Abortion's battle lines 

As Roe v. Wade turns 30, Georgia women have the right to choose, but not always the means

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Scattered across all parts of Georgia and outnumbering abortion clinics by more than a 4-to-1 margin, crisis pregnancy centers are commonly supported by local church congregations or deep-pocketed foundations such as the conservative Family Research Council.

For instance, the Advice and Aid Pregnancy Problem Center in Hapeville is funded in part by a nearby St. Vincent de Paul store. A local supporter just bought the center an ultrasound machine and pro-life doctors and nurses have volunteered to serve as staff, allowing the center to qualify as a medical clinic.

Center Director Terry Gibbs says they see about a dozen women a day, some of whom were expecting to be able to schedule an abortion. She adds, however, "We're very careful on the phone not to mislead them; sometimes they will come in anyway just to have someone to talk to."

As yet, no reliable data exists to suggest just how successful the centers have been at dissuading women from ending their pregnancies. But there's little doubt that they are adopting ever more sophisticated strategies to market their anti-abortion message as they enjoy unprecedented levels of community support.

In a bid for legitimacy, many centers are installing sonogram machines and hiring licensed medical staff, a task certain to be made easier with the federal funding earmarked by President Bush for "faith-based initiatives."

On the other hand, veteran anti-abortion activists Michelle and Michael Wolven still help organize weekend prayer vigils for their Catholic-based group, Helpers of God's Precious Infants, outside the Atlanta SurgiCenter in Midtown.

Michelle Wolven, who just gave birth to her seventh child, admits that the group's poster of an aborted fetus sometimes anger passersby, by adds: "We're there as Christians to show people the truth."

The ideological tug-of-war between pro-choice forces and abortion foes will likely continue for the foreseeable future, according to David Garrow, an Emory law professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and unabashed civil rights advocate.

"As a constitutional law scholar, I know the argument we keep hearing that Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy is a Chicken-Little position," he says. The law has enough supporters on the Supreme Court to avoid being overturned any time soon, he adds.

Merriam McLendon was working as an English teacher in Birmingham, Ala., the day she stopped at a traffic light next to a clinic that was being protested by, among others, a man who persisted in yelling his self-righteous, hellfire-laced screed through her open car window.

She was reminded of when she was a 16-year-old college student afraid to tell her mother she was pregnant. Years before Roe v. Wade, she had gone with her boyfriend to visit a woman who provided illegal abortions.

McLendon remembers lying on a blanket spread out on the floor as the woman pulled her surgical instruments from a metal bucket filled with alcohol in the corner of the room.

"I'm on the floor praying, 'Don't let me die here. Don't let me die,'" she recalls.

At a time in her life when she had no thought of getting involved in this abortion issue, the protester's tirade stuck in her mind, taking form as something of a call to arms.

"After my abortion, I felt relieved, but later on, I felt guilt and I grieved, but I asked God for forgiveness and I felt my burden lifted," she recalls. "The people who are out there screaming, 'You're going to hell,' have nothing to tell me."

The desire to help other frightened young abortion patients is part of what has led McLendon to a new career as clinic administrator at Summit Medical Associates in Morningside.

By the time a prospective patient places her first call to an actual clinic, she typically has become burdened with all manner of misconceptions about the abortion procedure, says Stacy, the patient counselor at Summit.

"About half the women I talk to have no idea what's involved in the surgery," says Stacy (who asked that her real name not be used). "They think it's dangerous, or that we do a lot of cutting."

Other misapprehensions seem to come straight from the crisis pregnancy center handbook: the notion that the vacuum-aspiration device used in most first-term abortions has suction so powerful that it can Hoover out a colon if the doctor gets careless; or the erroneous idea that a woman can never bear children once she's had an abortion.

Then there's the recurring news stories blaming abortions for causing breast cancer. According to most studies, abortion, miscarriage or any sudden halt to pregnancy can marginally increase the likelihood of breast cancer, but the risk isn't seen as significant.

The myth that bothers McLendon the most, however, is the one about "abortion mills" where women are led through filthy back rooms like cattle in a slaughterhouse.

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