By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 6, 2020
FOREST PARK—As the faithful gathered at the Cathedral of Christ the King for the annual Mass for the Unborn, staff at the Pregnancy Aid Clinic prepared for a day of pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and classes.
The day was lively. Some 19 women had appointments Wednesday, Jan. 22, for tests and to attend parenting classes.
Five pregnancy tests would come back positive, with three of the women considered likely to give birth. Two ultrasounds were performed.
Upstairs in the brick townhouse, a class of nine pregnant women learned about nutrition and communicating with respect. Afterward, they shopped among racks of donated onesies, Boppy nursing pillows, strollers and baby supplies with “boutique bucks,” part of the earn-to-learn campaign.
‘I know where you are’
Michele Griner began volunteering at the clinic after work to counsel women weighing decisions about their pregnancies.
She knows what the clients face. Griner was a teenager when she got pregnant. At that crossroads, she chose to raise her daughter.
“What the enemy meant for evil, God used it for good,” said Griner, 55, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta. “And he brought me back here to minister to these young ladies and I can honestly say to them, ‘I know where you are.’”
Griner is a licensed social worker. For two years she has been the director of operations and client care.
“Like most of the clients we see, I thought my life was over. It’s the last thing you want,” Griner said. “But you have to trust in (God’s) plan and trust that he will work it out.”
The work is to assure women they can face the challenges ahead with a pregnancy they may not have expected; the center will help them with social services, emotional support and education.
While the women may be fearful, she hopes they can pause and take a breath.
The job is not to scare a woman into parenthood, she said.
“That’s not our job. We mentor using the love approach, and the love approach says our job as advocates is to plant the seed,” said Griner. “The rest is up to the Holy Spirit. So that’s what we do, we plant the seed.”
Meet them without judgment
The Pregnancy Aid Clinic, founded in 1984, is a nonprofit organization. It is one of some 2,700 crisis pregnancy centers in the United States. Independent of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, it adheres to Catholic sexual teachings.
It operates on a budget of around $1.3 million. It is financially supported by the Knights of Columbus, the Order of Malta and other individual donors.
It has offices in Forest Park and Roswell, where women can receive free tests for pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, in addition to ultrasounds. It also has a mobile clinic, a converted RV where women can receive the same tests as the clinic. The clinic also provides peer counseling, baby supplies, education programs, referrals to adoption agencies and other social services.
In 2019, it served some 1,600 clients, with some 1,500 pregnancy tests and nearly 900 ultrasounds. The clinic reported 300 clients “had a change of heart” about terminating the pregnancy.
Georgia in 2019 passed a heartbeat bill to restrict abortions after the detection of fetal heartbeat, about six weeks into pregnancy. It is temporarily suspended as the law makes its way through the court system.
As abortion laws become more restrictive, proponents of abortion rights have a campaign against crisis pregnancy centers. Critics call these centers fake clinics, whose mission is to mislead women at a vulnerable time. NARAL Pro-Choice America’s website states crisis pregnancy centers “lie to, shame and intentionally mislead women” about “accessing abortion care.”
Griner said their work focuses on helping women know their options. “We’re very clear. Anytime we have a call or a walk in about the services that we provide we don’t mislead anyone. We don’t let anyone who’s seeking abortion think that we can provide that service,” said Griner, sitting in her office. On her desk is a small replica of Homeless Jesus, that depicts Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a park bench.
Lisa Regan, who has been executive director of the clinic for a year, said clinic opponents are wrong when they claim programs like Pregnancy Aid Clinic only care about women before they give birth.
At her clinic, advocates are there for the women, assisting them to find needed social services, giving a gas card to fill up a tank if it helps keep a job, or connecting with educational needs, Regan said.
Clinic workers “meet (the woman) without judgment and compassionately and listen to her story and help her know that someone can walk with her,” she said. We work with them “to remove the obstacles that are in their way of effective parenting,” said Regan, who attends St. Andrew Church, Roswell.
‘We love on our clients’
Forest Park sits in the flight path of the nearby Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport. PAC’s busiest clinic is in this community.
Clinic workers know some of the clients come here for the free tests and then make their way to the neighboring abortion clinic. The clinic’s office used to be the abortion clinic. Now there is a large sign on its front, promoting free pregnancy tests. There is no noticeable sign for the abortion clinic.
The women who rely on the clinic are largely women of color and poor. Most earn less than $14,000 a year, Griner said.
“I get to tell them they are worthy, things they may not have ever heard before,” said Courtney Cook, 38, who has a master’s degree in school counseling.
She too faced an unplanned pregnancy as a teen. Cook chose an adoptive family for her child. It’s why she pours so much into this now. She stood in the same place where they are.
“I totally see myself in their decisions, in their relationships. That’s why I tell them I love them and they are worthy,” she said.
On the second floor, nine women attended the 90 minutes Parenting I and Parenting II class. Cook leads it, but she wants the women to share their own stories from life. She tells them she is passing on parenting book information but doesn’t know from first-hand experience.
Cook said she’s found her students do not hear positive messages often about themselves.
“We love on our clients and students and give them a space to breathe,” she said.
Abortion masks social problems
The disputed Georgia heartbeat bill is causing Regan to think ahead.
There were some 36,000 abortions in Georgia in 2017, reported the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
Nationwide, about half of women who get abortions live in poverty, according to the research organization.
Regan said thousands of women may turn up to the clinic for pregnancy tests and financial support, if the law is enforced.
In her view, abortion masks social problems faced by women. If abortion is restricted, the problems faced by women do not go away but will become very visible to everyone, she said.
It will require more services to be “ready to walk with them, ready for parenting classes, ready armed with adoption counselors and really good strong adoption programs, good strong parenting programs, mentoring programs, counseling, advocacy.
Diana Resendiz showed up at the clinic in September. Today, she’d go home with an armful of diapers.
Resdendiz, a 25-year-old mother of three, all under the age of 5, came in and learned from an ultrasound she was 16 weeks pregnant. She said her life was in a dark place, with a boyfriend who would soon be in jail for abusing her.
“I was ready to break free from the abuse and definitely this has kind of allowed me to prosper and to heal myself from everything that I’ve been going through,” she said, pausing with emotion as her eyes welled with tears.
Resendiz worked with an advocate to find an adoption agency. A playdate arranged between her and the adoptive mother allowed Resendiz “to connect with her in a better way.”
With her Mexican background, Resdendiz said she felt adoption is not embraced in her community. But she has found the experience so far to be life changing.
“I’m blessing a family with a child,” she said, also giving herself a chance to heal and be a better mother for her children. “I feel like I have a have choice in my life.”