A Faith Today writer visits a centre in Winnipeg to find out what makes them tick
Stone steps lead up to the door of the dark, nondescript building that is Winnipeg’s Crisis Pregnancy Centre. I didn’t know what to expect.
There are dozens of faith-based crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs) operating across Canada. Their goal is to provide a safe place for women facing difficult decisions surrounding pregnancy. Their services often include free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, counselling, parenting classes, adoption referral and post-abortion support.
Women considering abortions, or who have had them in the past, visit these centres for information and to discuss their wants, needs and fears. The centres are not medical facilities, but places for women to receive supportive, nonjudgmental attitudes they might not get elsewhere.
At the large front desk of the Winnipeg centre I was greeted with warm smiles and an offer of hot chocolate before the staff even knew who I was — a writer on assignment to understand how these centres work. The lighting was subdued, and all the offices populated by comfortable chairs, fuzzy blankets and scented candles on wooden coffee tables. The atmosphere is calming and beautiful, like a home should be.
I asked two female counsellors with laugh lines around their eyes and steady presences (the ones who offered me hot chocolate) to walk me through the process of receiving counselling. If I was a young woman here seeking an abortion, what would they say to me?
Sharon Boothroyd and Heather Wiebe showed me the pink form they ask clients to fill out first, which includes questions about menstrual cycles, birth control, details of the pregnancy and initial intentions. No one can predict the conversations that will follow, as every woman’s questions, concerns and history are different.
"People get abortions for all kinds of reasons," says Wiebe, whose specialty is crisis and loss counselling at the Winnipeg centre. "It’s important to hear their stories and understand why they’re making that decision, and what their world’s like. We try very hard to have zero judgment."
Though it can be difficult to be neutral and balanced, especially if you are a strong pro-life advocate, workers at the CPC are trained to approach conversations from a nonjudgmental perspective.
"Which one of us hasn’t done something we’re ashamed of?" says Boothroyd. "As human as we are, I think we have categories of sin. And abortion is one of those … but we’re making the playing field even here. We don’t want to be saying, ‘This sin is worse than another.’"
Ministering to the whole woman
It’s important to the centre that the women who walk through their doors know they are welcomed back, whatever they decide regarding their pregnancy, says executive director Juergen Severloh. Though the Winnipeg staff are all pro-life and make a point to inform women about the current state of development of the fetus, the potential dangers of abortion, and other options like adoption, it’s their ultimate goal to build relationships.
"Are you going to listen to someone you don’t trust?" asks Boothroyd. "Who you don’t have a rapport with?" That relationship is key because the women aren’t just numbers walking through the door. Each one is important to the staff.
"What we’re asking women to do here is be hugely courageous," Severloh adds. "The idea of carrying to term can be seen so lightly by the Christian community, but for the woman involved, she believes somebody has to die. It’s either this unformed, to her, baby that she can’t see yet, and there are no consequences she can feel yet, or it’s her. There are not a lot of people I know who would say, ‘I’ll just do the sacrifice.’" Severloh says carrying an unexpected baby to term is very courageous, and is a decision that should not be taken lightly by anyone in the Christian community. It should be wildly celebrated.
Letting the woman know what is going on inside her body is important, but the team at the centre also focuses on the worth of the woman herself. "She comes from a world, most likely, where she wakes up and does not feel valued," Severloh says. "She often feels invisible. She feels like things haven’t gone fairly for her. She’s not sure if people love her. Our job is to look her in the eyes and say to her truthfully, ‘You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are valuable to us.’"
The warmth of the staff members, the purposefully low-key atmosphere, the teddy bear sitting on the chair waiting to be hugged — everything here says, "You are loved." And there is no limit to the amount of times a woman can come back, says Severloh. Many continue to drop in for counselling, conversation or just to see a smiling face. "Some of our clients have been here 30 years," he says.
