New-Style Maternity Homes Offer Religion With Prenatal Care
King’s Ranch sits alone in the Alabama countryside, where paved roads are luxuries and cows and chickens are never far away.
The living quarters are cheerily decorated and scrupulously tidy. Bible Scriptures hang on the walls while teddy bears and other stuffed animals rest on the neatly made beds.
In the dining room, the residents circle an enormous table and bow their heads for grace before dinner.
However, King’s Ranch is not a run-of-the-mill country home, nor are its residents common country folk.
King’s Ranch is a maternity home, one of the growing number of new-style homes operated by fundamentalist religious groups, and its residents are all pregnant teen-agers. The bottom line, the groups says, is that King’s Ranch and similar homes provide an alternative to abortion.
“Some of the girls tell us they came so close to getting an abortion, and they were so glad they found us,” said Steve Goebel, whose father, Birmingham evangelist Wales Goebel, founded King’s Ranch. “It’s unique that we’re here to help.”
Kim is a 17-year-old King’s Ranch resident whose smile reveals a shiny set of braces and whose expectant condition belies her otherwise-youthful features.
“Abortion went through my mind,” Kim said. “It goes through every girl’s mind in this situation. But I’m just totally against it. These homes are a lot better.”
Pamela, 16, another boarder at King’s Ranch, said: “I like it here because it’s quiet. But I hate cows.”
Homes for unwed mothers fell out of fashion in the 1970s after the Supreme Court legalized abortions, and the stigma of being a single parent virtually vanished. More than half of the homes nationwide closed.
But in the last several years, maternity homes have made a comeback. In 1981, there were fewer than 100 licensed maternity homes nationwide. Now there are more than 150, and the number is increasing as the heated abortion controversy continues and the number of abortions--about 40% of the 1 million adolescent pregnancies each year result in abortion--stays high.
“King’s Ranch represents the fastest-growing types of maternity homes, which is what I call the small sectarian maternity home,” said William Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption, a non-sectarian organization that gathers information and lobbies on behalf of the nation’s adoption agencies and maternity homes.
In the 1960s, half of all maternity homes were run by religious organizations. Now the figure is closer to two-thirds.
“It’s fair to say the major motivating factor for the majority of sectarian agencies is they want to provide alternatives to abortion,” Pierce said. “People said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ so they did.”
King’s Ranch, midway between Birmingham and Montgomery, is operated by Lifeline Children’s Services, an offshoot of the abortion-alternative Sav-A-Life organization. Wales Goebel founded Sav-A-Life in 1980, providing telephone counseling, free pregnancy tests and vivid pep talks against abortion.
While waiting for test results at a Sav-A-Life office, the women are met by counselors and shown a film of an actual abortion.
Some anti-abortion groups take such opportunities to the extreme, showing movies or slide shows of a room piled high with fetuses or a bucket of human body parts. David Andrews, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a pro-choice group, calls such dramatics “psychological terrorism.” He said some anti-abortion groups use misleading advertising--billboards with “Pregnant? Worried?” and then a telephone number are popular--to encourage callers without a hint of their ultimate intention.
Sav-A-Life is more moderate than some groups, but the message is clear.
“Of course, we encourage a girl not to have an abortion,” said John Carr, director of Lifeline. “We want the girls to understand that an abortion is taking the life of a child.”
Sav-A-Life spawned Lifeline and other crisis pregnancy counseling centers and maternity homes across the South. Among the more well-known entries are Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Godparent Ministry, an organization offering pregnancy counseling, maternity homes and adoption services and the PTL ministry’s Heritage House, a home for unwed mothers in South Carolina.
Bethany Christian Services, with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., had one branch office before abortion was legalized. Now it has 29 offices, maternity homes in Maryland and California and is one of the nation’s leading private adoption agencies.
In the views of such religious organizations, the aims are simple--to prevent an abortion and save the soul of the mother. In the case of those that also provide adoption services, such as Lifeline, the entire process extends to recruitment, scrutiny and selection of a “Christian home” for the child.
