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Crisis pregnancy centers could be closest prenatal care for some west Ky. people if Roe v. Wade is repealed

Lawn signs promoting free parenting classes and pregnancy tests run alongside the sidewalk in front of Hope Unlimited Family Care Center in downtown Paducah.
Dustin Wilcox
/
Lawn signs promoting free parenting classes and pregnancy tests run alongside the sidewalk in front of Hope Unlimited Family Care Center in downtown Paducah.

Amid debates over the validity of the Roe v. Wade abortion verdict in the U.S. Supreme Court, a representative of a crisis pregnancy center in western Kentucky is clarifying what role they serve for parents in the region.

The sidewalk tracing the Hope Unlimited Family Care Center in downtown Paducah is bespeckled with lawn signs promoting free parenting classes and pregnancy tests. One sign in particular speaks to the mission of this center: “We love families.”

Hope Unlimited provides the pregnancy and STI testing, ultrasounds, mentoring and “learn to earn” incentives typically associated with crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), as well as more in-depth services provided by a full-time registered nurse and a visiting obstetrician.

Like similar centers in western Kentucky, Hope Unlimited is a religiously-affiliated organization that aims to educate pregnant people on their options — abortion, adoption and parenting — but cannot provide abortion services or referrals.

“We want to encourage them that they can do this,” said Autumn Rathman, creative director for Hope Unlimited. “If they are in a financial burden at that time, we can help provide them with the resources that can get them stable to where they can thrive and be the best parent they can be and provide for their family.”

If Roe v. Wade were overturned, a Kentucky law passed in 2019 would trigger an immediate abortion ban affecting the state’s two abortion clinics: Planned Parenthood and EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville.

Although abortions would likely still be available in the neighboring states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virgina and Virginia, a local crisis pregnancy center would be the nearest option for many who seek prenatal care.

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The exterior of Hope Unlimited.
Dustin Wilcox
/
The exterior of Hope Unlimited.

There are more than 10 CPCs across western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee among an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 CPCs nationwide. Of the more than 600 Planned Parenthood centers in the U.S., the nearest centers offering abortions in the region are in Nashville and Louisville.

Proponents of CPCs say they provide women with valuable education and resources on parenting and other abortion alternatives, whereas some people say they share inaccurate information based on religious ideology to dissuade women from abortion. Research has shown that many of the women who visit CPCs have already decided to continue their pregnancy but may still receive anti-abortion messaging during visits.

“We don’t push them one way or the other,” said Rathman of Hope Unlimited. “We want them to choose life, of course, but it’s their decision on what they do. We also let them know, if they choose abortion and they actually follow through with that, we’re still here for them after that because we do have a post-abortion recovery Bible study.”

The foremost informative literature issued by Hope Unlimited is the Before You Decide magazine. Each edition includes information on emergency contraception, fetal development, abortion, adoption and parenting with religious undertones, alongside accompanying checklists and workspaces to aid in the decision-making process.

Rathman said Hope Unlimited is upfront about its religious foundation when mentoring parents, capping off each session with a spiritual assessment and prayer requests. Mentors learn over time to what degree a given client is comfortable with religiosity, she noted, and most of the center’s other services are secular in nature.

“You’re able to ask those spiritual questions to them and still plant that seed,” Rathman said. “We always ask, ‘Before you leave, can I pray with you?’ And even though someone may not believe, there’s a lot of times they have a prayer request. No one has ever told me personally in a mentor session that, ‘No, I don’t want you to pray for me.’”

Regional CPCs also typically provide abstinence-based sex education to middle school students, though Rathman said Hope Unlimited aims to instruct them on all aspects of a healthy life.

“We have several people that don’t know our services and how we can help. They do think that all they can do is come here for a pregnancy test, but that’s not true,” Rathman said. “We have so much more to offer and just the relationship that we form with some of our clients. If they miss a session, we miss them. A lot of times, we’re their family.”

Meg Sasse Stern is the support fund director for the Kentucky Health Justice Network (KHJN), a pro-abortion outreach organization. She said these centers may delay people who are seeking an abortion to continue a pregnancy until they near the legal limit to receive one.

“They share misinformation such as, ‘Oh, it looks like you're getting ready to have a miscarriage. Oh, you’re five weeks pregnant. Let's wait,’ when really, that person might be 10 or 12 weeks pregnant,” Stern said. “What delaying care does for abortion-seekers is it makes the abortion even harder to access and might further complicate the procedure.”

