CN: Sexual assault
Christian crisis pregnancy centers claim to be of service to women in need. Do they serve the actual needs of women, or simply advance a particular religious agenda?
I spoke to Rebecca Trotter, a self-described “mom, writer, thinker, talker, teacher, and Christian” whose personal experience when faced with a traumatic pregnancy sheds sobering light on that question.
How would you describe your religious background?
I was the oldest of nine children, raised in a traditionalist Roman Catholic home. We had mandatory church attendance and catechism, and I attended a Roman Catholic high school and a Roman Catholic college.
Growing up, what were you taught regarding the Catholic church’s position about the sanctity of life?
My father studied for six years to be a Roman Catholic priest. So I was taught by somebody who knew the actual teachings of the Church. I grew up learning that we all bear the image of God, so each combination of DNA created was valuable from the moment it came into being. Sex, being how this miracle occurs and only belonging in a traditional marriage, is unavoidably defined by and allowed for procreative purposes. Even if you are married, if you are not open to bringing children into the world, you should refrain from having sex. Neither abortion nor birth control are options.
What was your experience with a crisis pregnancy center?
In 1994, when I got pregnant, I went to a crisis pregnancy center for a free pregnancy test and counseling. This center was in an upper-class area in Illinois, so they had more resources than other places in less affluent areas.
After the pregnancy test, I was sent to a person who went through their volunteer training. She was reading off a script as she told me I was pregnant, then listed the options for either keeping my baby or giving it up for adoption.
Once I decided to keep the baby, I was assigned a counselor. I was given a crib, help with housing, a stipend, and a small scholarship. They also connected me with a church that was supposed to be sponsoring pregnant women. This church threw a poorly attended baby shower and gave me a stroller.
Even though my counselor had an MSW, no one working there had any experience in domestic abuse. They didn’t consider that my kid’s dad had already sexually assaulted me. The counselors knew about this abuse, yet nobody ever had a conversation with me about the consequences of getting into a relationship with someone who does something like that. In fact, the woman who did the counseling at the crisis pregnancy center later offered premarital counseling by facilitating my marrying my abuser.
And what type of Christian faith was practiced by those working at the crisis pregnancy center?
They were Christian but more liberal than some churches. This was in the mid-90s when the split between liberal and conservative Christians wasn’t so stark. Their mission was to serve everybody and not try and make anyone uncomfortable. While it’s easy to be critical and point to bad actors among conservative Christians, if they hadn’t existed, there was no secular or pro-choice equivalent I could have turned to for help except perhaps for help accessing an abortion.
But as I’ve observed throughout the social service system, like pretty much all not-for-profits, they offer a version of what they’re doing that they show to their donors that’s different from the version people on the ground actually experience. Here I was privileged because I’m a white college student representing the type of women that crisis pregnancy centers love to boast about helping. The staff told me often how special I was, and after watching the interactions with women of color who came in, it was pretty clear I was being given more help than others. In fairness, I was completely alone so perhaps I needed it. But in the end, the help they were able to give was a bandaid on a bullet wound, and that’s what conservative Christians don’t want to deal with—pregnancy can be every bit as damaging as a bullet to a human life.
Most people I have known who have volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers came to support access to abortion after seeing the reality of the problem up close.
How did your family and church community respond when you had an unexpected pregnancy?
Abortion wasn’t even a question because babies are a blessing. I was coming from this upper-middle-class sort of background where my father never struggled to pay for the children he and my mother were having. So the financial problems that come with having a whole lot of children simply were not part of my reality. It was like this magical thinking that if you get pregnant, then you should do the right thing and have that child. Don’t worry. God will take care of you. It’ll all work out somehow. If I had a supportive family or a network of people around me, I would have been fine. But I didn’t. I discovered this reality after I had already made the choice to carry on the pregnancy.
My parents tried to coerce me into placing the baby for adoption. Our family priest said there’s a home for unwed mothers where I can go. It’ll be very comfortable and everything will be taken care of here. When you have the baby, you can place it up for adoption, then come back, and not even my siblings would know I had been pregnant.
I’m the oldest sister who set this horrible example for them.
When I refused to go to this home, my parents rendered me homeless and refused to offer any assistance whatsoever. They wouldn’t even cosign an apartment so I could have a place to live. The people I come from are like the Catholics in Ireland, who sent their raped and impregnated daughters to the laundries run by nuns.
How does adoption figure into this equation?
I think among white people there’s a false but idealized notion that adoption is just this wonderful, beautiful thing that solves a problem for a mother who can’t take care of her child and gives the baby a home that will love them and take care of them. Everybody trivializes the trauma that women go through. Even just being pregnant when you want the baby can be a traumatic experience. You lose control of your body. Yet adoption was just treated like you’ll just give the baby away, and then you’ll carry on with your life like everything’s fine.
If I had given my baby up for adoption, I know I wouldn’t be here today, given the amount of trauma I was in at the time. When we’re in this state and not supported, we have terrible judgment.
Babies born to mothers undergoing such trauma are also not going to be easy for adoptive parents to raise. My eldest marinated in extreme stress hormones throughout the entire pregnancy, and I ended up with a child who I couldn’t leave with anyone. And remember, I’m considered the perfect candidate. I’m educated, and I don’t do drugs or alcohol. As difficult as it was to raise him at times, he would have responded much worse had he been raised by a non-biological family. We’re now learning there is a biological connection between a child and infant and their mother. You can’t just remove an infant from their biological mother and not have that be traumatizing.
What would you say to those pushing for abortion access?
I understand why some women choose abortion. Nobody should have to go through what I went through. We have to address what’s creating the demand for abortions, and work on solutions like materiality leave or developing an adequate domestic abuse system. At the end of the day, even the people fighting for abortion access are neglecting what women really need.
Whatever your opinion on the morality of abortion is, you need to be doing something to support women. Men too. Some of these dads would be there if they had the capacity and the resources.
So what does a woman need when faced with a crisis pregnancy?
What she really needs is a community of people around her—her family, her friends, or another network of some sort—that will step in and play that role. It is not something that is within the capacity of a woman to manage a crisis pregnancy to take care of herself. This is really where I think the fight needs to happen.
We cannot expect our leaders to start caring about us. We need a fundamental cultural shift away from assuming that we can somehow set things up so that people can get through life all on their own towards taking care of each other. Nothing will change until we can normalize caring for each other.