AUSTIN, Texas-Austin LifeCare pregnancy center owns a light green building on a busy road about five miles north of the University of Texas. Painted floral topiaries flank the front door. The center is pretty. Its soft green and purple color scheme is a holdover from the 1990s. It's feminine but not frilly.
Pam Cobern, LifeCare's executive director, wants to update the center's decor and make it less feminine so as to welcome the increasing number of men who now come to the center. But that's in the future. Right now she's dealing with a new law the Austin City Council has imposed on LifeCare and three other pro-life centers. The law mandates that they post signs stating, "This center does not provide abortions or refer to abortion providers. This center does not provide or refer to providers of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved birth control drugs and medical devices."
Failure to post the sign is a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine of $250 for the first offense, $350 for the second offense, and $450 for the third offense. But it's hard to see how any clients coming to LifeCare could be confused about its services. The name "LifeCare" doesn't sound like an abortion clinic, and framed copies of a "Commitment of Care"-a list of nine promises-hang both in the reception area and client waiting room. Promise No. 7 reads, "We do not offer, recommend or refer for abortions or abortifacients, but we are committed to offering accurate information about abortion procedures and risks."
Since the law's passage in April 2010, LifeCare has displayed in both English and Spanish the city-required sign printed in black ink in the city-mandated font. But LifeCare added to it these words printed in red ink: "This center provides accurate information and services to women who desire to have the facts related to abortion and other alternatives, in order to help them make fully informed decisions about their reproductive health and the health of their unborn children." After the city-mandated words about birth control, LifeCare added in red: "except for married clients."
Last month LifeCare and the other centers filed in federal court three separate suits against the City of Austin claiming that the law is an "unconstitutional abridgment of Austin LifeCare's rights to freedom of speech, association and religious free exercise."
Samuel B. Casey, an attorney with the Jubilee Campaign's Law of Life Project, said the ordinance is the "result of a private political organization using the power of government to attack another organization based on that organization's ideas and speech." The Alliance Defense Fund and Texas Center for Defense of Life are also helping LifeCare with its suit.
Cobern says LifeCare has to stand up for its rights. If it doesn't, other centers in other cities will face the same kind of harassment. She has evidence to back up that claim. A political arm of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL ProChoice New York) posted on YouTube a video that lays out a nationwide strategy to pass similar laws wherever sympathetic local officials will take up the cause. The video dubs pro-life centers "brainwashing outfits" and accuses them of "emotionally bullying" vulnerable women.
The video also charges the centers with pretending to be "full service health centers," and says the laws are necessary to promote truth in advertising. It shows an alliance of pro-abortion activists and elected officials working together to devise the strategy and carry it out.
Pam Cobern gave me a tour of her center so I could better understand its services. We started in Hannah's Closet, a room that used to look like a closet. Now it's set up like a store with clothes for baby girls hanging on one wall and those for baby boys on another. It is the heart of LifeCare's "Earn While You Learn" program. By taking classes-offered in both English and Spanish-that cover life skills, budgeting, and parenting topics, LifeCare clients earn 'baby bucks' that they spend in Hannah's closet.
Cobern says Earn While You Learn came about after she heard a client say, "Everything I have for my baby came from LifeCare." Cobern was dismayed: "Are we enabling this? That's not what we're here to do." She also heard volunteers who were burned out and concerned that some clients had developed an entitlement mentality-but she says Earn While You Learn has "shifted everything around." Clients like it because they are earning stuff rather than taking handouts: They can spend their baby bucks on small things or save them to buy a new crib.
Volunteers like the program because it clearly helps their clients, because they can build relationships with clients over a longer period of time, and because it helps to engage fathers. If the baby's father also takes classes, clients receive double baby bucks. Some of the classes meet several times a week, and others for an hour. In 2011, clients have taken 800 classes. Participation by men has increased so much that LifeCare plans to offer a curriculum developed by the National Fatherhood Initiative. Clients can take classes and shop in Hannah's Closet until their children are 1 year old.
Next on our tour was the counselors' room. Only people who know the code can get into the locked room where the center keeps confidential medical records, as well as counseling resources and curriculum materials. LifeCare is in the process of becoming certified to meet the same standards for patient confidentiality as any medical office.
Cobern showed me one of the forms that counselors use with clients. Developed by a team from the University of Ottawa, the Ottawa Personal Decision Guide helps clients to think through "'tough' healthcare decisions that may have multiple options; uncertain outcomes; benefits and harms that people value differently." With abortion-minded clients, LifeCare also uses Planned Parenthood's surgical consent form to go through abortion risks.
Cobern says teens make up about one-fourth of LifeCare's clients, and 40 percent of LifeCare's clients are older than 24. That makes sense, Cobern says. Teens often live at home and have a support network. Young women are more likely to be on their own. They may already have children. They are more likely to need the support of a place like LifeCare.
LifeCare offers sonograms to pregnant clients under the supervision of the center's medical director. He is an M.D. and his license covers services provided by the center's two volunteer doctors, two volunteer R.N.s, and a volunteer certified ultrasound stenographer. Altogether the center has over 100 volunteers who serve in a variety of ways, including counseling, abstinence teaching in the schools, and mentoring.
Cobern says the pregnancy center movement has always been apolitical. "It's hurt us in the long run," she says: "We need to let policy makers know about our services." She points to a statistic: 99 percent of center clients indicate on exit surveys that they "would recommend the center to a friend." She points to the sign ordinance as a perfect example of what happens when centers keep those good statistics to themselves: "The city council doesn't have any clue what we do."