It's an overcast Saturday morning, and, like many Saturday mornings over the past five years, Jim Tsantles is spending it trying to badger women into not terminating their pregnancies.
"You don't have to make a plan that ends a child's life," Tsantles, a deacon at Sovereign Redeemer Baptist Church in Youngsville, says through a headset microphone, while casually shifting his feet behind, on top of, and then over the makeshift chalk line that demarcates the beginning of A Woman's Preferred Health Clinic in west Raleigh, the line he is not allowed to pass without incurring trespassing charges. He's leading about a dozen gathered anti-abortion-rights activists. "You can make a plan that includes mercy and grace and love. We'll help you."
It's a familiar sight at women's health clinics around the country, and the debate in Raleigh is about to come to a head: twenty steps away from where Tsantles is standing is a house owned by A Hand of Hope, a pro-life group seeking approval from the Raleigh City Council to rezone it into a "crisis pregnancy center," a facility that attempts to dissuade women from getting abortions. In A Hand of Hope's telling, this is akin to a Burger King moving catty-corner to a McDonald's: both the women's clinic and the crisis pregnancy center aim to serve the same demographic.
A Hand of Hope's critics don't buy that analogy. "This group has been intentionally misleading," west Raleigh resident Sharon Mixon said at the June 21 city council hearing. To Mixon, the crisis pregnancy center, which will be called Your Choice Pregnancy Center, is more like a Whole Foods competitor that doesn't serve food.
Because of an administrative error, the council delayed voting on the rezoning until July 5. But even if the rest of AWPHC's neighbors felt the same way as Mixon—and it's not clear they do—there's not much they can do to stop the new crisis pregnancy center.
As AWPHC spokeswoman Calla Hales acknowledges, the council's hands are tied: rejecting the rezoning request just because you don't like the ideology of the people who are going to set up shop raises a host of First Amendment issues.
"I know they own the property, and I can't keep them from owning the property," Hales says. "The best-case scenario is going to be adding a lot of restrictions to prevent future issues. Part of me is OK with that, but part of me is upset at how irresponsible it is that someone allowed this to happen." The bigger problem, Hales says, is that Your Choice will be "incredibly deceptive."
"We already have patients that think they're driving to us and drive to them," she says. By design, Your Choice's current location is less than a quarter mile away from AWPHC; this sort of "co-location," in fact, is a well-known tactic of abortion opponents.
Tonya Baker Nelson, A Hand of Hope's executive director, insists that her group isn't misleading anyone. "We don't start off our relationship [with a client] deceptively by any stretch of the imagination," she says. "We don't make up statistics, we don't make up facts, we don't make up consequences."
There's ample evidence that this is not the case at many CPCs around the country. A 2006 U.S. House Committee on Government Reform report found a trend of "false and misleading information" about abortion and women's health at CPCs, and in 2011, NARAL Pro-Choice N.C. conducted a study that found that CPCs often tell women that abortion can cause sterility or even breast cancer, and that condoms aren't effective. A 2015 NARAL N.C. study found that staff members at multiple CPCs identified a woman's IUD as a baby during an ultrasound.
CPCs dwarf the number of abortion providers in North Carolina; in 2011, NARAL N.C. reported, there were 122 CPCs around the state; AWPHC, meanwhile, is one of just fourteen abortion providers. Nationally, CPCs now outnumber abortion clinics "by an estimated three to one," according to the 2015 report.
The CPCs have garnered the help of the North Carolina taxpayer, through a program called the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship. In 2013, the legislature made national headlines when it redirected federal money that was supposed to go toward poor and uninsured women to CPCs. In this year's budget, the House and the Senate both want to allocate $300,000 to the program.
(The political nature of this conflict is underscored by the fact that A Hand of Hope's medical director is Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician who has run two failed campaigns for Senate and one for Congress on explicitly anti-abortion platforms.)
A Hand for Hope's detractors have worried that the group will use its new facility as a staging ground for more and louder protests. But Baker Nelson promises that won't happen—the CPC, she says, has nothing to do with the protests.
"I have a very busy life, so I don't have time to live other people's lives for them," she says. "Even if you're giving me your mama's world-famous apple pie, I don't want anyone yelling at me through a megaphone."
Regardless, Hales counters, the controversy over the new CPC has drawn more protesters in recent weeks. She fears that an increasingly volatile situation outside the clinic could mean trouble for the neighborhood and those who work at and rely on AWPHC.
"Violence has already escalated because of the Planned Parenthood video scandal and the shooting at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado," Hales says. "It's already escalating. I've personally had issues with my safety in the past few years. I don't want my staff or neighbors to have to deal with that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No Choice"