Antiabortion Centers Offer Sonograms to Further Cause

Makiba Smith, 16, returned to Severna Park Pregnancy Clinic last month with boyfriend Gregory Byrd. On a visit in June, she had planned to get an abortion.
Makiba Smith, 16, returned to Severna Park Pregnancy Clinic last month with boyfriend Gregory Byrd. On a visit in June, she had planned to get an abortion. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

On June 6, Cheryl Smith took her last $600 and drove her teenage daughter from Baltimore to Severna Park to get an abortion. When they got there, a receptionist told them the clinic had changed hands. The abortion provider had moved a few miles away, she said, but the new clinic would offer a pregnancy test and sonogram for free.

The Smiths stayed. After they saw a picture of the fetus at 21 weeks with arms and legs and a face, their thoughts of termination were gone.

"As soon as I seen that, I was ready. It wasn't no joke. It was real," Makiba Smith, 16, said. "It was like, he's not born to the world yet, but he is inside of me growing."

With its ultrasound machine and its location, the Severna Park Pregnancy Clinic demonstrates two of the most important tactics in an intensifying campaign to woo women away from abortion clinics. Antiabortion organizations in recent years have added medical services to hundreds of Christian-oriented pregnancy counseling centers nationwide. Many of these antiabortion clinics have opened in or near places where women go to end pregnancies.

The new Severna Park clinic's operators say their strategy is akin to a business plan. "Just like McDonald's and Starbucks look for competitors to be next to," the pregnancy centers look to set up "where women will be seeking abortions," Pam Palumbo said.

Palumbo is executive director of the Bowie Crofton Pregnancy Clinic in Prince George's County, one of about 20 antiabortion pregnancy centers in the Washington region and one of the first in the country to offer medical services. She also oversees the satellite Severna Park clinic.

There are at least 2,200 antiabortion pregnancy centers across the country, a nearly 30 percent jump since 1999, according to data from one of the largest pregnancy center networks, Heartbeat International of Columbus, Ohio. The network counts 561 centers that offer medical services, about a quarter of the national total. By comparison, abortion rights advocates estimate there are 1,800 abortion clinics nationwide.

Abortion rights advocates say the proliferation of antiabortion pregnancy clinics is a dangerous trend, confusing vulnerable women by mixing a seemingly neutral clinical environment with a religious agenda.

"They can set up a waiting room and an exam room, but that doesn't mean they employ actual medical practices," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, a D.C.-based network of abortion providers.

Use of Sonograms

Ultrasound machines, which use sound waves to show real-time pictures of a fetus, are the centerpiece of the pregnancy centers' medical advances. Some antiabortion clinics also offer screening for sexually transmitted infections, and a few offer prenatal care, according to the pregnancy center network. They typically advocate sexual abstinence until marriage and do not help women obtain contraception.

By many accounts, the ultrasound exams have proven effective in convincing women to stay pregnant. A 2005 survey by Care Net, a Sterling-based network of about 1,000 antiabortion pregnancy centers in the United States and Canada, found that 72 percent of women who were initially "strongly leaning" toward abortion decided to carry their pregnancies to term after seeing a sonogram. Fifty percent made the same choice after counseling alone.

Such results have led antiabortion forces to buy more ultrasound machines, which can cost as much as $50,000 each. In the past 2 1/2 years, the evangelical organization Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, estimates it has helped 200 pregnancy centers buy the machines.

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