“We’re influencing the mother, child and adoptive parents,” Carr said. “We have an opportunity to have an impact on a lot of lives.”
At King’s Ranch, where up to 16 young women can be accommodated two to a room in the two homes on the property, residents participate in daily religious devotions and prayers, weekly Bible studies and attend a local country church each Sunday.
They cook meals, learn to sew and attend school classes in the home. They are allowed to make phone calls one night a week and welcome visitors (only family members, no boyfriends) once every two weeks.
They may watch television each evening, but their viewing habits are monitored. Soap operas and music videos are prohibited because Lifeline officials say they do not represent the wholesome environment they are trying to convey.
“When the girls go home and get back into their previous situation, we want them to have some idea of what is appropriate behavior,” Carr said.
For the most part, the boarders know what to expect before arriving at King’s Ranch and do not protest when confronted with strict rules--for the first time, in some cases.
“We’re the last place they can turn, and they know that,” said Steve Goebel.
Those who run King’s Ranch stress that it is “not a jail,” and compassion is conspicuous. Condemnation is not a part of the program.
“You don’t feel so alone,” said Rhonda, a 16-year-old from another Alabama town. “You feel someone really cares.”
The new maternity homes appeal to young women for many of the same reasons the old ones did--trouble at home, medical treatment and confidentiality.
They come from all walks of life. Some are too poor to afford proper medical care, while others come from more well-to-do-families who would prefer to hush up the pregnancy.
“A lot of the women facing crisis pregnancies are lacking in self-esteem,” said Mary Van Essen, a spokeswoman for Bethany Christian Services. “Some of them are not getting along with their families and need some time away from them. Other times, they just would like the opportunity to live with others who are going through the same experience.”
Care and Coaching
Better maternity homes, including the newest ones, arrange regular medical care and even provide “birth coaches.” Many offer on-site educational programs or training for office jobs.
At the non-sectarian Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth, Tex., the nation’s oldest and one of the most respected maternity homes, residents can take business courses and work in the office during their pregnancies to develop job skills.
“Their primary task while they’re here is to continue their education,” said Eleanor Tuck, executive director at Gladney, which has an accredited school on its campus. “We’ve found their grades generally go up at least a letter grade while they’re here.”
It is not cheap to provide accommodations, food, education and medical care for several months to pregnant women. Lifeline officials figure they spend $500 a week in groceries alone for the young mothers and their live-in house parents.
Medicaid and private insurance cover some of the costs, but in cases when the women don’t have enough money, the bill is paid through donations.
In other cases, adoption fees pay the rent.
At King’s Ranch, only young women who have decided to place their babies for adoption are admitted. Lifeline officials say they prefer not to mix those who will keep their babies and those who will not, citing the potential of strained relationships. They also say young women keeping their babies do not require confidentiality and should be setting up a means of support for their children.
$6,000 Per Child
Adoption fees at Lifeline vary but are usually about 10% of the adoptive parents’ income. Lifeline officials calculate that they need about $6,000 per child to cover all accommodations, medical and legal costs.
Lifeline officials assure that no pressure is applied and in all cases--until the adoption is legal some months after the child’s birth--mothers at King’s Ranch can change their minds and keep their babies. About 20% of King’s Ranch residents eventually choose to retain custody, Steve Goebel said.
If a mother decides to keep her baby, she is required--by a contract she signs prior to entering King’s Ranch--to pay her hospital bills. However, she is not required to reimburse Lifeline for her stay at King’s Ranch.
Lifeline officials say they do not necessarily enjoy depending on adoption fees, but it becomes a matter of economic necessity.
“You can’t put yourself in the position of paying all these bills for pregnant girls and not having some way to pay for it,” Carr said.
Not all maternity homes open their doors exclusively to young women planning to place their babies for adoption.
Bethany welcomes either at its homes, while one-third of the residents at Gladney, which usually houses more than 300 women each year, usually keep their babies.
Abortion Clinic Link?
