Miss Marsharne Sullivan is standing in the lobby of the Pregnancy Care Center in downtown Jonesboro, Georgia, during a recent October afternoon, when a young woman in trendy overalls walks through the door. She announces that she’s here for a pregnancy test, and she doesn’t look thrilled to be needing one.
Sullivan hands her a clipboard and gestures toward a floral-print upholstered armchair. As the woman fills out the paperwork, Sullivan, the center’s 29-year-old assistant director, sits down next to her. “Did you come from work?” she asks, her voice calm and honey-dipped. “Have you been stressed out?”
The woman fiddles with the pen and bounces her foot on the gray Berber carpet. She has little ones at home. “I always wanted more,” she says. “I just wanted them… later.”
It’s not clear how the woman wound up at the center. Maybe she Googled “unexpected pregnancy Jonesboro” and went to the first place that came up. Maybe she found the clinic’s Facebook page or watched its dramatized video of young women like her, who are worried and unsure whether they’re capable of caring for a baby. Or maybe she got the center’s phone number off the billboard that looms over the Waffle House on the boulevard just beyond the bail bonds shop. The sign reads “Free Pregnancy Testing” in massive type next to a black-and-white photo of an anxious young woman, her eyebrows knit in a grimace.
Sullivan collects the clipboard and ushers the woman down the hall toward a bathroom in the back, where the pregnancy tests are kept. While she’s in the bathroom, her eyes might wander to the huge poster hanging across from the toilet, titled “The Amazing Journey from Fertilization to Birth,” filled with detailed descriptions of what’s happening in the womb at each stage of development. Sullivan waits outside in a cramped anteroom, and when the woman comes out, they stand together while the pee stick turns colors. Most of the wall above the sink is occupied by another poster, this one written in the first-person voice of a newborn baby: at one month, “I can smile — even when I’m asleep,” and at two months, “I let you know I’m happy by cooing, squealing, and gurgling.”
Sometimes clients want to keep the pregnancy test when they find out it’s positive, Sullivan tells me, and sometimes they want to throw it away. “It depends on their emotions,” she says.
She ushers the woman into the center’s counseling room, which she calls “a sacred space.” Sullivan has “seen the hand of God move” in that room, and she says her clients have too.
“It’s our job to just guide them, to be a beacon of light in the darkness.”
“Some are young, in high school, and they realize they’ve made poor decisions, and they try to figure out, ‘Where do I start? Where do I go from here?’” she says. “I’ve had clients who may feel a certain way, but when they went into the room, they’ve had a change of heart.” Maybe it’s the cute little knit baby hat Sullivan hands them when they walk in or the tiny plastic fetuses she encourages them to touch and hold to connect with the life she knows is already growing in their womb.
“It’s our job to just guide them, to be a beacon of light in the darkness,” Sullivan says.
Ostensibly, women facing unexpected pregnancies come to this center to learn about their options — abortion, adoption, carrying the pregnancy to term — but if Sullivan is doing her job, the young woman in the overalls will leave the counseling room with abortion firmly crossed off the list. That’s because the Pregnancy Care Center of Jonesboro is not, in fact, a health clinic. It’s a Christian ministry run by staff and volunteers affiliated with the nearby Baptist church. Aside from its mission of spreading the gospel to the majority-black city of 5,000 people, where more than one-third of households receive food stamps, the center exists to talk women out of having an abortion.
The Pregnancy Care Center is one of more than 2,500 throughout the United States, all part of a sophisticated long game by anti-abortion and mostly faith-based groups to severely limit abortion access in the country. Dubbed “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) or “pregnancy resource centers” (PRCs), they outnumber actual abortion clinics three to one nationwide. In Georgia, a state with as few as nine abortion providers, according to the National Abortion Federation, there are more than 90 CPCs. Critics say these often unlicensed and unregulated centers are dangerous, feeding women false and misleading information that keeps them from making informed decisions about their pregnancies.
Though CPCs are not a new phenomenon — they’ve been around since before Roe v. Wade — they’re stronger, more marketing savvy, and better funded than before, even collecting more than $40 million in taxpayer dollars from governments in at least 14 states in 2018 — an unprecedented amount of public financial support. These changes are allowing a new generation of CPCs to enter the digital age and attract more women with well-designed websites, savvy search strategies, and social media campaigns. An annual conference of CPC leaders held in September included sessions like “Facebook Advertising Demystified” and “Reaching Millennials: Leveraging the Power of Social Media.” Marketing agencies, like Choose Life Marketing, which was founded in 2016, work specifically with CPCs to hone their branding and social media tactics as a way to help the clinics “further their mission of helping abortion-vulnerable women choose life.”
The movement also notched an important win this summer, when the Supreme Court struck down a California law that would’ve required CPCs to inform patients about free and low-cost abortion providers in their area. With Brett Kavanaugh on the bench, paving the way for a potential overturn of Roe, CPCs and their defenders could be one step closer to winning the abortion war.