Pro-woman, Pro-life: Group empowers ‘abortion-vulnerable’ Alaskan women

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It always seems like rush-hour where Tudor and Lake Otis Parkway intersect in Anchorage. Early afternoon in mid-May, cars idle at the long traffic light. When the light turns green, they rush through. These drivers just want past that corner.

But some are driven by deeper anxieties. The lucky ones turn into a little driveway that’s easy to miss at 4231 Lake Otis, just next door to Walgreen’s. It’s the entrance to a clean, gray and green building emblazoned with lowercase red letters, “cpc.”

The driveway winds to a parking lot tucked in the back. Already everything seems to quiet down. The lot is trimmed with evergreen trees, and there’s a picnic table.

Inside sunshine falls through skylights upon a front desk, and on the wall are images of graceful, malleable pink and orange poppies — stems bending and reaching up. It feels like a place to take a breath. That’s what peer counselors Kendal Taylor and Dawn Harriman are cultivating for expectant mothers in crisis at the Community Pregnancy Center of Anchorage.

Sometimes these women are scared and young. Some are being pressured to abort their baby. Most are afraid to tell boyfriends or families. Most regret past abortions yet feel cornered into another. They feel “trapped in this now moment,” Harriman told the Catholic Anchor.

Harriman believes these pregnant women, battered by so much noise, deserve some quiet to formulate their own thoughts — and for someone to listen.

“They need to have a chance to just slow down and truly think about it,” she explained. These women “need someone to hear them.”

‘I’M PREGNANT’

The Community Pregnancy Center of Anchorage (CPC) is a pregnancy help center — one of hundreds across the country. It provides pregnancy tests, obstetrical ultrasounds performed by specially trained registered nurses, sexually transmitted infections testing — all for free. They also provide information on parenting options and connections to physicians, housing and other resources.

It’s “holistic care,” Heidi Navarro, center director, told the Anchor.

In her 11 years at the CPC she has never seen a client offended at that approach.

“Everybody wants love,” she said. “Everybody wants to be taken care of and have a voice.”

This usually starts with a phone call to the center.

“They just say, ‘I’m pregnant,’” Taylor explained. “They just don’t know where to go from there.”

The next step is a visit to the center for a free test to confirm pregnancy. Once at the CPC a woman has a chance to sit down with a peer counselor — like Taylor or Harriman — to talk confidentially about her situation.

The client first fills out a form that includes questions about her pregnancy, whether she is under stress and how she feels about abortion. And there’s a section about the client’s spiritual life. There are no essays required, just boxes to checkmark.

Knowing this mix of factors — unique to each woman — helps shape the conversation. Sometimes a client will leave boxes blank — on her living situation, if the baby’s father is in the picture. But those omissions are illuminating, Harriman noted. They raise flags as to the support the woman may not have which the CPC can help provide.

A peer counselor reviews the form and in a few minutes, she and the client are talking. Taylor and Harriman believe their role is to first listen.

“You’ve got to pick up on what she’s talking about and you’ve got to give her time and listen to what she’s saying,” Harriman explained. “The main goal is to love them, care for them, and be there for them.”

FOCUS ON THE WOMAN

Taylor and Harriman are tailor-made to this — attentive and engaged.

Taylor has been a CPC volunteer peer counselor for six months and on staff for a year. She meets with clients, answers phones, schedules appointments, sorts donations and runs the Baby Cache, an on-site boutique where expectant moms can secure items like baby clothes, diapers and formula. They earn “baby bucks” to use at the store by attending monthly parenting classes at the center.

At 21, Taylor has a fresh, kind face and short blond hair held back by a little clip. Part of a small tattoo — in delicate script — is visible along her shirt’s collar. She looks like she could be hiking Flattop but this young woman is an experienced counselor. Taylor, who is Lutheran, volunteered at a pregnancy help center at college in Colorado. She grew up pro-life and said she gravitated toward the “loving approach” of pregnancy help centers.

Harriman is a young 47. She looks Mediterranean but has a Midwestern accent. She speaks with surety and calm, as if a person could tell her anything and it wouldn’t darken her opinion of her. A nondenominational Christian, she volunteers twice a week, for half days.

“I pick up kids at two o’clock. I’ve got high schoolers,” she noted with cheer.

Harriman came to the center in February with seven years experience as a counselor and a trainer of counselors in Texas.

The big catalyst for Harriman is a sister who was once an expectant mom in crisis. She hid the pregnancy for a couple of months before telling her family. A few months after the baby was born, she gathered them — including Harriman — and read her journal aloud, relating her journey including how she had considered abortion.

“And then there was little Roxanne [the baby], and tears [were] streaming down [my sister’s] face, you know, she was so thankful that she had her baby,” Harriman recounted, filled with emotion. “As soon as I had a chance to be inside the doors and helping as a peer counselor, I did.”

SAVE THE MOTHER, SAVE THE CHILD

Inside the doors of a counseling room, the peer counselor begins a conversation that could save both mother and unborn child.

For women who are undecided about carrying their baby or terminating, Taylor likes first to talk about the “parenting side of things” which is a “positive” option. That leads to a discussion of resources for women, like housing opportunities.

She also offers a brochure called, “The First Nine Months,” which details milestones in pregnancy. A woman can see color photos of an unborn baby at the same stage as her own. Taylor said most clients come in around the time their baby’s heart has just started beating — just 21 days after conception.

