In 1984, in a little blue house tucked quietly across the street from St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown South Bend, Indiana, Notre Dame Professor Janet Smith opened the Women’s Care Center to serve women facing unplanned pregnancies. Since then, the Women’s Care Center has grown to be the nation’s largest pregnancy resource center, now with 28 locations in ten states.
The Women’s Care Center still calls South Bend home, though, with the organization’s full-time volunteer president, Ann Manion, leading the growing nonprofit’s operations from the downtown location that years ago replaced the tiny house where the vision of providing tangible help to pregnant women began. For its latest expansion, the Women’s Care Center looked closer to home, seeking to open its newest facility in South Bend near the planned establishment of an abortion clinic to be run by the Texas-based Whole Women’s Health Alliance.
As is often the case when the Women’s Care Center opens a new location, it must jump through bureaucratic hoops, including zoning issues. Occasionally, when the Women’s Care Center moves into a state unfamiliar with the nonprofit’s reputation, city officials will sometimes push back against the pregnancy and family resource center, wrongly believing they intend to politicize abortion. But given the Women’s Care Center’s history with South Bend, one would be less likely to think its efforts to serve pregnant women and their babies would be thwarted by its own mayor.
Yet that is exactly what happened on Friday when South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg vetoed a vote by the city’s Common Council to rezone the property intended to house the Women Care Center’s latest pregnancy and family resource center. The council’s vote to rezone the property followed the recommendation of the city’s Department of Community Investment staff, which concluded “a use more intense than single-family residential would be appropriate.”
In a letter explaining his veto, Buttigieg portrayed his decision as guided by apolitical land-use principles, but he quickly exposed that politics—and lobbying by the abortion clinic—had driven his decision: “In my judgment, the neighborhood would not benefit from having the zoning law changed in order to place next door to each other two organizations with deep and opposite commitments on the most divisive social issue of our time.”
He added, “Whole Women’s Health Alliance has written to express the view that they would be harmed by such a re-zoning. They cite research indicating that clinics in close proximity to crisis pregnancy center(sic) experience significantly higher rates of violence, threats, and harassment (21.7%) than those not near such a center (6.8%).”
Giving Babies Diapers Is Not a Threat
It is beyond unfortunate that Buttigieg swallowed the slander that a neighboring Women’s Care Center location raises the risk of a threat to Whole Woman’s abortion facility. As a pregnancy and family resource center, Women’s Care focuses solely on providing concrete help to women facing unplanned pregnancies, offering pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, counseling, and baby supplies, such as cribs and diapers. The staff also assists clients with obtaining prenatal care and other necessary social services.
But the care doesn’t stop when the baby is born: The Women’s Care Center offers bilingual parenting classes and books to fill homes with literacy, and provides goals counseling that allows parents to complete school, obtain jobs, and become self-sufficient. It also rewards parents with free shopping sprees in the Crib Club “stores,” stocked with new clothing and supplies for their fast-growing children.
The Women’s Care Center also does not preach or proselytize—or judge or condemn—which is why most of its new clients come from word of mouth referrals from past or present clients. As stressed in a Friday statement condemning Buttigieg’s veto, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who serves on the Women’s Care Center board, explained that “[i]t doesn’t engage in political advocacy, but provides compassionate, non-judgmental loving care to women most in need.”
This reality, though, is even better expressed in the words of women helped by the Women’s Care Center. A woman named Auchanti wrote the council members to support the rezoning decision: “Women’s Care Center is a place that immediately makes you comfortable. My counselor talked to me about all my options. This was so important. I didn’t even realize I had options. All I knew was I could either abort or not. Nobody ever tells you what else is out there, what else you can do.”
“They were so helpful. You know, I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and they don’t have places like this. Ones that really help you. That tell you all your options. Most women in these situations have to keep it themselves, do it all on their own. But here, I had a counselor to listen and lots of support and help. Women’s Care Center even threw me my first baby shower! Please support this important organization for the west side.”
No Violence Has Ever Materalized
Nor has there ever ”been an instance of violence” in the resource center’s 34-year history, even though “they’ve been open right next to 22 abortion clinics,” as Jenny Hunsberger, the vice president of the Women’s Care Center, told WNDU. To assuage the mayor’s purported concerns, the Women’s Care Center provided a written commitment that it would prohibit protesting on its property.
