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A crisis pregnancy center in Florida wants to redefine choice

First Coast Women’s Services encourages women considering abortion to pause before making a ‘tragic’ decision
MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Aug. 1
Updated Aug. 2

This is the second installment in an occasional series on abortion.

Read the companion story and the first part of the series.

The debate splashes across front pages as the pope compares abortion to hiring a hitman and Missouri’s last clinic fights to stay open. Activists file lawsuits while the South embraces bans once seen as too radical to pass.

Often, the arguments are abstract.

But an hour south of the Georgia border, at two buildings a few exits apart off Interstate 95, the swirling conflict arrives in real time, as women swing open the doors.

JACKSONVILLE — On a wide, suburban highway, between an Episcopal early-learning academy and a self-storage center, a teal sign flashes through the trees.

LATE & WORRIED? FREE PREGNANCY TESTS

There are no protesters out front, just a few parking spaces and light traffic on San Jose Boulevard. On the Craftsman-style porch of this former designer showhouse, a chalkboard reads, “We’re glad you’re here.”

Women step through the ornate glass door into the calm of First Coast Women’s Services, done up in the neutral-toned Americana of Southern Living. At the front window, decorated with a wreath of twigs and cotton, visitors hand over a photo ID and fill out forms. They cross the plush rug and sink into leather couches, page through Birds & Bloom or Rachael Ray Every Day.

They’re drawn by the promise of free tests, or advice from a friend, or the Google results for “pregnant Jacksonville.”

Some know that this place doesn’t perform or refer for abortions and that volunteers will affirm that termination is a tragedy. Those women come for childcare lessons that earn them Baby Bucks for bassinets and diapers. They catch up with beloved mentors, talk scripture, show off the dimple-cheeked newborns they decided to keep.

Others want abortions and may believe they can get one here.

It’s those women the center most wants to see.

Staffers here believe that it’s up to places like this to explain unspoken risks and regret. They want First Coast to be a loving pause, an hour of empowerment, a crucial education. Visitors sit, cry, fidget, text, pray, until a volunteer opens a white door, smiles and leads them through.

• • •

ABOUT THE REPORTING:

Two facilities allowed Tampa Bay Times reporters inside, absent clients, to see places often glimpsed only from the outside. Read about the abortion clinic in Jacksonville.

Judy Weber, the chief executive officer of First Coast Women's Services, says she wants every visitor to feel loved and accepted, no matter her ultimate decision. "We want to be the first place they come," she says. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Down the hardwood hallways the women walk past other white doors and neat rows of books. Copies of Bible Promises for You and scores of Santa Biblias sit under a rustic sign that says LIVE SIMPLY. In their panic, the women sometimes remind Judy Weber of animals caught in a trap, desperate to chew off a limb. She wants them to breathe, to realize they have time.

“No woman wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I can’t wait to have an abortion today,’ ” the chief executive officer says one afternoon in late June. “She thinks, I have no choice.”

Choice is what First Coast wants to discuss — informed choice.

Weber says she’s not sure what she would’ve done if she had gotten pregnant in college. Abortion wasn’t something she knew much about. Years later, in the era of Roe v. Wade, married to a man in seminary, pregnant with her first child, the baby inside her hiccuped. It kicked. She thought, how could this be anything other than a life?

But volunteers here don’t speak of murder. They don’t show gory pictures. They’re trained to reach out in kindness.

Weber came in the mid-2000s, after years on a county school board. The center’s mission spoke to her. It dates to 1992, to a Jacksonville teenager named Lauren and her unplanned pregnancy. The girl’s parents supported her as she placed baby Charity for adoption, though they wished she’d had more help. Lauren’s mother sent for a brochure on how to start a crisis pregnancy center, and in 1994, the nonprofit welcomed its first clients.

First Coast Women’s Services now has four centers and a mobile unit dotting the suburbs, with about 470 clients a month. Recently, the mobile unit has been parking at a Walmart on the north side. In the center’s Heartbeats newsletter, under a line from Deuteronomy, Weber wrote of clients there driving miles past abortion clinics, even coming from Georgia, to reach “life-affirming help.”

So last week, First Coast broke ground yet again.

In Jacksonville’s sprawl are plenty of pro-life peers, including Emergency Pregnancy Services, Women’s Help Center and The Nest.

Weber says she can’t speak for the others, but she bristles at criticisms that such centers profit from deception. First Coast, she says, is committed to “truthful, accurate, correct” information, without judgment. Those are values set forth by national networks, like Care Net.

