Abortion in Providence


by by Josh Sunderman

For any young woman riding there by taxi, the drive to Problem Pregnancy of Providence at 400 Atwells St. can be embarrassing and shameful in the extreme. It's worse if the taxi driver persists, as some will, in asking oblique questions about what kind of building it is, exactly, and whether he is correct in remembering it as a sort of medical center or clinic--which, incidentally, it is not. Problem Pregnancy of Providence (also called the Mother of Life Center) does, however, have its own chapel on the second floor, where a priest holds Catholic Mass twice per month.


David O'Connell, current director of Problem Pregnancy of Providence, says the center has been on Atwells since 2004 when they moved there to be closer to an abortion clinic directly across the street. When asked about what happened to the clinic, O'Connell leaned forward in his chair to explain, in a roundabout way, that the first mass was said at the Mother of Life Center on August 29, 2006, just shortly after the chapel itself had been completed, and that the abortion clinic across the street closed exactly forty days afterwards. He told the Independent: "I think it was definitely a response not only to our organization, but also I believe it has to do with the fact that they left forty days after Our Lord was placed in the Tabernacle. I do believe it was Divine Intervention."

It ought to be encouraging that legal abortion rates nationwide are on the decline. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the number has decreased from 31.3 abortions per 1,000 women (aged 15-44) in 1991 to 23.2 in 2005, with Rhode Island's abortion rate at 19.4 per 1,000 women of that age. Rhode Island is also an extremely Catholic state, ranking as the most Catholic in the country according to the Providence Journal website. In such a heavily Catholic state, a crisis pregnancy center like Problem Pregnancy of Providence is in a good position to influence women who come seeking help and advice regarding unwanted pregnancies.

Here in Providence, like anywhere else, the battlegrounds of the pro-life versus pro-choice war are governed by the weighty forces of religion, feminism, conservative family values and liberal ideas of sexual freedom. Firing back and forth in all directions across this battlefield are bits of information which the two sides use like precious ammo. Though this information is composed of different alloys, both parties have access to the same primary sources of research and data.

For instance, Problem Pregnancy gives out pamphlets claiming condoms are not safe because "particles of talc found on some condoms can enter the body of the woman and irritate her tissues, potentially causing infertility or cancer." The Planned Parenthood website, by contrast, says that "almost everyone can use a condom safely." Problem Pregnancy also gives out pamphlets claiming abortion raises a woman's risk for breast cancer. How is it, one might ask, that such a pamphlet (which does not agree with esteemed research organizations like the American Cancer Society) make it into a place like Problem Pregnancy of Providence?

Crisis pregnancy centers are sometimes alleged to be deceitful or misleading organizations which are not transparent about their stance on abortion rights; the fact that they hand out pamphlets about abortion raising the risk of breast cancer might come as no surprise. Problem Pregnancy of Providence seems more transparent than some, however.

If you call the Problem Pregnancy number without asking which side of the debate they stand on, O'Connell and director of counseling Mooney will go ahead and make the appointment with you, and tell you their stance once you get there. If you ask them over the phone how much an abortion costs, explained O'Connell, they will be clear about the organization's pro-life mission and politely refuse to answer you. Once at the center, O'Connell and Mooney are completely frank about their pro-life stance.

The advertisements posted around the city, however, give only two pieces of information: the offer for a free, convenient and confidential pregnancy test and a phone number to call.

Last year, 799 women visited the Mother of Life Center for counseling and other services regarding unexpected pregnancies and family planning. O'Connell and Mooney take a strictly Catholic pro-life approach, meaning they do not support abortion for any reason, even in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger.

One pamphlet on a vertical turnstile in the bookstore of the Mother of Life Center describes the life and death of a woman named Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962). She is beautiful, with big, dark eyes gazing skyward and a baby on her hip. Gianna was a physician who chose to have her child even though she knew the birth would kill her, and O'Connell tells her story with enlivened but grave emphasis on her bravery. On the bottom of the pamphlet, in red italics, is the following bold entreaty: "A SAINT TO IMITATE."

The majority of O'Connell's pamphlets are made by a group called the American Life League (ALL), which operates out of Stafford, Virginia and is funded entirely by private donations.

Under the "I'm New" section of the ALL website, the group explains its stance in no uncertain terms: "Let's get this straight right now. Nobody who claims to be 'pro-choice' is anything other than 'pro-abortion.' [...] Sometimes talking to pro-aborts can be like arguing with a post, but that doesn't mean we won't try!"

