Stateside Podcast: Inside a crisis pregnancy center
In just a few days, Michiganders will vote on Proposition 3: a plan to embed abortion and other reproductive rights in the state’s constitution. Michigan Radio and Stateside have been talking to Michiganders about reproductive rights. Last week, Kate Wells shared a look inside one of Michigan's abortion clinics. This week, Stateside is taking you inside a crisis pregnancy center — an organization that hopes to convince women to not have an abortion and carry their pregnancies to term.
There’s a small office in Dearborn Heights where women call or visit when they’re pregnant and they don’t know what to do about it.
The Lennon Center is a single-story, tan commercial building. It’s pretty nondescript. It’s located off a busy road on the edge of a suburban neighborhood.
To be clear, it's run by an organization that opposes abortion. And it’s one of many in the state that you might hear called “crisis pregnancy centers.”
When you walk in the front door, there’s a reception area with chairs and pamphlets on pregnancy, adoption, spirituality. There’s a colorful cross behind the reception desk and inspirational quotes painted on the walls. There’s also a stack of flyers that say "NO PROPOSAL THREE" in bold at the top.
The Lennon Center has been in this building since its founding in 1994. Mariann Bolton, its executive director, said the original founders were “passionate pro-lifers'' and wanted to provide a resource for women by offering ultrasounds and free pregnancy tests, in an effort to persuade women to carry their pregnancies to term.
Bolton is a former teacher who lives in Metro Detroit. After her own four children grew up, she started as a volunteer at the Lennon Center as a way to give back. But as she became more involved, Bolton was interested in broadening the kind of support the center offered.
”We thought it was important to say to women, not just ‘You should have that baby,’ but ‘you've got a friend, we're going to walk with you,’” she said. “So it's easy to say, I think you should do this, right? But then we want to walk the walk with them to let them know that we're here for you, and we want to help you along this journey of parenthood.”
Navigating reproductive help in a challenging time
At the Lennon Center, that help takes the form of weekly parenting classes led by Bolton. The center also offers referrals to other social service organizations, and weekly handouts of things like diapers, clothing, bedding, and other items for kids up to 5 years old.
The center has this big supply room with racks of clothing and bins with things like burp clothes and baby bottles. Three times a week, women involved in the Lennon Center's programs call or message the center with a list of what supplies they need. Getting these material support packages together is an all-hands-on-deck kind of affair. When Stateside visited, the staff there had almost 30 boxes and bags packed for families.
The Lennon Center is one of more than two dozen crisis pregnancy centers scattered throughout Southeast Michigan. And each one provides something a little bit different — from places that just offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to ones with more extensive material support like the Lennon Center.
For many who do this type of work, the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling this summer, which overturned the federal abortion-rights protections in Roe v. Wade, was something they had waited their entire lives to see happen.
“It is interesting. We're here at this time in this place for a reason. I truly believe that,” Bolton said. “And we, I don't know if you know, but we were vandalized in June. So that was really daunting. That was a dark moment, a depressing moment.”
Staff said this was the first time the center had been hit with vandalism. Someone broke the center’s windows and glass doors and sprayed graffiti on the building that read: “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you."
"I felt sadness that people have to resort to this," Bolton said. "Like, to me, it was a little bit of ignorance in a way that, you know, this isn't how a woman is going to make a good decision — like it's going to scare people. And why is that a good thing?"
“Who knows what they can do if given the chance?”
Bolton and other staff at Lennon Center are not shy about saying that they are against abortion and that they hope the women who come to see them decide to carry their pregnancies to term.
That’s the case for Maggie Mews, who has been the part-time nurse manager at the Lennon Center for about six years.
“I mean, when a woman is pregnant, she has three choices. She either continues parenting, she makes an adoption plan, or she aborts,” she said. “And we want to be someone who can provide lots of information to help her in her choice and provide as much support as possible to help her go forward with the pregnancy. Because like I said, we really believe that that child is just as important. It's a very unique human being that no one has ever seen before. And who knows what they can do if given the chance?”
Like Bolton, Mews’ opposition to abortion informs a lot of the work that she does here. She considers herself pro-life, but she also stands by the fact that offering women tangible support is an important part of the Lennon Center’s mission to prevent abortion.
“As far as abortion is concerned, it has always been an issue of supporting families and realizing that it's not just about if a baby is born or not, but supporting families through,” she said. “It's not just at birth, but through all stages of life, there are going to be people who are going to need some help along the way.”
Mews said many of the women who come to the Lennon Center are low-income and don’t have health insurance. She’ll refer women to OB-GYNs who take Medicaid and some who will help women without insurance. She is also the person who leads the Lennon Center’s post-partum depression project, which they started in 2020, not long before the pandemic shut-down.
The center does fill a gap in care for some of the women in the communities they are serving, especially when it comes to getting pregnancy verification for Medicaid. This is something that crisis pregnancy centers across the country do for clients because Medicaid will pay for the prenatal care and delivery costs that would otherwise be out of reach for low-income families.
