the website of its 10-year-old Urban Initiative. Under the headline, “Plans Underway for Care Net’s Newest Center in Kansas City, Mo.!” a block of upbeat text described how a predominantly white, suburban nonprofit called Rachel House had “made contact” with “various African American pastors and community leaders,” who helped them “plant” a “pregnancy resource center” in a predominantly black, poor section of downtown Kansas City.

Rachel House’s mission is clear: It is an evangelical ministry with the primary goal of “protecting the unborn.” But the nonprofit doesn’t do picket signs and bloody-fetus images. Instead, it draws in young women facing unintended pregnancies with things like free pregnancy testing, first-trimester ultrasounds and baby supplies. The Rachel House team proudly emphasizes the quality of its care. “We tell all of our clients, ‘Even though you’ve done a pregnancy test at home, we’re going to do another one here,’ ” explains Rachel House client services director Susanne Hanley. “We buy the hospital-strength pregnancy tests. We don’t know what they used; they could have used one from the dollar store, or whatever.”

In some ways, Care Net’s Kansas City operation is neither unique nor new. For nearly 20 years, the evangelical anti-abortion movement has used standalone crisis pregnancy centers to dissuade girls and women from ending unintended pregnancies. These mostly volunteer-staffed centers posit themselves as neutral, nonjudgmental sources of information about abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, adoption and abstinence. As Americans United for Life’s Jeanneane Maxon told the New York Times in January, “They’re really the darlings of the pro-life movement” due to their “ground level, one-on-one, reaching-the-woman-where-she’s-at approach.”

Since 2004, Rachel House has run centers in two Kansas City suburbs—one in Lee’s Summit, across the street from a high school, and one in the Northland, next door to Planned Parenthood. Both areas are about 85 percent white and solidly middle class. Rachel House raises most of its funds through events like golf tournaments and “baby bottle drives” that challenge congregants to fill up empty bottles with cash and checks and return them to church on Sunday.

The new Rachel House, however, is on 46th St. and Paseo, in the heart of the city. It sits across the street from J’s Pawn & Fine Jewelry, where patrons can cash checks and get payday loans. This area is mostly black, up to 36 percent of its residents are poor and it has one of the highest infant mortality rates in town.

“A couple of years ago we revisited our mission statement,” says Rachel House president Kathy Edwards, a middle-aged, married mother who eerily resembles “Big Love” star Mary Kay Place. “When you’re passionate about doing something, you want to do it well. We asked ourselves if we were where women were more apt to get abortions, because there’s not a pregnancy center for them to go to. And we thought, ‘No. We’re not in the urban core.’”

Evangelicals have long approached their anti-abortion work with missionary zeal. But over the past four years, national anti-abortion strategists have designated “urban” and “underserved” women and babies as a priority for saving. In practice, these terms tend to be euphemisms for “black” and, to a lesser extent, “Latina.”

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