A pair of deeply strange articles appeared in the Washington Post this week, raising questions about whether Democracy Dies in Darkness, the paper’s motto, has a carveout for Gilead. Last Sunday, under the headline “What Happens When People in Texas Can’t Get Abortions: ‘Diapers Save a Lot More Babies Than Ultrasounds,’ ” Casey Parks profiled Tere Haring and the anti-abortion nonprofit she runs in Texas—a pregnancy center that distributes diapers and baby formula to what she calls “abortion-minded” women in untenable financial situations. Haring, who “believed it was her Catholic duty to help women who didn’t get abortions,” has seen a huge uptick in the need for the services she provides after S.B. 8 became law. (“God had steered these women away from abortions, Haring believed. Now, it was up to Him to give Haring the money to help them raise a child.”) The second piece, published three days later, is titled, “A Maternity Ranch Is Born,” and offers another window into “How evangelical women in Texas are mobilizing for a future without abortion.” It’s currently among the most read on the site. The profile, by Stephanie McCrummen, is of Aubrey Schlackman, another Texas woman who has built:
a place for struggling pregnant women who decide to have their babies instead of having abortions, a Christian haven where women could live stress-free during their newborn’s first year of life. It would have individual cottages for mothers. “Host homes” for couples who would model healthy marriages. A communal barn for meals. Bible study.
The first story recounts how the Harings ended up in Texas in the first place: They moved in 1986 after John, Tere’s husband, a lawyer who defended clinic protesters, “was arrested outside the Ladies Center Inc. in Pensacola, Fla.” The family decided they should move to Texas to get away from the anti-abortion movement. (At least one of their children followed in their father’s footsteps—the piece notes that in 1994, after Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, one of their kids was arrested on charges of trespassing at a clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas.) In August 1994, Tere Haring opened Allied as a nonprofit crisis pregnancy center.
Haring’s work procuring food and diapers for babies and their moms in the name of God is moving. The piece also truthfully notes that ”critics say” crisis pregnancy centers are often criticized for “dishonest tactics” and copying the language and signage of abortion clinics to confuse patients. It even explains that Haring refuses funding from Texas’ Alternatives to Abortion program, which, although set up to assist women who carry to term, “spent up to 100 times as much counseling patients against abortion as on maternity clothes,” as the Austin Chronicle found in 2018. But even with these additions, the bulk of the piece is framed as a redemption story, about renouncing anti-abortion violence to embrace love. It reads like an uncritical, unvarnished tribute to Haring’s generosity and purpose.
The Post story approaches the religious complications of Haring’s work respectfully. It explains why Haring rejects government money: “State and federal law prohibits recipients from proselytizing or pushing religious activity on the people they serve.” She prefers to be openly faithful and “keeps what she calls a ‘little chapel’ in the back of the center.” It’s a small chapel where, the Post reports, “Haring sometimes prays for women in need. Hardly any of her clients go in it. But Haring doesn’t want to change what she does, and she doesn’t want to lie to the state.” The takeaway is that having to hide or separate her faith is not worth the extra funding.
The second story details the ways in which Texas’ passage of S.B. 8 bolstered a “growing sense among evangelical Christians … that the end of Roe v. Wade was no longer a dim possibility but a near certainty.” Happily, it would seem, for the subject, “the time had come for the next phase—a new era in America when the church would establish a kind of Christian social safety net where motherhood was not only supported but exalted as part of God’s plan for the universe.” Again, Aubrey Schlackman’s story and charitable efforts are admirable. Hers is a deep and loving faith. But the explicit religious valence here cannot be missed. The ranch Schlackman is creating would be part of a huge “cultural shift,” she says: “Churches helping. Christians opening their homes. Christian safe havens all over Texas. Maybe all over America.” That her program involves mandatory Bible study, silver bracelets for moms that say “I am free,” and insistence on heterosexuality and religious primacy of males over females is elided, or maybe just downplayed. The message of both stories seems to be a kind of one-two theological neck punch: Sure, Texas has craftily ended all abortions after six weeks, but it all works out in the wash because the church is stepping into the void!