He recalls a woman who had an abortion just before she got married, and was unable to have children after. But she didn’t tell her husband for years and constantly lied about it when they visited the doctor. One day she asked Severloh to help her tell her husband the truth. "She said, ‘I don’t want Jesus to be the one who does it.’ So we figured out some options of how to tell him, and she does, and it’s beautiful. He’s helped her restore her soul. He’s helped her let go."
Boothroyd and Wiebe showed me an app that displayed what the baby looks like at any stage of pregnancy and the size relative to familiar fruit (a 10-week-old fetus is the size of a strawberry). The app includes details about what happens during that stage, such as kidneys developing at week 7 or the ability to hear at week 16. Boothroyd says sometimes the women they see are in such a state of stress, they don’t remember much of what is talked about during a visit, but images may stick with them. The app can help.
"Sometimes we’re just that one person who says, ‘You can do this. I believe in you,’" Boothroyd says. Many women feel pressured to get an abortion, and just want to know someone will support them if they don’t.
CPCs in the media
So with all this warmth and love, why do CPCs across Canada and the U.S. have such a negative reputation in secular media? "CPCs use a variety of tactics to lure women into their buildings. They offer free pregnancy testing, are known to list themselves under abortion in online directories and search results, and may use misleading names with the hope women will confuse them for legitimate health care providers," writes Caitlin Bancroft on The Huffington Post in "What I Learned Undercover at a Crisis Pregnancy Center."
In a 2016 study of CPC websites in Canada, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada said they found misinformation presented on the sites, from a lack of disclaimers noting the centres don’t offer abortions, to pointing out the link between abortion and breast cancer, a claim disputed by some.
Visit the website of the Crisis Pregnancy Centre in Vancouver, however, and there is a clear disclaimer. We are not a medical facility. We do not perform or refer for abortions. Our services are not intended as a substitute for professional counselling or therapy.
"We do our best to clarify our services as part of every interaction with our clients," explains Joni Vanderpol, the centre’s program director, confirming they do receive women who confuse their facility for an abortion clinic. "In a recent phone call, the caller asked about booking an abortion. It became clear that this person had not yet taken a test to confirm a pregnancy. We were able to offer a free pregnancy test to this caller, to listen compassionately, and to give her a safe space to speak about how she was handling her concerns."
Vanderpol says letting women know all their options is important because many feel trapped and like they have no choice in the matter. "The experience can bring about feelings of fear, anxiety and isolation," she says. "In order for them to make a true choice, it is important that they have access to accurate information on pregnancy and the options of abortion, adoption and parenting presented in a supportive, nonjudgmental format and atmosphere."
Because abortion is such a hot, emotional topic, CPCs endure a lot of aggression from pro-choice advocates. Many receive hate mail, are defamed by the press, slandered by the public and threatened with lawsuits. The Crisis Pregnancy Centre of Winnipeg has had their windows broken, human feces thrown in their mailbox and graffiti sprayed on their walls.
"There are some who hate pregnancy centres because they think we’re all the same," says Bill Davenport, executive director of the Valley Care Pregnancy Centre in Kentville, N.S. "If one centre is discovered to give poor counsel, then some people jump to the conclusion that all pregnancy centres give poor counsel." Davenport says the challenges are worth it because of the lives he’s seen impacted. "I think of the young lady who called to thank us for being here because she was on her way to Quebec for a late-term abortion when she saw our sign and stopped in. She called to thank us because she loves her child she chose to keep after a brief talk with us."
He tells another story of a woman who told them she wished she had known about the centre before her abortion. "She said she was raped and became pregnant," says Davenport. "Her parents said her only option was abortion, but she didn’t want an abortion. She didn’t want to add violence to violence. So she went to her pastor looking for an objective, supportive heart, but he told her she had to have an abortion. It broke her heart."
Another woman came in with her mother the day before her scheduled abortion. Davenport says the centre was able to be "a support to her mother and share the reality of fetal development with this young lady, who later chose to make a parenting plan of adoption for her baby."
Allison Barron is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.