Renee Walker hadn't been concerned about her son's sex education class until the October night of his 12th birthday. While at an Italian restaurant, he sipped a soda, placing the wet straw cover on the tip of his dinner plate.
Then he told his parents something odd -- that the shriveled paper reminded him of the seaweed that he had learned is inserted into a woman's cervix to soften it before an abortion.
It is fair to say that, at that moment, the 41-year-old mother of two suddenly became a reluctant activist. Until then, Walker, who teaches gymnastics to children, had been "busy raising my kids and trying to get my laundry done."
But the information her son was bringing home from the "CryBabies" class at Pine Hollow Middle School drove her into a protracted investigation to find out just what was going on. Walker has been pressing the Mt. Diablo Unified School District for more than two months for answers. Now the district says it will review its sex education programs, although it insists that Walker's complaints did not prompt the decision.
According to Planned Parenthood, only a small percentage of abortions, those that occur after 12 weeks, use a seaweed-based substance to soften the cervix.
Other aspects of the CryBabies class continued to make Walker uneasy, including the fact parents were not told that the classes were run by an organization founded with the stated mission of abolishing abortion in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Today, its founder, Shari Plunkett, insists via e-mail (she refused an interview) that First Resort, created in 1984, is not antiabortion.
Although the middle school principal tried to reassure Walker, the mother felt that her son had learned more about the gory details of abortion than about preventing pregnancies. She questioned the accuracy of some of the statistics presented in class. Although the hour-a-day, eight-day program had been taught as part of her son's science class, instead of grades he had been given a stamp of a dove containing the words, "You are loved."
Some Valuable Lessons
Some aspects of the CryBabies classes seemed valuable, Walker acknowledged. Students took home "Baby Think it Over" dolls to teach them the responsibilities of parenthood. The 7-pound dolls, which come in eight skin shades, burp, coo, cough and cry, requiring the youngsters to give them bottles, even in the middle of the night.
School officials said that Walker signed a permission slip for the class, just like other parents.
"Of course we gave our permission," the mother said. "We were deceived."
But Walker also checked on the Internet and found a statement by Plunkett, who told Christianity Today magazine four years ago that the organization had "set out to build the San Francisco Bay Area into an abortion-free community: a place where abortion is neither desired nor seen as needed."
Plunkett didn't expect to abolish abortion in three to five years, "but I do believe that we are at a critical crossroads. Our actions, and the witness of our very lives, need to be tools at the disposal of God to eliminate our nation's reliance on abortion," the statement said.
Opponents such as Betsy Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, contend that First Resort's crisis pregnancy centers provide biased and sometimes inaccurate information.
The CryBabies classes, for example, talk about the dangers of abortion, although the procedure is safer than childbirth, Cavendish said. "Those who trumpet the dangers," she added, "typically have an agenda."
But ask CryBabies' dedicated teacher in the Mt. Diablo School District, in Contra Costa County northeast of Oakland, and Deborah Morris says: "We are a Christian organization, not an antiabortion organization."
The mother of a teenager, Morris said that, although she may spend an hour on abortion, she doesn't have time to talk in depth about preventing pregnancies. "You can only cover so much," she said. "This is an abstinence program."
Morris said the complaints about the classes are like a blindfold test: "A customer may love the product," she said, "until they find out who the product is made by."
Walker remains suspicious. She said she couldn't ignore the words in her son's notes on abortion. The procedure isn't a good idea, he had written, because abortion is "killing a child." Notes about the advantages of abortion, such as staying in school, were crossed out.
Instructor Morris insists that the words "killing a child" must have come from another student because she would not use that terminology. She said she had notes about abortion's advantages crossed out only because she did not want to "confuse" students who were asked to discuss the disadvantages with their parents.
"Last year," said Morris, "we spoke to more than 8,000 students. This is one complaint in a year." If the course had been biased, she said, "Wouldn't you think that a lot more parents would have spoken up?"
There's no doubt that the majority of students and parents either like the program, remain neutral or find nothing objectionable. But First Resort has run into protesters before.
In 2000, after another mother challenged a number of the CryBabies assertions, the program was thrown out of the Oakland schools, only to be reinstated last year. And three years ago, the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland forced First Resort to stop providing pregnancy advice to its patients after officials read about Plunkett's goal of ending abortion in the Bay Area.
Today, First Resort appears to be thriving. It runs three pregnancy centers and operates CryBabies programs in more than 20 schools in the Bay Area. The organization receives nearly $1 million in individual contributions a year and $8,000 from state funds funneled through the Contra Costa County office of education.
At Pine Hollow -- where the program is taught to seventh-graders -- Principal Marcie Brown insists that abortion is dangerous and defends the program. They say that a parents night is held to offer information about CryBabies and that it is only one aspect of a larger sex education program.
In a favorable evaluation, conducted by the school district, the presentation is deemed to be unbiased. But the report says: "The serious medical consequences of abortion and repeated abortion were covered."
Walker is the only parent in the Mt. Diablo district who has complained, officials say.
The county education official, who awarded the grant for the classes, the school librarian and the principal say First Resort has not brought any antiabortion views into the classroom.
Brenda Sharp, the county official, recalls being concerned about bias. But then, she said, Plunkett showed her statistics suggesting that many women visit First Resort clinics and go on to have abortions.
Mt. Diablo officials said they have no plans to cancel the contract with First Resort.