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Book of Matthew: You can’t choose your abortion facts

Published: February 26, 2010
Section: Opinions


The girl in the pamphlet stared off into the corner of the picture frame. She looked like a lead female role in a low-budget 50s horror movie—covered in shadow and looking fearfully at some unseen enemy.

“The Deadly After-Effect of Abortion: Breast Cancer,” read the boldfaced title. This was no movie.

The pamphlet was one of many taken from the Heartbeat Pregnancy Help Center in Burlington, Mass. Heartbeat is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization which provides free consultation and services for women who find themselves pregnant and unsure what to do about it. But this otherwise laudable service is marred by the center’s decidedly anti-abortion position.

I got the pamphlets from Aleze, a member of the Brandeis chapter of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), which is part of the national Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF). FMF has taken an interest in pregnancy centers lately, and has been calling for its branches to investigate different centers that are suspected of pushing anti-abortion propaganda. Brandeis’ FMLA decided to cover the Boston area, dividing into pairs and seeking out questionable centers.

And so, last semester, Aleze and her friend Maddie made the twenty-minute drive to the Heartbeat center. Pretending that Maddie was pregnant, the two girls secured a Saturday appointment with one of Heartbeat’s volunteer counselors .

The students, who asked their last names not be used so their investigations would not be uncovered, sat down with the counselor in the building’s small office. It was literally decorated wall-to-wall.

Hundreds of pictures of smiling babies crawling were hung proudly. Some were even accompanied by handwritten letters by proud parents, no doubt thanking Heartbeat for their services.

One prominently displayed poster depicted a black-and-white newborn, fast asleep and wrapped in a blanket. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on,” read its caption.

Nearby, a desk held a collection of oddly shaped plastic figures, which, upon closer examination, turned out to be models of fetuses. Pink and shiny, each one represented a different stage in fetal development.

Though slightly put-off by the subliminal nature of the decor, the girls found the counselor to be mostly friendly and understanding. As Maddie described her circumstances—trying to sound as panicky as possible—she listened carefully, and even offered words of encouragement.

“You would definitely make a good mother,” she said when Maddie laid out her doubts about giving birth and raising a child. Many students, the counselor said, are able to raise children while still graduating on time. She even gave examples of a few young mothers who she knew had raised multiple children over the course of four years in school.

The girls attempted to steer the conversation toward abortion. Aleze mentioned that she had a “friend” who recently had one. Immediately, the counselor became inquisitive, asking probing questions: Had she been pressured by someone? How is she doing now?

“That’s really the worst idea,” she said, claiming that girls who get abortions almost always end up with physical and psychological trauma. She was especially insistent in her belief that abortions raise the risk of breast cancer later in life. When the girls asked how that was possible, she briefly attempted to explain the “science” behind it before pointing to studies cited in many of the pamphlets lining the office’s shelves.

The girls were right to be skeptical. It turns out that those studies are mostly out of date and have since been replaced by more recent scientific work. Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute have concluded that there is no relation between abortion and breast cancer. Though they acknowledge that studies have found otherwise, they maintain that these were done improperly, resulting in skewed results. According to an article on the National Cancer Institute’s website, in most of the older studies “only a small number of women were included … and for most, the data were collected only after breast cancer had been diagnosed, and women’s histories of miscarriage and abortion were based on their “self-report” rather than on their medical records.”

Of course, whether or not she cared to admit it, the counselor at Heartbeat had an agenda to push, and she was prepared to do anything to see it through. On top of the false information she gave Maddie, the counselor offered to provide her with clothes, a baby carriage, a crib, and other supplies that she would need were she to keep the baby. She also told her that she could apply for food stamps and subsidized health insurance if necessary, and suggested that Maddie move in with her boyfriend.

In fact, she was prepared to offer Maddie all the help and advice that Heartbeat was capable of giving. The only thing she would not do was allow Maddie to make a truly informed decision.

Maddie and Aleze left Heartbeat with one final admonition to keep the baby. In an attempt to follow up on their visit, I went to the Heartbeat Center on Tuesday and met with Muriel, the center’s director. In the same office where the students had sat before me, Muriel told me about all the work that Heartbeat had done in the past year. They had delivered clothes and baby formula to needy mothers and their children, and counseled the mothers of 103 babies.

It was work that I could not necessarily find fault with. But like the counselor, Muriel remained adamantly against abortion, insisting once again that it was dangerous for the mother and handing me even more pamphlets containing outdated studies.

It is often said that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. I thought about this as I scanned the walls around me, my eyes landing on each piece of subtle, and not-so-subtle, propaganda. And I also thought of the countless women who had done the same thing, while desperately trying to make a difficult decision that was slowly being made for them.