As several council members noted, the Women’s Care Center cannot prevent protests from the city’s right of way, but that goes to show opponents of the rezoning are disingenuous about their concerns because protestors can target the abortion clinic with or without the nearby presence of the pregnancy center.
Instead, what Whole Women’s Health Alliance really fears is competition, because whenever the Women’s Care Center opens near an abortion clinic, the abortion provider’s bottom line suffers. For all the talk of being pro-“choice,” abortion activists such as Pro-Choice South Bend, which launched a last-minute petition campaign to push for the mayor’s veto, want to deprive women of the choice the Women’s Care Center offers: A choice for life. As Jenkins put it, “[f]ar from enhancing the harmony of the neighborhood,” Buttigieg’s veto “divides our community and diminishes opportunities for vulnerable women to have a real choice.”
By locating next to abortion clinics, the Women’s Care Center is ideally situated to help young women when they are most in need or feel as if they have no choice. Sometimes they don’t, as one abortion clinic staff member discovered when slipped a note: “I AM BEING FORCED TO HAVE AN ABORTION. I WANT TO KEEP MY BABY.” Luckily, in that case, there was a Women’s Care Center across the street. The clinic worker, not sure where else to turn, came there.
From there, the Women’s Care Center counselor took over followed their “protocols, including helping the young woman work it out with her family who was pressuring her. . . The next day, the [abortion clinic employee] called to say how impressed she was with the way our counselors handled the situation. She asked if she could turn to us again should the need arise.”
‘Let’s Judge Them on the Merits’
Common Council Vice President Oliver Davis also took issue with the mayor’s veto, telling the South Bend Tribune, “I’m concerned…now that a group can come before a zoning board and say, ‘We don’t like that group…so we don’t want them next to us.’” Davis is a self-described liberal who stressed during a Saturday afternoon interview that he participated in the Women’s March. For him, the issue is one of fairness.
The zoning law must be applied equally, Davis said, explaining that’s his understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment and his guiding principle. If the Women’s Care Center “didn’t qualify [for the exemption], fine,” he said, “but they did,” adding that he’s a Democrat, but it isn’t a matter of party, but fairness—“let’s judge them on the merits.”
The Common Council could still override the mayor’s veto and Davis anticipates the issue to be revisited at the May 14 council meeting, at which he expects a packed house. Whether the Common Council will overturn the veto, Davis doesn’t know, noting he hasn’t talked with his colleagues yet about the issue, but he said he is open to an override vote. Whether all five yea votes stay yea, or all four no votes stay no, “Who knows?” He also noted there is still a remedy available in a court of law.
But it might not come to that. It is an election year and the local backlash over Buttigieg’s veto has already begun. In addition to the condemnation from Notre Dame’s president, the bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, Kevin C. Rhoades, issued a statement criticizing the mayor’s decision, writing: “How unfortunate that the Women’s Care Center has been denied in its own hometown the opportunity to expand their compassionate services to a location where it could best reach the women who could benefit most.”
Buttigieg may soon find he misjudged his local Democratic base, having spent the last year cultivating a national name by, among other things, running for chair of the Democratic National Committee, in pursuit of his end goal—something locals will readily tell you is the White House. But the extreme Left’s abortion-at-all-costs position that has overtaken the Democratic Party doesn’t resonate in the friendly confines of the working-class northern Indiana community where old-timers still bemoan the shuttering of Studebaker some 60 years ago. And the Common Council members who make their home in South Bend must live with their votes. If they sell out to national abortion politics, they may find themselves the victim of local politics.
“We are deeply saddened that care for women and children in South Bend got caught up in politics,” said Women’s Care president Manion. “Two out of every three babies born in the city now start with Women’s Care Center. We know that whatever the council ultimately decides, we will continue to love and serve moms and babies who need us.”
Disclosure: From 1996 – 2003, I served in various roles for the Women’s Care Center, including on its Board of Directors and as the nonprofit’s treasurer and secretary. From 2002 – 2008, I served on the Executive Advisory Board of the Women’s Care Center Foundation.