The facts, however, don’t bear out the accusation that the agency hides its pro-life principles
Analysis by Sue Careless
Margaret Wente is a highly respected columnist for the Globe and Mail who has recently been nominated for a National Newspaper Award for her column writing. She has also been a managing editor at the Globe. So it is all the more surprising that a writer of her stature and experience should have written a scathing column about an agency which she never took the time or trouble to interview.
While news reporters should keep their opinions to themselves, columnists are afforded the luxury of expressing their opinions. But even a columnist had better have her facts straight before she pontificates or lambastes.
On Feb. 29, Wente wrote a column critical of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre (CPCC) without interviewing anyone who actually worked at the centre. Instead Wente interviewed one former client of the centre, Jayme, a 21-year-old.
Primarily on the basis of this interview, Wente blasted the Centre as engaging in “deceptive and misleading practises,” the worst of which was that they keep their clients “in the dark” about the fact that they neither do abortions nor make referrals for abortions.
At the end of her column Wente is even more sweeping: “There are other stories like Jayme’s and other outfits across the country like the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre. No one disputes the right of right-to-life organizations to disseminate their point of view, or to offer support and money to pregnant women and new mothers. But deceiving innocent and desperate young women in the name of compassion is morally reprehensible.”
Such deception is indeed morally reprehensible; but did such intentional deception actually occur at the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre?
The director of the CPCC, Wendy Lowe, told The Interim in a phone interview that because of confidentiality, she couldn’t discuss individual clients, only policies. Still there would seem to be plenty of discrepancies between what Wente reported Jayme had said and what the CPCC had to say. Here are just a few:
It is true that the Centre’s brief 30-second ad on a local radio station did not mention the fact that they do not give abortion referrals; but the ad was pulled after a month.
Moreover, the centre’s display ad in the Yellow Pages clearly states, “Abortion referral not offered.” It is listed under the section “Abortion Alternatives.”
“Abortion alternatives” are defined by the Yellow Pages directory as services, “that provide assistance counselling and/or information on alternatives to abortion. No information [underlined] is provided on the attainment of an abortion.”
Jayme apparently heard about the Centre through the radio ad, not the Yellow Pages, so initially she would be “in the dark.” However, before any client is counselled, she must first read and sign an intake form that states she understands the “Limitation of Services” under which, in bold letters, is the sentence, “The CPCC does not perform or refer for abortions.”
How could Jayme not have known for four weeks, as Wente claims, about the Centre’s policy, if she had first read and signed such a form? Wente never indicated that Jayme was illiterate or couldn’t read English. Could Jayme have been in such a state of stress that she doesn’t remember the disclaimer? Possibly. However, the Centre could not be blamed for misleading her if that were the case.
Wente’s main thrust was that the Centre purposely delayed the client’s decision-making. “The Canadian Training Manual that I wrote, stresses the significant increase in risk [to women if they have an abortion] after the first trimester,” Lowe told The Interim. In her letter to the editor that was published in The Globe March 1, Lowe wrote, “All volunteer counsellors are instructed to insure women are aware that postponing an abortion creates a greater physical risk.”
Jayme thought she was 12 weeks pregnant when she first visited the Centre and waited another four weeks before deciding she wanted an abortion. Yet the intake form she signed, stated:
“Only a licensed physician is qualified to diagnose whether or not you are pregnant. We recommend you see a physician to confirm the pregnancy screening test result, regardless of the outcome: positive, negative or inconclusive. If you do not have a physician, we will provide you with at least 3 (three) medical care referrals.”
If Jayme had followed up on seeing a physician as the Centre recommends, she would have learned she was five weeks further along in her pregnancy than she thought.
Jayme reported to Wente that she was given a list of doctors but was told that they would only see her if she were going to carry to term, so she saw none of them.
Lowe told The Interim, “We use doctors committed to giving prenatal care. Included on the list are the phone numbers of the Calgary Regional Health Authority and the Calgary Medical Association.
Lowe refuted many of Wente’s other “facts.”
Wente said Jayme had been given a particular pamphlet: “O Mom, please, I want to have a life. Thank-you for not killing me.” Lowe said that pamphlet is “not used in our Centre because we find [it] offensive.”
Wente claimed Jayme was offered financial aid and shown a roomful of toys. Yet the Centre gives out neither money nor toys. “The Centre offers practical assistance to women in the form of maternity clothes, baby clothes, assistance with housing, free prenatal classes,” wrote Lowe. “We do not give out financial aid. Nor do we have a room full of toys. In fact we do not give out toys because we cannot verify their safety.”
Wente reports that Jayme was told by the Centre that “the Lord would consider it [abortion] murder and that she would have a personal struggle with God for the rest of her life.”
Lowe told The Interim that she and her counsellors never use the words “murder” or “kill” but only the medical term “abort.”
“In counselling we don’t use the term post-abortion syndrome since it is not recognized yet by the DSM III Manual of the American Psychological Association.”
The term “syndrome” is, however, used on the intake form under “I would like … Post Abortion Syndrome Counselling.”