What is the “right choice” for women?
Some of the women who come into the center may be thinking about having an abortion. And they may or may not know that the Lennon Center wants them to carry their pregnancy to term. Some crisis pregnancy centers use ambiguous language in talking about abortion, trying to draw women into a conversation before disclosing they do not do the procedure.
The Lennon Center’s website is pretty clear that it’s committed to making abortion unnecessary, but sometimes women do call thinking the center is actually an abortion clinic.
While Stateside was not able to receive access to clients at the Lennon Center, Mews did walk through what she would say to someone who calls the Lennon Center believing it’s an abortion clinic.
“Well, we're very clear what services we do offer, and obviously we do not offer an abortion. But part of that, too, then is letting them know that we offer them information,” Mews said. “And it can be very helpful in their decision, hoping that they can, you know, come in and still end up doing an ultrasound and see if that does help them through their decision-making process.”
Mews found that for some who call the center, coming in for more information is helpful because they’re truly unsure what to do about their situation. For others who call, their minds may already be made up about their next steps.
“They just don't comment and that is unfortunate because it can be really beneficial, I believe, for them to be able to see all their options to help them through their process instead of just making a quick rash decision I don't think is wise,” Mews said.
Bolton says it’s not uncommon for the center to have someone call or come in who is considering abortion.
“We don't know what someone does when they leave our place. We know that we have to treat them with respect, with care, let them know what's available,” Bolton said. “And once again, that's my point. When you want to talk about choice, how do you find out your choices? ... We give them lots of information. And we even educate them on if you decide not to go through with this pregnancy, I want you to understand what's going to happen to you."
One of the ways that the Lennon Center educates women on abortion is a trifold pamphlet they have available in their ultrasound room. It describes different kinds of abortion procedures and highlights the risks for each one: things like uterine tearing or the potential for complications in future pregnancies.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology ACOG says these kind of complications are extremely rare for legal abortion procedures. And the chance of complications during an abortion is much smaller than those for carrying a pregnancy to term. For example, from 2013 to 2018, the fatality rate for women who had a legal abortion was less than one for every 100,000 procedures.
During that same period, the rate of all pregnancy-related deaths was more than 17 for every 100,000 live births. And Black women in the United States face the greatest risk of pregnancy-related death. In 2020, Black women died of pregnancy-related causes at nearly three times the rate of white women.
Bolton says she welcomes discussion of abortion policy. But the key to the Lennon Center’s work, she said, is making sure that women don’t feel alone as they’re deciding what to do about a pregnancy. While those at the center reiterate that they’ll be with a woman during and beyond her pregnancy, those resources do have a time limit. The Lennon Center works with parents and children up until their child is five years old.
“I think we always have to think about what's possible or what could happen when we're talking to someone. But I think when I'm particularly talking to a woman, a lot of times it's really about what her life is like right now. She sees what she has right now, and she's kind of confused and worried,” Bolton said. “I need to stay with her right here, right now. I don't think I do a lot of good to say, 'You're going to have a great life,' when I don't know those things. All I can say is right here, right now, I can walk this walk with you. And when you make a good choice, we can help you.”
For Bolton, a world where all babies are carried to term because abortion is not an option would be “heavenly.” But she also recognizes that even if abortions were illegal, people would likely still pursue it as “part of human nature.”
“Laws can change, as we saw. Things can change legislatively in Lansing, but I know that. Everybody's got to do what they got to do and do the best that they can and fight the good fight and work towards families,” she said. “I think when we support each other in Michigan as a family, we're going to see great things to support family growth, to work on our education of our children and how that's going, especially in poor areas. It's a group effort. It's not just this one amendment. It's a lot of things that we can work together to make Michigan families stronger.”
The future of reproductive health care in Michigan
Having a kid is expensive and challenging in the best of circumstances. The Lennon Center seems to do a lot to acknowledge that, and try to help. And the families who stop by every week to pick up needed supplies like diapers or winter coats seem grateful for that help.
In a moment when Michiganders are making critical decisions about women’s reproductive health, Bolton and her team want pregnant women to see the help they offer as an alternative to abortion.
"We're all about, you know, you have a decision to make, which is difficult,” Bolton said. “And if it truly is a choice, then let's talk about your other choice, too, and where that can take.”
If voters reject Prop 3, abortion clinics would not close in Michigan. There are ongoing court battles over the 1931 abortion-ban law that are upholding legal abortion in the state for now. The longer term question for Michiganders is this: should crisis pregnancy centers like the Lennon Center be the only choice women have when facing unwanted pregnancy?
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that voters would decide this election cycle whether abortion will be legal in the state. Voters WILL decide whether abortion is protected in the state Constitution. There are also ongoing court battles over the 1931 law that are currently upholding legal abortion in the state.