Planned Parenthood applauds the alternatives reputable maternity homes provide. However, officials fear some maternity homes might be working in conjunction with fake abortion clinics.
“The groups we’re worried about are the clinics that may feed into maternity homes that attempt to take advantage of the ignorance of people seeking counseling who are made to feel they should go into one of these homes and give up their babies for adoption,” said Andrews of Planned Parenthood. “There can be a subtle element of coercion there, and we’re concerned about it.”
Andrews conceded his group’s concerns are based more on speculation than proof, but he wondered if there is a grave conflict of interest in homes that have something to gain from placing babies for adoption.
“On the one hand, it can be looked on as a service to a woman who has made that decision,” Andrews said. “The problem is not only in their zeal to prevent a woman from getting a medically safe legal abortion but also in their zeal to place babies for adoptions. These homes might be lured into keeping the facts from a woman, and I think that’s a danger.”
The business of maternity homes is bringing together a peculiar collection of people striving for the same results using different methods.
At the other end of the spectrum from the homes operated by religious groups is the Gladney home, which opened in 1887 when a Texas minister began taking in unadopted children and found homes for them.
The Gladney home, which takes up a Fort Worth city block and is funded primarily by adoption fees and private donations like the religious homes, has evolved into a self-sufficient plant that includes its own hospital, accredited school, chapel and even a miniature golf course.
The Gladney approach is quite different from the religious rigidity of the sectarian homes. Visitors, including fathers-to-be, are welcome, and the women have unlimited access to pay phones and can watch what they wish on television.
“We’re not going to be able to monitor the girls for the rest of their lives, so we’re trying to provide enough external support so they can develop the internal control they need,” Tuck said. “Besides, I’d hate to think what would happen if we said they couldn’t watch ‘General Hospital.’
“We’ve been flexible from as far back as I can remember. We feel that most importantly that flexibility gives the girl room to grow up and challenges her to assume some responsibility, make some decisions and mature. That’s the most important thing we can help a young girl do.”
Besides group maternity homes, some of the religious organizations also make arrangements for “shepherding homes” where women are taken into private residences to live during their pregnancies.
The newest twist to this setup is offered by Mary Cunningham, the former corporate star whose rise to prominence at the Bendix Corp. and Seagram’s made headlines a few years ago.
Cunningham now lives in Cape Cod, Mass., where she and her husband and former boss, William Agee, run a venture capital company. Last year she stepped beyond the corporate world and started the Nurturing Network, a nonprofit organization that locates private homes and families who will take in women during crisis pregnancies.
Cunningham, who researched the project for two years before launching it, said the network is aimed at middle-class women.
“In my opinion, the needs of middle-class women were not being properly served by existing choices,” said Cunningham, who along with her husband sold a second home to help fund the network. “There’s always been kind of an assumption that the middle class takes care of itself, so almost all of the attention has been paid to the lower class and their problems with unwanted pregnancies.
“But a college-age woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and doesn’t want to have an abortion would feel distinctly uncomfortable in a dormitory setting where most of the women would be on Medicaid. There’s a very special kind of nurturing that goes on in a one-to-one relationship. In private homes, they will be treated like a daughter.”
In addition to the homes, Cunningham is setting up a network of colleges and companies that will enroll or hire the women during their pregnancies so they can make use of their time away from home.
The first 35 homes of the network are in Massachusetts, but Cunningham plans to spread the program throughout New England and across the nation over the next few years. The families volunteer their time and homes, and the women pay nothing.
“I felt I might be in a position to offer some inspiration and encouragement,” Cunningham said. “I felt terrible frustration that the words ‘pro choice’ had been a terrible rue to them.
“It’s great to talk about choice, but if the choice is limited to one, that really isn’t a choice. Women have had abortions because they felt they had no other choice.”
Cunningham said a young woman saddled with an unwanted pregnancy who chooses not to have an abortion “deserves all our encouragement and respect, not our misjudgments. I think we should consider her a heroine.”