“And they’re like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that happened so soon,’” Taylor explained.

The peer counselor offers the client a chance to view a medically accurate set of models of unborn babies from seven to 10 weeks gestation. Taylor said clients like to photograph the miniature baby models, and dads especially appreciate them.

They help moms and dads “realize that it’s life they’re dealing with and not just this positive test result,” Harriman added.

But if a client is still ambivalent about carrying her baby, Taylor and Harriman turn to another pamphlet that covers abortion methods and their often long-lasting negative physical and psychological consequences.

“We’re never graphic or harsh talking about abortion,” Taylor said. “We are as loving as possible.”

Taylor and Harriman believe women have a right to be fully informed of the dangers of abortion — which are elsewhere little discussed.

“It’s very real that women think abortion can bring happiness,” Harriman explained. She referenced a client who felt she had no other option than abortion. “Her whole thing was, ‘I’m happy right now. This [baby] will make me unhappy.’”

So Harriman asked, “Can I share with you what the emotional side of abortion is?”

That includes subsequent depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and increased risk of suicide. Harriman shared how so many clients over the years have expressed to her their regret over past abortions.

“So she’s not feeling like I’m pinpointing her or pressuring her, and because I really care, we’re a center that cares,” Harriman said. “I just want you to know about this.”

Most clients are what Taylor and Harriman term, “abortion-vulnerable.”

“They might be thinking, ‘I’m going to keep this baby,’” Harriman explained. “But they can walk out of here, and once they tell the news to their parents or to the father, the influences that start coming into their life can really cause them to think differently or make them feel like they don’t have a choice or they need to do what they’re being pressured to do.”

BEAUTIFUL FUTURE

A big part of helping a woman overcome outside pressures is trusting God that there’s a beautiful future ahead. Taylor said that conversation can start with just one question, like, “Do you go to church?.”

With one client, she said, “it opened up this whole story, and she shared with me that she wasn’t following Jesus because of a bad experience that happened.”

Taylor’s reassured her: “God is good. He’s working for your good. God doesn’t give us bad things.” The woman later returned to the center. “She told me that she was praying and reading her devotional again.”

Harriman encourages unnerved expectant moms to “look down the road” — past this difficult juncture, and to know there will be joy — with their child alongside. Harriman noted that “so many times our clients are just looking at right now: ‘How can I take care of right now?’”

Harriman asks her clients: “How do you see things three years from now? Five years?”

Harriman refers again to her sister, once in crisis too. Her once unexpected unborn baby is now graduated from college and married.

“You never diminish how hard it is to raise a child, you are with them in that,” Harriman stressed. “But you do try to help them see that you won’t always be at this stage … and what blessings come as you keep moving down the road with your child.”

TRUST IN GOD’S PLAN

In every conversation with a client, Taylor and Harriman face a woman and child at grave risk. But these peer counselors are well-trained and remain serene before such constant life-or-death scenarios.

Before ever entering the counseling room new volunteers go through extensive training and then continue training through the year. Still, there may be fear in the beginning, Harriman said, because “it is such a huge issue,” but “when you’re new, you’re nervous.”

Taylor and Harriman trust God and ask for guidance before conversations with clients begin. Harriman recalled one of her first meetings with an abortion-minded woman years ago. When the appointment was over Harriman said she “just cried and cried and cried.”

A more experienced counselor reminded her, “Dawn, God is working. It’s not up to you. You just are being obedient with going in, doing the best you can to love this person, and then you put it in God’s hands.”

Even now, sometimes clients share “very serious” challenges, Harriman noted. But she focuses on “just loving the woman and caring for her no matter what her intentions are, and looking for those chances to share Jesus, to share life, to share other options, to share support, to just show that she can do this.”

HEADED IN A GOOD DIRECTION

After meeting with one of the CPC’s peer counselors, many clients will return for an ultrasound to see their unborn baby’s beating heart. Mary Healy, the CPC’s registered nurse who performs ultrasounds there, said it helps bolster a woman to stand against “whoever’s pushing her to have an abortion” and “bonds” the relationship she has with her unborn baby. For a man, it’s the “first real evidence” of his child, she added. To watch “the change on dad’s face as he sees the baby,” Healy said, is “worth every minute I volunteer there.”

The CPC then helps schedule prenatal appointments at Providence Family Medicine, where physicians care for CPC clients even before Denali KidCare kicks in. Other clients choose to explore adoption which is covered in the center’s parenting classes.

Pregnant moms are encouraged to take their time deciding about adoption, Center Director Navarro explained.

The decision process can be emotional, she said, so “what I encourage them to do is not make a decision, to explore and educate yourself.” Those who eventually choose adoption usually transition to Catholic Social Services’ adoption agency.

Many CPC clients go on to participate in a post-abortion healing program at the CPC to resolve grief over past abortions.

Others will return to the CPC to talk with the peer counselors again. One client’s pregnancy test came back negative, but she returned “just to talk,” Harriman explained, “because it was like, ‘Someone heard what I had to say … they listened and they let me work through some things.’”

In 2016, 1,021 clients came to the CPC. Out of 466 pregnancy tests, 322 were positive, and 90 percent of those women chose life.


'Pro-woman, Pro-life: Group empowers ‘abortion-vulnerable’ Alaskan women'
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