HOUSTON — On a summer day in a quiet neighborhood outside Houston, Pam Whitehead is sitting at the kitchen table of a split-level home, taking calls from women who are pregnant and need help.
“We were preparing for this in advance,” Whitehead says. “We knew this was coming, we anticipated it, and we knew that we needed to prepare to be able to serve women.”
Whitehead is the executive director of ProLove Ministries, a group that opposes abortion and tries to persuade women not to have them. She says calls to her group’s hotline have been increasing – first, starting about a year ago, after the law known as S.B. 8 banned most abortions in Texas after about six weeks. They’ve continued – and come from across the country – since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
A rising need
With abortion now illegal or severely restricted in a growing number of states, groups that help patients travel for the procedure as well as those who oppose abortion and offer assistance with unintended pregnancies, are reporting more calls for help.
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For those who continue their pregnancies, Whitehead’s group runs a hotline that connects the women with a variety of support services. On this day, she takes down information from a woman who already has young children and is looking for help with transportation. Others need help with diapers, formula, or housing.
Whitehead is taking hotline calls from the kitchen of a maternity home outside Houston, where several women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were washing dishes, cooking, and hanging out in the adjacent living room.
Near the front door, several strollers stand in a neat row — what Whitehead jokingly calls the “parking garage” — while their tiny occupants sleep down the hall.
Women typically come here – sometimes for months at a time — after struggling to find stable housing for themselves and their children.
An overwhelming decision
Samantha, 31, asked NPR not to use her last name out of concern for blowback from her boyfriend back home in the Midwest, who she says pressured her to have an abortion she didn’t want. She said she came to Texas while still pregnant, initially planning to place her baby for adoption.
“And then I started feeling Benjy move,” she said. “And I’m just like, ‘Do I really want to give him up? Do I really want to give my little boy up?’ “
Samantha said she would sit in the Texas hotel room provided by an adoption agency, praying, alone and without a support network, asking God for direction.
“I would just cry and scream, ‘Tell me what you want me to do?’ “
Determined to keep her baby and desperate for a place to stay, Samantha called the ProLove Ministries hotline, which placed her in the maternity home. She arrived around Memorial Day – just days before she unexpectedly delivered her baby several weeks early via C-section, due to a life-threatening condition for mother and baby called preeclampsia.
“Pam was in the room with me and she was holding my hand,” Samantha says. “And it was the scariest, because he was little – so little, he was way too early. But he’s doing amazing now.”
A complicated place of refuge
Pam Whitehead’s group is one of many around the country – including hundreds of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers that they work with that offer parenting classes and supplies, often donated by church groups.
The organization’s founder, Abby Johnson, is a vocal, and often controversial, activist who opposes abortion rights in virtually all cases — even in situations like the 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and denied an abortion in her home state, soon after the Supreme Court released the decision overturning Roe this summer.
Whitehead agrees with that position – and said she’s motivated by her own experiences.
“I can’t imagine being in that situation,” Whitehead says. “I know what it’s like to be raped, though. I also know what it’s like to have an abortion. And I’ll tell you this – that abortion impacted me, greatly.”
For Samantha, who describes herself as pro-choice, the maternity home has been a rare, if complicated, place of refuge and support.
In her small bedroom near the front of the house, filled with baby clothes and toys, Samantha says she’s grateful for the help and especially the housing — which she’d struggled to find because of a criminal conviction in her past.
But she’s concerned about the consequences of Roe v Wade being overturned –particularly for women who are victims of rape or experience medical complications with their pregnancies.
“There’s going to be a lot of women who are going to go through hell because of this – emotionally and physically,” she said.
In that aftermath of new abortion laws in Texas – and now nationwide – calls to the hotline so far this year have nearly quadrupled compared to a year ago, Whitehead said. Other anti-abortion groups tell NPR they’re also working to expand similar services for new and expectant mothers.
Inadequate support, few options
Sonya Borrero, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, says that help often comes alongside inaccurate information and pressure to continue a pregnancy. Borrero has researched crisis pregnancy centers, known as CPCs.
“CPCs definitely take advantage of people’s economic insecurity and just the societal inadequate support we have for pregnant people,” she says.
She notes that these anti-abortion centers far outnumber abortion clinics nationwide, and typically don’t provide a full range of reproductive healthcare such as contraception. Borrero says many of the ones she’s encountered in her research also promote false information about the safety of abortion procedures and pills.
“I think these centers do speak to the significant need we have to support pregnant people — and especially those who choose to parent,” Borrero says. “It really is filling that gap that our society has not filled. But it does come at a cost because there is an ideologically-driven mission.”
As the need grows in a post-Roe environment, it’s unclear how much of the gap these groups will be able to fill. When NPR visited this summer, the maternity home outside Houston was full – with one woman sleeping temporarily in an open loft area while several more slept in the upstairs and downstairs bedrooms.
Meanwhile, Democrats in some red states, including Mississippi, are pushing their Republican colleagues to vote for more public funding for maternity care and postpartum support – as abortion becomes increasingly out of reach.