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Groups opposing abortion are getting more calls for help with unplanned pregnancies

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

With abortion now unavailable in a growing number of states, groups that help patients travel for the procedure are reporting a bigger need for assistance. Groups that oppose abortion rights are also getting more calls from pregnant women seeking help. NPR's Sarah McCammon recently traveled to Texas, where anti-abortion-rights activists say they've been waiting for this moment.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Pam Whitehead spends a lot of time on the phone, talking to people facing unexpected pregnancies and all kinds of needs.

PAM WHITEHEAD: So currently, you don't have a vehicle. So tell me how - are you using public transportation?

MCCAMMON: Whitehead is the executive director of ProLove Ministries, an anti-abortion group that tries to persuade people not to choose abortion and helps with transportation, housing and other needs for those who continue their pregnancies. After the law known as SB 8 took effect just over a year ago in Texas, banning most abortions here after about six weeks, Whitehead says her organization's hotline saw a spike in calls for help. Those calls have continued, and come from across the country, since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

WHITEHEAD: We were preparing for this in advance. We knew this was coming. We anticipated it. And we knew that we needed to prepare to be able to serve women.

MCCAMMON: On a summer day, Whitehead is taking calls at the kitchen table of a suburban home on a quiet street outside Houston. It's a maternity home Whitehead's group operates. A few women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are working in the kitchen - washing dishes, cooking over a hot stove - or hanging out in the adjacent living room. They've come to live here, some of them for months at a time, while pregnant or caring for a new baby. Near the front door, several strollers stand in a neat row while their tiny occupants sleep down the hall in their mothers' bedrooms.

WHITEHEAD: We call this our parking garage (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Women typically come here after struggling to find stable housing. Samantha, who's 31, asked that we use only her first name because she's worried about backlash from her former boyfriend, who she says pressured her to have an abortion she didn't want. She came from the Midwest to Texas while still pregnant, initially planning to give up her baby for adoption.

SAMANTHA: And then I started feeling Benji (ph) move. And I'm just like, do I really want to give him up? Do I really want to give my little boy up? And I remember I prayed on it. And I would sit in the hotel room. And I would just cry and scream, tell me what you want me to do.

MCCAMMON: Samantha was determined to keep her baby and desperate for a place to stay. She called the ProLove Ministries hotline, which placed her in the maternity home outside Houston. She arrived here around Memorial Day, just days before she delivered her baby several weeks early due to a life-threatening condition called preeclampsia.

SAMANTHA: And by the grace of God, Benji was born 4 pounds, 6 ounces, 16 inches long via C-section. And Pam was in the room with me. She was holding my hand. Yeah. It was the scariest 'cause he's so little. He's way too early. But he's doing amazing now.

MCCAMMON: Pam Whitehead's group is one of many around the country, including hundreds of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers they work with closely, that offer parenting classes and supplies, often donated by church groups. The organization's founder, Abby Johnson, is a vocal and often controversial activist who opposes abortion rights in virtually all cases, even in situations like the 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and denied an abortion in her home state soon after the Supreme Court released its decision this summer. Whitehead says she agrees with that position, and she's motivated by her own experiences.

WHITEHEAD: I can't imagine being in that situation. I know what it's like to be raped though. I also know what it's like to have an abortion. And I'll tell you this - that that abortion impacted me greatly.

MCCAMMON: For Samantha, who describes herself as pro-choice, the maternity home has been a rare, if complicated, place of refuge and support. In her small bedroom near the front of the house, filled with baby clothes and toys, Samantha says she's grateful for the help and especially the housing, which she'd struggled to find because of a criminal conviction in her past. But she's concerned about the consequences of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

SAMANTHA: There's going to be a lot of women that are going to go through hell because of this, emotionally and physically. Because there are women that are going to have ectopic pregnancies that they can't get assistance. There are going to be women that get raped that can't get assistance.

MCCAMMON: In the aftermath of new abortion laws in Texas and now nationwide, calls to the hotline so far this year have nearly quadrupled compared to a year ago. Other anti-abortion groups tell NPR they're also working to expand similar services for new and expectant mothers. But Sonya Borrero, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, says that help often comes alongside inaccurate information and pressure to continue a pregnancy. Borrero has researched crisis pregnancy centers, known as CPCs.

SONYA BORRERO: CPCs definitely take advantage of people's economic insecurity and just the societal inadequate support we have for pregnant people.

MCCAMMON: She says these anti-abortion centers far outnumber abortion clinics nationwide and typically don't provide a full range of reproductive health care, such as contraception. Borrero says many of the ones she's encountered in her research also promote false information about the safety of abortion pills and procedures.

BORRERO: I think these centers do speak to the significant need we have to support pregnant people and especially those who choose to parent. It really is filling that gap that our society has not filled. But it does come at a cost because there is an ideologically-driven mission.

MCCAMMON: As the need grows in a post-Roe environment, it's unclear how much of the gap these groups will be able to fill. When we visited this summer, the maternity home outside Houston was full, with one woman sleeping temporarily in an open loft area. Meanwhile, Democrats in some red states, including Mississippi, are pushing their Republican colleagues to vote for more public funding for maternity care and postpartum support as abortion becomes increasingly out of reach.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN SALSBURG'S "IMPOSSIBLE AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.