Although he has pamphlets on oral contraceptives, condoms and other forms of birth control, O'Connell also does not in any way support the use of contraception. He told the Independent, "Sexuality has two purposes, designed by God, in order to first procreate children and second of all, to bring unity and love through Christ All Mighty. That's why we have sexuality, why we're sexual at all. [In marriage] I give myself to her, she gives herself to me. And by holding back fertility, one from the other, I'm giving you everything, and you're holding something back. And that's--that's not love."

For a young woman hearing this from an older, father-like figure such as O'Connell, these words may very well seem comforting--as in Yes, this really is how love ought to be--but disingenuous at the same time. It is difficult to imagine O'Connell whispering in this way to another man his age while leaning over toward him and pausing dramatically in an attempt to draw out some level of agreement.

It may at first seem odd to find information on contraception in the Mother of Life bookstore when O'Connell has such hard-line ideas about family life and sexuality, but it is part of the awareness he has; he knows women have sex before marriage and that they'll be more receptive to his ideas if he at least offers them some kind of information about birth control. In this way, O'Connell seems as much a realist as he is a pro-lifer.

Most medical professionals and pro-choice activists would take serious issue with some of the medical information they hand out at Problem Pregnancy. There is, for example, one pamphlet on the wall of the bookstore that reads in bold purple letters: "Abortion raises Breast Cancer Risk." This "ABC" (a mnemonic meant to help women remember Abortion--Breast--Cancer) pamphlet includes a chart which shows that women who get abortions are 150 percent more likely to develop breast cancer.

But in what the American Cancer Society (ACS) calls "[t]he largest, and probably the most reliable, single study of this topic, the researchers found that induced abortion(s) had no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer. The size of this study and the manner in which it was done provides good evidence that induced abortion does not affect a woman's risk of developing breast cancer."

O'Connell knows this, though, which is the most intriguing part about his willingness to hand out packets which he knows sport misinformation. When he hands over this particular pamphlet, he said: "Well you know, our opponents would go crazy over this stuff. But we believe that if you have a case where you know that, say, maybe one in ten women could be affected by something like this, that you should tell them about it."

Although his words sound sinister and a bit eerie over a tape recorder, it is easy to agree with what he says in the moment because those eyes of his--blue-gray irises hooded by a heavy set of white eyebrows--convey something earnest, familial and worthy of trust. The way O'Connell talks, it sounds like every word he says is some variation of "cabbage," with a little 'dge' sound at the end, and this makes him somehow more friendly and approachable, especially when he jokes around ("You don't think babies grow in a cabbage patch, do you?"). When he makes a joke, he does so in a lighthearted and kind manner, perhaps to ease the tension of having to speak about such difficult things.

As he stepped into his back office and started surfing the web for a certain advertisement he wanted to show me, O'Connell proved to be something of a maverick. He flipped through Catholic pro-life websites and YouTube videos to get to a clip of a pro-life commercial featuring President Obama ("This child... will become... the first African American President"), which was supposed to run during the Super Bowl. It became clear that O'Connell knows the internet-based abortion debate very well. He knows exactly what is out there in terms of both pro-life and pro-choice-backed information and the studies that both sides draw from for their information pamphlets.

Still, there is a willingness to toe the boundaries of credibility for the sake of his cause, even when it means handing out information which is not up-to-date or correct. When it comes to late-stage abortions, for example, O'Connell explains, over the sound of a baby crying in the next room, that in performing partial birth abortions, "the parts get all broken up and ripped and bloody and whatever it is... and so the parts are everywhere. And now, when they're doing partial birth abortions, all the parts are intact. Except the brain matter. Is intact. And they can sell it. For experimentation."

When asked whether this happens in the United States, and not only in less developed countries, he answered: "Oh yeah, yes absolutely. They sell baby parts for experimentation. Lung, heart. Two hundred dollars, 300 dollars. Now, why else would they do partial birth abortion? First of all they turn the baby around the wrong way. So it's not good for the mother, for her body. It's harder. It's more difficult, and it's disgusting. Why do they do that? For the parts."

And then, when asked whether this is done on the black market--even kidneys cannot legally be sold in the United States--O'Connell responded with a resolute no. He said: "Is it any different from the skeleton hanging in Brown University medical center? You know, brains in formaldehyde? This is a very, very nasty industry that we're trying to contain. It just is; it's what they do."

Upon further investigation, one finds that there is scant information online about the market for baby parts. Many pro-choice advocates see this as a sensationalist story that hardcore pro-lifers use in order to portray the pro-choice movement as abhorrent and shameless.