It’s abortion clinics, Weber says, that don’t always tell women the truth about all their options.

“They need to know there’s support for choosing life, and whatever difficulties they’re facing, there’s help,” Weber says. “You can’t make it completely go away and go back to square zero.”

Weber says she sees the center’s work as apolitical, with roots in Christian faith. It opts not to take any of the millions in state money controversially set aside for pregnancy centers, as that would limit religious content.

Instead, the center raises hundreds of thousands each year, through fundraisers (pledge $2,500 to become a Life Defender) and donations gathered around the city. Much of that, she stresses, is spent on free tests and resources, often for clients without health insurance.

Yet some of Weber’s hopes hinge on politics. She writes, “We anticipate a time when abortion will be as unthinkable as slavery has become.”

If a woman calls to ask about the cost of an abortion, the center might not immediately say it doesn’t perform them. They don’t want someone to hang up, Weber says.

“We might say, ‘Why are you asking? Do you think you might be pregnant?’ ‘Well, yes, I might be.’ ‘Well, we don't do abortions or refer for abortions. Would you like to come in for a free lab-grade pregnancy test?’ ”

Once women are walking the hallways, they might step into the center’s boutique and browse button-downs for 3-month-old boys, breast milk storage bags and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. They might rifle through rods packed with onesies and dresses in plaid and daisies and dots.

In looping cursive, the wall quotes Esther 4:14: “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created.” Below that are instant photos clothespinned to twine: Parents beaming in the flash and clutching squirming, red-faced babies.

Expectant parents can take classes to earn baby clothes and other necessities. The center has other services, like a coordinator who helps with difficult cases, like those of homeless women. MONICA HERNDON | Times

READ MORE IN THIS SERIES: Those on Florida’s front lines in the abortion battle know change is coming

• • •

Conversations begin in cozy rooms with shabby chic dressers and warm lighting, on twill sofas and paisley armchairs.

Each of the center’s 250-plus volunteers, called mentors, takes his or her own approach. Male mentors try to pry open stiff-jawed young men, probe intentions and fears, encourage taking responsibility. Joanne Mellish, who directs the abortion healing program, likes to start gently with the women, asking simple questions.

She hears about drained bank accounts, missing moms, jobs lost, women kicked out and pressured by men.

Clients are usually 18 to 22, many Christian, mostly white. Mellish, whose philosophy is to “love you right where you’re at,” wants them to know their choice is forever.

“If you’re uncomfortable with anything I talk about, please let me know,” she says.

Joanne Mellish, client advocate and director of abortion healing, wants women to know that "God doesn't want a woman to walk in shame." As she talks to clients, she tells them they are not alone. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Weber says mentors ask permission before broaching two key questions:

Can I tell you about someone who loves you?

And can I tell you about abortion?

Medical researchers have widely concluded that abortion is overwhelmingly safe for women, with few complications — even safer than childbirth. But here mentors focus on the most severe side effects and pitfalls.

They might offer an iPad with videos by an anti-abortion group. In one, a former abortion doctor narrates a first trimester method. An animated fetus — pale, 11 weeks old — wiggles in the womb, its bones “still weak and fragile.”

Cartoons show metal dilators widening the cervix, a plastic tube vacuuming. The fetus is sucked down in pieces: head, legs, torso. A tiny arm gets left behind — a risk, the narrator explains — then scraped out.

Mentors might talk about heavy bleeding or passing the fetus into a toilet. Mellish shares emotional effects she says are rarely discussed — that abortion could make them anxious, give them PTSD, fragment their relationships. She talks about center resources, like adoption specialists.

One of the staff’s favorite handouts is a Care Net magazine called Before You Decide, packed with almost 200 citations and questions like “When should we start protecting someone who might be able to feel pain?”

Glossy pictures chart fetal development, from conception through the “folding heart” that pumps blood at 22 days, to thumb-sucking and toenails and a nose at 13 weeks. Other photo spreads highlight rare dangers for the patient, like sepsis, punctured organs, even death.

Then there are the ABORTION, ADOPTION and RAISE YOUR CHILD option boxes with metal rings bearing laminated pros and cons. For parenthood, for instance, You will have the joy of being a mom. But, You will have the full-time responsibility for your child.

For abortion, You have the freedom to choose when you become a parent. But, Your pregnancy ends with taking a life.

The center found that visitors often dismissed the idea of adoption straightaway. One way to get them to think about it more fully was these option boxes, which encouraged keeping that path in consideration. MONICA HERNDON | Times

On these front lines, some mentors burn out.

“You can’t want something for someone more than they want it,” Weber says.

