Politics

Leaving Pro-Life Behind

“I hate that I stood in front of that clinic and told people that they should only have one option.”

A pro-choice protester holds a sign in front of an anti-abortion protester holding a sign that says "Pray to End Abortion" outside the Supreme Court.
Dueling protesters outside the Supreme Court. Allison Bailey via Reuters Connect

The news that Roe v. Wade will likely be overturned has rattled many reproductive rights advocates. For some former pro-life activists who now support abortion rights, it has unearthed complicated feelings, including shame and regret. Slate spoke with Theresa Esmeralda Romero, a 34-year-old recruiter for Google Cloud who lives in Dallas and who used to volunteer as a counselor for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[Read: Why Are Crisis Pregnancy Centers Not Illegal?]

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Slate: How did you become involved in pro-life advocacy? Did you grow up religious?

Theresa Esmeralda Romero: I grew up Pentecostal in a very close-knit, loving, working-class conservative Latino community here in Dallas. There’s a huge emphasis on faith, church, God, all of that. And conservative ideas of women’s roles in general. I learned early on that as a girl, my body was not my own. I grew up in a church where a woman didn’t have an opinion, couldn’t speak on Scripture, couldn’t work—and if they did, it had to be something that was more conservative. So there was a limit to what you could do. And very early on, I knew that I did not agree with that.

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Unfortunately, that’s very difficult in a lot of Latino communities. It’s very difficult to go against your father, the church, or how the community views things. I stayed in the church throughout my youth, and then I left the church for some time. When I came back, I went to a less conservative denomination. Then, when I was a young adult, I joined the Assemblies of God. They’re like Hillsong, if you’re not familiar. They were more progressive. Really, what led me to go back to the church was the fact that a lot of the Black and brown community sought refuge in the church a lot of the time. So I thought if I’m going to have any impact in empowering my community and questioning the validity of what we believe, I’ll have to do it from within. And so I would start doing church events, outreaches. And then also got involved in the pro-life movement with crisis pregnancy centers.

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I started volunteering and working with crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, in my early 20s. I worked at two different CPCs. One was one of the biggest here in Texas, where I worked alongside one of the biggest megachurches in the Dallas area.

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What were your thoughts about abortion at that time?

I was never really against abortion. I had never been in a situation where I needed to consider that choice, but I knew close friends and family members who had, so I didn’t feel it was bad or immoral or something God wouldn’t approve of. To me, it was just a reality. In my own community, people had abortions all the time. Dangerous ones, and some even fatal. I knew it was happening. I knew this affected Black and brown women and poor people the most. So, no, I wasn’t against it.

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Here in Texas, it’s portrayed very much as we are fighting for the lives of unborn children so that our community can thrive, and it’s the government that wants to keep our kids from living. That God would never impregnate someone and not have a plan for them. Everything was always planned. And as someone like myself, who had survived sexual abuse inside and outside of the church since I was 8 years old, I didn’t really think there was a plan. So I didn’t see the logic in that.

But I knew that I had to be vocal [echoing] what the church viewed abortion as. When you’re in certain circles you feel you have to be pro-life. You know what you have to do and say, because people aren’t open to hearing otherwise.

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Why did you start working there if you didn’t share the beliefs of most of the people you worked alongside? 

Because it gave me access. I wanted to speak to the young women who went to the CPCs. The CPCs were always run by white women, they were always filled with white women who were going to be pastors or were pastors or the wives of pastors. And when you are a nonwhite person and you go to these places, they judge you from the second they see you. You feel shame, you feel belittled. And then you’re in a situation where you’re unsure what to do next. And I know how that feels. So I wanted to be in those spaces. So I can tell those people, “It’s OK. You have to do what you have to do.”

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At one of the centers, we would give free chlamydia and gonorrhea testing. You had to pass all these checklist things. So a lot of that for me was just to get them to pass the checklist so they could have that. Or a lot of them are also just there to get a sonogram. I did what I could so I could get people what they needed.

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Were the people you were working with aware that you weren’t always counseling against abortion?

No. A lot of times in those CPCs, they believe that anyone who works with them is sold on this theology. You’re not being watched. And I knew what to say. I knew the Bible, and I would listen to what people were saying in church, and I would regurgitate that. The CPC liked that, because it was someone that wasn’t blond-haired, blue-eyed. Some would use it to their benefit, because I was Latina. They saw it as a story: I had my first child when I was 18. So they viewed it as, look, someone who comes from that type of situation, and look how she turned out.

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And I didn’t outright tell people [abortion] was fine. I was careful, but I would tell girls or women who go in there, ultimately, it was their decision, whatever they wanted to do.

Are there any particular cases from your time in anti-abortion activism that stand out in your memory?

There is one. There was a large pro-life women’s group composed of many Black and Latino women, which was good for their optics. We worked with this home where you could go in while you were pregnant, and then they would adopt your baby from there. On Fridays and weekends, we would go to the Southwest Clinic in Dallas, one of the abortion providers. We let people know choosing adoption is the loving option.

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There was a young Black couple there who had an appointment. They already had three kids, they just couldn’t make it financially. So [one activist] goes and speaks to the girl, and she’s [pushing] to get them in the home to place for adoption. And I said, “Why would you do that? Why would you separate this mom from those three kids and her boyfriend?” She said, “You think those three kids are more worthy of life than her next child?” I said, “Yes, you don’t know what it’s like being poor.” And she said, “Theresa, you don’t understand. We’re saving lives here. And if you’re so shortsighted, you shouldn’t do this.” That girl and her boyfriend left. They didn’t complete their appointment.

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How do you explain how you got pulled into a movement you disagree with? 

I wanted to be accepted in the church. I wanted to be made good. I was a high school dropout who got pregnant at 17. I had been sexually abused by multiple men for many years. I was a working-class girl who grew up in a poor community, who needed to be made for more. And the only way we knew how, then, was if the church accepted us and elevated us.

How long did you work at the CPCs?

I worked with a CPC for five years. At the very end, I was one of the youth leaders in our church. When one of the parents spoke with me about their child, I very bluntly told them that they needed to consider birth control. That parent, of course, was not happy with that response. That was brought to my pastor at that time. My pastor told me, “Look, Theresa, we know you push boundaries, but you need to understand that this is not going to change anyone’s opinion. Either you ride with that, or you leave leadership.” I decided to leave. This was seven years ago. And soon thereafter, I left church altogether. I had done all that I could.

How do you feel when you look back on your time in the pro-life movement?

I hate that I made signs. I hate that I went to pro-life marches and rallies, I hate that I stood in front of that clinic and told people that they should only have one option. But I hope that at least my time in the CPC movement and in the churches, if I can tell those stories, can contribute to a larger conversation.

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