In this debate, Mary Ann Sorrentino sits opposite O'Connell. Over the phone, Sorrentino explained that she has never had an abortion, although she has lost friends to illegal abortion procedures gone wrong. She served as the chief director of Planned Parenthood Rhode Island for ten years, from 1977 to 1987 and is the author of the book Abortion: The A Word. Sorrentino speaks from a particularly compelling perspective because she was born and raised in Rhode Island as an ethnic (Italian) Catholic, but the church excommunicated her in 1985 for her staunch pro-choice activism and some of her actions as the director of Planned Parenthood.

Many Catholic pro-life activists who advocate for an end to legal abortion also believe they are saving the women themselves, spiritually. In O'Connell's own words on the spiritual consequences of having an abortion: "From a Catholic point of view, a spiritual point of view, there's a separation from God when a person goes through such a severe cruelty. There is a severe spiritual harm that comes to women who get abortions."

Perhaps it was a mistake to ask Sorrentino how she reconciled her politics with her religion. She answered, "Reconcile? I don't care about the Catholic Church, and I don't care about reconciling anything with them. I think the scandals within the church have made it much easier for Catholics to justify their private sexual choices because while trying to punish people for being divorced and having same-sex marriages, etc., they [priests] were all the while sexually abusing children or worse. So there really is not a whole lot of credibility in the Catholic Church."

Sorrentino also had a ready response to O'Connell's statement about the market for baby parts. She explained that in the state of Rhode Island--where partial birth abortion is no longer legal--the health department mandates that you send the so-called "products of conception" to them so they can make sure that nothing was left in the woman's body. She said that medical personnel put the products of conception in a jar, label it, and send it off to the state health department so they can check to make sure no parts were left in the woman, which could potentially cause a serious infection.

She said: "This [notion of a market for baby parts] sounds like another off-the-edge justification for someone to whom it [abortion] is morally repugnant. But part of telling those crazy stories and untruths is that they will just, you know, terrify or scandalize for an effect. That's not intelligent."

The Planned Parenthood building at 111 Point St. has a completely different feel from the cozy, home-like aura of the Mother of Life Center. The surroundings on Point St. seem industrial, cold and empty, and the waiting room inside Planned Parenthood feels more like a hospital waiting room or dentist's office than one might expect.

Doctors at Planned Parenthood perform abortions on Tuesdays and Fridays, which is when most of the pro-life protesters come out with signs, pamphlets and rosaries. Like O'Connell, the activists outside the Planned Parenthood on Point St. use emotional/religious language to dissuade the women from having abortions.

With enlarged photographs of aborted fetuses and pamphlets urging women to keep their babies for the sake of their eternal souls, pro-life protesters outside of Planned Parenthood usually stick to quiet tactics. But according to Bill, the security guard at Planned Parenthood, they can get more physical, sometimes even blocking the entrance to the building with their bodies.

While walking through the parking lot away from the protesters--he must remain unbiased while on the job--Bill, a Catholic himself, said he believes religion is the most powerful component of the pro-life stance. Sometimes they resort to outright harassment of the children who accompany their mothers as they try to enter Planned Parenthood, he said. "People take this to a fanatical level. Really," Bill says, "I could never do it [protest]."

Sorrentino said that when she was director of Planned Parenthood, the gruesome signs and protesting were not as bad because the location of the Providence Planned Parenthood was very close to the entrance of a mall during those years. The protesting has generally been more violent since 1994, she says, when John Salvi walked into Massachusetts abortion clinics and fatally shot two receptionists. Sorrentino said that protest over legal abortion rights has never gone back to an acceptable level of respect or toleration for the other's side since then, and that it probably never will. "And that's very tragic," she said, "because we're not any closer to any kind of a resolution. There'll never be a resolution to this question."

According to the 2007 Guttmacher Policy Review, global rates for abortion are falling most sharply where abortion is "legally available on broad grounds and widely available in practice." The same report holds that the global trend regarding legal abortion rights is toward liberalization, and that approximately two thirds of women worldwide live in a country where abortion is "generally permissible."

Partly for this reason, Sorrentino does not see the United States as ever making abortion illegal again. "And frankly," she said, "politicians are whores. They only exist for votes and money. There's not enough money in it for them. Every priest in the catholic world can get up every Sunday and bang away at this issue as they have for a long time now."

Until abortion is made illegal, which does not seem likely under the Obama administration, places like Problem Pregnancy of Providence will continue to fall under the umbrella of legal choice. In some ways, this is the essence of the pro-choice stance: women may choose to deal with an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy in whichever way they choose, including going to places like Problem Pregnancy or looking to writers and activists like Mary Ann Sorrentino. It is essential, though, that these women take the time and initiative to look up the information and data themselves and not simply rely on information pamphlets like the ones at Problem Pregnancy of Providence.

ERIN SCHIKOWSKI B'11 would like to thank David O'Connell and Mary Ann Sorrentino for contributing to this article.