Nowhere do these pieces mention the deep suffering of women who may become pregnant but don’t want to go to ranches or wear bracelets or pose for “pregnancy portraits—a professional photo shoot in which they wore flowing goddess gowns.” Both seem to have been lobbed at readers with the tacit understanding that, yes, sure, Texas nullified Roe v. Wade this fall and made no exceptions for rape, incest, or maternal well-being, but hey, it sure did bring about a new spirit of charity! Seen through the lens of new reporting about the Washington Post’s actions toward Felicia Sonmez, a survivor of sexual assault who was repeatedly told by the paper that she was not neutral on the subject and could therefore not report on it, it feels a bit like another example of what can go wrong when a publication apparently believes there are “two sides” to human rights atrocities and rape. In that light, it looks a bit like the pair of love songs to the gap-filling faithful are the deeply strange result of a commitment to “both siderism”—as though the Post, in casting around for an upside to taking away women’s life choices, has determined that the upside is More Kindness/More God.
More Kindness/More God may well be outstanding in life, but it doesn’t cancel out the need for basic health care, or for services to be delivered to the nongodly, or for pregnant people to be treated as moral agents with control over their own futures. This framing trap—that those on the abortion side are godless and those seeking to end abortion are people of faith—is one of the most hackneyed political clichés of the last decades. Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an entity that offers holistic abortion care services, told me as much in an email: “As a progressive Christian abortion provider I am appalled by what these organizations are doing and how they frame Christianity, and I am stunned that the Washington Post would cover these organizations as if this is normal, sensible activity.”
That there is a place in America for faith-based charitable service is uncontroversial. That has been the case since the founding. But good people who provide good service to good people who make certain choices only when their other choices are taken away is not “freedom,” even if it comes engraved on a silver bracelet. I keep wondering about the rest of story—what happens AFTER the halcyon period of prayer and birth? What happens to women disinclined to sign an agreement to attend Bible study and “a series of activities”? Who is taking in the non-Christian mothers in a country founded on freedom from religious coercion? The words maternity ranch can sound generous and loving, but they also fundamentally distort the fact that substituting Huggies for broad freedom represents a big step backward for human agency.
Writing in Politico last year, medievalist Cord Whitaker pointed out the extent to which the “idea of chivalry” motivates revanchists and white supremacists. They apply it, he wrote, “to multiple objects. They defend their families. They defend their neighborhoods. They defend their way of life. The flag. Western Civilization. The police. Always they use the language of honor. In their minds, they merely defend the defenseless.” For years now, the charity and good works of crisis pregnancy centers and religious efforts of state legislatures have been similarly dressed as chivalric, when the story right below that layer is simply and obviously an attempt at upholding patriarchy and forced pregnancy. The pregnant in Texas must be “defended” not just from abortion service providers but also from their own false understanding of their own circumstances. If they can be denied access to reproductive choice, they can then be remolded. As one client explains, “the Bible lessons showed me that choosing your child over whatever circumstances you’re in—that God is giving you this child as a blessing.” This is religious paternalism. Recall that when the Supreme Court afforded broad speech rights to both CPCs and anti-abortion “counselors,” it was because they were doing good work, holy work, work that is posited by its enthusiasts as curative to the sinful work of terminating pregnancies.
Nobody should be knocked for helping the unfortunate. There is plenty of need for good and inspiring news of human kindness. But stories that are premised on the idea that taking away a woman’s bodily and economic choices has made more space for cute cottages and gated communities and Bible study is not “both sides” journalism. Faith-based charity is not a substitute for accessible and constitutionally protected freedoms. This isn’t the stuff of happy endings for those who have fewer options. Everyone wants to see the upside, and everyone is tired of reading shitty news about women and their dwindling options. But fêting as heroes the people who step in when all choice has been removed and replaced with Bible study and male dominated doctrine about family is not sober objectivity. It’s falling prey to the oldest, most paternalistic tropes in the book, then passing it off as progress.