Stern said there is a CPC next door to the EMW Women's Surgical Center and two clinics down the road from the Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisville, which she considers a strategy on the part of those CPCs to dissuade people from receiving abortions.

•••

A sign indicating parking reserved for expectant mothers outside Hope Unlimited.
Dustin Wilcox
/
A sign indicating parking reserved for expectant mothers outside Hope Unlimited.

Following the passage of laws in Texas and Mississippi that challenged Roe v. Wade by restricting abortions earlier than the medically accepted point of viability for a baby, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently determining whether the legality of abortions should be left up to individual states to decide.

Kentucky currently requires patients to receive state-directed counseling on abortion and to wait 24 hours before receiving it, among other restrictions. Private insurance policies only cover abortions when the patient’s life is endangered, and insurance policies for public employees do not cover abortions at all.

Even if Roe v. Wade isn’t overturned, State Rep. Nancy Tate is pursuing a yet-unfiled bill that would enforce additional requirements for minors seeking an abortion and enact more rules to track a fetus that has been aborted or miscarried.

Rathman with Hope Unlimited said the number of clients the center serves may not significantly change if Roe v. Wade were overturned because the two abortion clinics in Kentucky may already be prohibitively distant from people in western Kentucky.

“If you’re already in a financial burden, it’s hard to come up with that money [for an abortion] anyway, let alone the transportation and the gas money to travel four hours to Louisville or two and a half hours to Nashville. So we don’t know if our services will really change a whole lot, but we just want people to know that we’re still here.”

•••

A room full of supplies from which parents can choose as part of the "Learn to Earn" program at Hope Unlimited.
Dustin Wilcox
/
A room full of supplies from which parents can choose as part of the "Learn to Earn" program at Hope Unlimited.

Clients’ experiences at CPCs may vary from center to center. Autumn Hamilton, 22, is currently expecting her third child and has utilized the services of Hope Unlimited for all three at her mother’s recommendation.

“When I very first got pregnant, I wasn’t really sure [what I wanted to do] because I was young still,” Hamilton said. “Once you start going there and they start helping you out and they start talking to you, it’s just like, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can go through with this,’ and you know you’ve got help no matter what.”

Hamilton said she has found the “learn to earn” program especially useful, as she’s been able to choose classes that are relevant to her. She noted she has not had trouble scheduling classes and prenatal clinics around the rest of her life, nor is she uncomfortable with the faith-based instruction.

“You don’t know how it’s going to be personally and physically, and all kids are different,” Hamilton said. “Now, with my kids, I’m struggling with they throw tantrums. So with my ‘learn to earn’ classes, I chose tantrums and whinings and potty training.”

Stern with the KHJN said was unable to connect WKMS with a current or former client of hers, instead sharing an anonymous testimonial featured in a blog post by a member of the Louisville Clinic Escorts organization aiming to accompany people seeking abortions at EMW.

The subject of the testimonial reportedly received verbal provocation from anti-abortion protestors as she approached the EMW premises, even though she had initially intended to continue her pregnancy until her fetus had developed fatal anomolies.

“At that point we were all sobbing, our arms wrapped around each other huddled up,” wrote the Louisville Clinic Escorts blogger. “I was devastated for them. I kept apologizing for what they just endured.”

•••

Escorts outside of EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville in 2019.
EMW Women's Surgical Center
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Escorts outside of EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville in 2019.

Even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, Stern said the Louisville Planned Parenthood clinic likely would not close because it had provided various other sexual health services for decades before it began providing abortions last year. However, she noted low-income people, people of color and LQBTQ+ people might face more obstacles in leaving the state for abortions, such as having only one vehicle and less access to childcare.

“People who have access to resources such as money and supportive communities will be able to travel, for example, to Chicago for an abortion,” Stern said. “Barriers that for someone with resources might be a very small inconvenience can become a deal breaker for someone who is already facing multiple intersecting oppressions.”

A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found 52% of respondents said abortion should remain legal in most or all cases, and 36% said it should be banned in most or all cases. The poll also found 45% said Roe should not be overturned, and 24% said it should be.

“Lots of people need abortions, even if they are already parents or even if they want to keep their pregnancy but cannot for some reason,” Stern said. “Every community needs access to abortions.”

Dustin Wilcox is a television production student at Murray State University. He graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 2019.
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