Illustration by Daniel Downey.
Mary Gilpin pulls a sheaf of papers out of a manila file folder, just one of many containing client records from the Women’s Support Center on West Wisconsin Avenue. At the top-left corner of each page, either Gilpin or one of the center’s volunteers has written with a ballpoint pen “SAVED” or “NOT SAVED.”
This refers to whether the woman, to the knowledge of the center’s staff, is planning to seek an abortion or not. Other records track whether these women, stopping by for free pregnancy testing, baby supplies or an ultrasound, are “considering” the procedure, “abortion vulnerable/unsure,” or have “changed [their] mind about abortion.”
The system forms the backbone of the nonprofit’s anti-abortion mission, which is couched in the trappings of a more generic social service agency. The very name of the center is nonthreatening, and the pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and baby merchandise offered are free, with much of the store-bought stuff governed by a ticket system that works like so: For each visit to the center – an opportunity for one of the 10 or so counselors to pull the women into small “educational” sessions on proper baby care, “the harms of birth control” and abortion – the moms receive five tickets exchangeable for items in the basement Baby Store. Each is marked with the number of tickets it costs, a figure that reaches as high as 25, for a baby crib, or 15, for a new car seat.
“Our vision is to help men and women see the great value of the child they’re carrying,” says Gilpin, who is small but commanding and wearing a long dress on this afternoon in May. Located in a historic mansion a few doors down from a Planned Parenthood clinic and funded in part by Catholic foundations, the center is at once a trendy stopgap in the anti-abortion mission – by virtue of its new ultrasound machine – and a throwback to the abortion wars of old.
Since the passage of a 2013 state law requiring women intent on abortions to first undergo an ultrasound – a scripted procedure pointing out the fetus’ anatomical features – an increasing number of such women have visited the center. Gilpin offers stories of these clients being “greatly moved” by ultrasound images. But Nicole Safar, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, says its own abortion-minded clients are often offended by what they see as “political interference” in an intimate matter. “It’s incredible how intrusive [the ultrasound] process has become,” says Safer.
Both Planned Parenthood and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) have accused “crisis pregnancy centers” like the Women’s Support Center of spreading false information and statistics cherry-picked from obscure or disreputable studies. “They put themselves out to the public as a health care provider,” Safar says, “but they’re rarely staffed with a licensed medical provider.”
Gilpin says the center consults with a local doctor who volunteers her time, as well as the two nurses who perform all of the outfit’s ultrasounds. Meanwhile, most of the counseling falls to Gilpin and a roster of volunteers, all ardent opponents of abortion.
Of the approximately 100 women they see each month, most are unmarried, under 40, African-American, and learned of the center through word of mouth. The lure of free baby supplies appears to have attracted more visitors than advertising and “sidewalk counselors,” who flag down potential clients.
Whether these clients agree with the center’s anti-abortion message varies widely, Gilpin says, and its rooms are overflowing with related pamphlets and posters. In one that connects to the main reception area, a sign promotes something called “Secondary Virginity” (rededicating one’s life to premarital chastity), and three brown-skinned “Touch of Life Fetal Models” lie atop a blanket, resting like little dolls.
Other crisis pregnancy centers in Milwaukee include the Women’s Care Center, which has two locations in the city; Associated Pregnancy Services, which has four offices in the metro area; and Milwaukee Birthright, an anti-abortion group that operates a 24-hour hotline for pregnant women. Like Gilpin, Birthright is driven in part by an uncompromising set of beliefs.
“We don’t believe God makes mistakes,” she says, preparing to meet a new client. ■
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of