• • •

Katy Lucas, a sonographer, measures the fetus and gives ultrasound pictures to visitors — a powerful tool. "I love to see the babies," she says. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Women lie in crinkly gowns on the paper-lined exam table while Katy Lucas presses gently down with her ultrasound wand to measure the fetus inside. Sometimes, girls come in, as young as 13.

On the wall hang two canvases Lucas painted: a small face, eyes shut and lips downturned; a side view, in utero, an ear forming, belly round, floating hands like tiny mittens.

Women come to her after they’ve talked to a mentor and answered questions about their health. No sonograms, for instance, if a woman has endometriosis. Women leaning toward abortion can usually get ultrasounds that day. All scans get sent to the center’s medical director, who flags anything amiss.

Lucas weighs them, checks blood pressure and asks, “What are you going to do with this pregnancy?” Then she angles her screen away from them for the sonogram, the center’s only medical procedure.

The TV on the wall stays off while Lucas brings up pictures, moving the wand. When she’s ready, the screen comes to life.

There’s the heartbeat pulsing fast in silent waves. There’s the fetus flickering. Sometimes, fathers-to-be cry and collapse. Women, too.

“Because they see a baby,” Lucas says.

Afterward, she always asks again.

Lucas says she was a physician in Mexico, but here, she got certified in sonography. She loves to see the grainy limbs in black and white. She knows her work has the power to make women think twice.

She talks to them like daughters, she says, explaining, “No baby is a mistake.”

She provides two scans to take home. Six weeks later, if women allow it, she texts or calls. Some tell her, “I terminated.” Those days are the hardest.

• • •

Nancy Kelley, director of development, has found power in speaking about abortion in her past, which has resonated with other women. "We are them and they are us, all of the women that we see," she says. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Nobody ever told Nancy Kelley she had an option. Somebody told her the pregnancy was a clump of tissue, so she told herself the same. Her boyfriend dropped her off at Planned Parenthood near the University of South Florida. She didn’t tell her parents. She lay on the table, 18 years old.

Just before she went under, she remembers, she asked what the sex would have been. The doctor said, “Oh no, don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

Afterward, she waited on the curb, swelling with a hurt she didn’t understand.

Years later, she had a second abortion, done by a doctor in Jacksonville. This was when she was planning her wedding to the man who would become the father of her four children. She told herself her dad wouldn’t be pleased to walk a pregnant bride down the aisle. Her fiance agreed with the decision.

“You lie to yourself,” she says.

For years, she didn’t tell anyone. When picketers raised their grisly signs outside her church she got furious — with herself. Mother’s Day was always full of sorrow, even as a mom, and even when she found God. Even when she started working in ministry and became director of development at First Coast 11 years ago.

So she went through a program First Coast offers called Forgiven and Set Free, with an intimate group of women over three months. She put words to her anguish and women began approaching her in parking lots, confessing their stories. This unforgivable sin, it turned out, wasn’t.

But her husband shoved his grief down, she sees now, and after 21 years, they divorced.

“Men are built to be protectors of life,” she says.

After all of this, Kelley didn’t expect her daughter to get pregnant as a teenager. Kelley told Olivia she had a choice, so her daughter came to First Coast to learn about her options. Olivia attended St. Gerard Campus, a Christian high school and maternity home with a daycare. She gave birth to a son, John, a blessing, Kelley says. Now, she’s in college.

That’s empowering women,” Kelley says. “That’s caring.”

Downtown, the center maintains “Florida’s First Coast Memorial for the Unborn,” on the sprawling campus of First Baptist Church. Plaques on the mass of black granite ask forgiveness: “Longing to hold you in heaven.”

Plaques line the 80-foot stone at Florida's First Coast Memorial for the Unborn, located at First Baptist Church downtown. Many of the plaques ask forgiveness for abortion and name unborn children. MONICA HERNDON | Times

Sometimes, the intensity of this moment in America arrives in First Coast’s quiet waiting room. After politicians in New York and Virginia moved to make late-term abortions easier this year, a few men came by to say they wanted to help. Things had gone too far.

“Aslan is on the move, and we sense that we are riding on His strong and magnificent back!” Weber wrote in the latest newsletter.

She tracks the battle through statistics, like last year’s abortions in Duval County (5,539) and how many out-of-staters got abortions in Florida (2,653). She knows how many visitors made Decisions for Christ (65, out of 336 presentations of the Gospel).

But the most critical number of all, the one she wants to see go up and up, is this: Of women who came last year, she says, 85 percent chose life.

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