Lowe continued, “Most women typically feel relief after an abortion. It is a major life decision. Yet later on grief often surfaces. Some stay in denial for their entire lives, but most go on to feel some grief. CPCC offers group and individual post-abortion counselling, the premise of which is that abortion is forgivable. The women are struggling to forgive themselves. We stress that God does forgive them, even when they can’t forgive themselves.”
Wente was outraged that federal funds from Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) were given to support the work of the agency. Lowe offered a clarification in her letter to The Globe but the paragraph regarding HRDC funds was not printed:
“Had we been interviewed we would have welcomed the opportunity to explain that HRDC funds had no impact on the young woman who claims to have been a client. HRDC funds a Life Skills employment preparation program for young women who have already made the choice to parent or place for adoption or who have already had an abortion. Federal funds are used exclusively for this purpose.”
Director Lowe concluded her letter, “Our clients overwhelmingly report in confidential, anonymous exit interviews that they felt respected and cared for.” The women felt cared for, not just their babies.
Margaret Wente told The Interim in a phone interview that news reporters are “absolutely obligated” to give both sides of a story, but that a columnist is “not obligated to give the other side a hearing.”
Did Wente, on sober second thought, think she should have spoken with the Centre? “It was not necessary – as long as I can ensure that I’m comfortable with the material and have verified it for myself. It was a first-hand account from a woman I interviewed at length, a woman so angry with the agency that she was willing to go public and not use a pseudonym.” (Only her first name was used, however.)
Moreover, Wente told The Interim, Jayme’s story was “not an isolated story.” Wente heard from several women who had dealt with the Centre. Could any of them, including Jayme, have mistaken which crisis pregnancy centre they had dealt with? “No.” Were these stories recent? “Yes,” they were “current.”
When told of the bold statement on the intake form “The CPCC does not perform or refer for abortions,” Wente said, “Policies are one thing; some counsellors may exceed their authority.”
Wente conceded, “I regret any minor errors of fact, if there were any, but I stand completely by the main story.”
What about the federal funds going to the employment preparation course? “Irrelevant. It has an impact on the whole operation.”
Another call is placed to Lowe who explains, “We don’t do any counselling without that intake form signed. We don’t even take a urine sample. It is an issue of liability. I am very confident in all my staff.”
The Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre is a member of the Christian Association of Pregnancy Support Services (CAPPS). Over 50 crisis pregnancy centres are full members of CAPPS.
Lowe, who is on the CAPPS advisory council, said, “We adhere to a strict statement of principles that forbid deception.” The CAPPS statement of principles state: “The CPC [Crisis Pregnancy Centre] is committed to integrity in dealing with clients, earning their trust, and providing promised information and services. The CPC denounces any form of deception in its corporate advertising or conversation with clients, agencies or other individuals. The CPC does not recommend, provide or refer for abortion or abortifacients. However, the CPC is expected to respect the decision of a woman to obtain an abortion, and not to intimidate or judge a woman in this regard.”
No crisis pregnancy centre should practise deception or be misleading in the services it offers. On that The Interim and Margaret Wente completely agree. Was the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre engaged in deceptive and misleading practises? The facts don’t seem to bear it out.
As a columnist, would you feel confident publishing your opinion about an agency based solely on the allegations of clients unhappy with that agency? How responsible is a columnist for getting the facts right? What “facts” do you trust without checking?
Denyse O’Leary, faith and science columnist, ChristianWeek: I would call the agency myself, otherwise it’s a shoddy standard of journalism. The phone is the world’s best tool for investigative journalism. I would ask, “Is this or is this not your policy?” How material are these facts for my story? Are they central? I would take as reliable newswire sources such as Associated Press. They can make errors and get hoaxed but they will publish a correction. I would be very cautious of relying only on statements from people who feel victimized. At what point should the complainant have reasonably known the policy of an agency?
Rory Leishman, national affairs columnist, London Free Press: A columnist has no obligation to present the best arguments for the other side of an issue. But as a columnist you have an obligation to get your facts right, and if you have any concerns, you check them as a news reporter would. No city editor would let a reporter run a story without checking with the agency. Factual errors can destroy the credibility of a columnist faster than anything I know. I would trust the wire services and any reputable newspaper. I would feel an obligation to run an apology if I found I had significantly misrepresented the facts in a column.
Marianne Meed Ward, columnist on social and ethical issues, Toronto Sun:I will rely on other published reports and, with less confidence, on postings on the Internet. It is hard to argue against experience. It is the “smell factor.” If it doesn’t smell right, check. You use your instincts. Many times I call the principals involved. Talking to both sides makes for good journalism. It is less defined for columnists than reporters, but I probably would have phoned the agency. In a column it is a bit greyer; you have a bit more leeway. Are you making assumptions about the agency’s motive? That is serious. Was it an oversight or was it deliberate deception? Were these policies in place and did this client just slip through the cracks? As a columnist, Wente didn’t have the ethical obligation to phone the agency, but she would have had a better column if she had.
Canadian Press Style Book
Whether writing about food, fitness or finances, the basic rules of journalism apply: watch for the hard-news angle; balance the piece with both sides of a controversial story; seek out multiple sources …. Reporter-columnists who are actively involved in gathering news in the field, not just sitting back passing editorial judgement, should always try to see and present all sides of the story. Expressing opinions can be an important part of a column – crucial to a review – but the columnist must be seen to be fair.