Sunday, 3 April 2022

Texas abortion: The ‘ranch’ for mothers with no place to go



By Linda PresslyBBC News, Texas


Image caption,
Tending chickens is a part of life at Blue Haven Ranch



Texas has passed one the strictest abortion laws in the US, banning the procedure after around six weeks’ gestation. That has left many women looking for options.


It was shortly after the birth of her second child, when Dallas-based Aubrey Schlackman had an epiphany.


“We’d been to the grocery store and were driving home. And I passed a big ranch for sale, and I just suddenly had the idea,” she says.


She wanted to open a place that could provide accommodation and support for single mothers facing an unforeseen pregnancy.


“I feel like wide-open spaces give a natural space for healing and contemplation. And I think God uses nature as a way to heal,” she says.


Aubrey and her husband Bryan had been working with Christian ministry programmes taking care of pregnant women.


“A lot of them were first-time moms,” Bryan says. “And then we discovered there were lots of situations where a mother with existing children who got unexpectedly pregnant did not have many places to go.”


So the Schlackmans founded a non-profit, Blue Haven Ranch. Although it does not yet exist as the ranch Aubrey envisages, the charity is currently supporting five single mothers who are either pregnant or who have recently given birth, providing cash to rent an apartment, and help towards utility bills.


Eventually, the couple hope to purchase 100 acres of Texas farmland to build Blue Haven Ranch from scratch: cottages for 20 single mothers and their children, a community hub where families can cook and eat together, fields for animals and land for vegetable cultivation.


The Schlackmans estimate it will cost around $15 million (£11m), and their fundraising efforts are going well, buoyed perhaps by the passing of the Heartbeat Act, also known as SB8 – Senate Bill 8 – last September.


Image caption,
Aubrey and Bryan Schlackman



That law prohibits abortions from as early as six weeks into pregnancy, after the detection of what anti-abortion campaigners call a foetal heartbeat – a flutter from a group of cells that will regulate the rhythm of a heart when it later forms. This can happen even before a woman knows she’s pregnant.


One of the most restrictive laws in the country, SB8 gives any citizen the right to sue another individual suspected of “aiding and abetting” an abortion. Those individuals could be a doctor, or even an Uber driver taking a woman to an abortion clinic.


“A lot of women are really scared,” says Qiana Arnold of the Afiya Centre, a reproductive rights NGO in Dallas supporting Black women, about the impact of SB8.


“[Pro-life] protesters are getting more aggressive. And the way the language of the law has been communicated in the media, it’s like abortion is illegal in Texas. It isn’t – but you’ve got to move fast,” she says.


SB8 is the latest piece of legislation in the state to further restrict access to termination. Together, changes in the law have led to the shuttering of many abortion services, leaving thousands of women asking: What can they do now?


Some are turning to services provided by non-profits like Blue Haven Ranch. The charity is part of a network of Christian, faith-based organisations aimed at discouraging women from seeking abortion by offering alternative services to support them through pregnancy and early motherhood.


“Whatever your religion, if you want to be pro-life, you have to be pro-mom. And you have to do something. I think belief is a call to action – always,” says Aubrey.


At Blue Haven Ranch, mothers are expected to work when they are not on maternity leave, and to take educational courses that will help them secure better-paid employment so they can provide for their children once they leave.


Britney* found the project at a critical juncture in her life. She was pregnant, a mother of three who fled an abusive relationship. She was conflicted about having her fourth child, and worried her other children might be taken into care.


“I felt like physically and mentally, I could not provide for all of them safely,” she says.


Britney’s sister drove her to one of the few abortion clinics still operating in Texas.


“Very quickly, they were like, ‘we can’t help you’,” Britney says – she was more than six weeks pregnant.


Leaving the clinic crying, she was handed a leaflet by an anti-abortion protester. She called the number on the leaflet and was put in touch with Aubrey.


“It sounded pretty helpful, and talked about not feeling alone. I felt like this was my last option,” she recalls.


Now Britney works two jobs from home, her three children live with her in an apartment funded by Blue Haven Ranch, and she is getting ready to give birth.


“The plan is to keep working, save and get my own home one day. I’m just blessed that I found Aubrey,” she says.


Image caption,
Britney (left) is getting help from the Schlackmans (right)



The Schlackmans say that women who join Blue Haven Ranch do not have to be Christian. But they are obliged to attend bible-study sessions.


Aubrey does not see this as coercive, and it was not an issue for Britney, either.


But the set-up does leave open the question – is it ethical for pregnant women in crisis to be on the receiving end of religious evangelising?


Critics point to the dozens of “crisis pregnancy centres” that have opened across Texas. Unlike the service the Schlackmans offer, they do not provide accommodation. They provide free pregnancy tests and scans, essentials for newborns, and sometimes support for women to further their education. Usually faith-based, they do not readily advertise their anti-abortion stance. And, they have been accused of giving pregnant women misleading information to discourage abortion.


“A lot of people think those are places they can get access to abortion,” says Ms Arnold.


“They tell women they can get an ultrasound. Then boom – someone else comes in and they start talking about religion. They say, ‘Please don’t kill your baby… We’ll give you some pampers’. And it’s really traumatic for women because that’s not what they went there for,” she says.


But as they proliferate, such programmes will only become increasingly wrapped up in the abortion debate in Texas.


The state is supporting faith-based initiatives through its ‘Alternatives to Abortion’ programme, funded with a budget of $100 million. This channels money to some of the ‘crisis pregnancy centres’, and other non-profits.


Even outside the ideological debate, Ms Arnold says funding from state-backed programmes rarely trickles down to the communities she serves – the poor women of colour who have been most severely affected by the reduced access to abortion.


“To have an unwanted child – you’re trying to force people to bring a life that they don’t want to,” she argues.


Image caption,
Qiana Arnold, a reproductive rights advocate, says many women are scared by Texas’s anti-abortion law



Britney was never completely sure she wanted to terminate her latest pregnancy, and found refuge in Blue Haven Ranch. But many women do know when abortion is right for them – and because of SB8, this has become much harder.


A University of Texas study reported around 1,400 Texans a month were travelling out-of-state for a termination after the implementation of SB8.


Mariah is also a mother of three, and lives in west Texas. She is a single parent, and works two jobs providing for her children. In October, Mariah’s carefully calibrated, busy life threatened to be capsized when she discovered she was pregnant.


“I couldn’t stop shaking and crying,” she says. “I knew this new law had just passed, and I’m like – how far along am I? Am I going to be able to get an abortion? Where do I start? I have to do this. I have to do it tomorrow…”


Mariah borrowed cash from friends, and drove for over three hours to the nearest clinic in Austin. While she had an ultrasound, Mariah held her breath. Then she breathed a sigh of relief – not yet six weeks pregnant, she was able to access the drugs for a medical abortion.


“Because I have three kids. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I don’t have any emotions towards it. And I do think women should have that right [to abortion].”


Image caption,
Aubrey Schlackman and the mothers get together to cook a community meal



Meanwhile, Aubrey and Bryan continue their plans to expand their offer at Blue Haven Ranch. The couple are leaving their comfortable Argyle bungalow with its chicken coop and vegetable patch for a home with more land further north in Dallas. This new property will be a small prototype of their project, so wealthy donors will see they are serious, they say.


Already, Blue Haven Ranch is getting noticed.


“We got a surprise donation of $14,000 one Tuesday – it just showed up in the bank account of the non-profit. And so I knew something was coming because God doesn’t drop that kind of money for it to just sit there,” Aubrey says.


The following Friday, she got a call from a pregnant mother fleeing an abusive marriage, and was able to offer her support and an apartment.


Currently there are six women on Blue Haven’s waiting list, but the Schlackmans will not take on a new pregnant mother and her children unless they have money in the bank to provide for them for at least six months. And since SB8 became law, there has been an uptick in interest in Blue Haven Ranch.


“We have increased applications. We probably get an average of one to three applications every couple of weeks,” says Aubrey.


As Bryan puts it: “The Heartbeat Act got us on the map.”




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